“And class don’t forget, tomorrow we scratch!” Miss Martin struggled to be heard over the deafening combination of dismissal bell and scuffling feet.
Earlier that week, each of us in my seventh-grade art class had prepared scratchboards by brushing layers of India ink onto 8.5 x 11 inch sections of art board. Once dried, our assignment would be to create something for the school art contest. The technique, a new one for us, involved scratching away dried ink to reveal the white board beneath until the desired image was formed. The individual subject matter would be up to us, but the overall theme was “nature”. Miss Martin would choose just one piece from our class to be entered in the contest.
The next day, Miss Martin handed each of us a scratchboard and a small metal tool to be used for removing the ink. Over the course of the next few classes we worked diligently on our middle school masterpieces. I decided to scratch a bald eagle into the dried layer of black on my board.
To my left, Sylvia etched away at several clouds. To my right, Todd scraped the outline of a tree. I leaned forward to look over Rob’s shoulder and saw the huge head of a snake taking shape.
I sat back to begin my eagle.
Still a bird lover today, my interest began long before that art class. I found myself lost in the assignment, enjoying the process, and proud of tiny details I put into the work. Sharp talons, well-shaped wings, perfect facial features. I was downright proud of myself. By the time the final class session began I had produced what I considered the perfect bald eagle. His stature regal, his form sublime, and his face magnificent.
“Buddy.” Rob said as he looked back over his shoulder at my artwork. “You got eyelashes on him.”
“Yeah” I responded. His remark seemed silly.
He looked down at my board again, then back at me. “I’m putting some on my snake?” He said as if asking permission.
“You can put curlers in his hair if you want. It’s your snake after all.” I responded.
Rob began feverishly scratching out what promised to be very impressive snake eyelashes.
Miss Martin took a lap around the classroom to give each of us a few mid-work critiques. She stopped at my desk and I held my already completed art board in the air, awaiting her praise. She touched her fingers to her chin as she studied my effort.
“Your eagle has eyelashes?” She asked in a tone that clearly indicated disapproval.
Rob began feverishly scratching over what had promised to be very impressive snake eyelashes.
Was she expecting an answer? Of course it did. All birds have eyelashes. I kept waiting for praise.
“Have you ever seen a bird up close?” She continued her inane questioning.
Had I ever seen a bird up close? Irritated she hadn’t instantly pegged me as the next John James Audubon at the mere sight of my inky eagle, I thought about what to say. I felt highly offended. I mean really. Had I ever seen a bird up close?
Before school that morning I fed my parakeets. I also had two zebra finches in my room. There were always chickens around home. Ours was the house where people dropped off orphaned nestlings to be cared for and we currently had a baby robin in the house. I owned a little incubator and had recently hatched quail and they lived in a pen out back. I had even raised baby turkeys because I’d heard they could be a challenge. They were not. I knew my birds.
“Well?” Miss Martin asked again. “Have you ever seen a bird up close?”
Incensed, indignant, and full of teenage hormones I looked her in the face and said all I knew to say. I even stood to say it.
“Lady, just how stupid do you think I am?”
I sure was hungry that night, having to go to bed with no dinner.
Class the next day lasted an eternity. My palms sweated as Miss Martin casually lectured on pottery wheels. She seemed to have forgotten yesterday’s unfortunate incident. I’d been given strict instructions from home that I was to apologize, so maybe she hadn’t brought it up, but I would have to. As the dismissal bell rang, Miss Martin motioned me to her desk. She shut the door as the last student left.
“Oh no. Here we go.” I said under my breath.
She stared at me for a few seconds.
“I want to apologize.” Miss Martin began. “I looked up a few things and many birds do, in fact, have small modified feathers around their eyes.”
“Yep. Eyelashes.” I thought as I bit my adolescent tongue.
“Now.” She continued. “Do you have anything you would like to say to me?”
Oh boy, did I. She didn’t seem too intelligent. How dare she doubt the knowledge of a budding ornithologist? How dare she criticize the artwork of the next Audubon? I could feel the irritation building as I thought of just what I really wanted to tell her.
But we were having lasagna for dinner and I didn’t want to miss it.
“Sorry about yesterday.” I said instead.
“It is a beautiful eagle.” She stated as she straightened the jar of paintbrushes on her desk. “It will be in the school art contest.”
She suddenly seemed very intelligent. With all forgiven on both sides, we parted ways and I dutifully reported to my parents that I had apologized. They already knew. She’d called them.
Several weeks later, in the middle of my sculpting a frog, she summoned me to her desk. This time in front of everyone.
“Oh no. Here we go again.” I said under my breath.
“I want to talk to you about your eagle.” She walked towards me.
“What?” I thought sarcastically. “His toenails were crooked?”
There, right in front of the entire class, she handed me a little blue ribbon and grabbed me by the shoulders.
“You won the contest!”
I kept my winning eagle artwork for many years. Much of the India ink was lost over time, a bit scraped off here, a bit peeled off there, but I loved it just the same. It surfaced now and then as I went through closets or boxes and I’d often hold it and stare in admiration. One day I stared a little longer than usual and really studied the prize winner.
It wasn’t very good.
The poor bird’s body was extremely portly and his feet were different sizes. I wasn’t quite sure whether he had two wings or three and his tail was far too short. Much of the ragged eagle was way out of proportion, but one thing was clear…
His eyelashes were fabulous!
Stuart M. Perkins