Saturday Snippet: Early artistic tribulations

Former doctor Donald Stewart studied all the way to graduation as an M.D., then fled the medical field to become an artist.  He wrote about his journey in an amusing and interesting account titled “Past Medical History“.

I’ve chosen an early chapter from the book, wherein the author describes early, faltering attempts at art in elementary school.  I can only sympathize with all concerned, particularly his straight-laced teacher!

First Grade, First Day

Following Mrs. Brown’s instructions, we reached into our school bags and got out our new Big Chief blue-lined manila paper tablets, along with our giant first grade pencils – the fat ones intended to fit snugly into clumsy first grade fists – each fitted with a bubble-gum pink eraser the size of a gumdrop, anticipating an abundance of first grade mistakes. These we placed in front of us, the pencils laid to rest in smooth grooves cut neatly into the tops of our desks. We would need them later, Mrs. Brown said. For now, we would use our colors, big cigar-sized crayons in the standard eight-pack of primary and secondary hues, plus brown and black. Take out the red one, and do as I do.

Open your tablets, she said, her taught straight back turned to us, her hand raised to the blackboard, her voice as crisp as her starched plaid cotton dress. We were going to learn to write today. We were going to learn to pay attention. I did so, or tried to, distracted as I was by the stunning display unfolding before me.

Mrs. Brown was writing in red. And she wasn’t writing words, either. I knew that much right away. She was drawing a picture. In colored chalk!

Crayons I understood. Chalk, too. We’d seen it in kindergarten, and at home in the sewing room. Sometimes Grandma let us use it to make hop-scotch squares on the sidewalk. Chalk was white, sometimes light yellow in grown-up grades, but never in colors so rich and vivid. And now Mrs. Brown was writing, drawing a long red box in the center of the board, bleeding deep, shiny lines as bold and tangy as strawberry Kool-Aid.

Do as I do, she said again, and I did, mimicking her bright chalk shapes on my page with pale, waxy imitations in red Crayola. Mrs. Brown was drawing a wagon! Red rectangle. Black circles for wheels. Brown shaft. Green handle.  I was drawing a wagon, too. My picture looked like hers. 

Mrs. Brown wrote a large red S at the top of my paper. Satisfactory, she said. That meant Good, she said. It didn’t look as good to me, though, not any more, now that she had written right on the front of my nice drawing. I looked back up at the board. Nobody put a big S on her picture. Now they didn’t look the same at all.

Lisa, the girl who sat in the space next to me, had drawn a glorious picture, far better in my estimation than my own. Hers was a dark black rectangle filled with circles and triangles and spirals of yellow and green, with a zig-zag red fringe border, blue-purple wheels and a bright orange handle. Lisa was very pleased with her work. Her wagon was different from everyone else’s. It was very different from the one in the middle of the blackboard.

Mrs. Brown did not think it was Good. She marked Lisa’s paper with a broad, cursive U, looping like a deep red cut across the middle of Lisa’s wagon. Unsatisfactory, Mrs. Brown said, making a big frown. Lisa explained that her picture was prettier than the plain red wagon on the chalkboard. Mrs. Brown said that Lisa would have to learn to follow directions. That’s what first grade is for.

Lisa took her paper back to her desk, buried her face in her arms, and cried for the rest of the school day. She earned many more U’s that year.

I liked Lisa. I liked her very much.

Organ Donor

My second grade teacher was an educator’s educator, veteran of more than twenty years’ experience maintaining order in front of an elementary school blackboard. Mrs. White’s signature maxim was “buckle down and work”, a nonsensical directive that inexplicably involved the association of a fashion accessory, a gravitational direction, and an undefined activity. I knew from the first day I was in big trouble.

I wasn’t the only one. Mrs. White had no idea how much of a professional challenge she was in for. For years she had lobbied the principal to be assigned an “accelerated” class, believing that this was the next logical step in an already noteworthy pedagogical career. That year she got her wish.

Finding no buckles in Mrs. White’s classroom, I resigned myself to the drill of daily activities as a monotonous continuation of first grade, with an added sense of disappointment, a feeling I had somehow been lied to, just a little bit. Second grade was as boring as the previous year had been, and just as hot. The long, un-air-conditioned Texas summers lasted well into November, and the clanking classroom radiators that were always turned up too high through the gray winter season kept us sweaty and miserable year round. Fashionable velour pullovers (the first mass-market spin-off from the new Star Trek TV show) and itchy knit dickies that Stepmother tucked into the front of my button-down shirts made things even worse.

