An art teacher once called me retarded. She was criticizing my drawing, but I took the adjective personally.
To be fair, this was in the late 1980s, long before political correctness disallowed that pejorative term for the developmentally disabled. Back then, the word wasn’t necessarily used to describe someone’s abilities, but as criticism for a task poorly done. A half-hearted attempt to make a bed, for instance, could be called retarded if the sheets were lumpy and the blankets hung askew. This condemnation did double-duty, disparaging the bed itself, as well as the person who made it.
Yet, hearing a word like that could have had devastating effects on a child. It might have stunted motivation and shut down self-expression, or halted inquisitiveness and the desire to learn, or sewn mistrust for teachers and authority figures in the years ahead. Luckily, I was a grown man when it happened.
Learning To Draw was an evening class for adults. The subject sparked my curiosity, but the real reason for attending was the opportunity to meet women. My pick-up skills weren’t good enough to succeed in bars, small talk was not my forte. Adult Ed classes gave me the opportunity to bypass feeble attempts to find common interests and dive straight into conversation about the subject at hand.
I was no stranger to my local community college, having taken a half dozen such classes over the past few years. I quickly found the room and the door was unlocked, a couple of students already encamped. The instructor had arrived and gone, evidenced by the worn leather briefcase sitting atop the big metal teacher’s desk. And the smaller chair-desks had been arranged in concentric rings, facing a lone, wooden stool in the center.
I took a seat in the innermost circle waiting and hoping for an attractive woman to walk in the door. There was no guarantee; in one previous class, attendance skewed to a much older demographic and those close to my age had all been male. Since I might not find any dateable candidates, it was important that I was interested in the subject.
Drawing was a big deal when I was growing up, particularly since my father and sister were quite accomplished. Every doodle I attempted received praise from my mother, but I knew in my heart my efforts were second class.
My father was a draftsman who made exquisitely precise mechanical drawings with the aid of T-squares, compasses and emerald-tinted drawing templates. He must have had a hundred of those green plastic sheets, stenciled with every imaginable geometric shape and curvilinear angle. I never saw him draw freehand, always using these tools to guide his pencil. His finished work leapt from the paper, with realism depicted in three perspectives: front, top and side. And his printing was the neatest I’d ever seen; each letter a work of art, every word in perfect proportion between the ruled lines he drew to hold them.
Then there was my sister, seven years older than me. She was an art major in college and went on to teach art to middle-schoolers. There’s an old saying: ‘those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.’ It didn’t apply to my sister. No way could I compete with her painting or sculpting or artisanship. Her every canvas was sublime and there was no bead or swatch or twig that she couldn’t craft into exquisite beauty.
Motherly appreciations aside, I knew my “drawings” were mediocre at best. My father and sister did not need quotes around their artwork. Because I always compared my work to theirs, I abandoned art entirely. But the what-ifs still lingered, and I thought enough years had gone to safely flex those muscles again. The class description gave me hope, promising ‘all skill levels welcome’ and ‘no experience necessary’ and ‘the only thing you need is a desire to draw and a No. 2 pencil.’
Then in she walked: a crisply dressed woman, close to my age, scanning the room for a vacant seat. She reminded me of Winona Ryder from that Heathers movie. Immediately I hatched a brilliant conversation starter: I would feign being unequipped and ask to borrow that pencil. But Winona sidled into the desk on the outer circle opposite me.
As the desks filled up, it became evident the teacher was still not here. Ten minutes after the hour, the class had growing restless and I was reminded of my college days, a decade prior. There was an unwritten rule back then that if the professor was more than fifteen minutes late, the class was declared over and students could gleefully leave. I was wondering if the same rule applied to Adult Ed just as the door swung open.
In came a woman, but at that moment I couldn’t have described her. All eyes were on the burden she carried. She was hunchbacked from the weight of a rock—a small boulder, really—that she wrestled into the classroom. A man nearest the door went to help, but the woman barked brusquely, “I’ve got it, I’ve got it. Clear a path before I drop the goddamn thing.”
The students in front of her obeyed, scooching their desks sideways, making space for the igneous lump and the woman who lugged it. I jumped up and reached over to help.
“I said I’ve got it. Just hold the fucking stool.” Three times she rocked-the-baby before slinging the megalith into place.
“I really. Should have. Thought. This through.” Gulps of air divided the words and she leaned against the rock to catch her breath. “My name is Marfa, with an F. This is the first class I’ve ever taught, so I’ll be learning as much from you as you will from me.”
Marfa was a hippie holdover dressed in a tie-dyed peasant skirt and unmatching paisley top. Her graying hair was swept back into a single, thick braid, loosely lassoed, with a halo of strands floating free. She had a clattering of oversized beads on her chest, colorful as a Hawaiian lei; the necklace rattled violently as she backpedalled the same way she’d come.
