Middle School Values

Taking a step back from the easel, I reviewed my work. Something was still not right. This artistic challenge was proving to be tricky! 

The assignment called for choosing an idea or emotion. I settled on ‘Freedom’. To illustrate this idea, I drew a picture of a boy on a bicycle, his arms outspread taking in the limitless expanse of sky. Working from that drawing, I needed to convey ‘Freedom’ in an expressionist painting.

I carefully dabbed at the canvas, putting the bicyclist in the foreground as a bold flash of red. “So, this is freedom?” Ms. Ann asked from somewhere behind me. I turned to see her contemplating my work with her chin on her fist. “Why is the bicyclist red?” She asked, licking her red lips. Ms. Ann, my teacher, is an artist and the first art she did every morning was her face. She was a powdered tan sculpture with intense blue eyes rimmed in kohl.  “I thought red was expressive and fun,” I explained. “I put the smudge of red thicker on one side to convey movement.” Ms. Ann nodded, apparently satisfied with my explanation. As she moved on to the next student, I breathed a sigh of relief.

Not even a week ago, Ms. Ann had asked Brooke a similar question. Brooke had simply shrugged her shoulders.  Ms. Ann did not like that! She ripped Brooke’s entire painting apart, element by element, until Brooke fled the classroom crying.  Teachers weren’t supposed to rip into their students, but everyone knew that in order to get a good grade you had to please the teacher. In this, Ms. Ann was no different from all the others.  If I pleased Ms. Ann, she would help me get my art work in the best galleries. I needed to please her. Otherwise, my artistic career would end before it even began.

The principal and Ms. Ann met with Brooke’s parents, but no one knows what came of it. All I know is that Brooke transferred out and Ms. Ann was still here.

“These are bold, confident strokes!” Ms Ann said, coming up behind me with a smile. “It looks very good, Eugenia.” Suddenly her expression turned thoughtful. “Eugenia,” she repeated my name slowly. “Do you mind if I call you Gene?”

“Gene,” I swallowed, “is fine.” I hated the abbreviated version of my name, but somehow I could’t stop myself from allowing Ms. Ann to use it. 

She beamed at me. Then she turned to the entire class.

“Gene has done something amazing here, people. She is challenging you, her audience, to identify with a feeling. What feeling do you see in these bold strokes?” She asked.

My stomach sank. My peers are nice, for the most part, but some of them liked to criticize.

“That red smudge looks like anger,” Isabel said, scratching her nose. “Is anger what you’re going for, Gene?”

Ms. Ann raised her hand to stop all further comment. “It’s very hard to get an emotion from these modern pieces. The interpretation must come from inside you.”

“Isabel is very angry inside,” Gavin said, agreeably. I smiled at him, appreciating his humor.

“These strokes are masculine and bold,” Ms. Ann interrupted, clapping her hands. “Only Gene has conveyed strength and boldness with a single stroke.” She sniffed, and her eyes rested on Gavin until he looked down, betraying his discomfort. Yesterday she had accused him of lazy thinking and sloppy execution.

“It’s not easy to challenge the status quo,” Ms. Ann continued, her hands curling into fists, “but as artists you must challenge! Challenge people, challenge ideas, challenge beliefs — that’s how you get a reaction! That’s how you get people to think!”


I scooted past Ms. Ann and Clark/Celeste talking in the classroom doorway.

“This is really quite beautiful lace, Celeste. Where did you find your gown?” Ms. Ann asked.

“Downtown threads,” Clark/Celeste answered, pushing their hair back with black-painted fingers. Clark had decided to try out a feminine persona sometime around Thanksgiving. He made a striking girl.

Everyone was in the process of finding their seats, rummaging through their bags, and generally making a noisy transition from lunch. I stuffed my bag under my seat, and paused to listen when Ms. Ann began talking.

“We are artists people!” She said in a loud voice, tapping on the blackboard and interrupting everyone. “We take pride in our work and in our persons.” She gestured to me. “How can you be an artist when you come into this room dressed like that?”

