After seeing his son’s excitement about Degas, Picasso, and Warhol—CJ Kaplan realizes that teaching is an art form.
My son Eric is a little obsessed. As the youngest of three, he is in a constant struggle to keep pace with his older brother and sister. His efforts have made him hyper-competitive, especially in sports. Where my daughter Samantha considers all athletic endeavors (and I’m quoting here) “stupid” and my son Alex relishes the game more than the result, Eric treats even his Boys U8 soccer matches as a life or death proposition.
Part of this is a consequence of Eric being four years younger than Alex and always having to “play up” and prove himself in any contest involving Alex’s friends. It’s made him a hell of an athlete and a fearless competitor, but it’s also made him place too much weight on the outcome of something as inconsequential as a two-on-two game of hoops in the driveway.
Cohabiting alongside the fierce warrior persona within this little boy there is also a very sensitive soul. Eric has a small army of stuffed animals that he anthropomorphizes through a series of imagined personalities, voices and backstories. (I have a lot to do with the last of these traits since I’ve spent nearly every long car ride of Eric’s childhood making up stories about my kids’ stuffed animals to pass the time. To date, Fuzzy, Foof-Foof and Ring Dog have individually or collectively won the Stanley Cup, the Super Bowl, the World Series of Poker and an episode of Jeopardy!) Because his stuffed animals have inherited these very human characteristics, Eric has also given them feelings. He worries that they miss him while he’s at school and that they might be sad or lonely while he’s away. Often, my wife Lisa or I will place a few chosen dogs and bears in the window next to our front door so that they appear to be waiting for him when he gets home. My son deserves a hero’s welcome at the end of the day.
Recently, Eric completed his year in first grade in such spectacular fashion that I feel compelled to share it with anyone who will listen. His teachers, Gabrielle Gelinas and Kristen Willand, delved into Eric’s sensitive side and made him care passionately about something other than sports.
For the past several months, Eric’s class has been studying influential artists of the past five centuries. They started with Michelangelo and worked their way up through Dale Chihuly. Along the way, they covered such greats as Monet, Degas, O’Keefe, Calder, Picasso, Pollack and Warhol. Pretty heady stuff for a group that considers Sponge Bob Square Pants high culture, no? Yet the whole class was enthralled, embracing and absorbing each successive artist with a zeal usually reserved for a Disney premiere. And nobody in the class was more captivated than my son the sports nut.
The first time we noticed this phenomenon was when we were discussing a dancer we had seen on TV. I remarked offhandedly that this particular dancer was very small in stature.
“Uh…” I began slowly, buying time. “Do you mean “Tiny Dancer,” the Elton John song? (Eric has had a full dose of classic rock in his lifetime.)
“No, I mean like “The Little Dancer” by Edgar Degas,” Eric replied, looking at me like I was as dumb as box of rocks.
“Oh,” I answered, doing nothing to change his opinion of me.
After that, I would go to tuck him in at night and he would regale me with what he learned that day about Cubism or Impressionism or Abstract Expressionism. He lectured me on brush strokes and the use of forced perspective and the inspiration one could find in cow skulls. He talked about these things with the same casual confidence he has when discussing the efficacy of the Bruins’ third line in the playoffs.
“How,” I asked Lisa, “are they getting him so excited about art?”
The answer came in two signature events that culminated the school year.
The first was a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Eric’s class and another first grade class that had been studying these artists went into the city to see real art—live and in person. Ms. Gelinas and Ms. Willand had gone to the MFA earlier in the year and researched what was going to be on exhibit in the spring. So when the children burst into the hallowed halls of the gallery, all the pieces that they had loved and admired in their books and slides were on display before them. Lisa was a chaperone on this field trip and she describes the scene as follows:
“Every time they found a piece that they had studied, they jumped and cheered. Honestly, they could not have been more excited if they found Dustin Pedroia in the museum.”
“The Little Dancer” was there and Eric had his picture taken in front of it. We he told me about the experience, I shared his joy.
“Isn’t it amazing that there is artwork so special that it travels around the world so people can see and enjoy it?” I asked him.
“Yeah,” he said. “There’s only one “Little Dancer” in the world and I got to see it today.”
The second event that made me understand and appreciate how my son had fallen in love with art occurred on one of the last nights of the school year. We parents were invited to “A Night At The Museum” in the elementary school auditorium.
As we sat expectantly in the theatre seats, the first graders filed in and took their places on the stage. The teachers welcomed us to the show and then the children took over. What followed was a retrospective of the entire semesters’ study of art. Each artist was given an introduction by the children without notes or cue cards, followed by a slide show, song or skit that represented the artist’s work.
For Calder, they staged a circus complete with a ringmaster, pantomimed strongmen and acrobats walking imaginary tightropes. For Degas, there was a “history of dance” which included The Twist, The Loco-Motion and The Hustle. For Warhol, they sang a song called “Pop Andy” in reference to his pioneering work in Pop Art. (The subversive part of me hoped they would sing “Venus in Furs” from the album The Velvet Underground and Nico, for which Warhol did the famous banana cover art. Alas, there was no mention of Lou Reed or any of the Factory Superstars.)
As the revue played out, it became evident from the still images in the slideshows why the class was so invested in these artists. Ms. Gelinas and Ms. Willand had taken pictures of the children “becoming” each artist they studied.
To understand what it was like for Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, they had taped paper to the bottom of their desks and lay on the floor painting upside down. To appreciate the joy and freedom of Pollack, they went outside and splashed paint over a giant canvas (and each other). To mimic Chihuly, the painted the inside of empty plastic water bottles and strung them together in a hanging sculpture.
At a time when interactive has become synonymous with an app or a website, Ms. Gelinas and Ms. Willand made art a living, breathing thing for the children in her class. How could they not help but fall head over heels?
The show was a full hour without interruption and the kids executed it with the precision of a Broadway production. You could see them mouthing each other’s lines as they waited for their cues. Even the dance choreography was flawless.
Afterward, we were invited downstairs to the classrooms to view each child’s own personal “gallery.”
When we got there, we discovered that every student had been given a two by six foot section of wall upon which hung their most prized creations from the semester affixed to a giant piece of construction paper. Eric’s “gallery” featured drawings, poetry, sculptures, 3-D art and his reflections on his favorite artists.
I have been fortunate enough to wander through the exhibits at the Louvre and the d’Orsay, but neither could elicit the surge of emotion I felt standing in front of Eric’s collection of work. The entire installment is currently draped across our dining room table while we figure out how to frame or otherwise preserve it.
There is a reason we hold special teachers in our hearts forever. They help us discover something about ourselves that we never would have known otherwise. So, it didn’t surprise me that Eric was ambivalent about the end of the school year.
“I’m happy that school is over for the summer,” he said. “But, I really loved my first grade class.”
Yeah, I thought, so did I.