Beautiful Struggles

jar of crayons next to child's hand coloring on drawing
Robert Bergman '93

My son, Ben (De Smet Jesuit Class of 2030), is six years old. When it comes to being a dad, I always wanted to be the kind who didn’t care if his kids colored outside of the lines; but, oh man, when my son colors, I really want him to stay in the lines.

Especially at school.

His first grade teacher actually commented that he doesn’t stay in the lines, so we practiced. He brought a picture home of the Beatles on Abbey Road that he colored during music class, and there were stray black lines all over the page. The lines went every which way and had no pattern to them. My wife and I asked him about the random lines and he said, “That is the road.”

Well, that explains it. He had a vision, he executed it, and he had an explanation. Who am I to tell him to now change and do it “correctly.”

As a parent, this is a hard lesson to learn.

We want our children to be “correct” and do things “right” because we’ve failed so many times in our own lives, and our wisdom can help them be more successful. It’s hard to step back and let our kids make their own mistakes and learn from them. It can be even harder to realize that their image of the project isn’t “wrong,” especially if they have an idea and can justify it. Here is where my patience usually waxes; I want to jump in and help them get it “right.”

One of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman, gave the commencement speech at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts in May 2012 entitled “Make Good Art.” He encouraged the new graduates to, “… now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.”

I’m not a relativist—there exists right and wrong; but there are also mistakes to learn from.

As a teacher, a large part of my job is to balance holding a student to a higher standard while enabling him to express his unique perspective. We ask students to tap into their imaginations at the same time we have to grade creations they have spent time on and are proud of. We need them to follow rules and meet expectations, but we want them to push boundaries and test the limits of their creativity.

Recently, I had a student who felt overwhelmed and was prepared to quit my class because the perception was that it was “too hard.” He decided to stay and take up the challenge. I was so proud of him and I took him aside and told him so. There is nothing more beautiful than a student who, through much struggle, learns a skill and applies it to the work in a way that works for him. There is an internal mental ballet that teachers observe, and we benefit from the experience as much as our young charges. We are renewed, and they are energized.

In the Superhero English class that I teach, students create a unique superhero that cannot be found anywhere else in the DC or Marvel Universes. They incorporate our study of archetypes and modern mythology, and they spend the last weeks of their high school career developing characters and writing origin stories. Every year they surprise me with their ingenuity and invention. Their characters reflect every moment of their lives, even if they don’t realize it.

Inevitably, students will ask, “Is this wrong?” when inventing their characters and I always reply, “No. Your creation cannot be wrong if you follow the parameters. Any character you create is right.”

We are most like God when we create, when we become inspired to do something we’ve never done before and then set it free to be judged by the universe.

For my students, once the fear of being incorrect disappears, it is wonderful to see their creativity shine through. It is then that they find their own road to success, even if it is just crayon lines on Abbey Road.

Huh, well … maybe I don’t care if they color outside the lines after all.

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