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Revenge of the Paste Eaters
By Cheryl Peck
5 SPOTCopyright © 2005 Cheryl Peck
All right reserved.
Chapter Onerevenge of the paste eaters
in our fifth grade art class there were two acknowledged artists, Louisa McFarland and Samantha Serene. Billy Stewart was clever, but his artwork was more inventive than fundamentally skilled. We knew what we could do, and we could have done what Billy Stewart did, if only we had thought of it: when Samantha or Louisa drew a picture of a dog, we could not only distinguish which species of four-legged animal they drew, we could identify the breed. Billy Stewart would have made us see that what he drew was a dog as well, but he would have done something like incorporating the letters into the shape. Trick art. We were not looking for creativity in our fifth grade art class. We were looking for a representation that required more dexterity and deeper vision than the rest of us had. We were literal critics and we were looking for literal art.
Off somewhere in the distance the Adults-that vast, amorphous collection of order-giving people taller than we were-were Doing Something, but I have long since forgotten what. Whatever it was, they wanted everyone to know about it, and to make that happen they needed posters. Lots and lots of colorful, attention-grabbing posters. Some bright Adult must have turned to others of his kind and said, "Let's get kids to do it-everybody loves kid art, and they'll work dirt cheap." And the poster contest was born.
"You could win prizes," our teacher told us as she wrote the pertinent poster information on the blackboard. She passed out sheets of construction paper while continuing, "The first prize is ten dollars. You just have to make sure that the words on the blackboard appear somewhere on your poster."
We studied the board critically. Some of us squinted with one eye and held up certain colors against the backdrop of the blackboard, rocking the sheets to the right or left while we conjured up our designs. Others twisted our hair around our fingers or chewed our erasers while deep in thought. We had plans for that ten-dollar grand prize, each and every one of us. I'm going to spend mine on bubblegum, one hopeful would announce, while another practiced looking solemn and wise and prematurely rich.
"Don't eat the paste, Cheryl," the teacher warned me as she set the jar on my desk. Our paste was white and came in quart jars like mayonnaise, and when it dried out it turned that same translucent color on the edges of the glass. I loved paste. I don't recall that it had much taste. Vegetarian grease, perhaps, if there were such a thing, would have tasted like grade school paste. No one ate it for the taste: we ate it for the smell, which was some distant member of the mint family-wintergreen, perhaps-and those of us who ate paste ate it as if eating enough of it would make it taste the way it smelled.
Everyone in the class made a poster. Some of us used parts of those lacy paper napkins, while the design purists utilized nothing but colored construction paper. Some of us used big, bold designs, and some of us preferred to gather our art tidily down in one corner of our poster and let the space draw the viewer's attention to it. Some of us would wander past Louisa McFarland's or Samantha Serene's desks and then return to our own projects with a growing sense of despair. Life was not fair. It was yet another grown-up trick of the sort they seemed especially fond, making all of us believe we had a fair chance, and then always-always-rewarding the same old winners.
I believe my poster featured a sailboat, but I can't say that with any certainty. I made it. I admired it. I determined it to be the very best of all of the posters I had seen, and then I turned it in.
No one came along to give me the grand prize, and then someone distracted me, and I probably never would have thought about that poster again.
Except I won.
My poster won the grand prize.
I was still sitting at my desk, thinking, What poster? when the teacher gave me an envelope with a ten-dollar bill in it and everyone in the class applauded for me. I might have enjoyed my moment of artistic glory more if I could have remembered the poster, but it was attention and I sucked up attention like a damp sponge.
I won, and I had a ten-dollar bill in my pocket to prove it.
I had pretty much forgotten it all over again ten minutes later.
Ten minutes later was when Louisa McFarland walked up to me and said, "Congratulations on winning the poster contest."
I nodded politely. Louisa McFarland did not talk to me all that often. Not many of my classmates did. I was a good student who got along well with teachers, but I had yet to strike that delicate balance of tact and discretion so necessary for playing well with kids my own age. I was a dark child, fatalistic by nature and sometimes distressingly blunt, and I had come to expect emotional and social disaster at almost any turn.
"The prize really should have been mine," Louisa went on. "My poster would have won, except I took it home to work on it and it got ruined in the rain."
Sometimes life is just like that, but I didn't know that then. I believed her. Louisa was an artist: my most obvious skill in art class was eating paste. It made perfect sense to me that if I won something, someone would be along shortly to explain why I didn't deserve the prize. I thought about just handing over my winnings to her, but I didn't want to. I may have had the self-esteem of a rock, but I was in intimate touch with my own greed.
