You won't usually find Goth Girl sitting in the cafeteria with the others. She's a bit Emo. She feels and thinks deeply. Her mind wanders. Sometimes she sits in the hallway during lunch with her handful of misfit friends and talks about art and music, tattoos and guys. Other times she goes to the art room and creates a world where she's understood, where cliques don't matter, and mind games don't exist. She definitely doesn't fit into one of the many socially acceptable boxes that society and the educational system has imposed upon students for years.
If we all think back to high school there was always that small group of students that didn't quite fit in. They were social misfits, weirdos, a motley bunch that challenged authority and anything normal, or at least frustrated the well meaning adults who were genuinely concerned about their futures. These kids usually didn't do well in a typical learning environment. If they weren't disrupting the classroom, they were dreaming of being somewhere else, doing something else, and learning about things that mattered to them.
I empathize with these kids because I was one of them. Art was my escape, my magic kingdom, my knight in shining armor. Art was what helped me cope with jr. high and high school, and was a place where I could quietly stand out in a way that was authentic to who I was as a human being. Inside the art room, I could escape and make the world the way I wanted it to be on paper. Outside the classroom I was an awkward, shy, bully target. Insults were hurled in my direction by kids that I had once considered friends. They called me cunt, bitch, and sang Like a Virgin by Madonna. Being a virgin, in the opinion of children-turned-drug-dealers was a high crime. I later stood out in other, more overt ways so I could fit in with those who tormented me. I got drunk before school on one occasion, sat in school suspension, tried marijuana on the lawn of a public neighborhood park, and consorted with various unsavory people that did nothing to help my reputation. Then, half way through my eighth grade year, I was no longer a virgin. I'm not sure what would have happened to me in life if I didn't have my skills as an artist, but I do know one thing. They were a life line and an anchor to my own humanity. Art made me see the world from a different perspective.
Fast forward 22 years. I first became personally convinced of the power of art as a tool for children to express unspoken feelings when I was part of a launch team for the art program at my son's elementary school. On two occasions, it alerted adults to student loneliness and potential violence. Before we began the program, art wasn't usually taught on a regular basis in classrooms. Even after the Art Docent program launched docents taught art just once a month. During the first year of the program, fourth graders were taught about how Frida Kahlo painted self-portraits that illustrated her physical pain and life struggles. Students then drew themselves and created a background illustrating who they were as individuals. One day while taking a peek at the fourth grade masterpieces displayed outside the classrooms, I noticed a self portrait of a little girl wearing a shirt that said "Lonely Me." On another, darker occasion, one fifth grade boy's violent art was an early warning signal. If anyone had really analyzed his work, they may have been paying more attention to him the day he attempted to choke another student in class.
Painting for me is an unspoken communication method and a source of introspection. It has created joy, curiosity and amazement in those who view it. It's even made people cry. That's a good thing. It also helps people feel connected when they have a chance to share their thoughts and opinions on a painting or sculpture. It's communicative when words won't do and it's why we need to keep the visual arts available to children in school from a very young age. Expose them to the beauty and wide range of emotions that words can't reach but pictures can express with their mere presence in our lives. Ask children to talk about what they think, and form stories about what they see when looking at and creating their own art. Drawing, painting, and sculpting can even save a child from seeking other negative outlets as a way to express themselves, especially if they are taught art as a personal tool. Art speaks volumes. Sometimes it shouts. For those who believe we need to change the way schools see the visual arts, speak up. Donate to your school district in support of the arts. Become an Art Docent. You don't need to have a degree. Show up and learn along with the kids. Society will thank you for it.