Everywhere I look there is paint. In the bristles of the brushes, hastily run through the sink, that bake atop the windowsill, on the collage of red and black splotches staining the metal table, filling bottles on the back shelf with tempera greens and blues, and dirtying the smocks my classmates gleefully slip on. To them, making papier-mâché panda bears out of old newspapers is a reward for practicing rows of cursive Ks and struggling through multiplication quizzes. I am the one who stares at the clock waiting for a sluggish second hand to make its orbit so I can be a minute closer to the well-worn marble notebooks tucked inside my desk.
Mrs. Grigg is our art teacher. She has a mane of gray curls, wears long, flowing skirts, and smells of musk. I discover that her first name is Yolanda, an ethereal departure from the Pats and Joannes who preside over the PTA bake sales, and I think maybe I can ask her what is wrong with me. Yolanda will tell me the truth. But I see the way she scowls when my ruler fails to prevent crooked lines, and when my green, left-handed scissors leave ragged edges, maligning what could have been a perfect triangle. So I remain silent. One day we are making Santa Clauses out of construction paper. For the artistically average children they will become centerpieces at the Christmas dinner table. I will toss mine into a garbage can on the walk home from school. As I curl strips of white paper around a pencil to make Santa’s beard, frustrated they aren’t half as springy as those the kids around me are churning out, I sulk.
“Are you miserable?” Mrs. Grigg asks me as she shifts the glasses from around her neck to the bridge of her nose and peers at my deformed Santa. I nod. Finally, I tell myself, Yolanda realizes no good can come from me sitting in this room pretending I have a shred of artistic talent. I fear art class almost as much as gym, where I can’t dribble a basketball and am picked last for teams. Even when the kickball is placed on home plate instead of rolled to me, my foot fails to make contact. Surely, being uncoordinated is punishment enough for an elementary school girl surrounded by ruthlessly laughing children. But Mrs. Grigg does not tell me I can sit in the corner and read my language arts textbook as I have dreamed. “You should have told me. You could have made a dreidel,” she says. She leaves me choking in the mist of her earthy perfume before I can tell her I am not Jewish. I continue winding shreds of paper around the unsharpened No. 2, one eye on the clock.
Not every child is an art prodigy. Some eight-year-olds make mature watercolors that parents tack up on the refrigerator behind Domino’s Pizza magnets in the hope their son will eventually get a full scholarship to the School of Visual Arts. Others say, How lovely, probably relieved when their offspring bring home smiley-faced stick figures instead of dark clouds. I do not bring home drawings. Underneath my bed there is a huge tin of crayons—chubby pastels mixed in with my favorite red, whittled down to a nub, and the burnt sienna that, no matter how many times I use it, looks untouched. I love the smell, peeling off the paper, grinding the bright, waxy shards into a paste resembling lipstick. I cannot leave a stationery store without an armful of coloring books, their pages filled with tiara-donning princesses and cute cats perched on tree boughs waiting to slither into Technicolor. But when it comes time to enliven these images with Crayolas, my strokes are always uneven, manic squiggles that bleed outside the lines. Paint-with-water books are another curiosity, watching H2O magically turn, say, an ivory Care Bear pink. But in these cases, when my sloppiness leads to a droplet of purple turning Rapunzel’s gold hair a murky brown, I’m at my mother’s kitchen table.
While gym and art induce trepidation, joy is found in reading—in the Golden Books I pore over, and, when I am older, in the arrival of the class’s monthly Troll Books shipment. In first grade I am placed in my own reading group. The teacher tells me my skills are on par with those of fourth-graders and that I should feel special. As I sit alone with her every day, breezing through the sentences, I feel words are my destiny, even though I know it is yet another barrier separating me from my dodge ball–loving, marker-wielding classmates. To them I am a strange girl reading from a strange book. It is during this time I discover I have a knack for crafting short stories. I lose myself in fantastical worlds that resemble glamorous ABC soap operas more than Fork Lane Elementary School, and I am happy. One teacher hands out worksheets with introductory scenarios that force us to dream up riveting middles and ends. A year later a different one tells us we must build a tale around the solitary word she writes on the chalkboard. My hand cannot produce loopy handwriting fast enough to keep up with the ideas that gush forth. I look around the room and now it is the others’ turn to glance at the clock, waiting for words that will not ignite. Teachers read my work out loud and the students roll their eyes at my vivid descriptions, but when Mrs. Grigg singles out an impressive painting of lapping waves the other kids are in awe of their chosen classmate. I am still the kid who doesn’t draw Mother’s Day cards. I am hopelessly dull.
My artistic inferiority is heightened by my family’s successes. My father is a shoe designer and his signature is an elaborate scroll that is often accompanied by the sketch of a graceful high heel. My mother uses her Fashion Institute of Technology degree to draw ladies in sundresses for department store ads. One aunt is a former art teacher married to a caricaturist; another showcases her craftiness through greeting cards and metal and paper jewelry. During family holidays, a postsupper, precannoli board game is customary. If it is Pictionary, I know to stay in the other room and turn on the TV. Never again will I watch them all sitting there doubled over in laughter as I attempt to sketch an apple that looks like a warped circle. “You can write,” my mother tells me. “That’s your art.”
More than a decade later, in college, there is a beautiful yellow building with columns in the center of campus. It is called Preston, and it is where the creative folks live and eat dinner together. Unhappy with my current roommate who talks about smug sandy-haired frat boys with her newfound sorority sisters, I know I must move here. The application asks for a sample of artwork. I write an ode to the four seasons in colored pencils, my attempt at artistic flourish. They let me in. I meet wannabe musicians and actors, show tunes drift through dorm room doors, and I develop a crush on a guy whose illustrations allow me to see beauty in art, not dread. I am liberated from Mrs. Grigg’s classroom. Here, it is a good thing I write short stories.
As the years push me further into adulthood, I grow apart from the imaginative tales I once wove and bury myself deeper in the restrictive comfort of journalism. I make my living as a writer, but I abandon any notion of myself as an artist. My passion for art, however, increases daily. Instead of feeling bad about my own deficient skills, I gawk in museums, I interview interior designers, and I revel in the powerful frames photographer friends capture on film. Then, while riffling through a dresser drawer, I uncover an old poem, something I wrote in eleventh grade. It won an award and I’m not sure why. It’s hyperbolic and a little dirty, comprised of lines like “the imprint of my lace is engrained in your skin, yet you are impenetrable.” I was a sixteen-year-old envisioning love as “trembling bodies clinging to callous flesh.” I remember writing these words as a teenager, how accomplished I felt splicing together such dramatic snapshots, and how my legs were numb from sitting cross-legged for hours, too absorbed in writing to untangle them. Carefully, I refold the poem. I leave it on my nightstand.
When she’s not interviewing architects and designers as managing editor of Hospitality Design magazine, Alia Akkam eats her way through her favorite borough as editor of Edible Queens and pens stories on restaurant and cocktail culture for outlets such as Paper and Liquor.com.