For all the self-proclaimed artists out there, heads up: Teaching art is a lot harder than creating art yourself. I’ve done visual art all my life, but nothing could have prepared me for the morning when I first walked into Mission: City.
Mission: City is the name of the community center in Brightmoor, a small town on the northwest side of Detroit. Since many Detroit public schools cut art from their curriculum, students from the University, myself included, lead children from various Detroit public schools in art and music activities after school hours. Visual art has always been my escape from reality; I’m happiest when paints and a blank canvas are sitting in front of me. Teaching art to others, especially those who aren’t fortunate enough to experience art on a regular basis, seemed immensely fulfilling.
Before my first trip, I subconsciously dreamed up a fantasy where the children were sitting square in their seats, huge smiles on their faces and focusing deeply on the art in front of them. I imagined a sweet little girl raising her hand in the air for help and a University student rushing over to help her. I maintained this fantasy when we reached Mission: City and as I set up the materials for the day’s stained glass art project. Then the children arrived, the floodgates opened and all hell broke loose.
Not long ago, my grandma told me about the locusts: a type of grasshopper-like insect, widely prevalent in Africa and Asia, that only appears in swarms of millions. People who have seen them say that the sky becomes brown and all sunlight is shut out while the locusts fly above. They come, wreak havoc and are gone. When the children walked into Mission: City, I knew they were going to be like a swarm of locusts. I looked at the excited smiles on their faces, watched their feet bounce up and down with impatience and my fantasy of a peaceful Saturday morning filled with art vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
When the children, about 25 of them, were crammed together in the small room, I started to explain the lesson plan for the morning. It didn’t work. One boy had started to repeatedly fall out of his chair to draw attention to himself, but he was dangerously close to the wall and University students were frantically trying to break his falls. The endearing girl in front of me had given in to temptation and was eating the neon purple oil pastel that had been sitting on the table. She looked up at me and flashed a smile, her lips completely purple but her smile never-ending. Helplessly, I just stared.
Ten minutes of damage control later, the other University students and I had succeeded in explaining the stained glass project. I jumped around from student to student, trying to help them brainstorm things to paint. I had overestimated their abilities — most of the children were perfectly content drawing one big heart on their paper and calling it a day. If I was lucky, they drew multiple small hearts instead of one for variety. Where was the rewarding teaching experience I had come for? I managed to urge some children to draw landscapes, but halfway through the lesson, I looked around the room and dozens of shakily drawn hearts stared back at me.
Somewhere along the line, my role had become less of teaching and more of disaster prevention. The swarm of locusts was reigning in Mission: City, and I had to prioritize safety before teaching. For the entire two hour period, I hustled through the crowded room cleaning up messes, distributing paint and walking endless children to the bathroom. But honestly, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. At the end of the session, all of the children had produced some form of art. I wasn’t able to teach them anything new, but they probably wouldn’t have listened anyway. Disregarding the rules, they had created what made them happy. An older girl of about 10 came up to me at the end of the session and showed me her painting: A large heart in which she had written the names of all the people she loved. It filled me with joy to see the girl draw something she cared about and be proud enough of her creation to share it with me.
Most of the subsequent trips were filled with this same kind of chaos, but they were also filled with similar moments of happiness. Maybe this defiance of the rules made the children more satisfied with their artwork, or maybe they just didn’t feel like listening. Regardless, I found peace in the mayhem. Art can be an incredibly personal experience, and teaching isn’t always the best way to produce a love for the arts in others. In the calm after the storm, I knew I hadn’t taught much to the children, but I’d learned to let go and allow the children to find their own path in their artwork. Rules were rendered obsolete if they were creating something they truly loved.