Joey's Pumpkin

By Debra LoGuercio

©Copyright 1999, Debra Lo Guercio, all rights reserved

     Last week we talked about the conversation that might occur if our right brain was given a voice for a change. Our right brain thinks in pictures and sends its observations to the left half for translation into words. The left half then filters out the embarrassing, tactless thoughts before they escape from our mouths. We hope.

      My personal theory is that our right brain starts out as the dominant force and our left brain takes over as we grow. Our left brain learns to censor the right brain by soaking up comments from other people: A child blurts out a purely right brain observation like, “That lady is really fat!'' and our horrified mothers say, “That's not nice! You mustn't say things like that!''

      We get out our crayons and draw a beautiful green horse, and our kindergarten teacher leans over our shoulder and says, ``Horses aren't green.'' We crumple up the paper and start over.

      No wonder it's so tough being a kid. We call a fat lady fat and get chastised for observing life in its raw reality. We try the other route and draw the horse not as it is, but the way we'd like to see it, and we get chastised for that, too.

      Our right brain is so confused at this point that it gives up and lets the left brain take charge. It's a wonder we don't all end up on Prozac.

      I saw a little right-brain thinker get a left-brain lesson while I was taking photos in a first-grade classroom last year. It was just before Halloween, and the children were painting jack-o'-lantern faces on pumpkins. The teacher gave clear directions: paint a face on one side of the pumpkin and do not paint the stem.

      There was one little boy in the back of the room who painted a face on his pumpkin and then proceeded to paint more faces until he had worked all the way around the pumpkin. He used every color in the paint box and circled the pumpkin with scary little scowls.

      He studied his artwork, then promptly painted the stem bright purple, with big purple dribbles rolling down the sides. It was a magnificent creation, the kind that a parent gingerly accepts from her beaming child and says ``It's beautiful, sweetheart!'' and bites her tongue before her right-brain blurts out, ``What is it?''

      The little boy stepped back to admire his masterpiece and smiled widely with satisfaction.

      Right about then, the teacher walked up.

      Her eyebrows knitted together, and in that special resonating tone of disapproval reserved only for teachers, said, “Joey, you didn't follow directions. Your art time is over. Go wash your hands and sit at your desk.''

      The little boy's smile melted, and with a hanging head, he walked over to the sink. Another budding right-brain artist pinched from the vine by a conventional left-brain thinker. He'll probably grow up to be an accountant.

      I had an overwhelming urge to grab the teacher by the ears and give her not just two cents but about a dollar's worth of my opinion on her teaching abilities.

      I wanted her to consider that some children may have a hard time finding one side of a round object. If she didn't grasp this, I'd put her in a round room and tell her to sit in the corner, and when she failed to do so, I'd scold her for not following directions.

      Maybe Joey wasn't thinking “front side, back side.'' Maybe he was thinking “inside, outside.'' In which case, he most certainly did follow directions.

      I wanted to shake her for squelching a child's creativity. So what if he painted the stem? Maybe in his artistic opinion, the stem needed to be painted. Is a little purple paint the end of the world?

      Maybe this little right brain thinker looks at life a little differently than the rest of us. He might be the next Salvador Dali. But not if his left brain speaks louder than his right. He'll remember what he learned in first grade: “Do it like everyone else.''

      I wanted to leap onto a chair and recite Thoreau's “Different Drum'' poem at the top of my lungs. But I chickened out. My right brain was envisioning the men in white jackets escorting me to my own private padded room. And my left brain listened. I packed up my camera and left.

      Thinking about Joey and his pumpkin always makes me a little sad and discouraged about how the world treats creative, right-brain thinkers. But there's one thing that bothers me more than thinking about one little kid who marched to a different drum: it's thinking about the rest of the children in the classroom who didn't.