A teacher my son had said this to him about the art project he had just completed. A teacher who was supposed to bring out the best in him. A teacher whose very job is to inspire and empower all students.
And so, his mind began to turn, “Was it really good or just good for a boy’s effort?
I am a middle school art teacher. When you train for this profession, you are told that there are thousands of ways to praise. There is no room in art to undermine the creation, revision, polishing, and perseverance it takes to express oneself in art. In a subject where we think outside of the box, it’s hard to imagine feeling trapped within one.
My son’s teacher uttered six devastating words to an impressionable youth who was trying to find his identity in a class designed to nurture and grow a bud into a blossom. Instead of cultivating his art with tender care, the way a gardener transplants a root-bound flower from a pot it has outgrown to thrive in the sun, she instead tore his roots from beneath him. If she had said that to me, I also would have lost my footing.
She chose six words strung together that dispel the notion that anything he created, solved, wrote or performed meant anything at all because he is a boy and only girls have the predisposition to be expressive.
After all, boys will be boys, right? They are too busy wrestling with their testosterone levels to be bothered with feelings and self-expression. Never mind the centuries of critical thinking or pondering that happened before formal education existed; when men pondered the stars in the sky and discussed where the world actually ended. Never mind all the artists and poets from long before their time who spent hours capturing stars on canvas or putting words on paper. Never mind that the ways they spoke about the love they felt in their hearts based on a furtive glimpse or a temporary smile.
I’m lucky, I suppose. In all the years of my schooling, not one teacher told me I didn’t have what it took as a boy to be creative. There were hundreds of thousands of times words passed their lips and never among them was a word of discouragement or malice.
There was no sarcasm when they looked me in the eye and told me that the way I saw the world was special because it was my way. There never was an inference that what I created was inferior to another student because the way I saw the world was different from the girl sitting next to me.
I told my son that our gender never defines what we can and cannot do. I told him that his teacher’s comments prove that even teachers can get things wrong.
I told him that his painting of birch trees in the early morning was more than “pretty good for a boy” and that while that phrase was said to him by an adult, and adults are supposed to know more than kids, there really was no such thing.
I told him that despite his teacher’s own ability as an artist that she truly could never see the forest for the trees if she believed what she said to him and felt sure about a boy’s inability to be creative. If that were true, she was only really teaching to half of her students.
The only way for her to get out of the woods would be to illuminate her path. To prove to her that while the woods may seem dense and murky for boys our creativity will light the way; that our sheer will to not accept this premise that creativity is not for boys.
“Pretty good for a boy” shouldn’t be in our vocabulary. It’s an antiquated line of thinking back to a time when girls weren’t expected to do math or read for that matter because it just wasn’t in their nature.
So to my boy and for every boy who reads this, know this: Art is for everyone. Believing that will lead to a generation of boys who understand that self-expression is a part of who we are regardless of what we are.