Conformity used to be cool…

It has occurred to me I was a weird little kid

“Well, he was never much good at art anyways…”

I was an early reader, most likely a ruse to get attention in the swirling puppy pile known as my family of origin. As the 12th of 14 children, I came along at a time when my older siblings were headed for college and my nearest competition was edging ahead in the noticeability race using their skills ranging from being adorable (my baby brother) and reliable (his next oldest brother) to highly expressive (my next oldest brother and his encyclopedic knowledge of show tunes.)

While family lore talks about my reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” in kindergarten, I spent my early days plowing through the contents of an overstuffed bookshelf that formed one wall of the third-floor bedroom I shared with the aforementioned little brothers. I remember obsessing over one book in third grade that told the story of a blacksmith’s apprentice in Pompeii who escaped the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. I was especially interested in the author’s descriptions of the blacksmithing arts and associated tools (I love a good “hammer and tongs” reference.)

While my reading kept me occupied and helped my ratings with my parents and older siblings (it was not unusual to be dragged out of wherever I was hiding to read aloud for their friends), it also made me a little odd compared to my classmates.

One afternoon, late in the second quarter of my third grade year (we’re talking roughly 1975 here, so picture a young me in bell bottoms and a spread-collar shirt) our teacher, Mrs. Lovelace, rolled out an art assignment. She called the class to attention and handed out a sheet with a simple line drawing on it.

It was basically a figure eight with an opening at the bottom. I suspect she’d scrawled it out with a ballpoint pen then mimeographed it herself.

In retrospect, I can picture her in the teacher’s lounge just an hour prior, draining the last drop from her cafeteria-issue milk carton, neatly folding it shut, then heaving a great sigh as she contemplated an afternoon with the little idiots known as the St. Vincent’s third grade class.

We weren’t bad kids. We just had a lot of energy. It was the 70s after all, so we were probably just sticking it to the man whichever way we knew how.

Her instructions were simple: take a moment to reflect on this shape, then use your crayons or colored pencils to express what you saw in your imagination. Collectively, my classmates and I dove in to the assignment, grateful for a little unstructured class time. After what felt like an hour, but was probably only 15 minutes, she collected our papers then shuffled them into a neat stack.

She then began to wedge them into the clips that ran along the top of the blackboard, creating a display for all to see, an art installation keyed to reflect the tortured inner workings of the nine-year-old American Catholic mind.

As she pinned them in place, one drafting after another was revealed to be a snowman.

In fact, 24 of 25 drawings was a snowman, some more elaborate than others.

It kind of pains me to remember that my contribution, #25, was a little different.

I remember Mrs. Lovelace getting to my drawing and being literally dumbfounded. Her years as a teacher and her good manners kept her from uttering the phrase “what the f#*%” but that language was clear in her eyes.

With her restraint no doubt worn thin by the steady diet of tomfoolery I fed my teachers, she made no effort to affirm my alternative interpretation with a “this is lovely, Andrew. Can you explain it.”

Instead, she knitted her brow at it, cocked her head at me and asked, “what exactly is this?”

I was puzzled by her question.

It was obviously a blacksmith’s tongs, holding a red hot coal, right?

In retrospect, I have to wonder if she thought that, perhaps I’d drawn a contraption designed to pick up dog shit (after all, those heatwaves emanating from the red object could easily be interpreted as aromatic). Or maybe it was something testicular in nature (even in 3rd grade, boys are keenly aware of both anatomical differences and potential threats to certain prized parts.)

After I explained my interpretation, I hoped to hear a “well, that was clever” or a “I never thought of that. Well done,” but, instead, got a “hmm..whatever” as she turned away and affixed it to the blackboard. (Clearly I was not her favorite student thanks to my litany of incessant questions, dozing during teaching and predilection for smart remarks at the most inopportune moments.)

I must confess I was a little deflated by her reaction, but it had become par for the course. Clearly my mix of age-inappropriate humor (I blame my eleven older siblings) and desire to be noticed by authority (a holdover from the maelstrom of my family of origin) had worn a hole in her veneer and that of several other teachers.

The following year, after a period of extended unemployment for my dad, we were told that it was time to move away from Akron, Ohio and head to our new home in Murraysville, Pennsylvania. So I marked my final day in fourth grade with a brief desk-packing session in an empty classroom before I started my final walk home from the St. Vincent’s campus (across the street from the gym where LeBron James eventually starred).

My teacher was quietly grading tests and I was returning school-owned textbooks to the shelf and debating the future of stubby pencils and the other flotsam that accumulates in a hinge-top desk, when a classmate returned from a teacher-requested errand to the third grade classroom.

After placing the object she’d retrieved on the teacher’s desk, she picked up the erasers from the chalkboard rail and headed for the door. Before exiting, she turned to me and said, “ Oh, by the way, I saw Mrs. Lovelace and I told her you were moving away.”

Hoping for that still-missing affirmation, I asked “what did she say when you mentioned that?”

My classmate paused and said, “Not much. She just said ‘that’s fine, he was never much good at art anyways.’” Then she turned and continued out the door as my soon-to-be-former teacher avoided eye contact with me.

So, I took my handful of pencils, markers, notebooks and erasers, dumped them in the trash and told my teacher, “I think I’ll leave now.”

Unburdened of the physical detritus of that school, I walked out of that classroom and trudged the 1.6 miles home. A few days later, we drove out of Ohio and I began a new life, ready to prove my creativity had value to critics with more refined tastes.

Obviously some of the emotional detritus from that moment remains, but it serves mostly as a visible starting point of a lifelong effort to show that my ideas, perspective and creative works have merit.

Can you remember what started you on your current path?