Too often, teachers extinguish a student's spark

I had painted "lollipop trees." At least, that's what my elementary school teacher said.

Our assignment was to paint watercolor landscapes. I painted trees with round tops, modeled after the pruned trees I saw as I walked to school each morning. I liked my painting; my teacher did not. She said my trees looked like lollipop trees; that they didn't look like real trees, although they looked like the trees I knew.

Mrs. E picked up a paintbrush and painted over my trees to make them look the way she thought trees should look.

For the rest of my school years, I never voluntarily took an art class.

Now that school is in session, I can't help wondering, worrying, what is it we're actually teaching our children? The three R's? Yes. But we're also teaching them, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly, to conform, to extinguish the spark that makes them individuals.

Children inherently believe they are invincible; good at everything. They can achieve anything. They don't think they can't do something until a grown-up tells them so. And that's when it begins to happen. Our children begin to lose their zest for life, and along with it, their self-confidence.

From my 10th-floor apartment window, I see a large tree alive with purple blossoms. Seeing this purple tree makes me think of the very narrow, frankly, boring definitions we provide our children: The sky is blue, trees have green leaves and brown trunks, clouds are white, and frogs are green. But that's not the way things always are. During an intense, glorious sunset the sky is blood red. During a storm, the sky is black and foreboding.

And I still remember how shocked I was, all those years ago when I went to the San Diego Zoo with my dad and saw a blue frog.

As a kindergarten teacher, I tell my students that usually apples are red, green, yellow, sometimes a combination of red and yellow. But if they want to paint a blue apple I'm not going to stop them.

In November, I show them how to paint a turkey, and I use brown paint for the turkey's body.

Last year, one of my students painted her turkey's body pink. She's the artist. And yet I know teachers who insist that certain things be painted and colored a certain way. Why? What purpose do these narrow rules serve?

I always try to give my students a reason why we do things. While on the floor, we sit with our hands in our lap so Mrs. Kennar won't accidentally step on anyone's fingers. We sit with our legs crossed so that our classmates can walk by without tripping. These rules make sense; they serve a purpose. Where's the logic for a rule that states a turkey must be painted brown? Why can't a pink turkey live in a child's imagination?

Yes, we must continue to teach our children to lead responsible lives. But let us not forget to encourage our children to see the world with fresh and eager eyes.

And please, don't paint over their lollipop trees.

Wendy Kennar teaches kindergarten at Rosewood Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles.

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