In fourth grade, my teacher was Ms. Brown. She was my favorite teacher to date. She was young and had a wonderful sense of humor; something that my previous teachers had never shared with us. Her hair was curly and she was short and stout. I thought she was pretty.
I saw myself as the “good” kid. I did well in school, although I didn’t work for it. I followed all of the rules and participated in class, mainly to show the teacher that I was smart. Truthfully, I was a very wholesome and naive kid, regardless of my intentions.
I didn’t think twice when she put my desk next to hers facing the class. I believed that she did so because I must have been her favorite student. It didn’t occur to me until the year 2000 that that might be an absurd assumption. I had come to learn, having been a teacher myself, that teachers put problematic students close to them.
I’ve mulled this over years now. Why did she put me in the front like that? I’d never had detention. I’d never received a bad report for behavior that I could remember other than me being a little too talkative and day dreamy. It was a different time. Teachers did all kinds of inappropriate things. Perhaps she did favor me. I believed I was special, but never in a troublesome way.
Sitting next to her gave me some privileges. She allowed me to look through one of her desk drawers whenever I liked. That is where I saw my first calligraphy pen. It was a black, felt pen with a slanted, flat tip. I asked her about it. She told me what it was, and dug out a calligraphy book for me to look at.
I often had nothing to do in her class. I was generally the first kid to finish assignments and quizzes, so I worked through the book. I learned an entire font, though I didn’t know that there were other fonts. To me, this was just all that calligraphy could be. I practiced until I could write it without the book, always working to perfect it.
Ironically, my print and cursive writing was atrocious. One teacher sent back my work with a note that used the words “chicken scratch” on it. But calligraphy was different to me. It was art, and I was an artist in every way that I could figure out to be. It was one of many identities that I would experiment in my life. I took art classes at a museum across from MacArthur Park in downtown Little Rock every Saturday. My parents had allowed me to set up a make shift art studio in the storage room that connected the garage with their bedroom.
I shared the room with an old refrigerator that contained nothing but frozen Roman Meal bread. Sometimes, when I was waiting on my mother to cook dinner, I would beg her for a snack. She would insist that I wait for dinner, but I discovered that I could sneak into my art studio and swipe a piece of frozen bread to tide me over.
And so, I discovered that I could do with calligraphy what I could not do with print and cursive. It was a proud accomplishment. I loved to show it off. It made me feel special in a good way. After all, who would expect a fourth grader to know calligraphy? Was this why Ms. Brown kept me close? For enrichment? I’ll never know.
One day, I told my father that I wanted to buy my own calligraphy pens. Lonoke did not have an art supply shop, so he took me to Little Rock. Going into Little Rock with my dad was a big deal. He was very busy tending the First Presbyterian Church of Lonoke, Arkansas. Any alone time I could get with him was precious to me. It must have been winter, because I wore a winter coat and it was already dark outside when we arrived. The shop was small, but it had everything I would ever need. There were paint brushes, water color paper, sketch pads, colored pencils, and my favorite medium, chalk pastels, but that’s not what I was there for.
I did not take my coat off in the store. I was so intent on finding what I wanted. A woman showed me the pens and waited on me to choose, perhaps chatting with my father. I wanted one like Ms. Brown’s. It’s odd, but I remember the sound of my coat sleeves rubbing together as I carefully chose a pen. I wanted to demonstrate to the lady that I was a bit of an expert. I wanted her to see that I knew precisely what I wanted. And I did.
After choosing a pen, I browsed for other supplies. I bought a fan brush because I had seen it used on Polly’s Paint Shop, an Arkansas PBS program, to make wonderful landscapes.
I don’t know how long I worked on calligraphy, a week, a month? I have only a few memories of practicing in my studio. And although I can remember aspects of the font, I can no longer write it. But I do remember how proud I felt to show off what I had learned to Ms. Brown. I also remember that she loved Brazil nuts. She was prone to sharing random things about herself with us, and I adored her for it. So, I swiped a few from a wedding reception and wrapped them up in a cocktail napkin which I brought to her the next day. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was thanking her for making me feel special, even if it wasn’t the kind of special I thought I was.
And 5th grade? Guess where my desk was? Right next to the teacher’s. And she wasn’t as nice about it.