“The world today doesn’t make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?” – Pablo Picasso
“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way–things I had no words for.” – Georgia O’Keeffe
“Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.” – Twyla Tharp
I wonder if your Facebook feed resembled mine this morning: chock full of pics of little ones about to start their first day of kindergarten, fifth grade, high school, all posted by disconsolate parents, excited for their kids but terrified about how hard it can be to start something new.
I’ve certainly been there before. By the time I graduated high school, I’d been to eight different schools, in six different states, in two different countries. I was the “new kid” time and time again, sometimes transitioning into a new school mid-year. It’s difficult being the new kid regardless, but starting in the middle of the year is brutal. Social groups and daily rhythms are well-formed by then and it is tremendously difficult to find a way to break in, to find friends, to flow into the rhythms.
However, starting new schools time and again gave me some valuable skills: flexibility, the ability to make friends quickly, the intuition to know when to listen and observe and when to jump in and speak up. It also gave me some unfortunate traits: I find it difficult to maintain long-term friendships, since somewhere in the recesses of my brain, I don’t know if I’ll be here (wherever “here” is) for long; and I’ve exhausted my enthusiasm for jumping into large social situations where I don’t know anyone. My dirty little secret: I’m deeply uncomfortable at parties. It’s hard for me to go places where I don’t already know everyone. Though I’m fascinated by people, the vulnerability I feel and emotional cost it takes when I engage strangers is extremely tough for me.
Every time I walked through the doors of a new school, my stomach dropped. It didn’t matter if I was six or sixteen – it was always grueling. Kids are wonderful, kids are cruel, and I found all kinds everywhere I went. What saved me, every time, was, of course, the arts. The first thing I’d do in any new school was seek out the choir kids, the band musicians, the actors, the artists, the sometimes so-called freaks and geeks. I knew my people, and I chose them, and often, they chose me. Want to know how to make a gaggle of close friends within a week? Do a play. Want to know how to meet lots of new kids? Start a band. Want to find people who speak your language? Pick up your cello and go to orchestra practice. And – hey – want to surround yourself with wonderful, passionate, smart, creative people? Get a job at an arts non-profit. But I digress.
Today, I took my sweet little 4 ½ year-old boy Andrew to his first day of preschool. Because he’s been in daycare since he was four months old, this is actually his third “school” in as many years – but this is the first transition he’ll remember. Most of the kids in his new class have been together for years, as part of the school’s infant/toddler program, so it’s like Andrew is starting mid-year. My introspective, insatiably curious, highly athletic, highly anxious little man is right now doing his first major transition into a new space. The first of, possibly, many.
This is just a “visit” day. I stayed with him for about half an hour before leaving him there on his own for the morning. He’s painfully shy in new situations, and clung to me like a little monkey, unwilling and unable to jump in with the other kids. Slowly, slowly I peeled his fingers off my arms and showed him around. We picked out a huge book about the solar system and started talking about the planets. While we were talking, the classroom teacher pulled out some paper and markers, and Andrew started sketching Mars and the earth. Rambunctious four- and five-year olds, who had been playing noisily all around us, started to crowd around, to see what we were doing.
It was a brief, quiet moment, and it started a conversation about our solar system (one little girl declaring that Saturn was actually purple) that quickly moved on to other things. But that moment when Andrew was crafting the sketch was the first time the kids really “saw” Andrew, and a few minutes later, he stood up and left my lap of his own accord to go with the other kids to check out the wasp traps that were outside the window.
In an hour, I’ll go back to pick him up. We’ll do another half-day visit this week, and next week he’ll start the school full-time. Certainly this is a far gentler means of transitioning than when I was a kid. (In the manner of 70’s and 80’s parenting, I was dropped off at the street in front of school with a “good luck, see you after school”.) But it’s still hard, and the very least we can do as parents, caregivers, and educators is give kids every tool possible to find their way.
Many of my colleagues here at the Arts Council say that the arts, one way or another, saved their lives. I am no exception. That help, that guidance, that sense of belonging is never more important than in the grade school years, when it can be so tough to simply make it through the day. When I joined the Arts Council in 2009, our Arts Education program was our least-staffed and smallest program. It is now our largest budget item, with three staffers, impacting more than 12,000 kids each year. We focus on arts ed not just because of all the creative skills that the arts give to kids, or the connections it creates in families, or the alternate means of learning it provides; we focus on it because for so many of us, the arts were the difference between surviving, and thriving, or not.
My kid needs those tools. So does yours, or your grandkids, or your friends’ kids. And so do you. We all do. As we send our littles, or not-so-littles, off to a new year of school, it’s worth asking if we are doing all we can to equip them for the hugeness of the world. The Arts Council can help. If you want to get involved in our Arts Education programs, if you want to know how to encourage more arts at your local schools, drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you. And now, I’m off to pick up my kid, and find out how his first day was. He probably handled it better than I did!