I’ll never forget the time I was setting up class when a student ran up to me and excitedly thrust a picture he’d drawn at home in front of my face. In the center was a crude image of an airplane engulfed in flames flying directly at a high mountain. To the right was a smiling boy parachuting out of harms way.
“That’s me!” my 3rd grade student exclaimed.
“But who is that?” I said, pointing to the two horrified faces looking out the windows of the doomed plane.
“That’s my sister and my mom!” he said with a smile.
I caught my breath and didn’t know how to react. I was just a 22 year old art grad teaching at a local recreation center. I knew how to encourage children in their positive artistic pursuits but had no idea how to deal with such a dark vision.
His sister sauntered into the room and slumped in a chair as the other students wandered in. I took the image from the boy and put it on a high shelf in a cabinet. “That’s not a very nice way to picture your family. They look like they’re going to get hurt,” I said. “You can have the picture back after class.” He scowled at me and retreated to his seat.
When their mother came to pick them up an hour later I showed her the picture and explained what it depicted. She was taken aback. “That’s mean!” she yelled to the boy. “You love your sister!” She thanked me for sharing the image and dragged the two out the door with the picture clenched tightly in her fist.
I was reminded of this incident when I read “Welcome to the Gun Show” on Jessica Balsley’s blog The Art of Education. In her article and in the comments thread there is a lively debate about when and how children may be allowed to draw guns in their art classes. Some teachers have a “zero tolerance” policy, while others allow guns if the person is a police officer and it is part of their wardrobe. Jessica explains that when she tells the boys (and it is just boys) that they can’t draw guns, they wind up drawing spears, swords and arrows. It’s an arms reduction that meets the letter, if not the spirit, of the law.
While I rarely see kids drawing guns specifically, I don’t have a explicit policy that bans them. When I see images with weapons and fighting I usually question the child as to why everyone in their picture is so mad at each other. Can’t they all just get along? Sometimes this diffuses the drawn conflict and the child adjusts his picture. But other times they will reference the latest action movie or cartoon character and act like explosions and blood are the coolest things in the world.
Although I do my best to discourage violence in their imagery I have no control of the media they consume and the messages they absorb from it. Unfortunately those messages aren’t always about collaboration and building friendships. They’re about conflict, competition and the destruction of others.