We were on our daily walk to school this morning. He was quiet. Noticeably so. He almost forgot his backpack, he was so distracted. About halfway down our driveway, I asked him, “You’re quiet, you alright?”
“No.” He said.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Art. I don’t want to do it. We have a stupid assignment using stupid scratch paper.”
“What’s the assignment?” I asked.
“Abstract art. We have to make something out of nothing. I hate abstract art. I hate scratch paper. It’s all so stupid.”
I suggested that he draw a dog. He loves our dogs.
“No. I stink at drawing dogs.” He said, his voice becoming more pressed and uneven by the syllable; each step we took got us closer to his school. His breathing was shallow. He was in the art room, with the scratch paper, his heart speeding up, his face beginning to pinch in places so it wouldn’t betray his feelings of failure.
Failure before he even began.
Failure before we were even in the school.
Failure before he even considered it.
I could feel my own body tense up. My walls were going up. My brain started down its familiar path of “Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. Can’t do this. Can’t do this. He’s going to get emotional. He’s going to get emotional. Must stop him from crying… I CAN’T HANDLE HIS DISTRESS….” I started to fail him.
I began to fail him before I even spoke.
I began to fail him before I even got in touch with my own feelings of failure and the fear of disappointment.
I began to fail him because I couldn’t face myself and those sticky places in the heart where we feel absolutely worthless.
I said, “Nooooo, you’re GREAT at drawing dogs… why that cat you drew from those books you love… that turned out GREAT! You can DRAW a DOG….”
But before I even finished … I knew that was wrong. I was dismissing his pain. I was failing, even though I had heard him, I was still failing him.
I realized, I had to go back to my first days on the couch. I had to mirror him. Quick, I had to do something that told him I heard him, that I felt what he was going through, that it was OK, and that he was safe. That’s all we need, to feel safe expressing ourselves.
I had to access my pilot light. Somehow, I remembered my pilot light.
I told him to take a breath and I could feel my own body do the same.
“Let it out slow this time… Can you breathe in 3-2-1…?” I suggested as we continued our walk. “Let it out 4-3-2-1…” My body relaxing as I unconsciously (mostly) joined along. I needed to come down from the wall I was building.
We were almost at school. Quietly talking and quietly breathing together.
As we crested the hill, where all the student patrols gathered, and the sun was shining, no longer obscured by the leafless tall trees surrounding our path, I realized: He doesn’t want to fail this assignment. He doesn’t want to disappoint me. He wants to please his teacher, me, his father… his bubble of society.
I stopped us in our walk and I put my hands on his shoulders, gently pulling down to help him unfurl himself.
“Look at me.” I told him.
“Ok.” He sniffled.
“You’re feeling pressure right now. You’re feeling like you have to get this right. Perfect even. Abstract art is not at ALL about perfection. It’s about your perception: how YOU see things in a different way…. There is no RIGHT or WRONG.” I said.
“Mmmmk, but our teacher says we can’t…” He started, and his voice began to tremble again. Fast and shallow breaths fighting their way out his mouth.
I had to think of something else. Another tack. Pilot light… Deep breath. Feel him.
“Ok. I want you to understand something. I don’t care what your final art looks like. I don’t care if your teacher says you’ve failed it or not. I don’t care. You’re twelve. You have a whole life ahead of you. I want you to NOT CARE about this assignment and to JUST get something down. Just start it, and you will be on your way. Can you do that? Can you NOT care about it? I love you no matter what…” I said, defiant. I wanted to protect him.
“Ok. So you think I can just use shapes to make my drawing? That it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t LOOK like what it’s supposed to?” He asked.
“Yes. Remember when we studied Jackson Pollack… That dude DID NOT CARE about ANYONE’S opinion, and people loved it. He was fierce in his art. Be like that. Own your art. Who cares what anyone else thinks?” I said.
“Ok.” He said, standing taller and his eyes a little brighter.
“High five. Fist bump. Be bad.” I said.
I almost blew it. I almost sent him to school with this knot in his belly and a sense of woe and failure before the day began. I almost checked out. It was a balance. I had to check in. I had to hear him, all of him, to help him. In the end he helped me.
We do this all the time, forgetting to check in and remember what it feels like to feel small, worthless, fearful, and so alone. If you’re a parent, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re not a parent, try to remember those feelings and honor them: checking in is the way out.