by JEFFREY IHLENFELDT
finalist for the 2010 Fulton Prize
Even after weeks of electro-shock treatments, after months of amitriptyline, and desipramine, after years of behavioral therapy, even after all of this I know that being judged insane is not the worst thing that can happen to a man. And I have had the time to scrutinize my entire life before drawing that conclusion, before knowing that psychiatric commitment is not the sole way to reach bottom. Witness my first vision. 1964. A black woman. A teacher. At a time when black women barely taught, certainly not at white schools in white districts like mine. That alone is enough to discredit a man’s veracity. A young woman. A black woman. A teacher, of all things. Witness my first vision. 1964—although my doctors assure me that they must have been there long before, that I had simply repressed them or ignored them. On what they base this diagnosis, I do not know, since neither my mother nor my father nor any member of my family had ever been prone to bouts with depression or delusions or visions or faith in visions or faith in anything, in heaven or on earth. My visions were secular; the last thing I would wish is to pass myself off as a prophet. I mention all this not to justify my actions as school principal in the Unega School District, nor to excuse my own blindness through pleas of insanity or delusions. I only wish to place in my life’s context, insignificant as it is, my first meeting and subsequent relationship with Leon Blakely—six years old, and a new student to Walt Whitman Elementary School. I had first heard about Leon during the fourth week of the ’62-’63 school year. Mrs. Crow, the Unega District art teacher, had requested a meeting so that I might look through her portfolio of students’ drawings. A woman as punctual as she was severe, she arrived at my office that morning before I had even unlocked the door, and to avoid any chance of my eluding her, positioned herself in the seat closest to my office. Clearly, it was the ideal chair for her. Her rigid spine conformed perfectly to the hardwood slats, and her neck, thin and white rose from the stiff rails as if part of its design. Her black portfolio leaned against her gray skirt. Her knees were fixed and steady, the back of her legs stiff and perpendicular to the heels of her firmly planted black oxfords. I took a sip from my coffee cup and invited her into my office, but she barely acknowledged me as she followed me thorough the doorway. She immediately removed a folder from her portfolio and set it on the conference table, which might have raised my suspicions had my morning coffee had time to take hold. From the folder, she pulled a large sheet of paper. “This is a drawing by the Blakely boy,” she began. “I’d like you to pay particular attention to the subject matter.” I stepped beside her and peered over the dark rims of my glasses. Mostly, the paper was blank, the standard off-white color of district issued art tablets. At the bottom of the page were blocks of white and gray, a crude but convincing rendering of the vinyl tiles that wound their way through every office and corridor of Walt Whitman Elementary School. Rising from the tiles and filling the center of the page were two legs—dark brown, slender at the ankles, a widening curve at the calves and knees. Two inches above the knees was the draped hem of a chocolate brown skirt, its material fading into the margins of the paper. While it seemed an accomplished drawing for such a young child, I had no artistic training, and was not certain how Mrs. Crow expected me to react. Was I to comment on the pupil’s skill? Then I could admit to admiring the work. Or was she fishing for praise for her own skill as a teacher? I could admit to that too. As I stared at the drawing, and followed the outline of dark skin and dark fabric to the upper border, I was struck by the maturity of the drawing, the volume, the motion. Oddly, I felt a slight envy toward this child-artist, and would have confessed that too had Mrs. Crow asked. “I don’t understand,” I told her. “Isn’t this good work for a six-year-old?” She abruptly pulled another drawing from the folder and laid it next to the first. As with the first drawing, the background was blank. And again, the vinyl tile was rudimentary, but recognizable. In this drawing, however, the legs were in a seated position and crossed gently at the ankles—the same brown legs—rising and disappearing beneath the chocolate brown skirt. “This is good work, particularly for someone so young,” Mrs. Crow said without looking up. “And only from the first week.” She then removed the remaining drawings from her folder and lined them up in front of me, edges touching. All were by Leon Blakely, all renderings of brown legs— standing, walking, sitting, kneeling. “Are you seeing a pattern?” Mrs. Crow asked as she scanned the row of drawings. The pattern was obvious, but I remained puzzled by the point of her demonstration. Had she arranged this meeting simply to praise the work of a new student? If so, her tightened lips and narrowed eyes revealed no joy in the display. “I’m puzzled,” I finally said. “Not knowing much about the teaching of art, I mean.” “The lesson was to draw people,” she went on. “The children’s drawings do vary—from simple profiles of their mothers and fathers, to stick figures of entire families. Leon is the only student who refuses to draw people,” she said. “So this is about following instructions?” I asked. “We can begin there,” she said as she stacked the drawings on the table. “They are people in a way,” I replied, smiling and touching the smooth surface of the top drawing. She resisted my humor and pulled the art from the table. The brown waxen legs slipped beneath the tips