26: The Glitter Mask

26: The Glitter Mask

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales

The Glitter Mask

Every artist dips his brush in his own soul,
and paints his own nature into his pictures.

~Henry Ward Beecher

It is Tuesday, just three days before Halloween. We have been making Halloween masks in my first class of the day, and I need to quickly clear and organize feathers, sequins and glue bottles before rushing on to my next class.

Quiany sidles up to me. In the wheedling tone she uses when attempting to manipulate you into doing something “just for her” she asks, “Can I use some more glitter, Miss Miller? Can I use more sequins? Just a little more. I know you always say that with glitter, less is more. But just a little more, Miss Miller? Please?”

I say, “We’ll see, Quiany. But not today. I’ll be back with your class again on Thursday afternoon. We’ll just have to see.”

“Okay, Miss Miller. Okay.”

Though I have a lot of life experience, with a family and fully developed corporate career in my past, I am a brand new teacher in a tough New York City school district and still feeling things out. I’m not sure of the right way to handle so many situations, and this is one of those.

As things turn out, I am not at work on Thursday afternoon, when I would ordinarily be teaching Quiany’s class again. My first grandchild, a girl, is born Wednesday night and I spend Thursday in the hospital with Alexis and beautiful new Ruby Jane. On Friday, when I return to school, it’s Halloween and our little school of students with special needs is even wilder than usual. Students are excited, and way out of control.

Since I keep some of my art materials in a cabinet in my friend Mari’s room, I go there first to get myself set up for my classes. Quiany, as it happens, has been placed in Mari’s classroom for the day, probably to keep her out of harm’s way. Streetwise and manipulative though Quiany may be, the pre-adolescent boys in her class of complicated nine- to eleven-year-olds are leagues beyond her in that department. On the other hand, the five- and six-year-old developmentally delayed students in Mari’s class, though challenging for the teachers, can be very sweet and they love Quiany a lot, and she loves them. Today, this is definitely a better place for her to be.

As soon as she sees me, Quiany comes over from the dress-up corner, where she has been playing with Starr. She is wearing a tall, pointed witch’s hat covered in black sequins. In her slightly accented voice, so softly I can barely hear her, she asks, “Miss Miller, can I work on my mask? Can I use a little glitter?”

“That’s okay with me today, Quiany, but let’s make sure it’s okay with Miss Mari.”

It was.

“Okay, Quiany, I’ll get your mask and some materials, and you’ll be able to use a little glitter.”

In a few minutes, I return with Quiany’s mask and some materials she can add to her mask. I also have my toolbox, which contains, among other things, the glitter she is so focused on. But before I can get everything arranged, I hear screaming from another classroom. It is my job to check out situations like this, so I need to go see what I can do to help. I tell Quiany to start with the sequins and pipe cleaners and that I will be back shortly to help her with the glitter.

As soon as I’m able, I return to Mari’s room and walk directly to Quiany. She notices me approaching and quickly hides the mask behind her back, then looks up at me sheepishly.

“What’s going on, Quiany? You said you wanted to use some more glitter on your mask. Let’s get to work on that.”

“I used it already,” she says quietly.

“Oh, really,” I say, a question mark in my voice, not really sure how to handle this turn of events, “and where did you get the glitter from?”

“I went into your toolbox.”

“Quiany,” I say sternly, “you know that no one except me is ever allowed to go into my toolbox, for any reason.”

“I know, Miss Miller,” she says, sounding honestly upset despite her usual tough front, “but…”

“No buts about it, Quiany. No one. Not ever. For any reason.”

For the moment, she buckles under. “Okay, Miss Miller.”

I let some moments pass in silence. Then, “So… let’s see it.”

“Well,” Quiany starts eagerly, “I know you always say less is more with glitter. But I used a little more than less….”

“Well, let me see it anyway, Quiany.” My tone, I’m certain, conveys what I’m feeling, a mix of impatience and sympathy. Overall, I’m more than ready to be done with this, but somewhat surprise myself as I add, “Today is, after all, a special day. Maybe a little more than a little is okay, just for today.” Nothing to be done about it now, I think. I might as well let her get out of this gracefully.

Reluctantly, she takes the mask out from behind her back and holds it out for me to see. She is right. She has definitely used a little more than a little. She has used so much, in fact, that the glitter covers all the work she had done the other day. All of the glitter colors, neatly separated in their little bottles in my toolbox, are all mixed together on her mask. None of the fabric of the mask shows through anywhere. The entire mask is glitter. Just glitter. And it is glorious.

I am at a loss for words, not sure of the appropriate teacher response to this. On the one hand, Quiany has broken several of our “art rules.” On the other hand, she has created something very beautiful. To me, all of these things are important and I can’t think quickly enough at the moment to determine which should have the priority.

“Quiany,” I finally say, “you really did use a lot of glitter.”

“Yes, Miss Miller, I know.”

“And,” I continue, “you do need to follow the rules. This is not the way we normally use glitter, nor can you go into my things without asking.”

“I know, Miss Miller,” she says, sounding quite miserable this time, and appearing to be on the verge of tears. “I know. I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”

“But,” I add slowly and cautiously, “your mask is very, very beautiful. Let me see it on you.”

She keeps her head down and pulls the mask on, sliding the elastic of the mask up and over the black witch’s hat. Taking a deep and exaggerated breath, Quiany picks her head up and looks straight at me. Her dark eyes peer anxiously from behind the magnificent mask. Her face, framed by the waves of her long, dark hair and the pointed, black hat, looks stunning. I know I will never forget how she looks at this moment.

I need to give this a lot more thought, I think to myself. Maybe less is not more all the time. Maybe Quiany, all the Quianys, know a lot more than I do about certain things.

Leaning down, not saying a word, I pull Quiany close, hugging the child she is now and the woman she will someday be.

~Celeste Miller

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