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Sparks Fly

Gratuitous Cat Picture

Several years ago, friend and writing mentor Jon Katz invited me to teach a drawing class to a group of boys who received services at a refugee center in Albany. I didn’t know it, but my life was about to fundamentally change, and, sometimes, change can feed a creative spark in wonderfully unexpected ways.

Prior to that workshop, the only thing I had ever taught anyone to do was how to use the potty, tie a shoe, or drive a car. I still haven’t figured out how to teach a teenage boy how to throw a sock in a hamper, but something made me believe I could teach other people’s kids how to draw.

There were two big ideas I wanted them to take home — that drawing is for everyone and that it can change your life. To impart those ideas, I started with a few free drawing exercises designed simply to get people drawing without any preconceptions, and those boys drew.

They sketched energetic interpretations of the trees, of the farm, and, slowly, of parts of their lives.

There is something magical about watching a young artist or writer emerge. The magic is even stronger when you know you were part of it. That magic is the creative spark coming to life, and, as I saw boys who had started the day telling us they ‘weren’t artists’ prove their inner critics wrong, I knew exactly where my path was about to take me.

It’s May, and I’m just completing an internship at a school that specializes in helping students with learning disabilities and complex trauma resulting from various types of abuse. All of my new students have their sparks, but they are often tiny and underfed. The students, like so many people, smother the embers with the misconception that life won’t get better — that life can’t change. There have been a few years of twists and turns in my own journey, but I am back in the magical position of taking part in proving my students’ doubts wrong.

I knew, when I started my teacher training, that I wanted to work with these students most of all because I know them. But for grace keeping that creative spark in my life, I could have been them. Now, as I move from intern to licensed teacher, I know that my real job will be to give them the tools to forge their own paths, using their sparks to light the way.

Working two jobs and studying may have sucked the oxygen of time from my painting and writing life. The embers are still there, however, and the fuel is accumulating. As the ideas pile up, I’ve started to realize that the unexpected signing bonus of my new career is that, in encouraging others’ sparks, I’ve been feeding my own. As jobs go, that’s pretty hard to beat.