Friday, October 13, 2006

Environmental Art Education And My Ascension to the Second Grade (Fingers Crossed)

My first two months in Thailand, Peace Corps trained me to analyze community needs, build relationships, and develop projects through a long process of community integration. We threw around words like stakeholder and sustainability. In actuality, my projects have come about via happenstance and luck. This week I did an environmental art project, and it followed this same wacky pattern.

Months ago, I brought two local nurses to an HIV conference regarding orphans and vulnerable children. We participated in an activity where we made clay sculptures of childhood memories. Most of the Thais sculpted water buffalos. I sculpted my father’s terror-stricken face the day I ran him over with my sister’s bicycle.

He had just returned from work to find me hauling ass down the hill on an oversized bike. I guess I borrowed my sister’s bike because mine wasn’t going fast enough. I did not, however, learn to use the hand-brakes on my way up. Why, exactly, I veered toward my father upon realizing I wasn’t able to stop remains a family jibe, ridden with metaphor and Oedipal speculation. But I will always remember his face when it happened. I assure you; my face had the same panic-stricken look of surprise, only younger.

After the activity was over, we collected all the sculptures and displayed them for everyone. As you see, mine was labeled simply “Brian’s Dad”. However, only ten or so people heard the story explaining it. Many of the conference attendees asked me if I was beaten as a child. To which I probably smiled and nodded.

I’m not sure if my counterparts took anything away from the conference, but they remembered that given twenty minutes and a mound of clay, I can make a discernable face. A skill! Come to think of it, two of my most developed skills are clay sculpting and handwriting, which would place me in high consideration for advancement to the second grade. I just need to work on my sums.

Last month, one of those nurses in attendance asked me to help her teach an environmental education day, but with art education as well. So I asked some PCVs who were teachers and artists to help me think of some activities. Eventually we came out with a morning of art education consisting of drawing, coloring, and National Geographic collages. Before lunch, we planned to make trash sculptures, and then take a forest walk and plant trees in the afternoon. A real project!

The site of the training would be a school in the farthest village in my town. The village is made of almost entirely of rice farmers, is very isolated, and is probably my favorite. When they’re not planting rice, all the adults are usually found sleeping in a mass hammock setup, where the nurse goes around to each hammock and does health checkups. When I’d go with her to see the village, I’d plant myself in one of the hammocks hoping to converse with someone, and then wake up five hours later.

Nurse Pun (apple) came to pick me up yesterday to take me to the training. I stepped in the car, put on my seatbelt and started laughing. “Nice shirt,” I said. “Why are you laughing? This shirt has a leaf on it, today is about the environment.” “Yes, Pun, but that’s a marijuana leaf.”

Pun at the Hospital's Beauty Pageant. I noticed the Hospital Beauty Pageants are a little different than the ones I remember from home...

The first activity of the day was me teaching the kids how to use crayons. A dark outline, filled with a lighter fill, in case you’ve forgotten. I asked the kids what they wanted me to draw. I had come prepared with a beach scene, forest scene, and a waterfall. Boy, was that dumb. I was bombarded with the entire roster of popular comic book heroes, the only one of which I knew was Superman. So I drew an entirely unsatisfactory picture of Superman, as the kids yelled out all the mistakes I was making. “The suit isn’t red! The boots are higher! Superman RETURNS!” I received an S- for my efforts.

Then we asked the kids to listen to a nature cd, and draw what they hear in the music. Pun and I drew our own drawings, and as I was putting the finishing touches on my waterfall scene, I turned around to see this:

Staring right at me.

In a previous blog I had referred to this man as Johnny Rice Farmer, insinuating in a way that he is representative of the average farmer in my town. In no way is this man average. I had met him many times, and refer to him (and to every male his age) as “father”, which is very convenient considering my limited name-memorizing ability.

The first time I saw him was at a meeting of organic rice farmers. We all sat eating papaya salad and conversing, when I noticed a man in my peripheral walking towards the pond in only a loincloth. He proceeded to walk slowly into the water, dive, and re-emerge holding a fish in each hand. He walked back up, deposited the fish in a bucket, and breathed deeply as he looked contemplatively over the water. I swear to God this is true.

