As was our custom, I started class by telling “Ant and Elephant,” a world tale from India. The story begins with the animals naming Elephant as King. Once named, the previously gentle animal becomes a bully. Because he is so big, none of the animals dare to challenge him. Only Ant, the smallest animal figures out how to solve the problem. Everyone in class had a minute to fingerpaint an image of ingenuity. When a student, I’ll call him Jeff, showed his image, the class and I gasped. Normally, I never commented on students’ images but time and again Jeff’s images were so brilliant that this time I couldn’t help myself. Neither could the rest of the class. “How did you do that in one minute?” asked a student? Jeff shrugged. “You’re an artist,” exclaimed another. The class murmured their agreement. Jeff shrugged again, and again, deflecting all compliments. It felt as if the more they complimented him the smaller he got.
I had noticed his images becoming darker and his words more bleak as the semester progressed. Now I worried about Jeff’s inability to take in the feedback offered by the class. In the past, I’d often thought I needed to say something about what I saw, but held back. I live with inner darkness. I have to be careful not to impose what I see and feel on someone else. I don’t always trust my perception. And yet, each time someone called him an artist Jeff became more agitated. Something was definitely wrong.
I asked to speak with him in my office after class. “I can’t,” he said, “I’m busy.”
“Whatever you have to do can wait. We need to talk.” When he told me he had to go, I told him we could talk outside. The more he resisted, the more certain I was I needed to talk with him. As a professor I have a certain amount of authority and I used every bit of it. “Let’s sit on that bench. Now!”
I didn’t mince words. “Why did you get so upset when the class called you an artist.?” Jeff stared at the grass, watching an ant carry a crumb twice its size. “If Ant could tame Elephant, why can’t you be an artist?” One thing didn’t really have anything to do with the other but it was all I could think of.
It took him a while to respond. “I used to draw a lot when I was little. My father always made fun of me. It got so bad I just stopped showing him what I drew and painted. When I came to the university I wanted to study art but he told me the only major he’d support was engineering. He says he won’t pay for my “doodling,” as he calls it. I just can’t do it anymore. Life isn’t worth living.” He refused to look at me.
“Your father is wrong. You are an artist. You have the right to do what you love.” Jeff shrugged. I recognize feelings of hopeless/helpless, knowing only too well how debilitating they can be. ”Look,” I said, “if your father is so worried about you not being able to support yourself once you have your degree, tell him you’ll sign a contract promising not to ask him for any money after you graduate.” Jeff laughed bitterly. I felt increasingly desperate. “Take back your life, Jeff. If your father won’t pay for your studies, apply for a scholarship. You have talent. You’re smart. Let me help you. Please!”
Jeff stopped watching the ant and looked at me. “Why do you care? What’s one student more or less?”
“Every student matters to me. Why don’t you matter to you?” He shrugged. I could feel my frustration and desperation rising, especially when he brushed aside my suggestion that he go to the Counseling Center. “Jeff, if you’re so determined that the life you’re living isn’t worth living, why not do what you want? Change your major to art. Take control of your life. I’ll help in any way I can. So will the art faculty.”
“What about my father?”
“What about your mother? Won’t she help?”
“She does what my father tells her to do.”
“Maybe standing up for yourself will impress your father and he’ll agree to pay for your studies, but if he won’t, it’s not the end. Your tuition is paid for the rest of the year. You have time to apply for scholarships and work study.”
Jeff stared at me. I met his gaze. I could feel his struggling. “Tell me one reason my life is worth living.”
I normally never talk about my life, but it was all I knew to do. “If I tell you something, will you keep it to yourself?” He nodded. “I grew up with abuse—physical, sexual, emotional—I was told I was stupid, unlovable, clumsy . . . I believed what I heard. I thought I deserved to be abused. I tried to kill myself several times—obviously unsuccessful. I know about despair.”
“But you’re a college professor. You have a PhD. You teach courses no one else does. You care about imagination and creativity. What happened?”
“I kept going, like a horse with blinders, one foot in front of the other. I became a teacher. I create a class where students feel safe and can flourish. And now, here I am, a professor in the Honors Program, teaching the brightest students in the university, like you. What I was told was wrong. What your father told you is wrong. He has money, but you have power. Use it!”
Jeff changed his major. His father disowned him. He qualified for financial aid, work/study and scholarships. He graduated summa cum laude, majoring in art.
Nancy King is a widely published author and a professor emerita at the University of Delaware, where she has taught theater, drama, playwriting, creative writing, and multidisciplinary studies with an emphasis on world literature. She has published seven previous works of nonfiction and five novels. Her new memoir, Breaking the Silence, explores the power of stories in healing from trauma and abuse. Her career has emphasized the use of her own experience in being silenced to encourage students to find their voices and to express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with authenticity, as a way to add meaning to their lives.