of my fingers. “Seven drawings of one person may be a symptom of a student’s inability to follow instructions,” she said. “But it may also be a symptom of an obsession. That’s my concern.” She lined up the edges of the drawings, placed them back in the folder and zipped her portfolio. “Whose class is Leon in?” I asked. “You don’t recognize the legs,” Mrs. Crow said as she propped the case against the table. “You don’t recognize Molly Benjamin’s legs.” I did not make a practice of keeping track of the characteristics of this woman’s legs or that woman’s legs over the course of the day and did not remember taking notice of Molly Benjamin’s. One feature, however, was apparent—their color. Molly Benjamin was the only African-American teacher in the school—the only African-American employee in Unega District, with the exception of James “Jimmy” Smith who was the evening custodian at Melville Junior High. Molly Benjamin had been hired the previous year, and was part of the state’s five-year plan to introduce people of color into the educational system. While she had to travel from Eastwood and through Gigage Township to the school every morning—45 minutes on a good day—superintendent Krump praised the school board’s decision to hire her as well worth the effort and the commute, and a valiant first step toward racial inclusion. The board had even hinted about plans to bring a second colored teacher into the district if Molly Benjamin worked out. I was aware of the political pressure surrounding the outcome of the project, which made Mrs. Crow’s concerns all the more pressing. After our brief meeting, I was not sure what form Leon’s obsession, if it was an obsession, was taking, and whether it reflected badly on the long term goals of the school, but for the moment I was willing to take her concerns seriously. My first observation took place during Molly Benjamin’s class reading session. I chose not to go into specifics about the reason for my visit in deference to any sensitivity she may have had—either as a woman or as a woman of color. The children were seated in a circle of chairs, with Molly Benjamin’s chair at the far end near the blackboard. Leon sat three chairs over. Although he was older than many of the other pupils, he was the smallest child in the class—a head shorter than the children on either side of him, and his hunched posture diminished him more. His chestnut bangs draped over his eyes as he hung his head. On his lap, he clutched a small notepad and in his other hand, a pencil with which he scratched randomly on the open page. As Molly Benjamin began reading, she paced around and around the inside of the circle, briefly stopping in front of one child or another to hold up an illustration of a house or a family or a church or a dog. She stopped in front of Leon and lowered the book so that he could see the picture, and though he stopped scribbling, he never raised his eyes. When she finished the story, she closed the book and took her seat in the circle, smoothed her brown skirt over her lap, and began to ask questions about the story. Leon looked up now and again and at one point, it seemed as if he might say something, but he remained silent Leon’s behavior did not seem unusual for a boy his age, and I was beginning to wonder about the substance of Mrs. Crow’s concerns. So I made a second visit to the classroom the following day, this time to observe the drawing class. During this session, the children were seated at their tables with blank pages from the standard off-white district issued art tablets in front of them. “This morning we’re going to draw some new people,” Mrs. Crow began. “I’d like you to draw someone who is not a member of your family.” The children stared silently for a moment, then whispered and giggled as six-year-olds are apt to do, but soon everyone was drawing something. I circled the ring of tables. Familiar forms begin to take shape—small white heads and sparse yellow hair and chubby pink arms jutting out from their sides, chubby fingers jutting out from their palms, tight-lipped grins and round eyes. I stopped behind Leon’s chair. There, in the center of his off-white paper emerged a pair of brown legs disappearing beneath the hem of a chocolate brown skirt. The legs were in an active gait this time, the ankles arched forward, the calves more muscular than in past versions. At first, I justified the drawing by noting that is was definitely not a member of Leon’s family, but as I watched him scrawl his crayon across the page and color in the brown flesh of Molly Benjamin’s legs, it was becoming clear that he knew the subject as well as a boy would know his mother or his father. Seemingly without effort, he revealed the hue and depth—a crease, a scar, a curve. I glanced toward Molly Benjamin’s desk, but was able to see only her crossed ankles and dark shoes. I peered down at Leon’s depiction of those same ankles, but I could not focus on the task at hand, wondering only if my vision were acute enough to enable me to draw with such vitality from a single glance. I closed my eyes. In an instant I had forgotten Molly Benjamin’s ankles. All I could see was Leon’s depiction of them—the crease, the scar, the curve, the darkness. When I opened my eyes, he had already moved on to a new page. That night, as I sat in my own home and read the evening paper—the local news of the new high school construction and the complaints of higher taxes to pay for it, stories of racial unrest in the outlying neighborhoods and union progress in the factories, my mind wandered away from issues of politics and race and toward Leon Blakely, to his drawings. I could not imagine the source of the power of his images, and why they remained in my thoughts so vividly. Even