“I’m sorry I’m not better at this…”

During a recent visit to a third grade art class a budding young artist finished her assigned work before the class was over. Since project work is often finished at different paces, students who complete their assignment with the teacher’s approval are then allowed to “play” individually with other projects of their chosing. This young lady requested that I sit across from her “So I can draw a picture of you.”

This process involved a number of different colored crayons and certainly included some artistic license. I am wearing glasses in the result, but my clothing was adapted to include a turtleneck shirt. “I’m not really very good at drawing necks,” was the explanation. I chuckled at the thought of the mall artists who will do sketches will you wait. They usually work in silence with a small audience behind them and you get to watch the audience’s reactions as the image forms.

In this cause the artist’s reactions were apparent because she kept a running commentary going. Much of it was actually a series of apologies over the parts she had trouble with or the goofs she made.  “I’m sorry but I can’t draw hands very good.” (My hands are raised as if I’m being held up, but I think I’m actually supposed to be waving.) I would have to say that I look much more muscular than I realized and have very square shoulders. Of course I countered her continued self-deprecation with gentle compliments and made sure she knew I was approving of her efforts. She was, after all, being quite professional–studying me with a trained eye, then attempting to record what she saw with blunted crayons.

I admired her courage. 

But I also felt a deep sadness because she keep repeating her sense that her work wasn’t good. Or at least not good enough. I suppose that makes her an achiever, but at what point will she give up and decide she isn’t an artist? I know I learned long ago that I’m not “artistic.” I’m sure I would not be able to draw a very good picture of her–at least that’s true  if “good” means “accurate.”

As a student of education and learning, I long ago became an opponent of the popular “self esteem” movement that suggests education is all about making kids feel good about themselves. It’s not that I’m against kids developing self-worth. But as my experience with this artist demonstrates, when we try to hand it to them, we actually are taking it away. They want to earn it.

I don’t think we should deprive them of that opportunity. Somewhere between giving all positive messages and constant criticism there’s a balance. That it’s hard to find doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try–any more than the fact that my little friend “can’t draw hands” means she shouldn’t try. We can learn a lot from her. If I’d tried to convince her she’d drawn great hands, she’d have known I was not being honest.

Can we agree with her that my hands “don’t look right” without making her feel like she’s a failure?

Perhaps more to the point, can we face our own errors without considering ourselves a failure? I usually find one student in my adult classes that I refer to affectionately as “my little over-achiever.” Math anxiety and test anxiety have their roots in the fact that we are not taught how to fail. Somewhere along the way we forget there’s process.

Let’s not be afraid to value process and effort. They are as much a part of our self-worth as are our accomplishments.

One of the things I’ve had to learn about working with kids is that it’s best not to read too much into what they say and do. It’s tempting, but I really think she just wanted to draw me–that was her goal and the desired result. She gave the drawing to me when it was finished. I approved it, but I’m not even sure my approval was important to her.

But that drawing is very important to me. And it’s hanging where I have to pass it every day because I want to be reminded of these many things. I’m not ready to start drawing portraits, but if she can try things, so can I. Getting results is great, but enjoying the process is pretty awesome too.

Oh, I also kinda like that the final touch to her masterpiece is the angel she drew sitting on my shoulder.

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1 Comment

Filed under Learning, Personal Growth, Teaching

One response to ““I’m sorry I’m not better at this…”

  1. Walter Boomsma

    Albert Einstein might have been commenting on this post when he said, “Everyone’s a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”

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