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Debra Liese


The Rich Kids of Art Class

Are artists born or made?

Everywhere in the university town I live near and work in, parents are scrambling to buy beauty, and with it, creativity. Diversity is sought after too, of course, but mostly in the academic abstract . A wealthy town means there are art, drama, and ‘music together’ classes for toddlers, exhibits with interactive, ‘kid friendly’ features. On most days, my kids would prefer to play in the dirt than interact with these well-intended features, yet there they are, and I’m glad for it. But while the area is as abundant with creative educational opportunities as you’d expect, at many public schools that fall outside the wealthiest enclaves, enrichment and arts programs have been cut . You have to pay to play.

Sandwiched between Trenton and Princeton, my children are growing up in an area of extreme wealth disparity, where some of the biggest discrepancies can be seen in arts education. When my older daughter entered kindergarten, I watched her enveloped by a flood of worksheets, while kids we met on playgrounds a town over attended elite schools that gave no homework in the younger grades, 'honored the space of the child' and offered artistically rich curriculums. Then last spring, we struck gold, or so I thought, when she was offered a partial merit scholarship to attend a beautiful school that featured tiny classes, a resident artist, and plenty of time for gardening and historical reenactments. The building itself was no ordinary structure—it was shaped like a nautilus, symbolic of an inward journey. I reported these details giddily to all who would listen, and then came down to earth. Even with the scholarship, the school’s cost was unsustainable. 

This reality sank in with the slow agony of most truths that should have been obvious all along, but my hand-wringing turned quickly to indignation. My daughter, I moaned to my grandmother, with requisite parental hubris, could write and draw circles around her wealthier counterparts. Maybe we should make it work.

My grandmother had other worries. “Do you really want her to go to school with all rich kids?” she asked. “She’ll get a little air about her, if you know what I mean.” It’s a question many of us, poised between two worlds, end up asking ourselves. Fancy airs aside, do we want our kids to be the poor kid in a rich world? Sometimes that designation is only relative, and sometimes it isn’t. Either way, it can have uncomfortable repercussions. 

I myself remained blissfully naïve of such discomfort until, as a teenager, I spent my summer teaching writing and photography at an expensive summer camp. It didn't escape me that the kids I was teaching had probably already received more formal instruction than I had. But I loved the students, made friends, and was soon spending most evenings talking with another counselor, whose sprawling home I visited during a break. His father was foreboding, clearly unhappy about something that I figured, wrongly, had nothing to do with me. We planned to carpool on the way back to camp, but when I gave him directions to my house, he grew quiet. “I don't want my dad seeing where you're from,” he told me.

At the time, I was baffled. I'd registered that we came from different backgrounds. My childhood home was cute and neat, but our town had been left depressed by the closing of the steel mill, the highway leading up to it peppered with abandoned shopping centers. That anyone should attach coded meaning to this fact seemed shocking, a dated throwback to an era I assumed was located somewhere in the distant, perhaps Victorian past. I suppose my parents should have been very proud at how effectively they managed to instill a positive, hands-across-America sense of equality and open-mindedness. But it was a rude awakening.

Just as I learned the hard way that class prejudice is ugly, I’ve come to know firsthand how much one can self-flagellate when some coveted thing proves out of reach for one’s children. But when this coveted thing happens to be creativity, I wonder if we sometimes miss the point.  Creativity is making something of one’s environment and experiences, not the other way around.

As a child, I didn’t take private lessons, but I explored nature and abandoned places, traced old foundations, and loved long walks with my parents and sister between the highway and the canal, collecting cans to bring to the recycling plant. My mother, a talented artist and teacher, did a lot with us at home in the early years, but I found my public school socially alienating and sometimes violent, with few pockets of inspiration. I wouldn’t seek to replicate my school experience, but it hardly stunted my creativity. Creative expression was an oasis of my own making in that, a secret hothouse of a place rather than a community-supported wonderland. As I grew older, I met artists and writers from all backgrounds, but often what resonated most was the work of those from less polished ones. Their art came from life, from resistance, not the test tube of the classroom; its survival felt as improbable as it was necessary.

Privilege and access to a land of perfectly calibrated inspiration gives kids a sense of creative entitlement. That’s an edge, of course, but a complicated one. It's a funny paradox. If in art, work born in safety and encouragement has more often than not struck me as competent but lacking soul, safety and encouragement are the very things I want for my kids. I'm certainly not alone. But we shouldn't fool ourselves. We're not buying creativity—we're buying something else. 


 © Debra Liese Oct. 2013