This is me…
and so is this…
And so, I am proud to say, is this – Ms. Jenaia!
My metamorphosis into Ms. Jenaia has been much like a caterpillar’s and I have children to thank for that. When I began writing the CritterKin series I was following an urge. Any writer will tell you that when an idea captures your imagination it’s best to pay attention. Everywhere I looked I suddenly saw dogs doing what dogs do – being a best friend to a homeless man sleeping on the street; acting as a matchmaker between two strangers, giving them an excuse to stop and talk to one another; joyfully playing fetch with kids in the park; and it suddenly hit me. Dogs are our emotional teachers. They are in our lives to model and give us the chance to practice empathy, compassion and love.
The characters in the CritterKin pack – a goofy bunch of mixed breed dogs – were appearing right before my eyes. I started writing. I started drawing, but I still had no idea that there was something more in what I was penning. I was working cheerfully in the little box that I had been assigned. Because you see, just like most adults living today, school was not a happy place for me. I was not encouraged to discover or pursue what I loved (drawing, writing and the natural world). Even more disturbing, looking back, was that every subject I was “taught” seemed to exist in a vacuum. I was not taught to see connections, to understand that the hundreds of facts I was expected to memorize in world history were intimately linked to the anatomy and physiology I was being force fed in science class, which in turn had important links to the French grammar and pronunciation I was struggling to master in my foreign language class. But hardest of all for me was the way the education system actively discouraged me from being creative. I was repeatedly told that I was wasting my time and would never amount to anything if I became an “artist.” My parents actually sat me down once and said, “You’re so good with your hands. Why don’t you become a dentist? They make good money.” The memory of that conversation still gives me goosebumps.
What I didn’t understand, and the kids are only now beginning to help me see, is that accepting the label of “artist,” or “writer” or any other label no matter how flattering has the potential to become limiting, confining and stale.
It took my business partner, Marty Keltz, himself a survivor of a brutal education, and hundreds of children between the ages of 5 and 12 to convince me to not only write, illustrate and read the CritterKin stories, but use them as the catalyst for our collective discovery. It was Marty who encouraged me to don Ms. Jenaia’s baggy overalls, stuff my pockets with poop bags and dog treats and embody her character for the kids. It gives me and them a chance to be more than any label – to play, act and express a part of myself that has no label.
In CritterKin visits kids are not passive listeners. As Ms. Jenaia I lead them “into” stories, asking them to help me keep those stories going by repeating words and sounds, answering questions and singing. Once the story is “finished,” we discuss, draw, research, write stories of our own and take what we’ve discovered back into the world for a test drive. Can being kind to a dog help us be kind to one another? Can we find and tell stories of our own to help other people want to be kind? What kind of projects can we think up that might let us share what we’ve discovered? A newspaper? A quilt? A giant wall mural? A book of photos? A garden planted with kindness stones?
In short, I want the kids I meet to do what human beings do best – make connections while following their hearts as well as their minds. I want them to self-identify as artists, mathematicians and pilots and not see those labels as mutually exclusive. Does that mean that I want my doctor to have been off flying a plane instead practicing how to do surgery? Of course not. But neither do I want him or her to have become so focused on being a doctor that it has become “just a job.” I want my doctor to be an alive, awake and engaged life-long learner; to be as intrigued and passionate about the impact being a doctor can have on the world as any artist.
These days the highest compliment anyone can pay me is not “you’re a good writer,” or “you can really draw,” or even “you’re a good teacher,” though I’ll cheerfully accept all of those. It’s what a second grader said to me at the end of a recent visit as we were sharing the drawings of dogs we’d made with one another. “Ms. Jenaia,” she said, “you’re the BEST!”Read More