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She Told Me, “I Can’t”

February 17, 2012

“I can’t do it,” she said. It was a statement that needed a bit of deciphering. I did not quite know what it meant; I did not know what made this 4th grader believe that she could not—could not draw an oval. Who told her that she could not?

Cassie picked up her pencil, held it to the paper, like a knife to something she threatened to cut, then placed it down on her desk, and said, again, “I can’t.”

I was in Cassie’s class assisting with a jazz and visual arts residency. The 3rd and 4th graders worked with visual artist Teresa Cox to spend a few days becoming their own versions of Pablo Picasso and Romare Bearden. For some, the transformation was easy. For others, not so much.

“I know you can,” I said, hoping to get a sense of her frustration. What did her words mean? “I know you can. Getting yourself to school every day was a lot more work than anything you are going to do for this project, especially draw the oval. Tell me what you mean.”

“I just can’t,” she said. “It’s too much.”

Was she overwhelmed by the larger project of creating a collaged self portrait? Was she shy or unsatisfied with her artistic ability? Had she really been trained by her environment to believe that she was not capable? I told her that I knew that she was a sufficiently intelligent girl and that I was pretty sure that most of the stuff that any of us was going to ask of her in the classroom was something she was up to.

I did not say this as an encouragement, like some hero that was going to make her to believe in herself. She was wise, intelligent and hip enough so that the Marlo Thomas bit wasn’t going to work on her. Still, I was uncomfortable with the “I can’t” language and how infectious it could be to so many other things that she was going to have to do in that classroom; I was not willing for those things, much less the project she was working on, to get derailed with the most powerful words of defeat.

Would I have to interpret her “I can’t” in a way we sometimes we have to interpret “I’m bored” when kids utter the phrase? Sometimes, “I’m bored” can mean a kid wants you to find something for her to do, besides make her lunch. Sometimes it means, “I’m depressed.”

I know that our childhoods are not always happy, that they are not days to which a lot of us grown-ups want to return. Not salad days. During the past weeks spent in a half dozen classrooms, I saw more than one kid living through a day to which they do not want to return. Still, I know that they have and will return in spite of my wishes to the contrary, just as those days did in my youth. And these hard days usually do more than just feel bad: they make just about everything, including school, dysfunctional and not easy.

It was frustrating that some kids could not seem, at first (and second), to pull themselves together to complete their project with an ease that matched the task. What was more frustrating and what was the most difficult to watch was how familiar I was with what those kids experienced.

I saw my 4th grade self, the 4th grade self that, somehow, could not fit himself—force his way into the context of so many things, places, projects and knowledge that should have been simple and easy. Instead, the reality against which I fought, many of the kids I see fight, was one that portrayed the simplest tasks with unease, unsureness and few expectations.

What was Cassie really supposed to do? What was really expected of her? What had she learned about what people expected?

I am not sure what she had to fight through that afternoon, what so many other kids in the many classrooms in which I worked over the past few weeks had to fight through—whether it was something as simple as not knowing or being unfamiliar with the use of scissors and glue or if it was more of a emotional weight against which they had to fight to get themselves to school each morning.

But Cassie was not fighting anything like an ignorance of what an oval was or how to use a pencil to create one. I heard her say the dastardly magic words again: “I can’t do this.” But what followed gave me a hint to what she was fighting. “You don’t understand. I got a lot going on right now,” she said. Heavy words coming from a ten-year-old.

I did not know what I could say in the small, not private space and in the short period of time we had. The words I was able to find could not be guaranteed to be translated into something helpful for Cassie. I do not even know if there were enough words or enough common, familiar language to have anything I said make sense—be impactful in the small context in which we worked.

I looked around the room, at the kids and at myself—at what was familiar in their faces and the feelings that emitted from their fits of frustration. I said, “Yeah, I know. A lot of us have stuff going on. We have stuff that seems impossible, like nothing’s going to work. But not everything has to not work.”

I told her, urged her not to do what is so easy for us, to let that art project, that easy thing, get washed down the same drain of stuff “going on.”

I do not know the details of her life. It is not my place to ask and I did not get the time—and about those things “going on,” she was right: I did not know them. At least not as clearly as she needed someone to know, understand and listen.

What I do understand is that some days, it is too hard to leave the comfort and safety of home and face a boat load of Impossibles, to step out the door, to pick up a scissors or put pencil to paper. But we get up and leave, not so much out of bravery or resolve but because staying is not an option.

