Emma's Gift

Submitted into Contest #114 in response to: Write about someone grappling with an insecurity.... view prompt


Coming of Age

Emma’s Gift

I had no believable excuse for saying no, so I agreed to teach a summer school class for high school freshmen. The announcement came out in the Spring/Summer issue of the City Civic Arts Newsletter:  

’Scapes: Land and Sea. Learn to draw the world around us.

For young artists interested in taking their drawing to a higher level. Explore a variety of subjects, developing an understanding of form, composition, line, light/shadow, perspective, and color. Tuition: $20 + $15 supply fee due at first class.

Starts July 5th: ─ 11:00 to 12:30 – City Library #205

Instructor: Ted Wilson

By the middle of June, twelve students had signed up.   

*                   *                   *

I parked my jeep and walked upstairs lugging a dozen totes for art supplies. I had made sure that sketch paper, colored pencils, and other drawing materials were already in the locked classroom.

Four boys and four girls were waiting when I walked up. The boys wore cargo shorts and tees. Three of the girls wore shorts that would have been too short when I was their age, about 20 years ago. The fourth girl, who was standing apart from the group, wore a long skirt and sleeveless blouse that bared her thin, freckled arms.

I said, “Hi. Are you here for Mr. Wilson’s drawing class?” They answered yes, practically in unison, and I said, “Wait here. I’ll see if I can find him.” I looked around and then said, “Oh. Here I am.”

They responded with the groans my silly greeting deserved, while I unlocked the door, and let everyone in. There were twenty-five desks for just twelve students so I told them to take whatever desk they wanted, first-come-first-served. They grouped in the center of the classroom, except for the slight, red-haired girl in the skirt and blouse who took a desk in the back row.

While they got situated, I put the totes on my desk, unpacked the roll call sheet, and wrote my name on the whiteboard behind my desk.

An email informed me that all the fees had been sent in, so I didn’t have to collect any money. I learned that an anonymous donor who called himself, or herself, Patron of the Arts had paid for Emma Garibaldi. The note went on to say she was “Socially Challenged” staying at Child Protective Services awaiting assignment to a foster family. “Transportation is a problem, so there may be tardiness or missed classes.”

The remaining four students, three girls, and a boy drifted in greeting their friends as though it had been years, rather than just a couple of weeks since they’d seen them.

I looked over what would be my workspace for two days a week for the next six weeks. There were large second-story windows with plenty of north light and a view of the city park that surrounds the library. I spotted several kinds of trees that would serve as models for scenery backdrop, or even subjects themselves. An expanse of sky was visible and, with any luck, we’d have a variety of summer clouds to talk about and replicate.

At slightly past eleven O’clock, I got attention by tapping the desktop and announcing that it was time for roll call. I told the class my name was Ted Wilson, and that I taught classes at Claremont College of Art and Design. I mentioned that only twelve years earlier I had graduated from the high school they would soon be attending. Blank stares told me the class did not see this as the fascinating connection I’d hoped for.

So with that nice try out of the way, I said. “OK, now for roll call. Please say “Here” when I call your name. I paused, and then said, “Would anyone like me to go over that one more time?” 

I smiled and they laughed. The kid who laughed the loudest had a visored cap on his shaggy head and Rawlings baseball mitt on his left hand. I looked toward him; “So, what’s your name?”

He said, “I’m Eddie Gallagher and nice goin’ on makin’ it through high school. I sure hope I do.”

I chuckled at the way he said it, and the others all roared. I guessed they had been laughing at Eddie’s clowning around for most of their lives. His good humor told me I had made a connection and broken some barriers.

 The rest of them all answered here when they heard their name, and then we passed out the supplies and the tote bags. I saw Emma Garibaldi’s shoulders relax, and at least the beginning of a smile when she realized that there was one for her.

So began that first day. All my students except Emma were from families that took education seriously – even a summer school class that had no academic credits, and no real relevance to career planning. Young students are told that an art class may be useful in developing an appreciation for the finer things. Additionally, that drawing represents an intellectual challenge and an outlet for creative energy; just what every kid needs, or so they say.

There are no bad reasons for learning, but I always hope for some student who possesses not just a desire for status or talent for illustration, but that mysterious capability to convey feeling, insight, and passion through art.    