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Immediately I wanted to shrink into the size of an insect and let the floor swallow me up!

“She looks good,” Gavin said from the back of the room. As all eyes swung to Gavin, he gestured to me with a sweep of his arm. “She looks normal,” he said.

“Normal!?” Ms. Ann looked at me. “Is that the best you can say for yourself, Gene?”

Too embarrassed to speak, I didn’t say anything.

“I wear make-up,” Isabel chimed in, pointing to the winged eyeliner she had painted on her eyes. “We don’t all dress boring.”

I sank into my chair, smarting from the public humiliation.

“Lace is my signature look,” Clark/Celeste said, running his fingers up his lace-covered arm.

“Tattoos are mine,” Winston said, wiggling his fingers to show off his tattoos.

“What are you trying to say with your tattoos?” Ms. Ann asked, not satisfied with his artistic expression.

“I can’t say, Ms. Ann,” Winston said. “Tats are private.”

“They are private,” Ms. Ann agreed, coming to stand over him as he sat at his desk. “I hope you have a good reason for them. It’s dumb to follow the crowd.”


With a quick flick of his wrist, Gavin grabbed for my hat exposing my newly shaved head. 

“You cut it off!” He exclaimed, shock all over his face. “I can’t believe it! You followed that old toad.”

“Ms. Ann is not a toad,” I said, defending her. Gavin had a nickname for all of our teachers. Some of the names were funny, but calling Ms. Ann a toad was just plain mean. He called all of her favorite students toadies, too.

“You used to be cool,” he said, not hiding his disappointment.

“I was boring!”

“Boring to who? To Ms. Ann? Who cares what she thinks!”Gavin shoved my hat into my hands.

“You care!” He said, not bothering to hide his disgust.

“No, I —” I started to deny it, but instead I got angry. “Of course I want her to like me. I want to get a good grade. I want my art to be noticed – to be good!”

“Art,” he scoffed. “Is that what we’re doing here?” 

“Yes!” I said, but Gavin was done talking to me. He walked to his usual desk, shoved his earbuds into place and completely blocked me out.

“Wow! Now that’s short hair!” Isabel said as she entered the classroom. “Gene, you really are coming out.”

Clark/Celeste entered, their lacey top rustling around them in a feminine swirl. “Is that your statement?” They asked, rubbing their hand over my shaved head. “I like it.” 

It felt curiously strange as they played with my head, their hand teasing the little bit of fuzz that was attempting valiantly to grow back. Ms. Ann came rushing through the classroom door, and her dark eyes sparkled approvingly as she took in my appearance.

“Class,” she said, addressing us all. “Today, we are going to pick apart one of our own.” She walked to the easel and pulled off the paint-smattered cloth with one tug. “‘Freedom’ by our very own Gene.”

“No!” I couldn’t help but protest. I didn’t want everyone’s advice. I wasn’t done yet. It was a work in progress.

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“Now, Gene, we all have to have a critique at some point. This is your turn.” She turned back toward my painting and pointed to the red cyclist. “Do you see how the artist has tried to convey the feeling of freedom and movement? What do you think of the color choice?”

The class was eager to pick apart my choices. All but Gavin. He had checked out weeks ago.

“It’s almost looks like she doesn’t know what freedom is. She needs to…” Isabel stopped talking when Clark/Celeste put their hand on her arm. Isabel turned toward me, an expression of guilt written all over her face. “I’m sorry, Gene. Do you want to be referred to as ‘they’, or ‘he’?

The very same eyes that so easily tore apart my painting, now turned toward me. They were curious eyes, and careless. Eager to tear and rend and remake without a thought for the outcome. For me.

“It’s Eugenia,” I said, my voice sounded scratchy and unused.

“Gene?” Ms. Ann asked, half laughing. “Are you sure?”

“It’s Eu-gen-i-a,” I said again, enunciating every syllable. And this time, my voice was firm.

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