To my silenceshe said, "I worked on it really hard."
Her best friend said to me, "You should give her the money."
I kept it. I agonized over it from time to time: but I kept it. I felt badly that everyone in my class would hear that I was the heartless bully who cheated Louisa McFarland out of her rightful reward: but I kept it.
So what I learned from winning the poster contest was that I had no valuable skills as an artist. My skills leaned more toward plucking defeat from the jaws of victory, and barging through doors that were already open. I successfully avoided any opportunity to win by default in art contests for the next forty-odd years.
Still, I have always dreamed of being able to draw. People whose drawing skills I have envied aloud have said to me, "Anybody can draw-maybe you should just take a class." But my inner child cannot be so easily tricked. My inner child has always understood that the only art contest she ever entered she won because of rain damage. Ever vigilant against ego flares, my inner child can turn that advice right around to mean that anyone who does something well assumes everyone else can do it well because it comes so easily to them. In the years that I have shared my hopes and dreams with my Beloved, however, I may have mentioned my desire to draw a time or two too many because she began leaving around conspicuous little sticky notes with the whens and wheres of drawing classes. This fall I missed the registration deadline for all of the drawing classes, but I did sign up for and actually appear for a watercolor class put on by our local art museum.
I showed up for class with an empty bag. I could have brought along my two sets of colored pencils, the watercolor paint set I got for Christmas when I was seven, my artist's eraser, and my impressive paper and blank book collections because I own all of that. I love art supplies. I love art stores and always have. I am the only childless fifty-year-old lesbian on the block who owns three complete sets of the 64-color crayons (both the old colors and the new). My Beloved finally convinced me to take the class by saying, "Think of all of the new supplies you'll need to buy!" I didn't take my preexisting supplies to class with me, however, because for an additional fee ... I could buy more.
I haven't drawn, painted, quilted, colored, or stained very much in my life because I am extremely vague on the concept of how colors interact. I have colored enough Easter eggs to know that blue and yellow make green. Beyond that, I am a photographer, not an artist-all of the colors I need in photography are already there. Our instructor murmured for a while about "swoozling" and drawing from the right side of the brain, and then she said to the class, "You need to be painting!" Someone handed me a child's miniature plastic muffin pan, and they gave me-and I am serious here-three shades of blue, two shades of red, and one yellow and they said, "Paint."
I thought about all of the things that are blue, red, or yellow.
Everyone else in the class began madly swoozling. Recklessly and completely without regard for the integrity of their paint they dipped their brushes in this color and then another, then into a glass of dirty water, and they made little piles of colors-pinks, oranges, magentas that they seemed to make up on the spot.
"What would you like to paint?" the instructor prompted me, and I sat there, staring at three blues, two reds, and a yellow in the bottom of a minature plastic muffin tin. I thought to myself, What the hell am I doing here? I have no skills in art. I have to go home now. It was only a matter of time before Louisa McFarland would show up and explain why she should have custody of all of my unused art supplies.
"You really thought you could walk into the class and just know everything they were going to teach?" my Beloved inquired when we discussed it later.
"But I didn't know anything," I wailed. "They kept saying things like 'blue is the coldest color'-what is so 'cold' about blue? I like blue."
"Have you ever taken an art class before?"
"Of course not," I dismissed. "I don't have any artistic skills."
"Maybe that's what art classes are for."
"I never realized life was this hard for you," she marveled.
We were teetering now on the edge of dangerous terrain. I was the kid who ate paste in art class in the fifth grade. I have worked, scrubbed, and polished my public self for nearly a lifetime since then, until, to the untrained eye, I might appear confident, relaxed, and even comfortable in social settings. I have a droll but amusing sense of humor. I have learned how to make friends. But buried deep inside is still a ten-year-old paste eater with one ear always cocked for those subtle remarks that imply I somehow overlooked another rule, that there's something about all that social interaction stuff that I still don't get.
"I can do this class," I said sullenly.
"It's a class," my Beloved said. "It's supposed to be fun." And I can hear my mother's voice echoing from the past: You just never seem to have any fun, Sherry ...
I paid ninety bucks to take this watercolor class. First I'm going to order fifty dollars' worth of books about colors and all of the mischievous things they've been doing with each other while I wasn't looking. And then I'm going to go back to that class and I'm going to have FUN.
If it kills me.
Excerpted from Revenge of the Paste Eaters by Cheryl Peck Copyright © 2005 by Cheryl Peck .
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