do your homework with a fork: on safe spaces and taking teenagers seriously

My mother tells a story about me, from when I was about the Zweeble’s age, and I kept coloring the grass purple.

“Laura, grass is green.”

“Uh-huh.” And I’d calmly color the grass purple again.

My mother’s best friend at the time, Margaret, is an artist–a painter. And one day she was over and saw this scene, and told my mom, “Let her color the grass purple. She’s an artist. It’s fine.”

My mom was a jock. A baseball, track, football jock. She’ll tell you–she heard “artist” and had no idea what to do with that. But in the end, she let me color the grass purple. She got me crayons and paper and scissors, gave me books and more books, and when I was seven and told her I wanted to write a book, she said, “Great!”[1]

(Oh, it was a terrible book.  I wrote it from first through third grade.  There was no plot.  It was semi-autobiographical.  I really wish I could find it, now.)

And a few years after that, my parents got me my first typewriter … and so my troubles began.[2]  :)

***

Oh my god, middle school was insane.  I always feel like middle school is when people start getting mean.  And I was a weird kid.  I liked old musicals and Noel Streatfeild novels; I listened to 45s of music I still haven’t heard of anywhere else (one of my uncles had eclectic tastes); I had no idea how to wear makeup or how to dress (even after I supposedly figured it out).

But I wrote.  And I found my other best friend, JC–together we were the oldest seventh-graders on earth; he listened to big band music, for god’s sake–and our five-hour phone calls were our safe haven.  (I don’t know if he knows that they were as much a haven for me as they were for him, but they were.)

***

See, here’s the thing about being a teenager.  Okay, one of the things–“things” about being a teenager are legion …

Everything is serious, but nobody else thinks so.  You’re a teenager; you’re an idiot by definition.  And, okay, you are kind of an idiot, but it’s not because you’re actually stupid, it’s because you’re sixteen freaking years old and that’s not a lot of time to have acquired the wisdom of the ages.

But.

You’ve also been through a lot more than people think you have.

Out of my friends, only four of us (that I can remember) had parents who hadn’t divorced or separated, and for one of those four, her father had died.  If you’ve read my To Kill a Mockingbird post, you know I’d had a life-threatening injury by the time I was sixteen (I actually turned sixteen in the hospital); my junior year a girl in our class was killed in a drunk driving accident.  We all knew someone who’d either gotten pregnant or had a pregnancy scare.  In the late 80s/early 90s, you did not come out in high school.  And there were bullies, bitchy people, juvenile delinquents, drug addicts, binge drinkers …

But, you know, teenagers are idiots. (eye roll)

***

Being an artist is hard.

Putting aside how it can be a total slog to actually make the art, you have to get over feeling like a poser (poseur?) when you call yourself an artist.  Then you have to stop caring when people look at you funny for daring to call yourself an artist because you’re no Picasso or whatever.  It can be a weird, isolating thing, this feeling that you need to do more than your job, your parenting, your schooling–other people apparently don’t feel that way (it was a major shock to me when my mother told me that, no, she felt no need to do something else on top of work and the rest of her home life).

I remember that, as a teenager, isolation felt like just … my life, quite often.  Add in the isolating feeling of wanting to be an artist, of being a weird kid, and it sucked.

Now, I’d been in drama (Thespians, actually) since ninth grade.  But it never really felt comfortable until somewhere during my junior year.  I think that’s because all the older kids graduated and our little group of weirdos and misfits (and I say that fondly; I am always so proud to be a weirdo and a misfit) started to replace them.

I spent my senior year of high school with a group of people who were, one and all, artists.  Or we were trying to be, anyway.  Dancers and actors and singers (oh my god, we had amazing singers in our troupe), and me, the writer (and actor, because god knows I was no dancer or singer).  There were groups and cliques within our clique, and some of us moved between them and some of us did not, but we all had to deal with each other.

We argued and bitched; we were insanely melodramatic and over the top.  People got together, broke up (loudly), snarked at each other (loudly) and then maybe got back together (also loudly) before breaking up one more time (probably pretty loudly).[3]

But we took our performances seriously.  We took our talents seriously.  And if you were going to make an idiot of yourself by trying to do something amazing, we were all going to be there to help and, if needed, catch you.

It wasn’t perfect.  We were kids: we hurt each other and did dumb stuff; we weren’t all friends with each other all the time.  But it was a safe place, the drama room, and even when I absolutely hated half the club, I knew I was with people who got it, and who–for the most part–got me.

I found amazing, wonderful friends in college, but I missed my high school friends so much when we graduated.

***

That said, it’s not all about finding friends, either.  And I knew that, deep down, I wasn’t an actress (though my “Best Supporting Actress” award at the Thespian banquet is still one of my most prized possessions, not gonna lie).  Words, words, words; those were mine.  At least I had a smaller typewriter at that point.

I also had adults who were not my parents, who treated my work like it was real[4].

