When my son, Nicholas, started kindergarten, I worried like any other parent. Would he find his classroom by himself? Would he make friends quickly? What if I forgot his lunchbox on the kitchen counter? Of course, like so many other parents come to understand a few weeks into the school year, I realized my kid would be fine. Really.
But that didn't mean I stopped worrying entirely. What parent does? You see, my son has never been big on drawing. Give him a hockey stick or a basketball, even a math problem or a funny book, and he's OK. But ask him to draw a picture and well, his people usually resemble stick figures. When we showed up for his teacher conference, I noticed the children's self-portraits lining the classroom wall. There were pictures of girls with flowers in their hands; of boys kicking a ball. One precious girl had drawn a picture of herself holding her mom's hand, a big red Crayola grin on her face. But Nicholas's portrait, true to form, was a hastily drawn stick figure, a few birds and clouds floating in the sky.
When I queried his nurturing teacher about it, she reassured us it was no big deal. Nicholas was young for his class, and some kids didn't enjoy drawing, plain and simple. At home, I'd whip out crayons and paper and exclaim, "Let's draw!" Only seldom did my son take the bait. My husband shook his head.
"Have you looked at any of your drawings lately?" he asked, holding up my picture of a sad-looking horse that appeared to be missing a neck. "Maybe," he suggested, "artistic talent is genetic."
He had a point. I'd never been a good at art. Why did I assume it would be any different for my son? When he wanted to bloom, as the saying goes in the classic, Leo, the Late Bloomer, he would.
So, I tucked my worry away, and lo and behold, by the end of the year, Nicholas was drawing full-fledged bodies with heads of thick curly hair and outfitted with sneakers and even an occasional polka dot neck tie. He had bloomed.
"See?" My husband said knowingly.
And then, a few weeks into first grade, Nicholas brought home the most amazing mosaic, a sheet of blank paper that he'd filled with vibrant colors and shapes of all sizes. Maybe the kid was a Picasso, after all!
"Nicholas, did you do this?" I exclaimed. He smiled and nodded. "It's fantastic! I love it. This part looks like the Empire State Building," I said, perhaps a little too eagerly. He peered at it closely, then shrugged.
I was reminded of the advice that my mother-in-law, a former kindergarten teacher, once offered: "Don't ask a child what the picture is. Say instead, 'Why don't you tell me about your picture?' That way you'll never find yourself guessing the wrong thing." Good advice.
"So, why don't you tell me about your picture," I tried, back-pedaling.
He shrugged again. "It's just a lot of shapes, and it's kind of a pattern, if you look over here." He pointed to a particularly intricate corner with diamonds and squares. Then he ran off to shoot baskets in the driveway.
No big deal to him perhaps, but his mom was bursting with pride. The next day, I ducked out to the store to buy a frame so we could celebrate his artistic achievement appropriately. I hung it on a wall in the family room, where it would be waiting for him to see when he got home from school.
"Is that my picture?" he asked, noticing it as soon as he walked in the door.
"It is," I said. "Doesn't it look amazing?" He nodded, then went off to play knee hockey with a friend.
Mr. Cool, I thought. But the next day, he came home from school and said he had something to show me. From his homework folder, he pulled out another picture, a similar kind of mosaic, though not as elaborate as the first.
"Wow!" I said with enthusiasm. "Another mosaic. It's beautiful."
He beamed up at me. "Are you going to frame it?"
I hesitated perhaps a beat too long. "Of course! I'll get another frame tomorrow." I was not about to dash his hopes as an aspiring young artist now. So, the next day I set off in search of another frame.
My husband laughed, shook his head at me. "See what you've started?"
"But they're good, don't you think?" I'll admit I was looking for some reassurance that I hadn't gone off the deep end in my frame-buying frenzy.
It was then that I remembered a favorite story in my family, which goes something like this: When my younger brother was around 6 or 7, the school hosted a Santa's workshop, where kids could bring their money and buy trinkets for their parents for Christmas. It always struck me as such a sweet thing to do. The first Christmas, my brother bought my mom a necklace and my dad a rabbit's foot key chain that was made of an ugly synthetic purple fur. A little chain dangled from the end. My dad, however, reacted as if the key chain was made of gold, and he carried that thing around with him for the entire year.
When the next Christmas rolled around, we all held our breath. What treasures had my brother purchased this year? When my father pulled out yet another rabbit's foot key chain (if memory serves, orange this time), it was all we could do not to burst out laughing. But darned if dad didn't jump around and act as if it was the best gift a man could get. "Thank goodness," he said gratefully. "My other one was wearing out."
Now my husband had me wondering: Had I just launched my own line of rabbit's foot key chains?
Nicholas returned home from school the next few days without any pictures in his folder, and I'll admit, I may have breathed a little sigh of relief. Those frames weren't cheap. But then yesterday, after he ripped his backpack off his small body, he announced he had something for me. A small grin played across his lips. I waited. It could have been anything, really.
I watched as first he pulled out his folder and then slowly, ever so slowly, extricated another sheet of paper, this one an abstract drawing in cool blues and muted greens. "I had some extra time," he explained nonchalantly. "We didn't go out for recess since it was raining, so we colored."
I nodded and took the drawing from his hands. It was a thing of art, that of a 6-year-old, but a work of art no less. "Thank you, I love it," I said.
He didn't ask if I was going to frame it. Not yet, at least. But it doesn't matter. Because I'll keep buying those frames, even if they're the magnetic refrigerator kind, just to keep seeing that smile play on his lips when he knows he's done something wonderful.
And, besides, you can never have too many rabbit's foot key chains--or too much good luck--can you?