Years ago, on a high school field trip to the DeYoung Museum, I got emotional and weepy-eyed in front of a painting titled Starry Night. Our teacher, Mrs. Havens, seeing my embarrassment said, “It’s OK, Ted. It’s not unusual to see tears in the presence of Van Gogh.” This only ensured that I had the tag Teary Ted hanging on me the rest of the semester, and beyond.

All the same, I can still choke up seeing some beautiful leap of imagination or some exquisite surprise. It doesn’t happen often, but it did that summer session - and from a wonderfully unexpected source.

I still don’t know how Emma got to our classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but she was always waiting when I arrived, no matter how early. I asked Gayle Snow, one of the popular girls, and she said she had not seen Emma arrive either, but she’d heard that her dad was in jail, and nobody knew where her mom was. She said, “I try to be friendly, but she acts like she’s in another world. She’s like autistic, or something.”

Gayle’s friend, Julia French said, “She’s weird and lives at Juvie, that’s all anyone knows”.

I said, “All right, that’s enough. Let’s try to make this part of Emma’s life the good part, OK?”

There was no answer in words but as the girls walked away, they nodded, telling me they understood and empathized - good kids, at heart.

Emma kept her seat in the back row as though being ignored was something to hope for. When I asked to see her work, she leaned forward covering it with her forearms and elbows with her long, rusty-red hair falling across her shoulders. Treating her in any special way only seemed to emphasize her painful dissimilarity, so I limited my communication with her to a good morning smile. I never knew what she was thinking…not until that last day.

The summer went by quickly, and everyone got much better with pencils, chalk, and sketchpad. We had a lot of fun in the process, but the last day came at the right time.

With just a couple of weeks of summer vacation left, my students were concentrating on the upcoming challenges of high school and the intrigues of adolescence; not so much on improving their ability to draw landscapes.

The final exam was no exam at all. I wanted the last day to be fun. The kids filed in and watched me write the assignment on the whiteboard: 

Draw a picture titled: “A Place I love”. Following a suitable period of wisecracks and joking around, the kids got serious and began thinking and drawing in earnest. We had the room until two O’clock, so I told them to take all the time they wanted.

I walked around, watching the drawings develop. The ones doing seashores employed a method for realistic-looking back-lighted breakers and waves I’d taught early on. The rolling, grassy hills all had some version of the bending dirt road and lonely tree I‘d used for demonstration.

The students had learned well, but they were drawing places they loved to draw, rather than places they loved to be. I had hoped to see what came from the heart, as well as from the head and the hand.

Emma was absorbed in her work, using every item in her art supplies tote. What I knew of her life seemed so hard, with no rewards, no joys, no family, or friends to counterbalance the hurts. I was dying to see what had come to mind that she was working on so diligently.

Time was up and I walked around the room commenting. The drawing quality ranged from not bad to good, to damn good: all except for Emma’s…her’s was sublime.

She stood up, hesitated for just a moment, and then walked to the front of the class holding her 14X16-sketch paper masterpiece. With everyone quiet and watching, she held it out like a gift.

It was neither a landscape nor a seascape. It was the interior of a room employing perfect lines and vanishing points. North light streamed in from large windows creating soft shadows and depth. Trees and clouds were visible through the windows, and there were people at desks hunched over their work; one of them with shaggy hair and a baseball cap.

At the front of the room, she had drawn a whiteboard showing the assignment I’d written almost two hours earlier; just a scrawl with “love” the only word legible.

I had planned to say something about the importance of art and artists in helping us understand our connections to our fellow humans, and to the world we share. No need. My teary eyes told my students all they needed to know.

The End

October 01, 2021 18:55

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Danny G
22:17 Oct 13, 2021

This was beautiful. Well done.


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Kate Winchester
22:32 Oct 10, 2021

I loved this! The ending was beautiful. I really like the way you connected the students' tears at the end to teacher's Van Gogh tears.


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Mae Stroshane
22:04 Oct 09, 2021

Lovely descriptions and storyline! Art can mean so many things-entertainment, education, therapy, and the beauty of lines and shapes. You've brought out the human connection in art, as when you saw Van Gogh, and the way Emma reaches out to you with her love. As a music therapist, I can relate to your work. Wonderful story!


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Penni Warford
20:05 Oct 09, 2021

Great story.


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