after a second scotch, the shape and tone of his drawings remained a constant blinding image, a bright light that shut out the periphery of my room and the gravity of world events. My third observation took place the following week, and I decided to approach Leon directly since he might be more relaxed and more open to speak. I stood at the classroom door and watched him take a cookie and a carton of milk from the snack tray. I was surprised by my apprehension as I walked toward his table; my fingers fumbled in my jacket pocket for a coin or a key or a piece of thread, anything that would ground me to my task. I sat beside Leon and asked if I could join him and helped myself to one of the cookies on the tray. While Leon was chewing, I placed Mrs. Crow’s folder on the table. “Delicious cookies,” I said, and Leon continued to chew, his eyes cast down. “Can I ask you a question, Leon?” I said. Leon ate his cookie and nodded. “You’re a fine artist, Leon. And I’ve been looking at the drawings you’ve done this year,” I said. Leon leaned forward and took a sip from the straw poking up from his milk carton. I removed his drawings from the folder and placed them in front of him. “Could you tell me what this is a drawing of, Leon?” I asked. Leon took his lips away from the straw and glanced at the paper. At first, he seemed puzzled, but then he looked up at me and said, “Mrs. Benjamin.” I was somewhat relieved that Leon had a grasp of reality, and was not mistaking a leg for a man or an eye for a stalk of corn. “Yes,” I said. “I definitely see the likeness.” I slid out the next drawing. “And what is this one?” I asked. “That’s Mrs. Benjamin too,” he said after giving it a passing glance. Without question he knew what he was drawing, which was an excellent sign from my perspective, but apparently not for Mrs. Crow, who reappeared in my office the following week with a new drawing. When she placed it on my desk, I immediately recognized it as the work of Leon Blakely—his most recent and most accomplished representation of Molly Benjamin’s legs. “Is there a problem?” I asked. “Today, I asked the children in the class to draw their homes,” she said. “This is what Leon drew. I may only be an elementary school art teacher,” she went on, “but this does not look like any home I’ve ever seen.” Even if I had had a rebuttal to her argument, it would not have pleased her. I wondered what was driving her anger over a child who refused to follow instructions. Surely she had dealt with that before. Perhaps it was a genuine concern for his psychological well-being. Perhaps it arose from a true desire to further his artistic ability. Then, it could have been a question of her own ego; he was, after all, not drawing her legs. While I agreed to follow up on the matter, I was quickly losing patience with Mrs. Crow’s own obsession. Leon was only one of hundreds of children I had to deal with, and I could not focus on school board initiatives or administrative problems if all I thought about was Leon Blakely. I could not manage the work of two dozen teachers if all I could see were the drawings of Molly Benjamin laid out against the grid of vinyl tiles and off white borders. I felt a desperate need to bring an end to this, so I decided to speak with Leon once more, this time in my office. I brought a small chair in from one of the classrooms and set it next to my own. As small as the chair was, Leon’s feet still did not touch the floor, and he swung them back and forth and stared at my shoes as I spoke to him. “I was talking with Mrs. Crow this morning, Leon,” I said, “and she seemed to have some concerns about you.” Looking up, he said, “Why?” “She thinks that you may not be following the directions she gives you in class as carefully as you could,” I said. “Why?” he repeated. “Are you following directions?” I asked. “Yes,” he said simply, as he swung his legs and stared at my feet. I took out his latest drawing and held it low enough for him to see it clearly. He looked at the drawing and smiled. “I remember,” he said. “Leon, are these Mrs. Benjamin’s legs?” I asked. Leon looked at the drawing once again and laughed. “That’s her lap,” he said. I looked again. “This is a lap?” I asked. “Not legs?” “You need legs to make a lap,” he said. “That’s a lap.” I looked once more. It was surely a lap, different from his previous drawings of legs that were walking or standing or posed or crossed. In this one, Molly Benjamin’s feet and calves and knees were side by side and nearly joined as one appendage. Just above her knees, the plateau of her chocolate brown skirt was drawn tightly across her thighs. “Why Mrs. Benjamin?” I asked. At first Leon seemed confused by my question, but I was beginning to have my doubts even about that. Was it confusion or obfuscation? What was he not telling me? “Why?” I repeated. Leon stared up at me. “It’s hard to draw my own lap,” he said. While I found it difficult to argue with Leon’s logic, his preoccupation with Molly Benjamin’s legs was now my preoccupation, and scarcely a day went by when I was not driven to distraction by the possibility of another visit from Mrs. Crow. At our next meeting, I told her of my conversation with Leon and his explanation of legs versus laps, but she seemed unmoved in her position that this was a problem much deeper than a child not listening to instructions. She insisted it could be a sexual obsession or a need for attention. She hinted at his unhealthy preoccupation with a black woman. I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the direction of her concerns. I was well aware of the politics of the school board and of the desire to pursue their progressive program of northern integration. But I felt myself caught in the middle, and I hated it.