He sat down on our mat, and I noticed his piercing blue eyes as he looked me over. Before speaking, he would take a deep breath, lean forward, and make it clear he was ready to speak. But he didn’t just talk, he expelled words from the depths of his lungs. I noticed he was missing a lot of teeth, but where there were none on the top, the bottom were present, and visa versa. He had one full combined row; each tooth doing the work of two, alternating like zippers.

“AH! Hello, you scared me,” I said to the owner of these menacing eyes. After exchanging pleasantries I asked him to take a sheet of paper, some crayons, and pencil. “We’re drawing pictures of the environment,” I said. “KaPOME! (yes)” he responded.

Our next activity was the National Geographic collages. I had previously cut out pictures of environmental images, to help inspire discussion. Some of the images were beavers, lions, or coral. Others were factories, motorcycles, and forest fires. I did not get the kind of discussion I was hoping for, basically a “pollution is not pretty” mantra voiced by the kids. As I was concluding that maybe the kids were a little young to be discussing the dichotomy of industrialization creating jobs and pollution, I noticed a student eating the picture of high rise Chinese apartments. I offered him a piece of gum in exchange for the photo. He declined.

After a break, we used the trash from the snacks and drinks to make trash sculptures. Most of the kids sat around in circles throwing drink boxes at each other, but one of the groups showed some real creativity. As I was getting up from asking a student to please not stick straws up his nose, I saw this other group was tying string around two plastic cups making an elementary telephone. I was genuinely impressed until they got bored of the idea, and tied the cups to their heads like headlamps. One kid spent the rest of the hour walking around the room screaming into one end of the telephone, while the other end dragged behind him on the floor.

Pun and I ended the activity by explaining decomposition, and the wonders of recycling. “What are the two kinds of trash?” I asked. I noticed a kid picking up two handfuls of trash, consolidate them, and then proceed to hurl it out the window. One thing I do enjoy about speaking English in a non-English speaking country is that no one can understand my aristocratic, high brow language. “Dude, what the fuck?” I asked him in English, followed by, “Please throw away your trash in the bag.”

In the afternoon, we split into groups and followed around a local community leader, who showed us around the forest. He identified trees for us and the kids collected and painted leaves. My community leader was a man wearing a cowboy hat and a t-shirt with a picture of a saddle on it, reading, “Ride Me.”

I asked him if, in the past year, he had seen a fire in the forest. He gave me a look of total confusion. The wrong tone look, where you are absolutely positive you said every word correctly but one, and that one word has five different tones. Fire = Fai. So I worked my way through all the tones, and he responded positively to two of them. On the walk back to the school, I checked my dictionary. Apparently in the past year, the man has seen two of these four things: a fire, electricity, an interest, or a mole on the skin.

To cap off the day, we planted trees in the school field. We attached name tags to them all, and promised to take care of them. Looking over our completed work, Pun asked me, “What’d you name your tree?” “Ralph Nader,” I said, “he ran for president on an environmental platform.” “Oh. Uh-huh.” “Did you understand that?” “No.” “He likes trees. A lot.”

As we collected all the supplies, I got up and turned around to find Johnny Rice Farmer sidled up next me on the sly. “Jesus, you gotta stop doing that (Eng.). Hello father, are you well? (Th.)” He handed me a drawing of a temple surrounded by trees and a mountainous horizon. “I FINISHED MY DRAWING!!!! AHHH!” I inspected the piece. With a bead of sweat upon my brow, I came to the demoralizing realization that the apprentice had eclipsed the talent of the master. The scale! The intuitive use of tree coloring- not only greens but blues, yellows, pinks! The road leading to the temple showed a clear understanding of the vanishing point concept. This man was obviously well beyond me, already drawing at a middle school level. I wrote an O+ on the back, and handed it back to him. “The O’s for Outstanding,” I said. The + thingy means you gotta add something, I think.

Again with the Sums.

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