Portrait of the Artist as a Kindergartner

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illustration by Matt Mignanelli

Our class sings along as Miss O’Hara plays the piano.

You’ll look sweet
Upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two.

Miss O’Hara spins around on the bench to face the class of kindergartners seated at her feet. No more than 25 years old, she is pretty and sweet, and as she walks by it’s like the scent of flowers through an open window. I gaze up at her, picturing the two of us on a bicycle built for two.

As she begins to lead us through the alphabet, there’s a knock at the door. I can see the flat-topped haircut and horn-rimmed glasses of Mr. Fisher, the first-grade teacher from next door. Miss O’Hara steps into the hall and the two of them speak in hushed tones until Mr. Fisher erupts in a maniacal laugh. Miss O’Hara gives him a playful shove before returning to the front of the class.

Her face slightly flushed, Miss O’Hara sits down and crosses her legs. She begins reciting the alphabet again. As he does almost every day, Franky Fox crawls up close. By the time we reach the middle of the alphabet, he’s grabbed hold of Miss O’Hara’s leg. She’s too nice to shake him off, so she smiles and continues. When we’ve reached “x, y, z,” Franky is contentedly sucking his thumb, still latched to her leg. While I am embarrassed for Franky and his babylike behavior, I must admit I’m a little jealous.

My hand shoots up. “I know all the words to the Minnesota Twins song,” I proudly announce. And before Miss O’Hara can say anything, I launch into a heartfelt rendition of my hometown baseball team’s jingle:

We’re gonna win, Twins,
We’re gonna score.
We’re gonna win, Twins,
Watch that baseball soar!

My classmates stare at me as if I’ve lost my mind.

“That . . . that was very nice, Billy,” Miss O’Hara says. She quickly returns to the subject of the alphabet. I know I’ve blown it. I sit down, embarrassed but still determined. I want to impress Miss O’Hara. I want her attention too.

It’s spring now, and the assignment for the day is to draw a picture that has to do with Easter. Everyone else is drawing your standard bunny or Easter eggs. But I come from a devout Catholic family; I will let my public school classmates and teacher know the true meaning of Easter. While the other kids are drawing dopey pictures, I will draw Jesus on the cross.

Like Michelangelo, I will create a great work of art–one that will move Miss O’Hara. And so, with my box of Crayola crayons, with its sharpener in the back, I begin work. As a serious artist, I know it is my job to reveal the truth in all its pain and glory. I can’t find the red crayon, but with the red-orange I draw blood oozing and squirting from Jesus’ hands and feet. On his face I draw a frown, a very large frown, to show the pain he endures for our sins.

The drawing nearly gives me goose bumps. But something is missing. Then it occurs to me. Having observed my father doing his calisthenics, with his arms raised above his head, I realize the vital piece of verisimilitude that is needed. I search the stadium-like rows of crayons and locate the brown. I begin to apply hair to the underarms of our Lord. Now, at this point in my life, I don’t understand the concept that sometimes, in art as in life, less is more. I still firmly believe that more is better. And way more is way better.

Thinking this detail will impress Miss O’Hara, I keep applying brown crayon. What was a shadow becomes a patch, and the patch grows into a bush, and, finally, there is a virtual beard descending from each armpit. Wow. Maybe I got carried away a little, but this is good stuff. I walk to the front of the class and proudly present Miss O’Hara with my waxy masterpiece. As she turns the piece over, she is effusive in her praise.

“Oh, Billy, that’s wonderf–“

Her comment is cut short as she absorbs the details of my creation.

Her eyes grow big and she bites her lip. She takes a deep breath. “Do you mind if we show this to someone?”

“Sure!” I say, fully expecting to receive an award for outstanding artistic achievement by a kindergartner with a crayon. As my classmates look on, I follow Miss O’Hara out into the hall and to the classroom next door. A tap on the open door instantly produces the eager, flat-topped Mr. Fisher.

“Well, hello!” he says, his eyes glued on Miss O’Hara.

“We have something we’d like you to see,” she says. “Billy, show Mr. Fisher your picture.” I hand it to him and patiently point out the details for his edification. “This is Jesus, and that is a cross, and . . .”

Mr. Fisher cuts me off, pointing at the armpit feature, and says, “Wow! Looks like Jesus needs a haircut!” He laughs like a hyena and looks to Miss O’Hara for approval. Miss O’Hara is not laughing.

She comes down to my level and says, “No, Billy, it’s good. Really good!” I’m not sure I believe what she’s saying. But as she takes me by the hand and leads me back down the hall to our classroom, I’m quite certain it really doesn’t matter.

William C. White is the author of All Seriousness Aside: Stories from the Back Page, available this spring from Mill City Press. Reprinted from Law & Politics (Aug.-Sept. 2007), an eclectic magazine that covers public policy with a wicked sense of humor. Subscriptions: $19.95/yr. (6 issues) from 220 S. Sixth St., Suite 500, Minneapolis, MN 55402; www.lawandpolitics.com.

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