“Why you doin it that color?”
I heard one of my students ask another.
“I like it that way.” The girl answered immediately and without an ounce of adolescent, self- conscious hesitation.
This seemed to be enough. That’s all she had to say to make the one asking move on to other topics. Her painting evolved into something totally different than everyone else’s, I thought about the gutsiness of this. How so few adults I know can live so unencumbered nevertheless a teenager. How so many of us spend most of our lives giving ourselves permission to say this very thing – because I like it that way.
As she painted, she went on to tell me that the reason I had not seen her before was that she’s just with us for the summer. Her dad lives here and she usually lives with her mom in Chicago during the school year since her parents are divorced. I was sorry to hear this since not only was she very nice, but she also had incredible artistic abilities. We can use as many of those as we can get in my classes. Who am I kidding? The world can use as many people like this as we can get.
I have the privilege of teaching art four hours a day at an after-school center and summer program for girls ages 5 up to 14. In so many ways they are girls like any other. In other ways, they are not at all. They are girls who society has labeled at risk.
The longer I teach there, the more I see that they are not so much at risk from their environment, and horrendous circumstances beyond their control as they are at risk of being labeled and stigmatized by the rest of us throughout their lives. Whether it be due to their race, their socioeconomic status, or their disheveled appearance, they will have to fight off labels elbows up, always on guard through the possibly very narrow hallways of their future. They will always have people who question, those who think it’s their right to ask “Why are you doing _____?”
The more time I spend with them the more I see that their main disadvantage will be if they don’t make enough money, get the car, the clothes, the house, the job that our society says you need to be successful, they’ll always be looked down on, relegated to this box and that box, rarely allowed to venture outside of them. They will be unduly stereotyped, and continue to be inappropriately judged, categorized as at risk.
Recently, I listened to a Ted Talk by a young man who’d been sentenced to this category from a young age. He told the host he didn’t agree with that label, that it’s not anyone’s right to say that about someone.
“What are you saying they’re at risk of?” he posed. “I say they are in a place of opportunity. They have the opportunity to do great things like anyone else.”
I’ve realized that wealth may not buy you happiness but it buys you the right to go through life without accusation or interrogation. It allows you the freedom to act, to do whatever you’d like. Mostly it gives you cart blanche to operate as if you were born with all the opportunities you’d ever want available to you.
Father Richard Rohr says,”Because we are so afraid of nonsuccess, of being a refugee, not having a home, afraid of the opposite masculine or feminine parts of our own souls, we marginalize whoever represents those parts of our soul that we deny. We hate in them what we are afraid to admit in ourselves.”
Ultimately, when you’re not at risk, you have the freedom to do precisely what Rohr says. You can deny all those parts of yourself. You can tell yourself so many grand things like I will never_____, I won’t ever _______. All the notions the people we call disadvantaged can’t have the luxury of saying. When we are successful, we have purchased the right to question others, to pass judgement, to hate what it is in them we fear in ourselves.
Listening to my Chicago visitor as she filled in her bunny with pink and brown splotches ,that when you looked at her overall composition, worked perfectly, I wondered how you can teach someone this – to not consider themselves at risk, but at opportunity. To think highly enough of themselves to know even though they haven’t bought the right to it, their opinion counts and means something like this girl seemed so effortlessly able to do. I found myself wanting to be able to teach so much more than art. I wanted to be able to teach all my girls how to speak up as proudly and unaffected as our Windy City visitor did when she asserted “I like it that way.”