Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Art Teacher

For Mr. Arnor Bieltvedt, who would have done this for me, and did, though never so explicitly.

She rubs her sweaty hand against her jeans, trying to avoid her own discomfort. They all talk as they meander about the room, smiling as they nibble delicately at their hors d'oeuvres, looking at the paintings that cover the walls. The paintings are many and varied; there are portraits, landscapes and strange surrealist attempts; the other side of the room is covered in photographs. She prefers one that shows a black and white girl upon a swing; her hat is portrayed as being red. It reminds her a little of the girl in Schindler's List, the one girl toward whom our compassion is aroused.

This is her best work. She stares up at her painting again, pleased that she has managed to so masterfully depict Van Gogh's expression, his sad gaze and melancholy look. She has painted him in greens, discovered a talent she did not know she possessed. Her parents smile meaningfully at her and then nod toward the picture, certain that it will win a prize. She feels a little queasy, anxious, worried. She turns as she hears her mother say "Oh yes, and our daughter, just there; she painted that one." She is faintly irritated by this, and then the irritation grows within her until she is angry and struggling to contain her anger. She walks over to her mother, smiles pleasantly. "Mommy, come here; I have something I want to show you." She figures that she will steer her away from the others before she can do more damage.

"In a moment," her mother answers, continuing to praise her to an unknown third party. She is annoyed. It's not like her mother painted the picture, after all. Besides, it's not even such a good picture. It probably won't win a prize. All the expectation and anticipation; now that she's entered the picture in the contest, it's understood that it will win, it has to win; it is unthinkable that she would not win. At least, that is the impression her parents give over. She is sick as she thinks about it, unable to move for a fit of nerves. She turns away to look up at a tall, impressive painting of a multicolored giant.

"Lina?" a voice asks from behind her, and she turns to see Daniel. Daniel's also entered a picture in the competition, but his parents aren't here with him. Lucky him, a voice in her head seems to say. It won't matter whether he wins or loses; there's no one to see but him. And he seems very laid back, very okay with whatever happens. "Lina, what's the matter?"

She nods her head toward the corner. "There, over there."

He looks. "So what? It's just your parents."

"Just my parents," she says, and rolls her eyes. "Just my parents, who have been claiming credit for my work as though they had painted it, who have been busy showing me off to everyone, letting them know that I'm their daughter so that when I win a prize, they'll be able to show me off, too. And what if-" but she can't allow herself to say it. What if I don't win? is what she is wondering. What if I don't win?

"If you would all please gather in the center of the room," a female voice announces, "and we will list the winners." A pause, as the lady waits for everyone to take their places. "In third place," she begins triumphantly, "Vanessa Waters!"

A blonde-haired girl darts forward to take the yellow ribbon, grinning broadly as she does so.

"In second place," the voice continues, "Dan Macmillan!"

Dan gives a lazy smile, walks past Lina and pins the red ribbon to his chest, rolling his eyes comically at the fanfare and fuss made over him.

"And in first place-" and Lina catches her breath, hoping desperately that it will be her, "Regina Todmore!"

Regina? Lina thinks, stunned. Anyone but Regina. Regina has no talent, she has nothing; she is nothing...how is it possible that she has won and Lina has not?

Lina faces her parents for a moment, noticing the stunned, frozen expressions on their faces, then they walk over to her in an attempt to comfort her. "You did a wonderful job, darling," they tell her, "don't worry about it, next time will be better" and she just snaps. She can sense the disappointment in their tone, see how hard they are trying to lie brightly for her. "I need to go to the bathroom," she says and dashes out of the room, brushing roughly past Dan, whose eyes radiate concern. Once in the hallway, she pauses to catch her breath, dashing the tears from her eyes. She will not care. She will walk up to Regina, smile, congratulate her and will not show that she cares. She wills herself to do it.

But then a different idea strikes her and she reaches inside her backpack, pulls out her palette knife. She sticks it in the back pocket of her jeans, making a mental note not to sit down. She rejoins the crowd and smiles winningly at her parents, then walks over to Regina. "Congratulations!" she says lightly. "It's a beautiful painting."

Regina is too happy to notice that Lina is not being completely honest. "Oh, thank you!" she says, glowing, the blue ribbon pinned to her chest.

Disgust wells up within Lina, self-disgust at how low she has fallen, how false a person she is. She waits and pretends to be deeply interested in the other paintings as people wander out of the room. Finally she is alone, or nearly so. She reaches for her painting, that of the Van Gogh, unhooks it from its place on the wall, sets it down on the floor and kneels. She reaches for her palette knife.

Failure. That's what this painting says to her. You did your best and it wasn't enough. You tried your hardest but you're still worthless. So why bother to try? Look at your parents. Look how you've disappointed them. Worthless, worthless, worthless.

She takes the palette knife and positions it over her painting, right near Van Gogh's nose. She plunges it toward the canvas when she hears Dan over her shoulder.

"Lina?" He sees what she is about to do. "No! No!"

He tries to wrest the knife away from her but she fights, sinking it deep within the canvas, ripping through her failure. She plunges deep and scores the paint, marring the nose and blurring the face, so that Van Gogh disintegrates and disappears. She takes deep breaths as she does so and Dan falls away as she continues destroying her painting, the product of all her hard work. What does she care how hard she worked? It wasn't enough. It's never enough. Not only did she not win the blue, but she didn't even win third place!

Finally, panting hard, does she drop the knife and stand up. She turns and starts with a jolt; in the corner, her art teacher is watching her. His eyes radiate compassion.

She walks right past him, doesn't say anything, leaves her ruined painting on the floor. She goes outside to join her parents.

"Oughtn't we to take your painting with us, dear?" her mother asks. "No," she lies smoothly. "They want to keep them on display for a while longer; I'll get mine when they're done with it." Much easier to lie and then to let them forget about it.

"Your painting really was magnificent," her mother continues. Lina grits her teeth. She doesn't want to hear this.

She endures the carride back home, goes upstairs and plugs herself into her computer, listening to music until she has tired herself out and decides to go to sleep. The next morning, she heads off to school, goes through her daily routine until reaching Art class.

She enters the Art Room, then stops dead in her tracks. There, propped up on her art teacher's desk, is her painting. It has been framed. She steps closer and notices a sheet of paper just below bearing what is ostensibly a title. The title reads "Passion."

She turns to see her art teacher watching her. Wordlessly, he hands her a new canvas, a set of oils and her painting kit. Voiceless, she accepts them. She dips her brush in the red paint, swirls it, then begins applying it to the canvas. She looks back toward the direction of his desk, then smiles a little. He doesn't care whether or not she wins a prize. He doesn't even care whether or not she rips her painting to shreds. Whatever it is, it is a new and more interesting form of art. She sees failure and he sees passion.

She paints red strokes on the canvas, wild and aimless. She covers them with black as well, stabbing at the painting, surprised as she sees the form of a little old woman emerge from within the crossing lines of black and red. She reaches for a smaller paintbrush, one with a more delicate tip. She inks in the form, then reaches for a stick of charcoal, thinking that she will very lightly pencil in the woman's features as she emerges from the painting. Lina is smiling, looks down at her hands and sees that they are covered in oil. The bell rings. She looks up at him, standing behind his desk and glaring contemplatively at his own work. Her heart is light. She almost wants to sing.

No matter what she does, he will always see it as worthwhile.

Sometimes that makes her want to cry. And other times, like now, she is so grateful that words are inadequate, not to mention unnecessary.


Anonymous said...

This is one of your best short stories!

Scraps said...

This is beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

Bas~Melech said...

That was great. It really resonates with me.

(Darn... the last thing I need right now is to get hooked on another blog...)