The American Scholar: The Artist

Bronson Abbott/Flickr

During the last week of June, at the academy where I teach, very few students attended classes. At the end of the school year, with the students leaving regular school for the summer, the first days of freedom are mild, not to be wasted with extra lessons. At six o’clock, only one student came, an 11-year-old boy. “What have you done today?” I asked. “To go to the beach?”

“To go to the beach!” he repeated, laughing happily. “No, the beach in August.”

“August?”

“Or July,” he said, almost flippantly, as if explaining an obvious truth, such as ice cream is for dessert. Or for a snack. He returned to the worksheet, filling in the missing lines of the story we had just read. He likes to read aloud and does it well. Time flew into the story, a game and conversation in English on my side and a combination of Spanish, English and smiles on his.

Only one student in class can be problematic because I have to partner with the student for pair work. It suits confident kids who think learning is fun. They are generally happy to be one-on-one with the teacher, with as much talk time as they want, rather than sharing with a classmate. But everything works with them. It’s a different matter with students for whom pairing up with a friend is a welcome break from the burden of learning English, but who don’t see the point of extra time to talk, especially with the teacher. A third type of student is not very present in the class, and whether we do work in pairs or individual exercises, it’s the same. Such a student was a girl in another class – an ordinary girl whose only notable feature was her unusual name, shared with the famous wife and muse of a famous artist.

As I sat with the boy, I thought of the girl. She was the complete opposite of him. Instead of being quick and cheerful, she was withdrawn, slow and uncertain. Physically, too, she was her opposite: tall and heavy and gentle, rather than short and quick and lively. She was mute, he was shrill. She never seemed to know if she was on the right track or not, so all of her answers were tentative, fearful, hesitant guesses. On the other hand, for him, answering a question was like catching dandelion fluff, something you did for fun, running faster than others and having more handfuls of them. Or like jumping on a fluffy speck that blows. He knew almost immediately if he had landed on an answer or if he had missed it, and he reacted like a kitten, turning to grab what had just slipped his mind. Nothing lasted long. To be that boy, you felt, would be a thrill. To be that girl would be miserable.

I was glad that my only student that day was this boy, not the girl, as had happened once, months earlier. “It will be good,” I had thought on that occasion, because without classmates, she wouldn’t be so embarrassed by her answers. We could go at his speed instead of the faster speed of his two classmates. “Slow and steady,” I reminded myself.

But more than slow, the pace that day was almost at a standstill. She sat like a mass, barely trying to answer. I guided, I hinted, I tried to make the answer easy, just to give her a spark of success with a correct answer. “Here it is!” I wanted to say. “Grab it!” But she couldn’t see him. My six hour old kitten would have seen it immediately, so why not her? I practically poked her nose into the answer, and she still hasn’t seen it. She was as lost as usual.

On other occasions, I had observed that she almost seemed to have an answer. At such times, she would raise her hand and stare at it, as if the answer might have landed there. I looked at her with fascination. I have never seen such a slow student. She turned her hand, staring at it, almost as if it was something new and strange and not part of herself. All the while she made faint noises like, uh, and uh, and uhhh. Could the answer be there? “Give it time, give it time,” I thought to myself. The other two students waited patiently.

But what was there to wait? She was like a fetus floating in the womb, twirling her fingers this way and that, discovering something, but with a totally blank face, not even shaped enough to reflect the thought. Barely a face. And a womb – not a dazzling environment but a place as dark as this girl’s mind. What light could penetrate?

I learned that even though scientists thought the womb was a dark environment, they now believe it transmits light in amounts that a fetus can see. Not so blind after all. Fetuses can also hear. They can cry and maybe – who knows – they can pray. But how long on their own will they survive? One pupil was a ferociously fast kitten, the other a faceless, shapeless blob. Who would I bet on? The kitten. Who did I wonder about – where did she come from and where would she go and if she would make it? About this girl, with her moon-like face, her strangely hoarse voice, her name as the famous wife of a famous artist, also an artist. Alone in class on a hot June afternoon with my extremely confident boy, I found my thoughts wandering back to the girl. Will she ever come out, I still wonder, of her secret world to bask in the light of it?

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