“Some years ask questions while others bring answers.” Zora Neale Hurston
My father had a story he loved to tell at the start of every new year.
The story is about an Art Specialist named Miss Carsten, a box of broken crayons, and how something that at first looked like a mess turned out to be amazing.
But mostly it is a lesson on coping with change in a creative way. Which in these uncertain days is a good reminder for us all.
Call in the Specialist
This was back when my father was the elementary school principal in my small South Carolina hometown. One year the school got some funding for new programs, and he went out and hired an Art Specialist.
And so Miss Carsten arrived at Kingstree Elementary School.
“But I’ve been teaching art here for 35 years,” sputtered the jowly and regal Mrs. Turbeville. “We don’t need another art teacher.”
My father was all of 31 years old at the time. He had not been alive as long as Mrs. Turbeville had been teaching art there.
“She’s not another art teacher,” said my father, “She’s an Art Specialist.”
Here, and in my father’s defense, I should say that in addition to his relative youth, he was also not long out of the military and Clemson College (this was pre-university), two experiences that had filled him with rather grand ideas of Improvement and Innovation in the Early Childhood Educational Setting that he brought with him to this small county seat on the swampy banks of the Black River.
All of which ran headfirst into the monumental Mrs. Turbeville.
“A specialist,” said Mrs. Turbeville, saying the word as if it were a dead rodent.
And so the school year began.
Times of Change, Tides of Creativity
At first things were fine. By “at first” I mean the brief prelude before Miss Carsten and Mrs. Turbeville actually met. Shortly after they did, the fireworks began.
“Mr. Reeves, Mr. Reeves,” gasped Mrs. Turbeville, breathless after her frantic dash from the Art Room to the Principal’s Office. “You must come immediately.”
And so they went to the Art Room, where it seems the Art Specialist had committed a desecration involving crayons.
“There,” said Mrs. Turbeville, pointing an accusing finger to the low table where Miss Carsten and several children sat quietly at work.
“Oh hello,” said Miss Carsten the Art Specialist, looking up with a smile.
What she had done – and what had disturbed Mrs. Turbeville so greatly – was to empty the crayons from the individual boxes into a single common tub, peel off the paper labels, and break them up into random chunks.
“Most of those crayons were brand new,” whispered Mrs. Turbeville. “They’d never been taken out of the box.”
Lemonade from Lemons
There was of course a method to the Art Specialist’s madness. Smaller pieces were easier to hold in small hands. Removing the paper exposed the crayon’s flat sides, better for shading and other effects. Breaking them into odd-shaped pieces created jagged peaks and angled edges for exciting new creations.
“Look what I made,” said one child, proudly displaying a drawing of her house and family and dog. “Isn’t it nice?”
Indeed it was. As were the kind words the Art Specialist – for she also had high EQ – said about Mrs. Turbeville. She praised the older teacher for the cleanliness, organization, and overall order of her classroom – for Mrs. Turbeville was nothing if not ordered, having taught art exactly the same way forever, and having refined a crayon usage system that mostly involved keeping them on the shelf in their boxes and not actually used.
“Well,” said Mrs. Turbeville, watching the beaming children create their crayon masterpieces at the tiny table. “They do seem to be having fun.”
Breaking into Creativity
That was the beginning of a long and happy collaboration. Mrs. Turbeville showed her strong character by welcoming her younger colleague’s energy and ideas. Miss Carsten benefited from her mentor’s experience.
And that was the end of my father’s little story. I must have heard him tell it a hundred times. He was often on his feet speaking to this or that group, either as part of his job or in his church and community, and the story of Mrs. Turbeville and the Art Specialist was one of his go-to’s. Thank you for indulging my telling it here. It makes me feel closer to him.
I suppose it was his way of saying life is messy. Things get broken. And how grateful I am for a father who taught me that when they do, my job is to pick up the pieces, examine them for new possibilities, use them to create something even better and more beautiful.
Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers and firms improve their well-being and create saner, more successful law lives. He is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.