One of the books I enjoy reading to my daughters is The Dot (not pictured above), authored and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds, but not everyone loves it as much as we do. The lone 1 star Amazon review it has received to date complains:
…The book celebrates mediocrity by framing in gold a half-hearted splotch of ink… once the teacher set such a low bar, the child thinks “I’ve got talent” and proceeds to create large quantities of mediocrity. It’s all part of the dumbing down of quality and a feel-good educational system that rewards the smallest of effort.
The author of the negative review believes The Dot celebrates mediocrity: a young girl angrily jabs a piece of paper with a marker, making a dot, which her teacher frames. I suspect the reviewer would not be a fan of Cy Twombly, whom even my own husband calls “the least impressive artist of the past century,” despite the fact that Twombly’s framed scribbles sell for millions of dollars.
I suppose another cynical interpretation of the book’s underlying message is that it encourages public shaming as a pedagogical method. When Vashti sees her dot framed on the wall, possibly feeling embarrassed, she declares, “Hmmph! I can make a better dot than THAT!” Finally inspired, she creates many more dots, putting in the effort necessary to produce work that makes her proud.
In my opinion, however, The Dot teaches children to try, the all important lesson that starting somewhere is better than never starting at all. Vashti does not believe in herself. She suffers from a mental block that prevents her from expressing herself on paper, a familiar situation to many of us. Her teacher framed her dot as a form of encouragement, similar to how showing bits of a work-in-progress to a writing group or submitting portions to competitions can help writers stay motivated.
Vashti sounds very much like one of my own daughters, who declares from time-to-time, “I just can’t do it!” As her parent, my challenge is to encourage her to try new challenges without bruising her self-esteem. Much like the way the teacher channels Vashi toward a confidence-building activity (signing her name), we steer our easily frustrated daughter to activities she feels she can do, and then encourage her to return to what she felt she could not do. Our hope is that she will develop a new outlook on her abilities in the intervening time.
Finding confidence-building activities and celebrating baby steps are important lessons, particularly for the anxiety-prone among us. As I discussed in a previous post, Perfectionism and Publishing, anxiety can be paralyzing. Perfectionists don’t want to fail, and sometimes starting a new project can feel so daunting that it never happens. In those paralyzing moments, when faced with a blank piece of paper (which the teacher jokes is “a polar bear in a snow storm”), Vashi’s teacher’s advice might help: “Just make a mark and see where it takes you.” Every project, whether it’s a drawing or a novel, must start somewhere.
Image: “A Tribute to Cy Twombly,” titled and created by my husband on ArtRage for the iPad. To be fair, there are many who appreciate Twombly’s use of texture, color, and intellectual references in his art. Many remember him as “one of the greatest artists of our generation.”