That is Too Good | Wash Your Mouth Out Wednesday

Today, on Facebook, my sister posted a picture of a pencil sketch by her daughter. It was a black and white sketch of a cracked egg. It was almost exquisite in its simplicity and accuracy. It was lovely, because that’s what a well-executed drawing is: lovely. She also draws animals and dragons very well. She is a budding artist. She is 11 years old, and has an obvious talent.

As I thought about that simple yet striking picture today, I was reminded of a time when I was trying to hone my artistic skills. I was in the sixth grade, so I guess that means I would have also been 11. I was usually the youngest person in my class, since my birthday is in August.

For the past year, at least, I had been learning to draw horses. I was fascinated by their lean, muscular bodies, and the muscles are a bit tricky to learn to draw. I couldn’t get the proportions just right, so I checked out a book from the school library that was very big (almost like an atlas), and contained large pictures of horses. At first, I tried to copy what I saw, but I finally realized I would need to practice tracing the animals so that I could get a feel for the way the body flowed into the legs, and the way the large muscles flared out from the body. After some time, I could draw a horse free-hand, and didn’t do a bad job of it.

One day at school, Ms.C announced a contest in which we were to draw a picture of our choosing; the pictures would be judged, and a winner would be awarded. Well, guess what I wanted to draw. But it wouldn’t just be a drawing of a horse. I had recently read a book at school about a little boy with a dog and a horse, and on this book’s cover was a wonderful drawing of the horse and dog running down a hillside. I was going to draw that!

I worked on this drawing over some period of time that I don’t recall, and I remember being disappointed about having to use crayons. I felt that I wasn’t able to achieve the kind of detail I needed with mere crayons. I turned in what I felt was a pretty good effort. The horse was more than acceptable, but the dog was disappointing. And the trees. I had not practiced drawing dogs and trees. In fact, the dog looked like a black and brown blob, and the hillside on which it ran was dotted with mini-Christmas trees. That was okay, though, because the horse was really the focus of the piece.

When I arrived for school the day after the work had been turned in, I was surprised to see a display of hand-drawn pictures on the bulletin board in our room. I hadn’t realized that they would be displayed. What a wonderful surprise! There was one problem, however; my picture was not there. As I looked around, wondering where my picture was displayed, I noticed my picture pinned to a different bulletin board, all by itself. I was confused. Had I won?

When I had a chance to get Ms. C’s attention, I asked why my picture wasn’t hanging with the others. She considered my question in silence for a moment, and then answered that it was just too good to put with the others. It wasn’t fair to the other students.

Let me translate that for you: she thought I cheated.

Instead of congratulating me on a job well done, she singled me out for a job NOT done. The piece of artwork of which I was only meekly proud (because of the blob dog and puny fir trees, but a pretty good crayon horse) was taken as a fraud. I was flabbergasted, and too much so to even protest her decision. This had been a competition, and I had been practicing drawing horses for a long time. What could have been the culmination of my horse-drawing hobby turned out to be a disappointing and weak kick in the gut. She didn’t even have the honesty to tell me that she thought I traced my picture, but she surely did imply it. When you are 11, someone not trusting you is a big deal.

I didn’t draw after that. I was too frustrated. My best effort had been met with only mildly-veiled contempt. But that was enough to discourage me from wanting to do that any longer. If she had thought I was a fraud, I guessed that everyone else would too.

I wish that I could go back to 1983 and wash her mouth out with a bar of really expensive, floral, oily, hand-milled soap. She probably wouldn’t understand, though. Afterall, she thought it was the 21st century back then, and didn’t appreciate my correcting her on that fact right in front of the class.

I wish that, instead, she had praised my work, or at least included it in the contest. She could have let someone else be the judge of what is too good. It wasn’t really that good, anyway. Not as good as what my niece is drawing now. Her skills are being encouraged and honed, and that is what any of us could wish for at a time of burgeoning talent or creativity. I would hope that I am able to spot and call out the detractors of my talents at this point in my life, but that 11 year old girl will always be with me. Always doubting whether my work is good enough. And if it is good enough, whether it will be considered as “too good,” and thus, “fake.”

Ms. C taught me to doubt my own talent because she doubted me. I have thought about this over the years, but only occasionally. I think that today I finally realized the impact she made in my life.

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