We gathered around a heavy square table, tall enough to need stools. All 20 of us stood at different heights as you tend to do in middle school. Some boys looked like they still played Pokemon, while others looked old enough for girlfriends.
“My name is Ms. Pollena, and this is 7th-grade art.”
Our necks swiveled to the front of the room where Ms. Pollena gracefully walked toward us. Tall, slim, and covered in colorful skirts and scarves, she was the kind of teacher who could wear chunky jewelry and still not appear ostentatious.
“Hi, Ms. Pollena,” we called in unison.
Her smile looked like that of a gypsy. And we followed her hands, covered in silver rings, as she scattered art projects across the black countertop.
“How do you think you’ll be graded?” she asked quickly, sitting down on the center stool.
We all looked to one another.
“By how good your art is?” Pokemon Boy #1 asked.
Ms. Pollena’s lips curved as if she had been expecting this response. Picking up a painting from the table, she looked at the rest of us and asked, “Do you think that this is good art?”
We looked at the landscape portrait and nodded.
“That’s good stuff.”
“Definitely an A.”
“Did an 8th-grader make that?”
Ms. Pollena slowly placed it back onto the table, listening to us each give our applause. When the chatter died down, she looked back to Pokemon Boy #1.
“Henry, what happens if I disagree?”
“Wait,” his eyebrows flinched. “You… don’t like that?”
“Yeah, Ms. Pollena,” Mortgage Man #1 blurted. “You don’t think that’s good?”
She lifted a shoulder in polite disagreement, bringing another painting up to showcase. This one was minimalistic. Bare colors, thin lines. This painting looked like I could trace it and frame it within an hour.
“Mac, what grade would you give this painting?”
He touched the peach fuzz growing above his upper lip. “C+.”
The class broke out into disagreements.
“Oh, that’s more like a B-minus.”
“Really? I kinda like it.”
“It doesn’t look like it’s finished.”
“Did an 8th-grader make that?”
Once again, Ms. Pollena waited for our remarks to die down. She listened intently, gathered us corporately, and then turned to Mac to repeat, “What happens if I disagree?”
My eyebrows sank in disappointment, and the perfectionist inside me started to clench her fists. What do you mean, What happens if I disagree? What happens is that I don’t get a good grade!
What if she didn’t think my art would be “good”? What if I tried my best and she still found it terrible? What if I really, really loved it, and she still gave it an F? Could you fail 7th-grade art?
By the looks of my classmates’ faces, similar questions churned around inside them.
“Art,” Ms. Pollena said coyly, “isn’t like other subjects. There is no right answer or even a possibility of right answers.”
“I want you to do your best,” she said, placing the first and second portraits side-by-side. “I will coach you and help you and even voice my preference at times. But art is not about creating art for other people’s taste buds.
“It’s more intricate than that.”
It’s been 12 years since Ms. Pollena spoke these words at Charles DeWolfe Middle School. But I think about them all the time. Especially because the older I get, the more people ask me to read their writing. And more often than not, they eventually ask, “Do you like it?”
Do I like it? Mmm. Sometimes. Sometimes, I do.
But what if I say, “Not really”? Will you immediately think that your writing’s not good? Will you believe that what you created is not lovable—simply because I don’t like it?
It seems that when we were children, people let us have our favorite colors. But when we got older, permission for preference suddenly disappeared. People became insecure over their art in fear that someone wouldn’t think that it was good.
To be honest with you, I don’t like stud earrings. I don’t like matte makeup. I don’t like seafood, rap music, or mermaid dresses. I think Shakespeare is overrated and Mark Twain is just okay. And that’s awesome if you prefer John Donne, too, but what happens if we disagree?
I realize I work in publishing and that I carry degrees in English education. But creating isn’t like other pastimes. I can coach people with their manuscripts, help with editing, and voice my preference on the minor occasion.
But art is not about creating art for other people’s taste buds. There’s only one Creative Judge, and none of us are Him. And His opinions are certainly more intricate than a school district’s grading scale.
Featured Image by Charisse Kenion