Death of a Purple Elephant

Respect in the Real World: Case Study #2

Ali Spagnola‘s Purple Elephant with Flower gives the lie
to the creativity-crushing words of my friend’s teacher.

“I’m not creative,” she said.  “I’m not talented like that.”

She and I talked for a while about the ways in which people develop (or don’t) into artists, and she told me about third grade, in the small town where she grew up.

You see, third grade was where she learned most thoroughly that she was “not talented.”  In particular, she remembered the day her third grade teacher scolded her for a drawing she’d made. She’d never be a good artist, the teacher said, because she didn’t even know that elephants are not purple!  They are gray.

The teacher said this to a child who had only seen elephants a few times in pictures, and who had never traveled more than 25 miles from her small-town Midwestern home in her whole life, so far (though she later became an enthusiastic world traveler).

I had a sudden, powerful wish that I could reach back through time and throttle the teacher.  This woman taught my friend how to multiply and divide, how to write in cursive, how to spell dozens of words–but she also drove a big, heavy spike through the heart of her burgeoning creativity.

I wished I could go back and tell the teacher that real artists know for sure that elephants might be purple, and here’s what one would look like, if you saw it.

I wished I could tell her that a child’s inborn creativity grows from an imagination that learns it’s okay to look beyond accepted norms and think outrageous thoughts–and that it shrivels in blighted agony when crushed.

I wished I could tell her how desperately we need more creative thinkers, if we are to compete as a nation in the 21st century.

My friend’s third-grade teacher later retired and has since died, although her legacy clearly lives on.  Indeed, it is pointless to blame her without acknowledging that she was simply expressing a “truth” that surely she must have learned in the same painful way.  Without doubt, she abused her students’ creativity because her own had been just as ruthlessly stomped.

Nor is she an isolated example.  It’s easy to find her sisters and brothers in schools, homes, churches, and many other places, everywhere.  We express respect (or the lack thereof) in all kinds of ways.  One of the most prevalent ways we disrespect students (and in the process hamstring our own society) is by devastating children’s early creative efforts.

It is endemic in our school systems, because of the way they are currently set up to value conformity and submission above all else.  The Paradigm of “Control” kills creativity.  That is its very nature.  Only by bringing in a Paradigm of “Respect” will we and our schools be able to free ourselves from the iron grip of stunted imaginations and conventional thinking that can do nothing more than repeat the past.

Meanwhile, let’s observe a moment of silence for all the purple elephants we never got to see.

PICTURE CREDIT:  Many thanks to Ali Spagnola, for her painting Purple Elephant with Flower!  It is from her blog, Ali’s Art Adventure.