I wanted my reasoning to be noble, logical, or at least informed. I wanted to explain how times were changing and how racial intolerance was a thing of the past. I wanted to tell her that having Molly Benjamin as a role model was a healthy influence for Leon and for her pupils in general. Above all, I wanted to defend what Leon Blakely saw, every day with his own eyes, and what he understood from those visions, and the images that arose in his imagination, and his right—his right to see the world. But my animosity toward the boy was overcoming my nobility. While I wanted to protect his vision, I wondered what gave him the right to see what I could not, to experience what I could not, to render images that I found impossible to even visualize. Mrs. Crow’s reaction to Leon’s drawings suddenly carried more power than the drawings themselves, and I felt my anger grow, transformed by resignation and fear. “What if I could convince Leon to begin drawing other things?” I asked. “What if he stopped drawing legs? Would that satisfy you?” Strangely, she did not respond one way or the other, perhaps because she never expected me to concede her point and take action, but I never knew for certain. Reluctantly, she agreed to give me the opportunity to sway Leon toward other subjects for his drawings. I soon realized the task would not be easy. I studied his stack of artwork, searching for some hint of interest beyond Molly Benjamin’s legs, but each time I looked at the drawings, I was confronted with the power of the images. They were flesh and color. They were strength and beauty. His images had begun to appear in my dreams—Molly Benjamin walking inside the circle of young students, gracefully following the path of white and gray tiles. And my frustration grew with each imagined step. The following morning, Leon sat before me for the last time. I nervously tapped at the corner of his drawing. I rubbed my eyes, red and watery from lack of sleep. “Leon, you need to draw something other than legs,” I told him bluntly. “Why?” he asked. “We want to encourage you to be familiar with lots of things in this world,” I said. “That’s what school is all about—seeing a whole world of things, other than just legs.”
He stood and walked to the stack of drawings on the shelf along the wall. After searching through the stack, he pulled out a single page.
