When I was a kid the world was obsessed with Tatum O’Neal, Bobby Fischer, Brooke Shields, Donny Osmond, Linda Blair and Michael Jackson- They were super young, crazy gifted… though, as they grew, some of them turned out to also be super crazy. I didn’t have any innate gifts other than a hefty imagination. I could draw, but that wasn’t going to land me on the cover of Tiger Beat or People. All I wanted to be, rather immediately, was a prodigy. I just had to find out what my prodigal talent was.
Profoundly jealous of Lena Zavaroni, the ten-year old Scottish singing sensation who enraptured my grandparents, Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson, I tried to sing brilliantly without knowing keys, notes or tune. I thought I could just burst into tap dance like Gregory Hines, from pure gut instinct. I couldn’t. Then I decided it might be poetry. I sat by candlelight, with pencil and paper and not a word or feeling to express.
Same with: golf, violin, flute, trumpet, knitting, scrimshaw and sewing. Everything I attempted was just that, an attempt – and in the attempt all I saw was failure, humility and years wasted spent learning and growing- which didn’t fit in with my prodigy fantasy. Lena Zavaroni’s belt and growl and sizzling pipes was inborn- she was TEN and singing better than Ethel Merman at 50. So, I tried glee club, debate, acting and clothing design- all of which took too much actual work/humility/practice.
This was the 1970s, eons before the era of helicopter parents, so we were not only not overscheduled, we were left to our own childhood devices a lot. Maybe it was the excessive free time which led me to lazily stoke the flames of my imagination, which somehow convinced me that all I had to do was pick up a tennis racket and suddenly, accidentally be discovered as the next Tracy Austin. The only thing that was discovered during my single solitary tennis lesson, taught by our neighbor, Mr. Scarangelli, was how red his face would turn when he was frustrated by my lack of interest in actually trying to be anything other than a mere genius. When he told me to practice, I decided prodigies don’t practice so tennis must not be my jam. I resumed the search for my effortless genius. Of course I kept drawing and painting, but that wasn’t going to get me on Merv Griffin, or make us filthy rich.
Then, I sat at my Uncle Butch’s grand piano and improvised. After about 15 minutes of teasing the keys without mercy, I called my mother and poor Aunt Lynn in to witness my musings in no key whatsoever. I pretended to know what I was doing and they pretended to not be bored. I still shiver when recall the glazed look on my Aunt Lynn’s face as she wondered when my fingers might tire out. My mother finally pulled the plug on my piano prodigy fantasy when she interrupted what I hoped might be a moving climax and said, “Why don’t you go draw something? You already know how to do that.” No Glenn Gould or the crazy dude from Shine, I never touched a piano again, except to move one.
By the time I was twelve I was worried I was running out of time to find my prodigal gift. My mom scraped together the cash for art lessons. Since I attended an all-girls Catholic school, art was taught by a genteel, tiny nun, with translucent sunless Dutch skin, like a glow in the dark old lady peering out from the pitch black background of a Vermeer. The art studio was a long dark room with high ceilings, lit solely and fully from an always closed eight-foot window, edged with stained glass, sealing in the head-rushy perfume of linseed and old, sometimes rancid oil paints.
Our tiny art nun, with paint stained thumbs and smudges of umber or teal dotting her black robes, smelling of turpentine, gave us the choice of painting china or canvasses. Painting china did not carry the pizzazz of being Kristy McNichol, so I opted for canvas. She directed us to pick out our paint subjects from an old box of abandoned greeting cards or a moldering stack of magazines. Unimpressed with the idea of painting a basketful of puppies, I chose loftier subjects, like other people’s paintings to copy. And I was decent. I had a sense of composition, color, I could sketch and copy and as a young OCD Virgo, I thoroughly enjoyed cleaning my brushes until they abandoned all traces of vermillion. The other students ranged from uninterested to incompetent to one girl, who joylessly and artlessly painted an entire wedding china set as if she were shackled to a radiator in a Vietnamese sweat shop. What I didn’t have was daring, pluck or the confidence to paint what I wanted to paint… Or a teacher who encouraged that.