“You can return to your seats now,” she said, “And get those pencils ready, we’re going to draw.”
As students rifled through belongings, Marfa shuffled over to the teacher’s desk. She withdrew a ream of copy paper from her briefcase and began passing out sheets. This was a surprise assignment, she explained, an assessment of our drawing abilities. She didn’t want us to make any mental preparation; she didn’t want to preface with any rudimentary instruction; she just wanted us to sketch the rock.
“As best you can.” End of explanation.
I stared at my yellow Ticonderoga, hoping the pencil knew where to start. I didn’t. I looked over at Winona, who was bent over her fresh sheet of paper. I noticed she had a black pencil, the kind artists used; it was like the ones my sister kept in her perfect, handmade ceramic jar. Among my fellow students, there seemed to be a hierarchy in the drawing implements being wielded: yellow for beginners, black for the more experienced, even a couple of exotic mechanical pencils whose owners, I imagined, were savants.
My throat went dry, it clicked when I swallowed. I took a deep breath, calmed my thoughts and decided to borrow a page from my father’s book: I pulled a six-inch plastic ruler from my shirt pocket and dashed off a quick succession of straight lines, shaping angles along the perimeter. Leaning back, I held the paper out at arm’s length, next to the rock itself. The drawing looked like a kid had played connect-the-dots.
I wanted a fresh piece of paper but was too self-conscious to ask. I slashed a big X and flipped the sheet over. Freehand this time, I sketched and erased and redrew until the contours looked relatively accurate. Pleased, I thickened the lines and felt an ember of enthusiasm inside. Returning my gaze on Gibraltar, I noticed a dizzying array of crags and bulges and declivities, each casting subtle shades of gray shadow. A few, quick pencil swipes helped me render the required gradations. This wasn’t so hard, maybe I was more like my sister than I’d thought.
“Five more minutes,” Marfa said.
The allotted time didn’t seem long enough to perfect my vision. I had to decide between sketching the pool of black shadow beneath the rock or reproducing the texture of the granite itself. I chose the latter.
At bottom left I started stippling. Every speck of black I saw, I pounded out; a Morse code of dits and blacker, bolder dashes. No doubt my tongue was poking out sideways with my determination to achieve photographic accuracy of the speckled surface. The classroom and people disappeared; it was me and the rock. I was one with granite.
“Time’s up. Pass them to me, finished or not.”
“Do we need to put our names on them?” It was Winona who inquired.
The teacher shook her head, flagellating the paisley with her braid. “No. I don’t want to put faces to the artwork just yet. I’ll make a few comments first. You can pick them up at the break.”
I was far from finished, having freckled only a quarter of my drawing. Yet I was sure that a good teacher would see my artistic objective and could fill in the blanks with my intention.
Marfa circled the desks with slow measured steps. She thumbed through the pages, hmming at some, tsking at others, extracting one from the deck like a magician revealing a card. “This is nice. Whose is it?”
A hand raised, fist holding a black pencil. It was the gentleman who offered to help Marfa with the rock.
“Needs a little work on perspective. I can see you’ve been drawing for a while. Good technique. Nice job,” Marfa said. Without breaking stride she flashed another drawing, “Whose is this?”
Winona raised her arm, her wrist cocked just so. She could have been a hand model.
“You drew the rock, but also included the stool and the heads of the people around it,” Marfa seemed to scold, “May I ask why?”
Winona looked sullen, her voice almost a whimper, “I don’t know. It’s what I saw.”
“Excellent.” Marfa’s necklace clacked with equal enthusiasm. “You didn’t presume, drew what you saw and not what you were instructed to draw. You are an artist, my dear.”
Winona blushed. I noticed that one of the heads depicted in her drawing was mine. I had a new opening line.
“Now, this one.” Marfa stopped walking and showed my drawing the class. “This is just retarded.”
Marfa inhaled a hiss as if trying to suck the word back. She shuddered. The papers she held flapped down to her tie-dyed thigh and the other hand covered her mouth. Too late.
The static buzz of overhead fluorescents was the only sound, growing louder as I watched her lips move. I like to think she said something reassuring about common mistakes being easily fixed, but the noise in my head covered her words. The internal thrum grew so loud that I clamped the yellow Ticonderoga between my jaws, waiting to receive the electroshock of self-inflicted I-told-you-sos. I could almost see my father and sister smirking.
There was movement. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the other students rise from their desks for a coffee break. Somehow I was able to mimic their actions. I shouldered my backpack and wandered out into the hall. Winona stopped me to ask a question, so I pointed her towards the restroom. I went the other way instead, out to the parking lot.
DL Shirey is a short story writer from Portland, Oregon. He frequently strays toward the truth and his nonfiction pieces have been published in Gravel, Citron Review and Wraparound South. You can find more of his writing at www.dlshirey.com and @dlshirey on Twitter.