- This blog post was written by Lahari Pullakhandam -
It was June and the start of a sweltering summer. I was sitting on the sidewalk of my house with a girl in green shorts and pigtails on one side of me and a little boy with scraped knees and buck teeth on the other. We sat there eating popsicles on the curb, the ice melting and dripping down our hands, mimicking splashes of water color on paper as blue raspberry fused with strawberry red. I got up and called out, “Alright guys we’ve gotta get started!” and began to gather the other kids to go back inside and work.
One would expect the ringing of complaints in the air of wanting more time to play, but instead what was heard was a collective cheer to begin again.
This was two weeks into what was probably one of the best summers of my life.
I had just graduated high school and had no real plans for the summer. My previous breaks had been filled with resume builders and summer classes, but now that I was headed to UNC-Chapel Hill, I had a seemingly endless number of empty weeks in front of me. Don’t get me wrong — I embraced it. I lazily watched movies and slept in past 12 pm. I made odd concoctions out of what was left in the fridge and dug my nose into cheesy romance novels. My mother, who hated my idleness, insisted that I do something constructive, suggesting that I “Get back in to art!” But honestly, I think I was dreading it. I hadn’t kept up with my art classes or even had the time to doodle because I was so busy with school and doing whatever it was that I thought I had to do to get into college. I forgot what it felt like to sit down and paint until the early hours of the morning, or what it felt like to sketch in wide sweeping strokes at an easel. I think I was scared that I wouldn’t get it right the first time, and that perfectionism, though it helped me in many other aspects of my life, was holding me back.
So you can imagine that when I was asked to start an art class for the kids in my neighborhood, I was hesitant.
I had never dealt with a group of more than three and now I was getting requests from over a dozen parents to teach their children art! How was I supposed to engage them all? I wondered if they really wanted to come, or if their parents were sending them to me just to occupy them for a few hours. But setting the irrational fears aside, I went to work and decided to come up with a curriculum. I sifted through boxes of elementary school projects and collections of studio art souvenirs. I felt nostalgia for the classes I took as a kid as I looked at old work that I was so proud of and that my mother so meticulously kept documented in portfolios and folders. I remembered how much I had loved working on these, and felt inspired to bring the same joy to the kids I was going to teach.
So when the doorbell rang at 10 am the next morning with smiling eager faces peeking from behind their parents’ legs, I felt anxious but ready.
I was very wrong to have ever underestimated the group of five to ten year olds as they showed an incredible commitment to work, learn, and have fun. Through the course of the following months, I discovered how smart and enthusiastic they could be, witnessing each of their unique and wonderful personalities. Some were eager to show me how they had improved each week. They came to me gripping their construction paper project, glued squares and triangles peeling off of their abstract collage with wide toothy grins, ready to take on their next task. Others were nervous to show me what they were working on, insisting that they could only reveal their masterpieces when they were absolutely satisfied with it, which reminded me a lot of myself. And then there were the wildly creative ones, who asked if they could use unconventional materials, citing Project Runway as their inspiration, and even suggesting new craft ideas for the coming classes. Every week they learned new things. I loved the sight of eyes widening as the salt sprinkled on their watercolor pieces drew liquid in, leaving tiny star like specks across a dark blue wash of pigment. They especially enjoyed using white oil pastels to draw “hidden” images, using watercolor over them to reveal pictures ofhugging friends, or little squirrel families, and even a snowman in the heat of summer.
These kids, though goofy, acted as a sort of compass for me; I knew I had lost my sense of purpose and forgotten why I loved art so much until I taught them. It was liberating to watch them learn something new and grow and make mistakes.
Witnessing the experiences of those kids that summer made me realize the importance of discovery and jumping headfirst into things — even if I was uncomfortable with them. I learned that art will always be my outlet for individuality and expression that I can continuously come back to, even if time and life distances me from it. Teaching made me determined to do something with art once I went to college, and that’s exactly what brought me to The Superhero Project.
As the Director of Graphics, I am surrounded by simultaneously diverse and similar minds. That summer uniquely prepared me for my work with the non-profit, especially when I organized a comic book workshop to help my committee with a style that was unfamiliar to them. I am lucky enough to interact with children again, this time at N.C Children’s Hospital, by creating superheroes for them with their own fascinating personalities and interests.
That summer made me recognize and appreciate the intellect and perseverance of kids, something never to be underestimated, and I see that with each and every visit to the Pediatric Play Atrium with The Superhero Project.
Supported by a Robert E. Bryan Fellowship from the APPLES Service-Learning Program, an offering of the Carolina Center for Public Service at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.