First, there was Mrs. Kastner[5], who was a writer, too–and who invited me to come to an actual writing conference one weekend.  She also invited a guy from another English class, and he and I stuck together all day because we were the youngest people there and I, for one, was flat-out intimidated.  But everyone was nice, and they were excited to see us, and oh my god, actual published writers–hell, at that point, oh my god, other people who wrote stuff!  And apparently, Mrs. Kastner thought I was writer enough to be one of them!

Second … Mrs. Burgess was our drama director senior year.  She didn’t have any actual drama background–she’d been a cheerleading coach, I think–but our regular director was on sabbatical, so Mrs. B. filled in.  She didn’t always know exactly what she was doing, but she was enthusiastic and willing to try just about anything.  We were getting ready to go to competition, and it might have been during a discussion of scholarship opportunities, or maybe just competition categories, I don’t remember … but I do remember Mrs. B saying, “Laura, I couldn’t find anything for writing, I’m sorry.”

Now I feel slightly outraged at the lack of whatever-the-hell-we-were-talking-about for writing … but then I was amazed and thrilled that Mrs. B. remembered I was a writer and actually went looking for something for me based on that.

I felt like I’d been seen for the thing that was most important to me, that practically defined me, and it affected me for, really, ever.

***

Now, let’s be frank: I was not a prodigy.  I re-read my high school work and–yowza, there’s some purple prose (and loopy handwriting, oh my).  I’ve seen the video of our school musical.  We’re adorable, but it’s not Broadway.

But I can see the talent, there.  (Oh, wow, so much talent.)  And a safe space to try things; we got critical commentary that was based on already having something and then making it better.  Because we were good enough that we could make it better.  We were worth revisions, worth practice, worth taking seriously.

And even if we’re not all on Broadway, or we’re still plugging away in obscurity on our little blogs (cough cough), it’s okay.  Look, just for me, because I can’t speak for everyone I knew in high school (even if we are all on Facebook) … but art is important.  Small or large, art is important.  The world needs words, and pictures, and music, and plays. Whether it’s Banksy or Picasso, or some random dude plastering stickers on everything, or a girl singing opera at the bus stop[6].

Or whether it’s somebody looking at that sticker, or hearing that aria, or reading some words on a screen, or giving someone a safe place to try, to have ambition, to color the grass purple.

***

Okay, Laura, so why are you telling us this?

One of my friends from high school, Ami Sallee, posted a video recently (which I have not yet watched, I admit) that talked about middle school.  She is the Theatre Department chair at Patel Conservatory in Tampa (and a whole lot more, go check out her bio page).  She commented on her post that our group of misfits (my wording, not hers) made her high school years bearable and memorable.

I haven’t seen her in person in years (we need to remedy this, Ami, if you’re reading), but I remember high school Ami: she was intense and incredibly talented–total triple threat–and so much braver than I was.  She wore her passions like other people wore clothes, and she never seemed intimidated by anything.

And I guess her post made me think about safe spaces for weirdos and misfits, places where artists can try out their ambitions, and if they fall, someone will catch them; places with adults who see them as artists, who see their talents and think they’re worth honing.

(And of course Ami is one of those adults.  She’s probably the best person I can think of to help nurture a young artist.)


1  My dad is a whole other story–actually, my father is a book unto himself.  But when I was very young, he worked on tugboats, and so he would be gone for a week or two weeks, then home for another week or two weeks.  So while he was certainly a huge influence on me in terms of my creativity–someday I’ll tell you about the Christmas tree we made in, like, April–at this point, my mom was the one who was around to make sure I had the crayons and the paper and so on.[back]

2 It was a huge electric IBM office typewriter.  I literally couldn’t lift it.  I’d hit the return button and it made my entire desk heave to the left.[back]

3There are reasons I watch Glee.  Just saying.[back]

4That’s basically my definition of success, right there: having people who aren’t my parents thinking what I do is real.[back]

5Who is Mrs. Olshewski now–well, now she’s actually Janet, but I still feel very nervous calling her by her first name because she was my teacher!!![back]

6You’ll minimize some stranger’s sadness with a piece of wood and plastic, holy fuck it’s so fantastic, playing ukulele … because Amanda Palmer knows all.[back]

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2 thoughts on “do your homework with a fork: on safe spaces and taking teenagers seriously

  1. I am Ami’s big sister that would help her organize the “gumballs (plant seed pods actually)” and “scratch and sniff stickers” when she was 6. I was married when they moved to Florida and didn’t come. I love your newest post. Haven’t read the others. I am also another creativey one. We have 2 analytical sisters (the odds) and 2 creative ones (the evens). I am fascinated by your post because this is what I do now. I “see” for my “people”( because they are people just in little coats) so in time, they can “see” what I see. I am a volunteer at an after school art program that does so much more. Its funny, but I have been doing ” helping others find the little art within” for many years and didn’t even know it until someone asked me to describe what I do. I am official with a title, but those are only for paper, not reality. I will read your other stuff when I get the time. :)

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