Maeve Painting, soft pastel on textured gator board by Marie Marfia, 10 in x 10 in.

Getting schooled

Maeve Painting, soft pastel on textured gator board by Marie Marfia, 10 in x 10 in.
Maeve Painting, soft pastel on textured gator board by Marie Marfia, 10 in x 10 in.

As I walked into the art center one morning to teach a kids’ pastel class, I was thinking about what I needed to do first. Should I lay newspapers on the tables or look for the boxes of pastels that I was pretty sure were hiding in the cupboards somewhere? No worries, because the class started at 10, and it was just a little after nine a.m. now. I had plenty of time to do both.

“Oh, good, you’re here,” said Katie, the program coordinator, as I waltzed through the door with a large bin of supplies. “Can I help you carry anything?” 

“Oh, you don’t have to. There’s just my roller bag in the car. I’ll get it,” I said, heading for the stairs. “Are there some kids up there already?”

“Yes, they’re all here.” 

Cue sinking feeling. “What time was class supposed to start?” 

“Nine.” 

“Crap!”

Hurrying now, Katie close behind, telling me it was all right, they’d been given paper and colored pencils to draw with, but it was definitely not all right and now I was thinking, “How could this happen? Why did I think class started at ten? Why did I agree to do this?”

I’m not a real teacher. I mean, I teach, but only because someone expresses an interest in learning how to work with soft pastels and I’m happy to show them what I know. Also, the few times I’ve taught a class, it’s been for adult students and the class size is limited to eight. Sometimes they bring wine.

So teaching a two-hour pastel class for around twenty 6-11 year-olds? Needless to say, the atmosphere was a bit different than what I’m used to.

To be honest, I only agreed to this because I was asked. It’s a failing of mine. Someone says, can you do this (insert something I’ve never done before here) and I say, “Sure!” mostly because I want people to like me and saying yes to whatever impossible thing they’re asking is easier than saying, “No,” and risking them not liking me anymore. Before you point out that I have a choice about this stuff, let me just say I’ve been doing it all my life and I’m too old to stop now. Besides, I thought, how hard could it be?

Maybe I was motivated by my own experience as a child going to art class. I remember walking into the shady back yard of Ms. Taylor’s house on a Saturday morning and standing in front of a big easel that held a piece of newsprint taped to a board and jars of different colored paints in the well underneath. There was a stick of charcoal and a paintbrush and a subject to paint–an owl, a tree, a house. Everyone painted the same thing in the same way–charcoal drawing first, outline with black paint, fill in with colored paint, outline with black again. Then we signed our work and Ms. Taylor fed us marshmallows and Kool-aid before Mom picked us up. It was grand.

What was happening here was considerably less than grand. 

I raced around the room, handing out paper, calling out apologies for my lateness over the hubbub of children’s voices. I gave a small stack of dixie cups to Katie and asked her to pass them out. “Who can guess what’s going in the cups?” I yelled, hoping to distract the kids with a guessing game.

“Water!” “Glue!” “Soap!” 

It was going to be liquid starch, which I knew no one would guess, but it kept their minds occupied while I frantically put all the pastels I’d brought with me onto paper plates for everyone to share at each table. Maybe I’d be able to find more in the cupboards later. For now, I needed to get this class started.

I did a quick demo, drawing a picture with the pastels and then dipping my fingers in the starch and smearing it over the drawings, liquifying the chalk and turning it into paint. My plan was to put the wet pictures in another room and they could take their pieces home with them the next class day. Then, once this project was done, the second project would be using Elmer’s glue to outline a picture on black paper, which would hopefully dry by the next class day and then the kids would paint between the glue lines. 

I started to relax a little. This was fine, I thought. Me being late was just a little hiccup. Everyone was busy drawing now. It was all going to be okay.

Predictably some kids finished their paintings faster than others. I invited them to do more paintings and then realized that I might run out of the special paper I’d brought because there were just 50 sheets in the box and I had 18 students in the class. As a result, the more enthusiastic students were limited to three pictures each, and the slower, more methodical ones only got to do one or two.

It also soon became obvious that the two projects I’d planned weren’t going to be nearly enough to get us through a two-hour class. They blew through them in an hour and a half including the fifteen minute break for apple sauce. At the 45 minute mark, one little boy, who I was reliably informed later had started the day with three jelly donuts for breakfast, slithered off his chair and began crawling around under the table. Another started making a glued together Eiffel tower with the Q-tips I’d passed around in case some kids didn’t want to use their fingers with the liquid starch. I noticed one girl emptying her glue bottle on both hands and then spending about ten minutes peeling it off with a curiously blissful expression on her face. I wished I had thought of it myself. It would have used up some more time and I’d have had something to keep the wiggliest kids busy. 

The last twenty minutes of class I resorted to having them fold paper airplanes because it was the first thing that popped into my head. Then once they had the planes folded everyone wanted to try them out. The last thing I remember was yelling, “No flying airplanes in the building!” before they all left with their parents. 

Afterwards I stood ankle deep in paper airplanes and soft pastel sticks, and thought, “It could’ve been worse. Nobody got hurt. At least not by me, which is the important thing, liability-wise. And now I have a whole 46 hours to come up with four more projects to do. How hard could it be?”


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