Hayden McGuffin and the Skinny Chicken

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“Make that chicken as big as the paper will let you,” urged Miss Coates, “and remember that your audience needs bold, full color, hefty size, and strongly drawn lines to be able to clearly see these marvelous players of the play which you are creating!” It was puppet show week, and Ms. Smith’s class was planning to perform Beauty and the Beaks. Joe was busy coloring the wall-eyed farmer’s overalls a lovely flesh color, Gordon was busy cutting blue fabric “jeans” to glue on to his character’s stubby legs, and Chloe was decking out her hen with long eyelashes, a lovely skirt, and all the feathery finery. Hayden, one of the most enthusiastic gals in the class when it came to art, was fearlessly charging ahead with her representation of one of the story’s beauty shop regulars, Hattie the Hen.

Hayden had a habit of walking up to the “Private Territory of Miss Coates” (otherwise known as her desk) upon which children had to knock if they wished to enter. (There has to be some space that’s sacred and untouched by little hands.) “Knock, knock!” came the squeaky little voice. “Come in!” Miss Coates welcomed her, and her light blue eyes and freckled, rosy face shone. Hayden launched into the continuing saga of the arts and crafts time that they have at her house, hemming and hawing and all but twirling her hair and tapping her toes with a sweet grin about the fact that they were about to turn their playroom into an art studio, “painting the walls and everything!” She giddily skipped to her table and planned out her chicken’s outfit, then set to work in her blue apron, armed with a tray of well-loved oil pastels.

Meanwhile, Miss Coates was about the business of assisting with the attachment of feathers, troubleshooting how to make a smile look more like a frown (the farmer’s wife wasn’t supposed to be happy!), and catching a handful of tears that fell from the frustration of not knowing how to draw a dress on a chicken. (I mean, who can blame her?) Oil pastels were steadily being rubbed down to the nubs, scissors were clipping, paper was flying, lines were being practiced, paint stir sticks were being taped to the backs of the little puppet bodies, and no one had fallen apart….yet.

Upon visiting the table nearest her desk, the table where Hayden McGuffin sat, tongue-stuck-out, deep in concentration over her chicken’s finely designed threads, Miss Coates noticed that Hattie had a lovely tank top, bows in her feathers, a flouncy little skirt and even purple boots! But sticking out of those boots were tiny little, well, chicken legs, and where the wings should have been were the same sort of chicken-leggish “arms.” Sacré Bleu! Hattie was just too skinny.

None of the parents would be able to see her from all the way in the back of the lunchroom, and then there were the grandparents with their failing eyesight. This wasn’t good. A fix had to be had. But how? Hayden had almost completed her puppet with such pride, and Miss Coates was terrified of what this might do to the young artist’s self esteem. “Um, Hayden, let’s talk about your puppet,” she began with fear and trembling, “Do you think that the audience will be able to see those tiny little legs and eyes and that itty-bitty beak?” “Well, no….I guess not…” “Then how about we turn it over and I help you draw a nice big fat new chicken?” Silence. Sniffle number one. (Oh no.) Sniffle number two. (I’m a murderer.) Then came the full-fledged folded-arms-and-head-on-table and the high whine of a cry’s beginning. (I should be shot. Or hanged. Shot in the knee and then hanged.)

No words could adequately encompass Miss Coates’ back-peddling at this point, or how deeply each little “sniff, sniff” rang in her ears. Rising above the emotional din, however, she steadfastly, and with a few little warm rubs on Hayden’s back, helped her draw the outline of a new, fuller-figured chicken and assured her that this chicken, too, could have such a fine looking outfit as the skinny one had worn. As they worked together, other children heard her sighs of sadness and gathered ’round to cheer and encourage. As the new chicken took shape, Hayden’s eyes brightened, her sniffles came at lesser intervals, and she even chuckled when Miss Coates tried to make a lame joke about the purple boots.

When she was finished designing and coloring and after she had cut out the large shape, the class decided together that it was a far more successful chicken. Her smile finally emerged. Miss Coates still felt like the biggest puppy-killer/tricycle-tire-slasher/balloon-popper on the planet. She was just sure, though, that for Hayden to have a successful chicken puppet, some changes had to be made. She recalled moments of her own childhood (and adult life too) where she had needed to be redirected, turned around and smacked gently on the rear. As she sent the class out the door, swept oil pastel crumbs into her hands and washed the tables, she paused and said a prayer of thanksgiving for these “grown-ups” who had loved her so entirely, then chuckled and sighed at the thought that she was now one of the very same, herself.


6 Comments

  1. Mike

    As a teacher, 6th Grade, I fail to correctly correct because I am afraid of the “sniffles” that I might get because I’ve hurt their feelings. When did we reach the place of believing that correcting is something to be ignored. As I was reading I caught myself thinking “Dang Miss Coates, let her keep her skinny chicken.” But then I realized that when done in love we can and must correct. Thanks for the reminder. First to correct and second to do it lovingly.

  2. Heather

    I loved this story. It took me back to my classroom that I desperately miss sometimes, although staying at home with my two year old isn’t something I am willing to give up. Thank you for the warm memories. I too have struggled with when to correct or not. That is when I am reminded of God’s gentle love for me. It doesn’t matter if we are working with the youth group, elementary students or our own children..we rebuke because we love. Hopefully someday the young people I have tried to explain that to will understand as you have.

  3. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    It never ceases to amaze me just how fragile the creative spark is, especially in children, and trying to balance criticism with encouragement is a worrisome business. On the one hand, I don’t want to tell a person something is good when it isn’t, or more accurately, when I know they can do better. But on the other hand, giving criticism, even in love, can sometimes scare or embarass a child into giving up and never trying again.

    I’m often shocked at just how unequipped some kids are to accept any sort of criticism at all. Sometimes all it takes is the merest hint that something could be done differently and suddenly I find myself backpedaling just to prevent them from wadding the whole thing up and tossing it in the trash.

    If you teach art, you’ve definitely got to be on your toes.

  4. Evie Coates

    @eviecoates

    Toes, indeed. The creative identities and ideas of artistic self-worth of two hundred children rest in my trembling hands. It’s a piece of dental floss upon which I flex my toes and attempt to walk with grace, high above little expectant, trusting, fresh faces. I teeter between the extremes of “No, the sun clearly isn’t green and does not have hair!! and “It’s your sun in the sky of your very own world, make it yours.” I am also the monster who hollers when the paintbrushes aren’t clean, the coddling therapist who allows a tearful child to make two clay hearts instead of one because of the tragedy of divorce, the crazy woman who stands on the table in her cowboy boots in order to model for the chidren, the one with the waist that loves having little arms wrapped around it in love and admiration (they kind of like me, and this helps) — so many hats to wear.

    But the one hat I hope I never have to wear is that of the teacher who disabled a child in the realm of art because of a careless comment or a misplaced word understood as discouragement. This is my greatest fear. So yes, on my toes. It’s terrifying, it hurts sometimes, but there is a flood of relief when I safely reach the other side.

  5. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    “I am also the monster who hollers when the paintbrushes aren’t clean,”

    Bristles up! Bristles UP!! And NO, you don’t just throw them away!

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