Oct/Nov 2020 Nonfiction


by David Brabec

Public domain street art

I'm a stay-at-home dad, and stay at home dads specialize in volunteering. I do the mundane stuff like grocery shop, vacuum, and drive kids to practices, but my real specialty is in the classroom. Before my wife finished school and started working nights, I taught Special Ed. I had behavior kids at Hayes Middle School in Albuquerque, where everyone had to wear a uniform, not because they were rich but because they were poor. Volunteering at my kid's elementary school is a lot different. The teachers here have the opposite problem I formerly had. This school answers emails every day from concerned parents; at my school I only heard from parents when they needed a letter for a judge.

"You're going to Sam's class on Tuesday to help with an art project."

I stare at my wife, thinking about the art project I did with my students. We produced a short film involving a green alien who beat up boys and the girls fell in love with him. We used an inflatable alien, four feet tall that you could buy in Roswell a few hours east. The final shot was the girls closing the hatch full of dead boys in the back of the pickup and driving off with the alien at high speed.

My mom thought it was too morbid when I showed it to her. Hector, the star of the movie, had asked for dozens of copies to hand out to his family, "My little cousin loves it, she watches it over and over..."

"Okay," I say to my wife about volunteering, thinking if I had any old copies in my closet and wondering what Hector is doing. He would be 24 now.

"Sam's teacher wants you there at 8:30." My wife puts the lunch I made in her bag along with a stethoscope.

Who plans painting projects first thing in the morning? I taught for 12 years, and art projects are to be done after lunch, when the day is almost done, when the wiggles are gone and half the class could take a nap. A child can sit, contemplate life, and paint.

I'm right on time. My eight-year-old son Sam gives me a hug, and the teacher, Camille, gives me a look like a soldier realizing the reinforcements have arrived. A giant picture by Picasso is on the movie screen. It's from the period when his style was faces with big noses, crooked eyes, and as a child you thought, "This guy's famous? He can't draw worth a hoot."

Camille is giving last minute instructions to the class. They have been prepped for this lesson and answer all her questions correctly.

"First use black paint," they answer. "Start with the frame 1-inch around the edge, and then do the eyes of your face." I look around; there are no paints, paper, or parents.

"Okay. Line up."

The kids get in line like they've had Hostess cupcakes for breakfast. It's the paradox of teaching, the more creative you are, the more animated your students become. This class is vibrating by the time Camille stands next to me. "Thanks," she says, taking a deep breath.

One kid keeps going from his desk to the line and back to his desk. He remembers something but forgets, remembers it again, then forgets again.

"What," I say, "if they tell me they are done?" This is a strategy implemented by children who don't like art. They say, "I'm done!" after five minutes, then get up and start wandering the class. I used to give them something they needed to add or go with the always reliable "grab a book" until a critical mass of "grab a book" kids is reached and they begin disrupting the class by talking with each other. This makes everyone want to be done and "grab a book" so they can talk with each other.

She laughs at my question. The kind of laugh good teachers have, resembling a burst, not a chuckle. They throw their head back and release the tension which builds from the stress of keeping children on track, even students who can't remember what they need after traveling five feet from the line to their desk and then back again.

"I used to tell them to 'keep working,'" she says, "but they just ended up ruining it. So let them be done."

Oh, dear, I think. First we are having a morning art project, and the five-minute "I'm done" kids are allowed to be done?

The kids begin pushing each other lightly, which happens if they wait for more than two minutes in a line. A good teacher will not correct them; just know they must get going before things get out of hand. A poor teacher can ruin a day trying to control a line. You must solve problems quickly, and exerting power over little skirmishes does not do it. I watch another kid make a U-turn halfway to his desk.

"Okay everybody..." and Camille opens the door. The line tightens up again, and the shoving stops. This school doesn't have hallways; when you leave the classroom, you are outside. It's blustery, and in the brief time we walk to the cafeteria, the kids get another burst of energy, like a quick dip in a cold pool. We enter the cafeteria like everybody has had a donut with an espresso.

The paint is on a table, still in large tubs, while little plastic cups sit in a stack ready to be filled. There are lots of big, thick paintbrushes, and the "canvas" they use are sheets of paper three feet by four feet. Some kids are shorter than the canvas and walk into each other while holding it up with their hands, unable to see in front of them. They spread their canvases out on the cafeteria floor and begin to paint. The janitor, Larry, walks by with a look of worry, he will be in the first wave of the invasion, where casualties of spilt paint are highest.

Larry is a janitor who could espouse many philosophies on life. He is smart and efficient. But Larry could have been many things and now is a janitor, either through poor decision-making or because something happened in life to interrupt his path.

The best janitors take pride in how they work and how perfect their buildings' looks. When I was a janitor in high school, Hans, a former German merchant marine, showed me the proper way to move a mop on the church floor. I wouldn't be pushing dirt back and forth anymore but attempting to keep it in front of me like a good waitress cleans a table with her rag, scooping all the crumbs into her hand at the end.

Hans used his spare time sanding the boiler room pipes until all the old paint and rust were gone and he could paint the pipes a bright red. The boiler room in the basement of that 100-year-old church could have been a restaurant in the newly reclaimed part of the city, where hipsters hung out drinking $6 coffees and staring at their laptops.