And for some, and maybe for Cassie, it was what was happening at home that was her Impossible, an impossible that was heavy enough create a “can’t” that creeps into too much of her days. I do not know.

What do I know? That this opportunity to create was not a “can’t” and did not have to be another failure in days of difficulty. What I did know is that Cassie’s mood and attitude not only risked not getting her project done, but had bigger ramifications, not just for the day, not just for the school year. I thought of my own experience. I wanted to tell her in the most urgent voice something from my own experience: that she needed to do something about it or they would put her in the “dumb kid” class, which is where I found myself in too much of my school career. You might think that they don’t have dumb kid classes anymore. I am not so sure that we do not live in a social climate where we are not just segregating kids into the dumb kid classes: we are making whole schools, full of uncreative can’ts: this kid can’t… our systems just can’t… we just can’t pay for…

I did not have the magic words, and thought maybe her teacher, Ms. Dixon did. Maybe. I am not sure which conversations helped. I told Ms. Dixon what was going on. I know she knew Cassie much better than I. Cassie was a day behind on her project, but she, like many other kids who were having a difficult time, pushed through and created something wonderful.

Today, there are many wonderful works hanging I the halls of the three schools. Scores of works from as many kids. It seems like a major achievement, and given the work that Teresa Cox, teachers and students did, it is a major achievement. I am not sure how to measure this achievement against the the greater complexities of “stuff going on.” I am just glad that Cassie did not let this achievement slip away. I am glad that my worries of “I can’t” could be held off long enough for the wills that made a success.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 17, 2012 12:53 pm

    Hi, Clarence! ~

    When I read, “Yeah, I know. A lot of us have stuff going on. We have stuff that seems impossible, like nothing’s going to work. But not everything has to not work”, I was startled to actually hear it in your voice as if you were standing right here with me! It made me want to hug you! I don’t think this essay is really about Cassie…

    XOXOX

    • February 17, 2012 3:42 pm

      It’s about a lot of us. It is only about Cassie as in as much as I can see her in the most limited sense. But I know those hooks that drag us into the dumb kid class too well and saw some of them hanging like untucked shirt tails and hanging shoe laces on which someone will step and cause us to fall.

      I know that. Yes, I do see “what was the most difficult to watch was how familiar I was with what those kids experienced.

      “I saw my 4th grade self.”

  2. Daniel Gabriel permalink
    February 17, 2012 1:18 pm

    Terrific piece, Clarence! Having been in some of those same classrooms I could sense the atmosphere clearly. I especially liked the rumination on whether we might be turning EVERY classroom, every school, into the “dumb kids” room.

  3. Joe Polta permalink
    February 17, 2012 4:00 pm

    Oh boy. I have seen a lot of other people in Cassie. (In the Minneapolis suburb where I live, it’s pronounced, “we’ve just been real busy lately.”) And I’ve thought, “yeah, we’ve all just been real busy lately.” A phone call, an apology, grocery shopping, whatever, seems impossible.

    Well, let’s be frank — I see some of Joe in Cassie.

    • February 17, 2012 5:06 pm

      And as an adult, I think that a lot of the time, I have been sent, again, like in my school days, to the “dumb kid class” in the minds of others, but they usually keep the characterization to themselves. How many times has our seeming rudeness or what we see in others been just “stuff goin’ on?”

  4. February 22, 2012 1:18 pm

    Clarence-Your thoughts and observations make me think about what I hope for kids.
    If only add to their creative fire-sometimes it can seem there is little kindled there-but that is never true-it may be dormant or on scant embers. Sometimes the challenge can be just to connect and navigate a way in-this takes work. As a child, reading and drawing and exploring in the woods were places I connected with a deeper self-my refuges-and I realize these were places I could find quiet. Stillness is a powerful thing and hard to come by in the school. But for a child to know they have an inner creative refuge and how to connect with it is powerful and important. I think the Arts can help to cultivate these places of possibility.

    Thanks for your help during the residency and for your blog!

    • February 22, 2012 3:23 pm

      Thanks you so much, Teresa, for your comment but also for your work. The many weeks I spent in the classroom, especially in your residencies, force me to appreciate your work as well as what teachers are doing for our kids. The Rondo Education Center has a lot of wonderfully displayed art that a lot of kids maybe didn’t know they had in them.

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