My mother used to describe me as her “rebellious child.” Of course, I protested against that label. Until adulthood, I perceived myself to be shy and quiet child who did what she was told to do. The reality is, speaking is not a prerequisite for expressing oneself! In my early twenties I found my voice… look out world!!
I have always been involved in protesting one injustice or another. I have fought passionately, at times loudly, always persistently and often successfully. The price has been some desired opportunities lost. What is right and just does not always win in the game of life. It also usually does not put one in the best financial situation. I have been able to gather followers, but often not those in power. They’ve had their own agenda, and usually not one we shared.
I remember graduating from college and beginning the process of generating enough resumes to place end to end stretching “from sea to shining sea.” My degree was in Art Education, I was in search of a job as an elementary school art teacher. My first interview was with an outstanding school district in a desirable area of suburban Philadelphia. I met with the Superintendent first, then the Assistant Superintendent. They were impressed! I convinced myself I had the job offer locked up. In this particular school district the building administrators had the final say as to hiring.
I met with the principal. He took me on a tour of the building. The art teacher had been with the district since the dawn of time, had opened the art department of four of the district’s elementary schools. She was retiring having been worshiped by the current building principal. When we stopped in the art room to observe her for a few minutes I observed the entire class of fourth graders drawing every line together following the teachers example on the chalkboard. Her philosophy of art education was the polar opposite of mine!
“What would you do if little Johnny refused to draw that branch of pussy willow with the rest of the class and insisted he was going to draw a boat?” I was frozen in my chair. I really wanted this job and I knew what I had to do to get it. Yet, to do so would compromise who I am and what I believe. I had seconds to make a major decision that would affect a career I was just beginning. I deliberately forfeited the job. My life has been a repetition of these experiences. Despite the losses of jobs and opportunities, I have not regretted my path. I don’t know where this _______ comes from. I would fill in that space with the word “strength,” others would fill in the blank with “stubborn stupidity.” Is it integrity that causes me to walk away, or is it a mental defect that prevents me from “playing well with others and going with the flow?”
My latest theory is that sometimes children absorb the regrets of the parents. My father worked for a large company in Philadelphia in his twenties. He was married with two young sons. He was hired to work as a photographer on a special top secret project. There were no conversations, no explanations, simply directions as to his tasks. He worked with armed guards flanking his sides while he took the specified photographs, developed the film and printed his pictures which he never saw again. The company was surrounded by high fences and armed guards.
Years ago I had taken a trip to Ottawa and visited the National Gallery of Art. An extraordinary building with an exhibition close to my heart, Karsh: The Art of the Portrait. My father and I shared a love of photography. I shared the catalog from the exhibition with him when I returned. He turned a page to a portrait of a man who had one hand on his hip, one holding a pipe in front of a chalkboard with formulas and calculations covering the chalkboard. A small wooden sign rested in the chalk tray, “Do Not Erase.” My father was brought to tears as what may have been one of his greatest unresolved conflicts rose to the surface.
The photograph of what appeared to be a professor of chemistry or math was J. Robert Oppenheimer. My father lived to the age of 84 believing that he had worked on the Manhattan Project ~ the development of the atom bombs that were later dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He saw his involvement in this secret project as the ultimate betrayal. I often wonder if that sense of betrayal was imbedded in his DNA when I was conceived. Once born I began my journey of questioning and refusing to participate in any project I could not successfully integrate into my core being.