“Like this?” he asked, placing the drawing on the table in front of me. It was a drawing of Molly Benjamin’s legs—one kneeling on the white and gray tiles, the other with the foot set firmly on the floor for balance. I stared at the piece, and inside I longed for redemption—for some nurturing phrase, some gentle words to come to me, but I could think of nothing through the haze of my fatigue that was not brutal. “No, not like that,” I said sternly. “You cannot continue drawing this.” “Why?” he asked, his eyes narrowing in confusion. “Because it’s not good for you,” I shouted. “It’s not good for anyone.” “Why?” he repeated. I exhaled in exasperation. “The world is filled with amazing things to draw,” I said. “Something will come to you.” The anger in my voice startled me. I grabbed the edge of the drawing and yanked it from the table. I tore it through. The quiet curve of brown calf drifted from the table to the gray-white tiles below, the knee left crumpled in my grasping fingers. My head pounded, and in that moment I felt something terrible, a separation between my desires and my actions, but it was action born of anger, an action that could not be undone, even if the issue at hand were ever resolved to the satisfaction of Mrs. Crow and the school board. Now, my images of Leon’s drawings were gone, replaced by dreams of his tight lips, his squinting eyes, his small hand hovering above the torn paper, his brown crayon poised and trembling. I had been the one chosen to tear apart Leon’s passion, and I cursed myself for it, but I could not stop it. Later that week, I walked to Leon’s classroom. On a shelf, near the back of the room, sat a stack of student drawings—streets, trees, mothers, fathers, homes, bricks, concrete, grass, fields —oval eyes, jutting arms, fingers reaching out into empty white space. Toward the bottom of the stack were Leon’s drawings—the familiar white and gray vinyl blocks of the floor. Except now, the space above it was empty; only the standard off-white color of the district issued art tablet was visible. I furiously searched through the stack. Under that drawing was another, then another, then another, all identical renderings of the same empty space. Although I feared raising the question to Mrs. Crow, I wondered why she had not brought this new repetition of images to my attention with equal fervor. I wondered why Leon’s continuing determination to ignore her instructions to draw different objects was now ignored. Surely, she had not told him to draw nothing, but in Leon’s case, she must have thought it was better than something. It was done, and the fear over reproaching my decision was greater than my desire to confront the issue. The door opened and Molly Benjamin walked in. She stopped and stared first at me, then at the stack of drawings strewn across the back table. “Looking for something?” she asked. “Just checking students’ progress,” I said, frightened by her sudden appearance. Molly Benjamin pulled a chair next to her desk and sat down. She crossed her brown legs, smoothed the material of her skirt, and placed her book on her lap. “Leon’s drawings,” I said, but I did not know the question to ask. “Leon draws what he sees. That’s all” she said. “Legs?” I asked. “Is that what I don’t understand?” She shook her head and laughed. “Is that what you see?” she asked. “Yes,” I whispered. “Once.” I stared down at the vacant tiles and empty walls in Leon’s drawing. Molly Benjamin walked toward me, her heels clicking slowly and deliberately. She raised her skirt a few inches above her knees. “This?” she asked. I looked up briefly, but I could not see beyond the haze of my own fatigue. The flesh was distorted, the knees ragged, the calves thin and distended. She released her skirt. “What you can’t understand, what you’ll never know is that Leon sees me at all.” She returned to her desk and sat in her chair “You bring me here to teach your children,” she said. “Everyday you entrust your children to me. But even then, you don’t see me.” She walked to the front of her desk and removed a group of folders from the lower drawer. With one bent knee, she pushed the drawer shut. “You may like the idea of me, but you don’t really want to see me,” she said. “And you don’t want your children to see anything. And they don’t.” She put on her jacket and straightened the hem of her chocolate brown skirt. “I’ve seen you look at his drawings,” she said. “His brown legs. My brown legs. But I don’t know what they bring to your life. Joy. Wonder. Shame. Disgust. You chose. Something. What I do know is when Leon doesn’t see, you don’t see. That’s your truth of your own sanity,” she said. They were my truth and my sanity, just as they were Leon’s truth and family and home. I returned to Leon’s class each day after school, hoping to see reappear what I had forced to disappear. For the next year, and for years after, I was driven by the desire to see the space above the tile floor filled with legs—brown, disappearing beneath chocolate brown skirts—walking, dancing, kneeling, running, standing in defiance—legs that would feed the visions and the memories and the obsessions of young children. I spent the rest of my career searching for those drawings, Soon, I became compelled to capture what Leon had lost. I closed my eyes, strained to remember, to imagine Molly Benjamin. I put pencil to paper, sketched primitive outlines of her face, her legs, her hands. My attempts were always in vain, and the floor of my house became littered with crumpled flesh, torn ankles, discarded knees, the dark remnants of vague memories. I tried to hear the timbre of her voice, see the strength of her eyes. But there was only emptiness. When I was able to see Molly or Leon or the limbs of women or the perilous hands of the young, I did not trust my own visions. I could no longer distinguish memory from hallucination or imagination from delusion. My emptiness, my vacantness, and eventually my delusions led the board to rethink my tenure as principle at Walt Whitman Elementary School. Even after my departure, my search continued. Soon, the bridge from desire to obsession to fear was complete, and I travelled from one to the other with ease. Mostly, I dwelt in fear—fear that I had provided Leon Blakely with a new and unintended direction in his world and in his art. I knew that one day, unlike me, Leon’s canvas would be filled with something—border to border, margin to margin, edge to edge— and I trembled at the thought of what it might be.
JEFFREY IHLENFELDT'S work has appeared in various publications including Louisville Review, Southern Humanities Review, Columbia Review, and City Primeval.