Secretly obsessed with the ancient layers of brilliantly splattered paint covering the deep shop sink, I had no idea that someone like Jackson Pollock existed much less was celebrated for making paintings that looked exactly like that. What I was good at was obeying. I found solace in following directions well. My prodigy dreams were ebbing as my art nun stringently guided me to make my work as precisely as good as someone else’s artwork.
At the end of the school year our nun threw an art show. Canvasses of puppy baskets and tremulously flowered china were displayed and carefully lit in our school’s lofty and forbidding marble foyer. Cubes of cheese, Ritz crackers and sparking apple juice were served as parents peered at what their little girls crafted every Wednesday from precisely 2:45 to 3:45. My parents were deeply impressed with my paintings; our goofy golden retriever Percy, appeared almost noble in profile, on the beach, a winter cabin nestled in the white woods somewhere in New England, a boat on a choppy bay, in front of a sun bleached wharf. These paintings still crowd my mother’s walls, forty years later.
My dad even brought some of my canvases to work, where co-workers offered him money for them. But he refused. People asked me to paint pictures for them. But I refused. My parents chalked it up to me being thirteen and uncompliant, but I had an unpleasant secret and it wasn’t one they’d covered on One Day at A Time, starring Valerie Bertinelli- to whom I still harbored a bonfire of burning prodigy-jealousy, buried deep in my heart.
What I didn’t tell my parents or anyone was that one day I showed up to art class early and found the art nun repainting another girl’s canvas. Snagged, the old art nun jumped up from her seat as if electrocuted, and shambled out an excuse about cleaning up drippy bits. But I knew what she did. She was fixing up the paintings that were just miserable, melty collections of dried pigment. And since I wasn’t sure if she had been fixing mine, I instantly doubted what nominal talents I might have had. Frankly, the excited parental enthusiasm at the art show took what remaining wind was left in my sails. Everyone was gushing but I was stunned that no one noticed that all of the canvasses looked like they had been painted by the same person- because they were.
I went on to be the ‘best artist’ of my class, the go-to artist for yearbook design and notebook-decorator of choice. I even was accepted to an esteemed art college, Rhode Island School of Design, but I left after two unimpressive years flailing amid the other best artists of their high schools. I never truly believed that I belonged there. I even convinced myself I had received someone else’s acceptance form. I don’t blame my Catholic education for sheltering me from every known artist save Norman Rockwell and Catholic art. I blame my art nun for not permitting her students to suck.
Now that I’m the mom of a three year old, I casually throw lots of stuff her way- she has easels for drawing, a driveway to chalk up, soccer on Sundays and swimming on Saturdays, gymnastics and yoga we play-practice at home. Secretly wonder if she will be a T-ball prodigy or the next Misty Copeland but I endeavor to keep that urge to myself. I praise her artwork and dutifully wallpaper the fridge with everything she shoves at me.
I know most parents can’t bear for their children to fall, struggle or fail. I know mothers who’ve received notes from teachers begging them to stop doing their children’s homework. Hell, as a personal assistant, I’ve been offered plenty of money to complete homework and art projects for kids. Especially nowadays, where if a child isn’t an award winning filmmaker or poet or painter or dancer by the time they are 12, their parents think they are doomed to spending the rest of their lives working at Staples. There’s no harm in letting them be bad until they learn. There’s a lot of harm in not letting them be bad at all- and maybe never good at some things. My sister let one of her daughters sing because her daughter wanted to sing. When the daughter saw a video of herself singing she realized it was not her special talent. But my sister (as hard as it was) let her daughter suck at it until her daughter came to the conclusion she didn’t want to do it anymore.
And as we enter the morass of the Los Angeles preschool system, I gird myself. I meet preschool teachers and watch children unfold like little flowers with lunchboxes full of seaweed snacks. And I pray that my daughter’s future teachers have enough confidence, skill and education to allow my daughter to just be bad until she’s not. I trust and entrust that Grace’s educators (and her father and I) will allow her to be not being good at stuff until she develops the skills, strengthens her muscles on her own, practices her heart out and simply, truly learns how much she has to learn.