There’s a story I like to tell about my little brother. After school one day, I was following my teacher mom through the halls of our school. I must have been nine or ten years old. As we were passing my brother’s classroom, his second grade teacher popped her head out of the door, and said with a giggle, “I just have to tell you this.” She continued to explain that she had asked the boys and girls to share who they wanted to be when they grew up. I can assume that most students offered idols like Michael Jordon, Debbie Gibson, Mary Lou Retton, or maybe even President Reagan.
“And do you know what your son said?” She could barely contain her glee. “Gene Kelly!”
At the time this didn’t seem like such an odd choice to me. My mom was on a never-ending old movie kick, and we were well-versed in musicals, black and whites, and even the hi-jinks of Buster Keaton. However, looking back, I see what an unexpected answer this must have been. Delightful to the teacher, no doubt, but probably unacceptable to the other seven year olds that my brother had to play with later at recess.
I think about this story often with fondness, but there’s a note of sad in it as well. I wonder how many Gene Kellys are alone in a class of Mike Schmidts. And I wonder if we, as teachers, are careful to make a place for all students in our classroom.
I read two lovely books this morning that I will be recommending to teachers this fall that may help with just that.
I finally got to enjoy this wonderful book that has been recommended to me by many. The Noisy Paint Box by Barb Rosenstock follows young Vasya Kandinsky into adulthood as he struggles against convention. Powerful messages make this a worthwhile read aloud for every child. But the real treasure in this book is the story of a boy who did not see himself in the life that everyone else embraced. As I read this book, countless faces from past years came to mind, and I wished that The Noisy Paint Box had been in my classroom to share with all of them.
After enjoying the life of Kandinsky, I decided to reread a favorite of mine from last year, A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant. Similarly, this book follows Pippin from childhood to adulthood. I am in love with Melissa Sweet’s illustrations, and readers will eagerly return again and again to this book to enjoy her stunning artwork. I love the idea of a passion that chased Horace his entire life, never letting him go. I hope as teachers we can encourage our students to take hold of what moves them, making our classrooms a place for passions to flourish.
With important ideas for all readers, A Splash of Red and The Noisy Paintbox will help secure a special place in your room for students who may feel they are struggling against the status quo of what’s expected by their peers. These books will help you celebrate the unique talents that often aren’t praised or supported in ways that academics and athleticism are. Every student should be able to find themselves in a book, and I’m sure that you will have at least one or two that may see themselves in the young lives of Pippin and Kandinsky.