Storied Creativity : A new storytelling series

One day in Mrs Pilkington’s second grade,

our entire class was sent to the “extra room” {a room sometimes used for art and sometimes used for computers and sometimes used for watching movies during recess when a spring thunderstorm ruined such things}. When the long procession of students finally filtered into this large room our beloved Mrs. P shut the door and headed to the break room. We were placed at individual stations spaces far away from one another and given coloring sheets of tree branches.

“Be creative!” we were told.

And then... nothing.

No directions, no check list, no paint by numbers.

Just crayons and colored pencils and creativity. Go.

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As a small, quiet, not yet buck toothed girl of six and a half: I was frightened. This was not a normal assignment. The absence of structure was startling for a girl who was used to the routine of Sunday school and the accompanying nighttime prayers that were always the same.

One by one students would finish their coloring sheet. They would then be assigned a group.

“Thank you Jessica. Could you please go sit at that table in the back corner?”

“Thank you AJ. Could you please go sit outside in the hallway?”

The longer I colored the more I noticed the two groups growing as more and more students turned their work in. The back table group, though smaller, was filling up with the girls I wanted to play with and the boys I thought were cute. I wanted to be in the smaller group.

I had to be in the smaller group.

But how would I get assigned to this special subset of my classmates? My inner rule follower told me that to get into this group I had to follow directions.

“Be creative!”

But how?

I looked down at my coloring sheet. A tree branch. A pine tree branch. Who cared that some guy in antebellum Arkansas had declared this a magnificent specimen of a tree?

To me, this was a very plain pine tree branch. Just like the dozens of pine tree branches that the groundskeeper of Beryl Henry Elementary School picked up every day in the area around the playground and parking lots.

This was the everyday thing that was the first thing I stepped on when I got out of my mom’s car and into the babysitter’s driveway {who took me to school} in the morning. This was the thing that rained down long prickly leaves that didn’t even have the energy to turn pretty colors in the fall like all the “normal” trees. This was the thing that made the pine cones that poked my tender white hands, the same pine cones that my grandparents gave me a penny for each one I collected {making me the wealthy owner of $2.14 come the end of the school year}.

This was such an non-creative plant. It didn’t even have the decency to turn red. How was I supposed to do anything special with this everyday thing?

As the time drew to a close I was one of the only artists still working on my piece. Green pine needles.

Brown branch.

More green pine needles.

More brown for the branch.

And suddenly I saw it, the rings that I, in my rule-loving, read-everything-in-the-library, tiny nerd heart, had learned each tree possessed. So even though the outlines on the coloring sheet were small, I very carefully etched in the small circles of tree rings that would be at the cut end of the branch.

I hesitantly gave the instructors my completed coloring sheet feeing mild terror. If I ever expected Joel to notice me or the chance to experience a slumber party birthday with Meredith I had to be in the smaller group. 

“Hmm. Seems pretty standard. And she was slow.”

“No. Look at that branch. The end. Those rings. No one else made the rings of the tree. I say see what happens.”

I was told to go sit at the table in the back of the room. The remaining two students were sent outside to the hallway where they were presumably marched back to class to learn about the state gem {the diamond}.

At the small table in the back of the room we were told that it had been decided that we were going to be given a special opportunity to learn and make things outside of the normal classroom.

“It’s called Gifted and Talented. But you can call it GT.”

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I am 98% sure that this is an inaccurate description

of how, even in the dark ages of the early nineties, children were chosen for GT. However, not knowing or being aware of any other testing or documentation, this is the story I’ve told myself for almost 30 years. I’ve told myself that I got lucky. I had remembered a book fact and it was my book knowledge that got me into the cool kids club. I’ve carried that around with me for a long time.

“You’re not creative. You’re smart.”

Please note: Being awarded with the descriptor “smart” is never a bad thing. “Smart” has been a talisman, the shield and sword that I carried with me through the hormones of middle school and fast cars of high school and the overseas trips in college and the altogether questionable establishments here there and yonder I found myself in post college.

But “smart” can be a straight jacket. In my small-town, limited experience vocabulary of a life it was. Smart wasn’t charismatic or funny or passionate. Smart didn’t have a good eye for design or a sense of style. Smart didn’t meet eyes with someone who was the son of a Senator unless she had already had two martinis because smart wasn’t enough and they don’t teach flirting in books. 

Funny how the the fictions that we carry around in our heads fossilize into the truths we lug around with us as we continue to grow.

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Post script number one:

Joel never noticed me {though I do have a funny story about him and Willy Nelson} but I did eventually get to go to a slumber party at Meredith’s house and a swimming party at Jessica’s so, I’m officially declaring my sneaky ploy for social acceptance a win.

Post scrip number two:

I just remembered that Mrs. Pilkington follows me on Instagram and I need to tell you that other than learning about all the state symbols we also learned how to count to ten in French and I have always felt the tiniest bit fancy ever since because of that. Also- I was convinced in 1992 that she was more beautiful and kind than a Disney princes.

I had such a good childhood y’all.

Post scrip number three :

Hat tip to @lbmartin who is a storyteller in her own right and who’s sweet mama was the one in my memory who convinced the other teacher to give me a chance.

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Inspired by Jennifer Cooper and Meanie Biehle, I want to start sharing more stories. I’m aiming for sharing one a week until I have shared fifty. The math tells me I should be done around this time next year. Reality tells me to not hold so tight to inconsequential deadlines. However. I want to push myself to share because I think we learn more about our own stories when we see ourselves reflected in those of others.