On an unusually sunny day last autumn, I assigned a project to my second year magnet art students. *Gia, a very petite girl and particularly studious artist, was off and ahead of the pack, as was her custom. Well into the assignment, I made my rounds, checking to see if everyone was on task and progressing. I noticed that Gia had painstakingly crafted her project wrong. It was beautifully painted but not according to the given instructions. I stood behind her for a few minutes thinking on how, with the least amount of damage, to inform her that she was well on her way…down the wrong path. In fact, she was over halfway done. It was beautiful, but not within the stated objective. While she labored with laser intensity, I walked up beside her and explained the project again in detail, letting her know that her design and painting were exquisite. However, she was doing the project in a manner inconsistent with the desired outcome.
There was a silence, as if even her heart had paused to comprehend what I’d just said. She looked at me then down at her paper. I felt bad that I’d not noticed this before. Perhaps she was a victim of a common classroom scenario where the ‘good student’ gets lost in the fray due the the attention being pulled by those who have to be held on task by something outside of themselves; me. You just assume those “good students get it, know it, and go in the right direction because they are on it immediately and with confidence.
I saw a tear hit the desk in front of her, just outside of the artwork. The net one stained the paper. I’d never seen this student cry. In spite of her smallness and delicate nature, she always seemed so strong and directed, sure of her steps and nails tough. I let her know that the only way to get it right was to begin again. Admittedly, that task seemed daunting to me as well but there was no other way to get it right, to get back on the right path. I then added, in an attempt to make the situation a little better, that since she worked so consistently, she could probably catch up to the other students. Still she sat there as if in a daze. I placed another sheet of mixed media paper within her reached. Not wanted to put it in her face. The blank paper appeared even more so. With that, I walked away thinking that she might go ahead in the direction she was already going and just take whatever grade that allowed. A few other students were looking on in sympathy. They were on task. The instructions had been clear. She pushed the almost finished paper away, I noticed as I made my exodus from her valley of decision. I intentionally stayed away for a while, allowing her space to grieve and even to be angry with me if necessary.
Later in the class, I walked by and on the new paper was that meticulously laid out design, replete with bold swatches of the right colors. The tears were still in her eyes. She was working through them and the project was unfolding even more beautifully than before. Her hesitancy had obviously been a regrouping, a reassessment of the situation. Sure, there had to be a little bit of paralyzing shock in the mixture. She didn’t stay there long though. She knew what had to be done and didn’t wrestle for long. Any doubt she had about moving forward was put to rest by her decision to keep working through, to take the next step. Her resolve drove her beyond her disappointment and resulting pain. She saw through the tears and locked in on the objective. She cried, but kept going. She rested rather than quit or procrastinate or search out an excuse or play the blame game. In that moment, she became a giant in my eyes, and shared with me a lesson in resilient fortitude that I carry in my arsenal to use as needed. In the midst of similar struggles, I see her smiling face on the victory side with that finished project hitting my desk with pride.
…setback is not failure…unless you give it the power to be…
*not her real name