As the semester wore on, we grew tired of replicating lower case letters in endless rows of circles and lines, and adding up pictures of pennies, nickels and dimes on the pages of our math workbooks. In reading group, we argued convincingly that all cats, even kittens, say “Meow”, and everybody knows it, and therefore the new word “mew” that appeared in our readers was simply mistaken. We howled with laughter when the word ‘b-u-t’ was added to our vocabulary, and no, we could not be bothered to get back up into our chairs and face forward and stop giggling, even when threatened with a whipping.

We longed for the day when we would be allowed to read real chapter books, and write in cursive like grownups, and why couldn’t we just dispense with all of this humdrum stuff and start today? Why couldn’t we all sing, or act out a play, or draw pictures, or build a boat?

Mrs. White responded with Divide and Conquer tactics: Seating arrangements were shifted daily, and any unauthorized camaraderie was instantly rewarded with a trip to the Principal’s office, or the promise of after-school detention. One empty student desk was moved to the front, next to the teacher, so she could keep a jaundiced, watchful eye on whomever became the Offender of the Day. In a grand show of public humiliation, one student or other would be singled out and force-marched to the front of the class, where he (it was almost always a he) would sit in shame and dishonor, or at least far enough away from the other students to minimize class disruptions.

I spent much of the second grade sitting beside Mrs. White in this manner, picking at the archaeological specimens of chewing gum that had fossilized on the underside of the desk, and peeling perfect sets of fingerprints from hands dipped in shallow pools of Elmer’s glue spilled into the desktop pencil groove. Why waste time reading here? We had books at home.

Our home library included a healthy collection of Dr. Seuss and Golden Books, a couple of dictionaries, Dad’s student annuals from high school, junior college and university, and a handful of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books for grownups. (We had yet to acquire our shining new edition of the 1967 World Book Encyclopedia.) This motley collection also included a small but instructive Guide to Home Health, complete with chapters on basic human anatomy and organ systems. This was a foreign book, brought into our home by Stepmother, herself a professional educator. Each chapter was illustrated with a classic pen and ink rendering of the organ in question, a detailed cross section of The Heart, The Lung, The Kidney, etc.

I loved ‘reading’ the Guide to Home Health, flipping through the pages and counting the growing number of two- and three-letter words that I actually knew: on, it, the. But. Of course I had not developed enough as a reader to interpret any of the text. I had barely learned to hold the letters of the alphabet together in my mind, or comprehend a sentence of four words. But these illustrations captured my attention day after day, for all the afternoon and evening hours that I was supposed to be studying arithmetic. I was enthralled by the lines, and the science they represented.

Here were the secrets of the human body revealed in pictures, diagrams of what people looked like underneath their skins, what you could see if x-ray vision glasses really worked. I studied them endlessly, running my tiny, seven-year-old fingers along each line again and again, as if to Braille the information into my brain. After a while I tried to draw the pictures myself, using a fat elementary school pencil to recreate the illustrator’s perfect curves and hatchings on scraps of Big Chief newsprint, or expensive sheets of typing paper borrowed from the box in Dad’s desk drawer.

These initial graphic experiments ended quickly in failure. The lines were much too thick, the curves were wrong, and soon everything turned into a muddy grey mess.

After some puzzling over the problem, I decided that a project of this magnitude required superior materials, and forbidden techniques. Yes, I would attempt to trace these pictures. (Everyone knew tracing was cheating, but it was the only way I could possibly reproduce these splendid images, and study them at my leisure.) To do so, I would need skinny, grown-up pencils, and special see-through paper. These, too, I pilfered from Dad’s desk, hoping the loss would not be noticed. It had been a long time since Dad or Stepmother had typed anything. I counted on that trend continuing. At least I had my very own pencil sharpener, with openings for fat and skinny pencils. If I took extra care not to break the points, I could keep my materials in working order for a long time without asking for help.

The Heart. The Kidney. The Knee Joint. The Eye. I dutifully traced each of these, line by line, onto carefully scissored half-sheets of onionskin – complete with a curious starburst of narrow, straight lines leading outward in all directions from the organs in question, each ending in a horizontal rule with a big, grown-up word perched above it. These words were beyond my comprehension. I left them off of the pictures.

