It was Miss Kunesh who told me, way back in third grade, to "use your mistakes." She was the art teacher at my elementary school, one of three that attempted over my stay there to corral my artistic impulses. It was a practical concern at its core: She was guarded against a raft of eight-year-olds coming to her room and pulling out great big sheets of colorful paper only to make two marks on them and crumple them up to throw them away because those two marks didn't turn out the way they had planned. These were the days before every classroom had its own recycling bin, but I'm sure Miss Kunesh, who skewed a little hippie in her environmental outlook, was probably anxious not to fill those already 1970's landfills with construction paper.
The other part of this advice, the spiritual part, caught me just about the time that I read "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" for the first time. I could imagine myself as a young gull standing on a beach receiving instruction for the refinement of my gliding skills. If I listened closely, I was certain that the next time I took off, I might shimmer and glow until I materialized on some higher plane where yet another wise bird would patiently watch my struggles until such time as I was ready to ascend to the next level.
Miss Kunesh's advice certainly put me on a path. I learned to draw with confidence, avoiding those little sketchy lines that might eventually connect into some larger piece, but up close look like the hairs on the back of your hand. If that bold, dark streak goes left, go with it. If it doesn't fit in the house you're drawing, turn it into a branch of a tree standing just outside. At the time I struggled getting the ideas I had in my mind from my brain where they were fully formed and colorful to the blank and sometimes unforgiving page. Sometimes it was a matter of motor skills, still in the process of being awakened. Sometimes it was simply that my ideas wouldn't hold still long enough for them to be fully realized. It was Miss Kunesh who helped me quell those hyper-critical voices in my head, the ones that tell so many kids "you can't draw."
Now I'm a teacher, and sometimes I draw for the kids in my room. I have learned not to do it too often, since it tends to intimidate some whose inner voices are already quite loud. Whenever I hear those words come out, I am quick to remind them, "Sure you can. Everyone can draw. We all draw a little differently." And then I wait for it: "But I made a mistake." That's when I tell them the story about Miss Kunesh.