My first day, Hans looked at me like I didn't have what it took to be a good janitor. He was gruff, not hiding his accent, and if I didn't do it right, he wouldn't show me how, he would just repeat his instructions. When I finally earned his trust, he drove me to lunch in his big truck, telling me tales of crossing the equator and what his old tattoos meant.

Hans would have seen those kids as having an opportunity he never had and understood cleaning up after them was worth it. But Larry walked through the cafeteria with a look of inconvenience; he didn't look at the pictures the kids were painting but stared at the large tubs of paint that could drop on the floor.

I walk around with a wet rag, telling kids not to be shy about reporting drops on the floor because "they're easier to clean up if you get them quickly." I tell them how great their paintings look. I remind some to "paint the eyes first" and "use black to draw the faces." After their outlines are drawn, they head to the paint table to mix their own colors. Camille has done a good job telling them about "warm" colors—red, orange, and yellow—and "cool" colors: blue, black and brown.

"Look at this color I made!"

I'm surprised most of the plastic cups don't end up being filled with gray paint.

"Check out my Army Green!" yells Smith, a kid with glasses whose dad has returned from another yearlong stint in Afghanistan. "And I know Army Green because my dad's in the Army." Kids nod their approval.

I change tubs of dirty water. I ask Larry where the mop closet is.

"Nobody's allowed in the mop closet, kids or teachers."

Instead I have to dump it in the boy's toilet without asking Larry, flushing twice before heading to the teachers' lounge for warm water.

Now, I admit Picasso was groundbreaking and talented. But as a child first seeing his work, I thought, "He's famous?" These kids were clearly in that same mind frame. This is someone they could impersonate.

Eyes not perfectly aligned? I can do that.

Big nose not quite centered? Right up my alley.

Not a normal skin and eye color? Watch this!

"I think," says Smith, "Picasso only painted old people."

"Why?" I say.

"Because your nose and ears never stop growing." Smith says, "and all of Picasso's people have big noses and ears." Smith is finishing up the hair of his face with a dark green.

"Never thought of that." I say.

"Yeah," he says, "you can learn a lot painting."

As I rise up from wiping some splattered drops, I admire Sam's Picasso. "Awesome job, Sam. I love it." He smiles and nods. When Sam's done, he wanders the room commenting to his classmates about their work. Sam is the most social of my three children. It's why he's the youngest in his class; he practically begged to go to school when he knew there would be more friends to converse with. He doesn't seem to notice when I volunteer because I come often enough. Until I skip a day, then he will admonish me. "Papa! You skipped today." I wonder how he keeps track of when I'm supposed to be there.

African masks influenced Picasso as he painted, but I wonder if his children also had something to do with his work, as he watched them on his studio floor with borrowed brushes.

Eyes fill bright yellow, cheeks turn sky blue, and a nose becomes "Army Green," as little Picassos begin to form all over the cafeteria floor. A bell rings.

The kids help pick up. Two team up to carry their still drying canvas like a stretcher. They'll be back after lunch to finish up. I stay cleaning as they run out for recess. Camille says, "I have to go teach," and bursts out another laugh. Larry comes to the cafeteria while I walk around areas kids have painted.

He tells me I have his rag and tells me where I have to put it.

Sam volunteers to stay and help clean. After Larry leaves, he looks at me. "Come on," he says. We carry tubs of colored rinse water to a door. Sam puts his tub down and opens the door to reveal a mop closet with a big sink.

"Sam," I say, "Larry said no one is allowed in here." Sam shrugs his shoulders. For a third grader, Sam has an ability to read social norms; to him he isn't breaking any rules because he isn't showing other kids the mop closet, just his dad.

It's why volunteering can be so rewarding. You get to watch your child perform in a setting you normally don't see, and you get to witness a growth about them you wouldn't normally notice. Sam lets the door close behind us as we pour out the water into the sink each time. After the last container is dumped, Sam takes the small rubber hose at the end of the faucet and sprays down the sink to hide the evidence. Hans would have been proud.

Then we hear the cafeteria door open and close. Someone is outside. Sam looks at me, "Larry," he says and smiles. He puts his hand on me. While I shift with nervousness, Sam tries to hold in a laugh. We can hear footsteps, a table getting adjusted, then more footsteps. They are getting closer and closer. We're doomed.

Suddenly, Sam bursts the door open and yells, "Gotcha!" Larry nearly falls over. Sam laughs. "Oh, man, I got you again." Larry's stern face melts.

"Sam Brabec!" he says, "I should have you locked up!"

"You always say that," Sam says.

Larry looks at me.

"This is my Dad," Sam says. Larry tries to find Sam's resemblance in my Picasso face that has a bald head and an ever-growing nose and ears. Larry's eyes narrow, but Sam takes my hand and escorts me toward the exit, away from any admonishment. He opens the exit door, and we head out together. I hug Sam before he heads to the playground. "Thanks," I say. "That was fun."

"Yeah," Sam says, leaving as though we never had to escape Larry. "Picasso is cool."


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