Not wanting to get caught with expensive pieces of purloined typewriter paper in my possession, I tucked each of the drawings into the inside pocket of my faded blue, cloth-covered snap ring binder, and smuggled them into my desk at school.

Where Mrs. White discovered them. “Donald, did you do these? Did you draw these pictures?” Mrs. White looked very serious, as she glanced from my eyes to the papers, and back again. I was caught. I might as well admit it, and assume my usual position in the desk at the front of the room.

“Yes, Ma’am,” I answered sheepishly.

“My Goodness!” she said. “How long have you been drawing pictures like this?”

I didn’t want to say for sure, thinking that if I told her how long I had truly been at it, my punishment would be compounded. An offense of this magnitude might even earn me a trip to the Principal’s office. I resigned myself to the inevitable. “I dunno… A little while, I guess.” Take me away.

“Why, they are magnificent!” She exclaimed.  “I had no idea you could draw so well!”

Rather than take my pictures and throw them into the trash as I expected, she climbed up on the step stool and thumbtacked them, one by one, onto the long cork border above the blackboard, where everyone could see. She even called the class to attention, to show them all what excellent and unexpected work I had done.

Some time after, Dad and Stepmother came home from an evening Parent-Teacher conference, amazed that for once they had received a positive report about me. They could not have been more surprised than I was. They weren’t even going to punish me for stealing their expensive onionskin paper.

For a while I was really happy, delighted that something I enjoyed doing this much was actually earning me some positive attention. It still felt a little creepy, though. My usual behavior seldom ended in accolades, and experience had taught me that bad news was waiting for me somewhere, around every corner.

No telling how far away that corner might be, though, so I decided to keep up the good work. I got out my pencil and tracing paper, and started in again. The Lung. The Hand. I was busily tracing the metacarpals, holding my tongue steady to keep the lines from overlapping when Stepmother looked in on me.

“What’s that you’re doing now? Oh, for heaven’s sake – Are you marking in that book!?”

“No,” I replied.  “I’m drawing.”

“No, you are not! I can see from here. You are writing directly on those pages!”

“No!  I’m…” Frustrated, I moved aside to show her that I was in fact drawing on the onionskin, not the book page itself.

“Oh. I see now…  So you’ve been tracing these pictures all along?”

(Of course I’ve been tracing them! I’m in the second grade, for God’s sake. I’ve never had an art lesson in my life. Who do you think I am, Michaelangelo? Jr.?)

“Y…yes.” This was it.

“So, you lied to us,” she hissed, squinting her eyes menacingly, sighting down the length of her index finger, pointed straight at my nose. “And to your teacher, who was so proud of you. And to all the other children, too!”

She paused for a moment, while I crumpled inside.

“You should be ashamed of yourself, shouldn’t you? Why, you made everyone think that you actually drew these pictures yourself! And on your father’s good typing paper, too. Wait ’til he hears about this!”

She hurried from the room, leaving me to wait for a repeat performance when Dad arrived. I figured that if I had to wait for the worst, I might as well keep drawing. An hour or more passed, time to finish The Hand, and start on The Bladder, with its confusing collection of attendant structures. Linear spokes extending from this illustration were labeled with the usual array of complex terms: Urethra. Scrotum. Penis. Testicle. None of these words meant anything to me, even if I had been capable of reading them.

By bedtime I had yet to hear from my father. I brushed my teeth and tucked myself in, avoiding the potential wrath of good-night hugs.

* * *

The next day I presented my latest efforts to Mrs. White, so she could post them along with the others above the blackboard. She was greatly impressed by The Hand and The Lung, but when she got to The Bladder, her expression changed completely.

“Does your mother know you are drawing these things?”

“Sure she does. You talked to her about it during your Parent/Teacher meeting. She saw me drawing those in my room last night.” Well, she did.

That day Stepmother made an unexpected visit to our classroom.  She did not come to see me. Mrs. White disappeared with her into the Teacher Conference Room, where they spoke quietly among themselves. When Stepmother went home, she left quickly, and took my latest drawing with her.

The next day, the rest of my pictures were taken down from their place of honor over the blackboard, replaced with a decorative strip of colored, corrugated cardboard. I never saw them again.

