(a rough excerpt from my upcoming book, An Uncommon Education)
THE MODELING STAND
All the years I was in art school, I did not shave my legs, maybe as a mark of rebellion, probably as an expression of freedom. Art students were expected to do weird things but I was frankly tired of shaving. After I became pregnant, however, my muscular, hairy calves made me feel masculine, unattractive and big, so I once again took up the shaver and removed my “leg pelts” as my son would say.
But from up here on the modeling stand, observing this year’s crop of freshman art students, I would not have needed to bother. In fact, I might have fit in more.
One heavy-set girl has a very short skirt on with fishnet stockings sporting a hole the size of a softball. A dog collar with lethal looking spikes encircles her neck. She smiles at me when she catches me looking at her and her countenance is sweet.
Another girl has so many piercings on her face that it is difficult to tell what her features truly look like. Down her bosom drape chains that are beefy enough to pull a jeep out of the mud and one has a large combination lock hanging from it as a “fashion pendant”.
I feel dated.
“How many of you could handle your mother being up here and draw her in class?”
“No way,” a few chime out. “That would be way too creepy and weird. Why do you ask?”
“Because my son will most likely go to art school when he grows up and he could very well attend Kutztown. Since this is my job, I was just wondering if this was something he would be able to handle.”
This opens up the conversation between the model and the students who glance up from their large newsprint tablets at regular intervals to study the curve of my arm, the shadow under my neck etc. It is good for me to be here and continue to touch base with youth, so I am not shocked nor incapable of understanding my own children when they arrive at this age.
I ask them why they get pierced and they openly share.
“It is an adrenalin rush when the needle goes in. It makes me feel alive. And it makes you crave that feeling, so you keep getting more piercings so you can keep experiencing it.”
Wow, I think to myself. I get the love of adrenalin. I get the need to feel excitement. I think how I’ve chosen to turn my own children onto those feelings in life- by hanging from a half-inch nylon climbing rope, or flying in an open cockpit airplane, or paddling with fifty alligators a day in the swamp. I’m trying to show my children a different way than to feel the need to resort to piercings for thrills in life.
From the modeling stand, I watch these students, these still kids, masquerading as adults, who are so actively immersed in seeking, finding out who they really are. I watch them as much as they watch me. They are trying to learn about form and how muscles move under my skin, and how the red upholstered chair reflects the warm color right back onto my bare thigh, like a mirror. I watch them and try to understand how they think, what they feel, what is important to them, what they crave and need.
I ask them the thinking behind their tongue bars. One very, very thin girl offers up her feelings, “I got a tongue bar because it’s a way to deal with boredom. I play with it in my mouth. It gives me something to do. Plus, it helps me not to eat. Many foods are just too labor intensive to eat when you have a tongue bar and so I don’t gain weight.”
My eyes well up with tears and I have to look away from her. I think about her crying-out heart. I think about eating disorders and peer pressure and wanting to belong. I think about her mother. I think about my own daughter and son as they brace themselves to begin public school, against their will, I might add, and what might lie ahead.