Children as a Source of Wisdom
A Commemoration for Sept. 11th Presented at the U.S. Botanic Gardens, Washington, D.C.
I want to thank the U.S. Botanic Gardens for exhibiting the Singing Trees and other murals I’ve been creating with young people, and for making this opportunity possible to share my thoughts publicly on September 11th. The mission of the Gardens is to demonstrate the cultural importance of plants as deeply felt symbols of strength, longevity, trust, hope, abundance and other virtues. Both the plants and the paintings are a comforting setting for this difficult day.
It’s clear that adults are making a wretched mess of the world. September 11th is a symbol of that mess. It’s a symbol of what human beings are not good at: the elimination of terrorism, the prevention of war, practicing the Golden Rule found in all religions; the eradication of poverty and the sustainable and equitable use of the planet’s resources. These issues directly or indirectly played a role in the innocent lives that were lost a year ago today. Tonight I’m going to address the unused gift we adults have been given to transform the suffering of the world’s chaos. Tonight I will be speaking about the wisdom of children, as an educator, an artist and a parent.
My first two premises are that we are all stupid and that everyone knows everything. Here’s my proof of the stupidity of the human race:
There are 3.5 Trillion stars for every person on earth!
The universe is so big, and we are so tiny, that there is no way for our knowledge to put a dent into reality. We love trying, and I see that as a good thing. Collectively, there is so much we will never know that anyone assuming he or she knows the whole truth is laughable.
Given our flat out, universal ignorance; there is also a tremendous universal intelligence in our species. My proof is a little shakier here.
A detail from the Linden Singing Tree mural captures the compassion, imagination, humor and boldness that comprise this universal human brilliance. This understanding has to do with the ways that native cultures figure out how to live efficiently in inhospitable environments; the drive to experiment, test, create and build that has led to cities, flights to the moon and medical advancement and the fact that children know when their parents’ marriage isn’t working or when a classroom teacher cares more about them than how they do on the standardized test.
When greatness is asked of people, they more often than not rise to the occasion - as Sept. 11th demonstrated so poignantly. The firefighters, policeman, co-workers and airline passengers who sacrificed their lives for the sake of others have left indelible stories of courage with us. What I am proposing is that greatness be asked of our children as allies in solving the difficult problems we face.
I’d like to give you are a time-line to begin with. The first 15 1/2 feet, the turquoise section, represent the time that dinosaurs lived on the earth. The next 3 feet, the burgundy part, represents when the big mammals dominated the planet - the mastodons and saber tooth tigers. The last two inches represents the 200,000 years or so we’ve been here in our un-hairy form.
I showed this timeline to high school art students when I began the Singing Tree project. This is an international collaborative mural project that was inspired by 10 year old Meredith Miller of rural Virginia who said, “What if all the children of the world made a painting together?” So far, 5000 kids have made five large Singing Trees on display here at the Botanic Gardens. I told the young artists who prepared all the components for the paintings that one of the intentions of the project is to help us understand each other and the earth that sustains enough so our species will be here for a few more inches on the timeline.
These time divisions parallel our brain development - the three brains that make up the current human brain: First, oldest, deepest, longest is the reptile brain - the brain that sustains our organs; the brain that kicks in when survival is threatened; the brain that gives us Israel and Palestine, the My Lai massacre and alligators that eat their children. The second brain is the limbic brain where emotional connection is formed or not formed, depending on the mother, father’s and community’s resonance with a child. This is where love lives and dogs are the champions. This is where the wounds of the world are felt and healed. This is the pre-verbal place that art comes from. And the last little bit of the time-line stands for the new kid on the block, the neo-cortex. It gets thrown out the window with disruption of the limbic system or when the reptile brain is engaged, when survival feels threatened. If the neo-cortex gets hooked up directly with the reptile brain because the limbic system is damaged beyond repair; we get Columbine, Hitler and Al-Quaeda.
Our schools usually focus only on the neo-cortex, while the other brains dictate the emotional complexity teachers are confronted with. Without meaning, there is no memory and that is one of the main challenges of education today. That is why art, which combines the neo-cortex with the deeper brains, is a powerful tool to increase the meaning of academics.
