When I was in third grade we went to art class once a week. It was exciting for a lot of reasons, but mainly for me because it was on the fifth grade hall in the newer part of the school building. The walls in that hallway were not cinder block like they were in the third grade hall. They were covered with ceramic tile about two-thirds of the way up and then sheet rock above that. The tiles were white with a stripe of navy blue at the top. (Navy blue and white were our school colors at L.B. Barton Elementary School.) Above the tile on the sheet rock, fifth grade students had painted pictures of clouds and the sun and moon and rainbows and kites — pretty standard art work for elementary schools. I loved that part of the building.
To get to the fifth grade hall from the third grade hall we had to walk through a long breezeway that connected the old building with the new building. Actually, the breezeway probably wasn’t that long, but it felt long to me. It was carpeted with the green all-weather carpet that many schools and businesses put on their porches and there were windows along both sides. As we left the breezeway and turned left down the fifth grade hall my teacher, Mrs. Bales, would have us move over to the right side of the hallway. We were supposed to walk with our hands behind our backs, but I always ran my hand along the smooth, cool tiles on the wall. I would curl my fingers so that my fingernails scraped the grout lines. Before long we arrived at the art room — the last room on the right just before the library.
The art room wasn’t like the other classrooms. It was bigger; probably twice the size of the other rooms. Unlike standard classrooms, it wasn’t carpeted. The floor in the art room was the same tile that was on the hallway floors but it was spattered with every conceivable color of paint. The art room didn’t have desks. Instead, there were large tables (eight of them, I think) with small stools around them instead of chairs. Like the tile floor, the tables also had paint spatter, dried glue, chalk and clay all over them, but I loved them. They were smooth and cool like the tile walls in the fifth grade hall. Around the perimeter of the room were built-in shelves full of art supplies: paints, brushes, canvas, paper, glue, yarn, string, clay, chalk, sponges, paper plates…and on and on. For a kid like me with an artistic bent, the art room was like a toy store at Christmas. I wanted to touch everything and take one of each of them home.
I don’t remember the art teacher’s name or what she looked like. When I remember her I remember only the idea of her. In my mind she is a younger woman, small in stature and frame, energetic, passionate and friendly. I do remember that she did not sit at a desk. Rather, she had a table like ours, only taller. Most of the time, though, she walked around the room. She would slowly walk past each student, look over our shoulders and encourage our efforts regardless how unimpressive most of our work must have been. Amidst the vague idea of my art teacher, one very specific memory stands out. It is a memory that has come to me many times in the thirty-two years since third grade and it came to me again tonight.
On one particular day when we went to the art room I remember walking in and seeing white paper plates, small sheets of manila paper, paint brushes, water and paints of all colors in the middle of the tables. I was excited. I expected that this would be another opportunity to paint a picture of the Death Star, X-Wing and TIE Fighters, and the Millenium Falcon to take home and tac to my bedroom wall. But, the teacher had other things in mind this day. She intended to teach us about color. First, we learned about the primary colors — red, yellow and blue. We learned that mixing red and blue make purple; red and yellow make orange; and yellow and blue make green. Then, she told us to mix all of the primary colors together but not to stir them too long. What did we get? Brown. “Now,” she said, “keep adding colors and keep mixing.” Eventually, I had a blob of black paint in the middle of my circles of red, yellow, blue, purple, orange and green. She explained that black wasn’t really a color, but was rather a mixture of all colors. Then she brought around a tube of white paint and put a small amount on our paper plates. She then told us that, like black, white was not really a color, but was the absence of color. She told us to mix the white paint in with the black. Suddenly, the black blob turned grey. Then, she taught the lesson, no one color is dominate over another. All colors can be mixed and will turn into something completely different.
I held on to that piece of manila paper for years. Long after all of the hopeless attempts at Star Wars recreations were lost to the Irving Sanitation Department, that piece of paper with those blobs of color stayed with me. In fact, I found it as we packed to move to Tyler in 1993 — twelve years later. It is gone now, too. I have no idea where I lost it along the way, but the memory is still very much alive in me. It is as vivid today as ever. It is the story of one of the experiences that helped mold me into the person I am today.
For a few years now I’ve had friends tell me I need to write the stories of my life in a book. Although I can’t personally imagine buying the book, they insist that I have so many stories to tell that it would, at the very least, entertain the people who love me and, just maybe, sell a few copies. I’ve given it some thought. In fact, I’ve started writing the book. But, I keep running into a problem. If I’m going to tell the stories of my life, which ones do I tell? It’s a question that plagues me not only as a writer, but as a person. I dread being asked to tell something about myself. What on earth is there worth telling?
Do I tell about being a kid who was afraid of everything?
Do I tell about being the kid in middle school who DIDN’T want to play football?
Do I tell about being the fourteen year old who decided to spend his weekends practicing music instead of hanging out with friends?
Do I tell about being the high school senior who won every award imaginable for his musical talent?
Do I tell about being the college freshman who figured out it’s really easy to be a big fish in a small pond?
Do I tell about floundering to figure out who I was for twenty years?
Do I tell about the abject loneliness of anxiety and depression?
What stories could I possibly tell that anyone would care about? I’ve got happy ones, sad ones and too-absurd-to-be-true-but-absolutely-are ones…the list is endless. The stories I could tell are as varied as those blobs of paint on that manila paper. And, like those blobs of color, they’re all mixed together now in a giant mass of grey. All of the stories and memories run together in my head and it’s hard to separate real from imaginary. It’s hard to know what is really true and what I only want to be true.
I think life is like that, you know? I think we’re always looking for just the right story to tell to just the right person at just the right time. We’re always looking for the story that makes us look the best. Sometimes we embellish details and sometimes we omit them. For instance, the story I wrote about going to art class — I have no idea how much of it is actually true and how much is just my memory filling in gaps with a nice picture. We do that with memories and with our stories. We fill in the gaps with details that change the tone, the hue and, sometimes, even the “family” from which our stories come. I think we do it because if we can fill in the gaps with the right color, the story will be prettier and maybe not as hard to look at.
I don’t know if I’ll ever finish that book. It’s a daunting task to even think about, much less to undertake, but maybe someday when the color palette is just right.