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Fish On Stilts

It was incredible, the greatest thing I'd ever created, and as I put some final touches on my masterpiece I felt the black polyester presence behind me.

“What is that?”
“My fish.”
“Fish. Don’t. Have. Feet.” Mrs. Lyons, my kindergarten teacher, was a stout five feet, dressed almost entirely in black polyester, and usually had a black sweater draped over her shoulders like a cape. There was always a scowl with a permanent look of disgust on her face, and she was usually shouting at someone. Hearing her yell at other kids was enough to give me a good start on an ulcer by first grade, but this was the first time I’d been a target of her scowling disgust.
I was excited when she’d introduced our assignment: “Today we’re going to draw fish.” That was the extent of our instructions – draw fish. With eight waxy crayons and a piece of 9” x 12” paper I began work confident in the knowledge that I was exceptional in the world of fish rendition. Fish in orange and red, fish in blue and green, fish and bubbles and plants populating my manila aquarium. Drawing was like meditation then, and as the classroom receded my thoughts swam toward after-school activities. The previous day Dad made my brother Eric and me stilts. Once we learned to balance on them we could see eye to eye with grown-ups, and I couldn’t wait to get home and become the six-foot me. When I came back to myself I was looking at a paper filled with fish on stilts, which looked like fish with long stick person legs. It was incredible, the greatest thing I’d ever created, and as I put some final touches on my masterpiece I felt the black polyester presence behind me. “What is that?”
“My fish.”
“Fish. Don’t. Have. Feet.” Initially I couldn’t understand how she could mistake stilts for legs then after explaining I couldn’t understand why she was upset. “Gregory, you need to learn how to follow directions.” I kept trying to make her understand that I did follow directions, and she never said anything about . . . “I’m not going to argue with you. No one asked you to draw fish on stilts, and you need to learn to listen and not just do anything you feel like doing because it popped into your head.”
She couldn’t see how beautiful those fish were. That was the moment I finally realized what I needed to do at school. And while I was probably never going to be a Matisse or Picasso, or a Terry Gilliam or Dave McKean, that realization of what school was going to be crushed the creative me. On that day I stopped thinking about what was interesting or creative and started trying to guess what my teachers wanted and expected. The unanticipated was bad. It’s not that Mrs. Lyons couldn’t see things from my perspective, but she knew what she wanted to teach and was unwilling to adjust, so I had to.
That day stapled to my picture of fish on stilts a note went home about my stubbornness and what I needed to learn. But I’d already learned it. It’s not that creativity was killed that day, or that I stopped thinking differently, but the creative me did go into hiding and stayed there for the next fifteen years. Were there teachers that would have appreciated how I saw things? There must’ve been, but I was too exhausted by most of my education to make the attempt. Eventually when the creative me was finally needed it was slow to emerge, stunted and tentative, but thankful to finally be free.

Fish on Stilts: Kindergarten creativity curtailed.

by Greg Andree


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