Given this back-drop of brain development, there is an endless loop of energy that is available to us. Most children learn well when they are deeply engaged in reality and our reality deeply needs their fresh vision, humor and hope. When adults give to children, children return the gift. This process is eye-to-eye, soul-to soul, nobody-knows-much-of anything, everyone-knows-something - children and adults alike.
My work has been driven by Joseph Renzulli’s phrase - “Children learn best when they are expressing a real interest with a real product for a real audience.” Renzulli specializes in gifted education out of the University of Connecticut. He believes that what works for gifted kids usually works for everyone, and I have found that to be the case. For almost two decades, I have asked children to express their values, their joys, their insights in the concrete product of paintings and plays that are then shared with the adult world -including prison inmates, old people in nursing homes, hospital patients, the U.S. Senate, tourists at National Geographic’s Explorer’s Hall, museums and here now at the Botanic Gardens. I’ll be sharing some of the remarkable images they’ve created with you tonight, to fortify you for the tasks ahead.
My work is also reinforced by theologian Matthew Fox who has clarified the role of the artist in a way that makes sense to me. His concepts apply equally to leaders and teachers, as far as I can see. There are four jobs of the artist: To intoxicate, to tell the truth, to transform yourself and to transform the world.
One of the reasons why I love making art with people, and young people in particular, is that I am intoxicated by the symbols I am privileged to witness. The images rise up, move through the hand and into the world. This is also true in my own creative process.
Who in the world doesn’t want to be splashed with “YES?” Thank you, Ceci Falk and Daniel Ramey of Rappahannock County High School in Washington, Virginia. I had asked the students to work as teams to make images of what they believe in, incorporating three-dimensional hands in some way. Hands are how we make our beliefs real. And the Latin root of the word “human” means “Divine Hand.” Creating with our hands adds humanity and divinity to the world.
(I have worked collaboratively on art and drama projects in the public schools of Rappahannock for over twenty years, both as an Artist-in-Residence for the Virginia Commission of the Arts, and as a certified Social Studies and Art teacher.)
9th grader Sydney Moineau’s angel makes me heady because of it’s passion, exuberant color and searching quality.
Wendy Gillis portrayed the principal of Rappahannock County High School in Virginia after Holbein’s King Henry. The painting is particularly funny because Jack Raines is a rough and ready rural guy with a streak of language that sometimes stubborn adolescents need to hear - “I’m gonna knock your heads together!!!” He’s a former football coach whose favorite movie is “Pulp Fiction” - a passionate educator who fights to put kids first. Wendy’s passionate reproduction was made in service of surprising the senior class at its graduation banquet and honoring a beloved principal who was leaving. The humor and affection of the image elevated the school’s spirit.
A ten-year study of after-school programs in LA found that the art programs did more to decrease drug use and gang involvement and increase school attendance than sports programs and re-medial programs. When young people are encouraged to preserve and use the endless flow of ideas and images that occur naturally in childhood - when they stay in touch with their creative well-spring which art programs support - they are less vulnerable to drugs and peer pressure. Fox says that one of the reasons that our culture is so addicted to alcohol and drugs is because art is not doing its mission.
The next image demonstrates the other three parts of Fox’s definition. The 15 year-old who made this drawing told the truth of her step-father’s sexual abuse.
In doing so, she transformed herself. That terrible experience lost much of its power over her life when she captured the sheer terror on paper and shared it with others. She put her pastel, which is 30" x 20", in a public art show. A person offered $75 for it, which she refused. Her drawing was a symbol of her triumph and she wanted to keep it. Now, her image is transforming the world. The National Association for Child Abuse Prevention is using it in their efforts. She has been invited to exhibit the pastel this fall in the survivor’s art show put on by Pittsburgh Action against Rape. “I want other children to know they are not alone,” she said. This empowerment is another example of an endless loop: Healing oneself - healing the world.
Returning to the idea that everyone knows everything, I see the job of the teacher as creating a space for learning to occur. Malidoma Some of Burkino Faso puts it this way: we each have a black box inside of us like a pilot’s black box that has information on our life’s journey. It’s the role of the elders to help young people open their black boxes so they can see what’s inside. If the elders fail in this responsibility, young people will often use drugs, sex and violence to get into their black box.
Art lends itself physically to allowing young people to discover what they already know, as well as to increase their powers of observation. I took Malidoma’s idea and made the creation of black boxes the semester test of art classes in a rural Virginia public high school. I asked my students to make a box from a large piece of cardboard following visual directions, then to shape an image of their past, their present and their future or the passions that will guide them.