Back home, my beloved Guide to Home Health was moved onto a high shelf in Stepmother’s closet. Any anatomical curiosity I had was met thereafter with cold imperatives to wait until high school, when I was told I would be old enough to ask such questions.

The experience convinced me of a number of Truths, one of which has lasted into my adulthood: Drawing is Hard. Tracing is Cheating. Artists Don’t Get Any Respect, and Forbidden Fruit Tastes the Best – even if you don’t know it at the time.

By the time I discovered the Anatomical Man illustrations in the World Book Encyclopedia, complete with full-color, see-through overlays, I knew how to read most of the words – and I knew to keep that information to myself.

I had to laugh at the thought of a Grade 2 teacher discovering such drawings not only in the possession of, but actually drawn by one of her students.  Precocious, much?



  1. I'm so happy I was in 1st and 2nd grades (in "Da Brn'x") immediately post-WWII. My teachers were young women, just out of their teens to whom each child was a veritable jewel. We were taught rules, but allowed, even encouraged to think (and do) outside the box, just as long as what we did, did not interfere with anyone else in any way. "Lisa" would have been made an example of: her drawing would have been posted on the front board for each child to come up and examine (not to copy) and think about about when drawing "a wagon." I didn't realize just how lucky we were at the time.

  2. Loved this. Like him, I started out tracing, but from National Geographics. Always drawing. In high school would skip lunch to draw my dissections in the biology lab, as we did not have textbooks to study from. With encouragement from my dad, I ended up pursuing a career in medical illustration – something that combined my love of art and biology. Segued into ED and trauma nursing, and now have come full circle back to art. Can't wait to read more of his book!😊

  3. "Mrs. Brown said that Lisa would have to learn to follow directions. That’s what first grade is for.

    Lisa took her paper back to her desk, buried her face in her arms, and cried for the rest of the school day. She earned many more U’s that year."

    The saddest thing I've read all day. And it's only noon!
    I hope Lisa grew up to reject that rejection.

    "That's what first grade is for." Revealing. And maybe not just first grade, either, if John Taylor Gatto's right.

    I just finished "Decline and Fall" by Evelyn Waugh, about a public-school (Brit public i.e. private and expensive) educated young man who goes to Oxford and is thrown out over a misunderstanding, and long story short ends up in prison: "public school is good preparation for prison". Gatto retroactively vindicated.

  4. I remember absolutely nothing of 1st Grade and regarding 2nd Grade, only the fact that I changed addresses and schools sometime during that school year. I do remember in 3rd Grade my teacher was a VERY old Mrs. Herman and the class laughed at me when I pronounced "island" exactly the way it is spelled — is-land — during a reading out loud session. Who knew?!

  5. I remember being tormented by a horrid little boy in second grade. He would go sharpen his pencil just so he could stab it into my spine, and then I'd get in trouble for making noise. The teacher would not move me away from him, because I was one of the 'good children', and she wanted me to set an example. Neither would she let me read at my desk after finishing my work, so I spent a lot of time trying in vain to sit still. That was also the year I played at being invisible during recess so successfully that once, I was left alone on the playground for an extra hour or more before anyone noticed I was gone.
    Thankfully, my mother pulled me out after that, and I spent a blissful year reading books about dinosaurs, horses, and Egyptian embalming methods (our home shelves were stocked . . . eclectically, and Mom let me wander the children's section of our library unsupervised) and avoiding math lessons at all costs.

  6. What few memories of childhood schools I retain is the notion that most all teachers I dealt with were not interested in having their students learn anything beyond a very rigidly defined list of "data". They wanted complete uniformity in all aspects of learning. Most of these types of teachers were female, then again, most K-12 grade teachers in the late 50's onward were female. Male teachers were rare, and much better instructors, no matter what the subject. Female teachers expected boys to behave exactly like the girls, which is incredibly stupid, but was uniformly the case.

    At some point I discovered the joy of reading, and that became my most employed means to learn. I did no homework, and ignored most of the classroom activities. Teachers quickly learned to ignore me, as I could make them look stupid if they tried to make me a target for my non-participation. I generally read the class textbook the first week of school, and then ignored it unless it was used for the in-class tests. I counted up 13 different schools attended, including all of high school in one school. We moved a lot. I quickly learned to hate school, as I was a square peg in a world that required round pegs to fit in.
    I must have been a memorable kid, as a few fellow students, even as young as 3rd grade, recognized me as an adult, long after those school years.

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