“I’m allowed to draw for one hour a week,” says my 16-yr-old SAT student. Anime characters look up at me from the pages of her sketchbook, as wide-eyed and alarmed as I am. “My mom says that’s enough.”
Enough for a teen who’s aiming for a career in medicine or law, she means. And what other career would a mother expect her daughter to go into after she pays through the nose for one-on-one tutoring, SAT classes, and weekend AP courses?
But this student’s work is good, and I can tell she’s sneaked in a lot more than an hour a week to fill up this sketchbook.
“You can’t neglect this,” I tell my student. “If you keep at it, you could do something special with your art.”
But she will neglect it, mostly. She’ll convince her mom to let her take AP Art, but she’ll agree to major in something more practical, and eventually her studies will push out all time for drawing.
Many of the students at the Bay Area tutoring center where I work are barred from creative activities. Declarations like the one above seem to go hand in hand with a question my students ask me all the time: “Why do you work here?” Usually I answer with something to make them laugh. “Haven’t you seen this place??” I exclaim while gesturing at posters of punctuation marks made into cartoon characters.
The real reason I work part time at a tutoring center (instead of full time as an engineer/lawyer/doctor/CEO as falls in their realm of possibility for careers) is that I want to spend a lot of time with my five-year-old and I want to spend a lot of time writing (and–crazy–I actually love tutoring and teaching). Sure, I’d also like to spend a lot of money–but I’m not willing to devote all my time to making it.
When I explain this to my students, I can never tell if they understand it or not. In any case, it’s the right choice for me right now.
Is it a choice I can encourage my students to make?
Well, their parents are paying me to help them get into top colleges, so I should probably keep my mouth shut when I’m not extolling the praises of the UC system.
But when I look through a student’s treasured sketchbook, when she shows me her short stories posted online, I can’t be complicit with “one hour a week is enough for creative endeavors.”
At the same time, I know these students’ parents are trying to save them from the precarious financial situations I’ve been in more than once. It feels irresponsible to say, “Pursue your art! Don’t worry about the money!” when I know how much time I myself spend worrying about money.
I usually stick with a middle road. I tell my students, “You can major in engineering if you feel that’s what you need to do, but you can still write/draw/dance on the side.” This is a lie. Already these kids are being told that their art is at best a distraction. No way they will stick with it when the pressures of MIT come down on them. No way they will seek out classes or mentors or fellow artists while they’re competing for a spot at Google. I imagine them finishing school, completing internships, working out of a cubicle for a few years before suddenly remembering how they used to copy that one character over and over until they got it right. Or going back to that short story they never finished, and wondering how it should have ended.
And then what? Quitting their lucrative jobs in spite of the student loans that hang over them? Maybe they’ll take up sketching again as a hobby. “Just a hobby!” they’ll say as they paper their cubicles with drawings. Maybe they’ll start to lose sleep working on that old manuscript before bed. Maybe they’ll find a way to incorporate animation into their jobs.
Deep down will live stifled horror, or maybe something as harmless as faint regret, at never having developed their talent. And the rest of us will contend only ever with the ghost of their art, wonders never expressed and never observed.
Parker Peevyhouse works as an SAT prep course instructor and tutor in the San Francisco Bay Area. She also works as a substitute teacher at a K-8 school. Her debut YA novel, FUTURES, will be published by Kathy Dawson Books/Penguin in 2015.