The dominant images inside Osha Berry’s box are a miniature rock wall, as one of his passions is working with his hands, and an image of closeness between friends - another priority in his life.
Amanda Weakley writes on the outside of her box “The good times of today are the sad thoughts of tomorrow.” Her wise-beyond-her-years sorrow is balanced by the invitation “Enter Something Magical.”
Marlo Morgan relates a conversation with an Australian aborigine in Mutant Message Down Under: “One of the men asked me if it was true some people live their entire lives and never know what their God-given talents are? Yes, I had to admit, many (people of my culture) did not think they were given any talent, and they did not think about the purpose of life until they were dying. Big tears came into his eyes as he shook his head, to show how difficult it was to believe such a thing could happen.” In a society where it is expected that each person will make full use of his or her gifts, each person does.
I made this mural with 65 high school art students. They photographed elementary students and each other, drew the faces on the board, and painted as much and as ambitiously as they chose. Some painted somebody’s shirt; others painted three complete faces. It stands outside the Rappahnnock County School Board on Route 211 West. To draw the human face is one of the most challenging feats in art.
The first image an infant comes to recognize is a face. We read faces for social cues that provide survival information. The face is where the mystery of individuality lies. We are very critical when a face isn’t portrayed correctly. Teenagers are especially critical of themselves in their longing for realistic mastery at this age.
The purpose of the painting (Fig. 12) is to celebrate the beauty of Rappahannock’s young people while my students increased their understanding of the face and rendering three dimensions in paint. This finished piece was the teenager’s gift to the other children of their county, as well as to the adults. The superintendent was afraid the mural would be vandalized, being on the highway. No mural I’ve ever made with kids has ever been damaged by other kids. That’s part of the loop. They understand the power of heart, thought and imagination when they see it, often better than adults do.
Prison inmates reinforced the idea of young people pursuing what has been bestowed upon them when I took “The Web of Life” mural to Camp #7 in Virginia. 5th, 6th and 7th grade biology students made the 16’ wide x 8’ high portable painting.
I read the following written responses from the prison inmates to 600 students, including those who had made the painting. One inmate said, “Thank you for sharing this magnificent piece of work. It shows the enormous projects kids can do. Keep up the good work, kids, and as long as you shoot for the stars, you won’t be condemned for trying. If you think that you have any talent, please go after it.”
Another made a poem: I am the Web of Life. Within my web there is conflict. I am good and evil, black and white, quiet and thunderous, always changing, always rearranging. We spend hours searching for God, looking everywhere but here. He enters us and exits us as our chest rises and falls. We shine...”
And finally, Jason Harad wrote, “I don’t really know how to put my feelings onto paper, but I love the painting and what it stands for. One thing I can tell you: Listen to your mother and father. If had listened to my mother, I wouldn’t be here. And prison is no place to be.” Who better to tell children the importance of listening to their mothers and fathers? That message carried weight coming from that messenger; another example of the endless loop. The children brought inspiration to the inmates and the inmates brought wisdom to the youth.
Research is the key element to addressing our universal ignorance. Imagination is the key element to harnessing our universal knowing. This is true for adults facing a world that gives birth to the horror of the World Trade Center collapsing, the daily murders in the Middle East and the 900,000 children who will die this year from highly preventable measles.
Research and imagination are also essential in structuring learning environments that are going to successfully compete with the media today. The media is the most effective instructor that too many children have. Television and movies use music, movement, language, story, pictures and imagination to convey information efficiently. This is the teachers’ competition.
The crisis in education today is not that test scores are low, but that kids don’t want to be in school, especially high school. Many feel it’s a waste of their time. The best way to compete with the enormous power of the commercial culture is to actively engage young people in creating culture - a culture of wisdom that the species needs for its survival, seeing the big picture that we’re here together alone in space.
The 16’ x 8’ painting you’re looking at (Fig. 14) is called “This is Our World 2000.” 15 upper school students at Hearthstone School made it as part of their government and geography classes. Located in Sperryville, Va. Hearthstone is an arts-based parent cooperative started in 1996. After gridding, numbering and drawing all the continents, the students researched issues in democracy and the state of sustainable environmental practices. Their sources were the Washington Post, National Geographic, Internet, books and specialists. Then they painted their concerns on the board.
I would like you to compare this image of Africa (Fig. 15) with one from a mural made a decade earlier with 400 9th grade geography and art students called “How in the World? 1990.” (Fig. 16)
Though the latter is busier, both portray the fragility of the children.
One of the Hearthstone students, Rachel Berta, painted an ex-child soldier from Sierra Leone with the Revolutionary United Front’s initials carved in his chest. The R.U.F. stole boys, gave them drugs, put machine guns in their hands and told them to kill their families or be killed. The ten-year civil war in Sierra Leone was largely fought for control of the diamond trade. The Cottontree Association in Pittsburgh, which has sent $3 million worth of food and supplies to rebuild Sierra Leone, will use Rachel’s image in a fundraiser. Once again, a young person’s art is doing needed work in the world.
The students are saying that Columbine is important in Fig. 18 - there are 14 holes with blood dripping down in Colorado - the number of kids killed by handguns each day in the U.S. One of the students lost a little brother to a handgun accident. They are saying the five legged frog, the murder of Matthew Shephard, the murder of 1st grader Kayla Rolland by a classmate, Elian Gonzalez and Mia Rose from Warrenton, Virginia who helped homeless people and died of leukemia are important. The rose is inspired by the Yaqui Indian belief that flowers ward off evil. There are flowers by the children in both murals.
Ten years earlier, a bomb was thrown into a school bus in Israel. I heard about it as I drove to work on the mural. I told the students. One of them dashed off this image - one of the most powerful summaries of the conflict in the Middle East I’ve seen.
A geography student was so moved by the effect that corruption had on the lives of people in South America in 1990, that she came up with the idea of tear with a symbol of corruption in it. Then an art student took the concept and painted the image with the help of her art teacher.
A word about collaboration - by working side by side with adult artists, the contagion of creativity occurs in both directions. Creativity is also infectious between the students. Technical instruction is carried out in service of a large idea, which makes the drudgery of every ambitious project more purposeful. As the adult artist, I take responsibility for ensuring the unity and beauty of the finished product by creating a structure for the students to be creative within.
Speaking of contagion, a Hearthstone student came up with the idea of a yin/yang that symbolizes closed and open consciousness by using an open eye and closed eye. Kristin Powers contrasted a gun and hands in prayer in the United States and a fist and a handshake in South Africa.
Her classmate, Carsie Blanton, picked up on the idea and made an Afghani woman whose nose had been cut off for disobeying her husband contrasted with a man and woman facing each other as peers. The respect in their faces gives me hope for the human race.
LISTENING and LOOKING are the keys to unlocking the wisdom of children as well as adults. When 10 year old Meredith Miller said “What if all the children of the world made a painting together?,” I listened carefully.
As I’ve witnessed almost 5000 images coming together to create “The Singing Trees,” I am looking.
I want to tell you the story that inspired the image for this international mural project, a story that all the participating children have heard It’s from Kate Seredy’s book, The Singing Tree: One night, during World War I, soldiers crawled all night long on their bellies to get a way from the enemy. They didn’t see any living thing, because everything had been destroyed by war. When the dawn came, there was one tree still alive. Birds from far away that don’t normally come together were in the tree - singing. Our planet is the Singing Tree of the Solar System, the only place for billions of miles where life exists that we know of. Everything that divides the human race is not as important as the fact that we are alone together in space.
I looked carefully when 17 year-old Aaron May of southern Virginia cut out Michealangelo’s Pieta and plunked it down in the middle of a painting of the Alamo. I said to him, “You are wise beyond your years” and received his permission to use his idea for a large painting. I call it, “Mother, Behold Your Son.”
It feels particularly important to share this painting tonight. (Fig. 24-28) It is my prayer that my two sons, and the sons of all the mothers of the world, will not be lost to the violence of war. Of course, this applies to daughters, too. The painting is also my prayer to honor those who have been lost.
As I researched the images of war, I found that crumpled bodies looked the same no matter what the time or place (these are details of the painting) -
be it a union soldier,
a confederate soldier,
or the formerly smiling young men in the Boer war.
The mourning Moslem women reinforce Mary’s presence and women’s loss of husbands and sons to war. Their bound nature reflects my feeling that women have allowed war to take their loved ones, instead of using the warrior spirit to forge a means of solving conflicts without the loss of unique and precious lives. Because of women’s unique intimacy with children, we have an awareness that needs to be matched with effectiveness in seeing that children are valued members of our world.
Aaron May’s creativity gave me the space to learn, the space to explore the message of Jesus to “Love your enemy” - perhaps the most challenging words ever spoken. Aaron was MY teacher. As educator Karen Bading says, “I teach. I learn. They are the same.” Once again, there is an endless the loop.
I want to conclude my remarks by saying that we have a huge cadre of intelligence, will and vision to sic on the complex problems we’re facing and we are ignoring them. If we treated young people like graduate students, hooking them up with professionals in their area of interest to solve real problems, we’d be farther down the road of a world that works for everyone. And most of the kids would be excited about using their talents to serve their community and humanity.
For much of human history, children had a real role in a family’s survival. In our culture, their current function is to be consumers, and they are being consumed in the process. Peter Miller, an American photographer living in Japan, commented that it is often the adults who have the attention deficit disorder when it comes to their children.
As I hear about the state of children in our nation and world, I keep thinking of Goya’s painting - “Saturn Devouring his Children.”
5,400 19 to 24 year olds committed suicide last year in the United States. There are 300,000 children who are being used as soldiers in 30 different countries. The eight million homeless children in Brazil alone are staggering. There are too many children engaged in the kind of labor that barely contributes to their family and stunts bodies and minds. Neglect, poverty and curable diseases cause rampant and needless suffering.
A Colorado teacher specializing in Gifted and Talented Education for 30 years has noticed a marked increase in giftedness in general, with one area increasing significantly - emotional intelligence. She is seeing more children of exceptional brightness who cannot stand to see living things suffering. Oren Lyon of the Onandaga tribe says that the term elder applies to a young person who has commitment. I am seeing many elders among the youth now in the inner cities, suburbia, and the country. The reason is that the survival of our endangered species depends on the wisdom of everyone, including the next generation. We are looking at the possibility of no more inches on the timeline.
When Meredith Miller made her leaf last week for the Gingko Singing Tree, she wrote “Stop War.” I told her that stopping war is something that people aren’t so good at and invited her to work with me to make peace. She agreed. Meredith is an elder.
So is the 5th grader from Pennsylvania who made the following drawing on Sept. 12, 2001. I don’t know who she is. The image came to me via email. I tried to track down the young artist down, without success.
When I look at this image, I see a mind that understands the importance of liberty, with the inclusion of the statue in the foreground. I see a mind that sees the embrace of God when death occurs. I see a fearless mind that understands eternity.
Along with her numerous peers, this young artist conveys her resonance with the Australian Aborigine wisdom - again from Mutant Message Down Under: “If you hurt someone, you hurt yourself. If you help someone, you help yourself. Blood and bone is in all people. Real people think about forever. It is all one, our ancestors, our unborn children, all of life everywhere.”
Human beings are not self-contained units. We shape each other. Remember Rachel Berta’s little soldier from Sierra Leone? Our country largely ignored the war there (unlike in Kosovo). According to FBI sources reported in the Washington Post, Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist network began buying diamonds from the R.U.F. in 1998. Al-Quaeda laundered millions of dollars by buying untraceable diamonds from the rebels just three months before September 11th. We ignore inhumanity at our peril as the world grows smaller. This is another loop, a negative loop.
On this sad day of remembrance, I hope you have found solace in the power and depth of the pictures you’ve seen. I know there are people in this room who lost friends last Sept. 11th. This day makes vivid each of our individual losses.
As a nation, we publicly and helplessly witnessed the unexpected, violent loss of life. We have been blessed to have that be a rare occurrence. It is not the case for many countries. May Sept. 11th teach us to take nothing for granted, especially each other. May it affirm how little we truly know - How little we know about the hearts of others, how little we know about how to create homeland security in a world that does not work for at least two-thirds of the population and how little we know about how to be kind when we’re afraid and hurting. May it also affirm how much we know - about the importance of freedom, about the privilege we have in this country and about how to be kind when we’re afraid and hurting.
I want to leave you with one final loop: if we commit ourselves to making a world that is safe for children, the grown-ups will have heaven on earth, too. It can be done. It must be done. “And a child shall lead them.”