I think I still remember my first experience of true artistic inspiration. I was in grade four and attending McGregor Easson public school. I must have been around nine years old. My teacher was a woman named Mrs. Martin. She was one of the best teachers I ever had. She was a very gentle, kind and fair woman; a natural born teacher.
On one Friday afternoon, not long after Christmas, my class received an assignment to be completed over the course of the weekend. We were to design and construct a house made out of a shoebox. The completed houses were to be entered into a competition on the following Monday to decide the best house, and 1st, 2nd and 3rd place ribbons would be awarded for the houses judged to be the best among the group.
When the project was announced, immediately ideas and visions began to rush into my head! I remembered that we had some old, leftover Christmas wrapping paper at home that had a red brick pattern printed on it.
“That would be perfect!” I thought, “I can paste the wrapping paper around the exterior of the house and it will look just like brick!”
More ideas poured into my head: I could construct a chimney and use wisps of cotton-batten as smoke. I could get sheets of balsa wood to construct furniture and different colored felts for carpeting, upholstery and bedding. I knew that a hobby-shop, not far from where I lived sold these things. I instantly had the entire floor plan worked out in my mind. My house would have a bedroom, kitchen, living room and bathroom. A perfect vision of the completed shoebox house in its entirety appeared in my mind. Then, the teacher announced that there would be a few rules to which our shoe-box houses must conform. My heart sank as she read the final rule: “Each house shall contain only one room.”
“Oh no!” I thought, “My house needs four rooms!” I knew at that instant that if I didn’t construct my house exactly the way that I had envisioned it, I would never be satisfied with myself. I thought a minute as to what I was going to do. “Should I just make it the way I want to? And then, on Monday, I’ll tell the teacher that I had forgotten the rules?” I thought. “No. That wouldn’t be right.” I approached the teacher.
“Mrs. Martin?” I said.
“Yes, Derek?” Came her reply.
“I have an idea for a house, but I want it to have four rooms.”
“Well, trim it down a bit.” She said.
“But… I’d really like to make the house the way I want to. Would it be ok if I made it with four rooms anyway?”
“Well, that wouldn’t be fair to the other students, would it?” She asked. “It wouldn’t be fair to change the rules because one person wanted them changed.”
“I guess not.” I replied, “How about if I still made my house with four rooms, but I didn’t enter it in the competition? Would that be ok?”
Mrs Martin paused for a moment. “Hmmm.” She uttered softly, thinking about it for a moment. “Well, I suppose that would be ok.”
“Would I still get marks for having completed the project?” I asked.
“Well, Yes, I’ll still give you marks if you complete your house for Monday.” She answered. “But, remember, you won’t be able to win one of the ribbons!”
“I know.” I said. “Thank-you Mrs. Martin.”
“You’re welcome, Derek. Good luck with your project.”
“Thank-you Mrs. Martin.”
That night my mother drove me to the local hobby shop. I bought a bunch of the best balsa wood I could find and a few sheets of the best colored felt they had in stock.
“Whaddya makin’ son?” Asked the man at the counter as he rang through the purchase.
“It’s a school project!” I exclaimed excitedly, hoping he would ask to hear every detail of my marvelous vision. “We have to build a house for school!”
“A house eh? Well, Uh, I think you’re gonna need a lot more wood than this then!” He said smugly. My mother laughed; I didn’t quite get the joke.
“It’s a house made out of a shoe box!” I said. “And it’s gonna have a bedroom and a bathroom, a kitchen and a living room.”
“Wow, that sounds like quite the project!” The man exclaimed.
“… and I’m gonna make furniture out of the balsa wood, and carpets from the felt, and it’s gonna have a chimney and…”
“Well.” The man interrupted, “Good luck with that son! I hope it turns out.”
I worked all weekend on that house. I cut felt, I cut balsa wood, I pasted things together… I worked hard — very hard. When it was all finished it was perfect. It was a masterpiece! It was almost exactly like my vision. It had the brick wrapping paper carefully pasted around the exterior of the house. It had a chimney with wisps of cotton that looked (to me) just like smoke. It had a bedroom with a bed, complete with two removable pillows and bed sheets — crafted out of felt and stuffed with tissue. The bedroom also had a chair and a chest of drawers with actual drawers that could slide in and out. My bathroom had a rough looking little toilet that didn’t work, but it did have some blue cellophane taped to the inside of the bowl to make it look like water. There was a small tin-foil mirror on the bathroom wall. My house had a kitchen with a counter-top, table and chairs. The living room had a fully upholstered chair, couch and even a T.V. with a photo of the actors from a popular television show pasted to the front of it that I’d cut out of a magazine. The walls were complete with paintings that I’d cut out of magazines and pasted to the walls. And, my house had luscious, turquoise and orange wall to wall, felt carpeting throughout! It even had two working doors, a front door and a back door. And, it had large, beautiful, four-paned windows cut out of the shoe-box, each draped with gorgeous, red felt curtains! And, this had all been fit into a standard sized shoe-box.
I walked into school on Monday morning beaming with pride. My vision was complete! It was exactly as I had seen it in my mind’s eye! When I walked into the class, many of the other students had already arrived and placed their shoe-box houses on a table at the front of the class.
“Wow!” I said to one of my classmates, “Your house is really good.” Secretly, in my head, I was snickering at the pathetic hatchet job he’d done on his monstrosity of a shoe-box house. I couldn’t believe the other houses. Most of them were just plain white shoe-boxes with crude pictures of doors and windows drawn on them with black magic marker. Pictures of “stick-people” were drawn on the inside walls of some of the houses, supposedly to represent families living inside the houses. Ridiculous! A couple of the students at least had the creativeness to actually cut out some windows form their houses, but that was about the height of creative genius among the lot of them.
My house was so much better than any of the rest. I felt extremely proud. In fact, I don’t remember ever feeling as proud of anything that I had ever accomplished before then. I was, however, somewhat disappointed that my house wouldn’t be judged. It would have been so unimaginably great to have walked home with that 1st prize ribbon to show my mother and my family. I thought that maybe I should have made two houses, one for the competition, and one just to show off. But, there was no use in worrying about that now. The adulation from my classmates would have to be enough. And, I was by now receiving ample quantities of adulation. Oohs and ahhhs came from every student that saw my house. Even Mrs. Martin couldn’t believe the work I had done.
The students took their seats as the teacher and her assistant looked over all of the houses, preparing to make a judgment
“Man!” I thought. “I wish my house could win! Someone’s going to take first prize for their house and mine’s way better than any of them!” Mrs. Martin announced the decision for the 3rd place ribbon. Then, after the student claimed his prize and we all clapped for him, Mrs. Martin announced the second place winner. That student walked up to the front of the class and claimed her ribbon.
“I wonder who is going to get 1st place?” I thought. “Probably Mike. Everyone always makes a big deal about his artistic talent. And, his house isn’t so bad, really.”
“And the 1st place ribbon goes to….” There was a pause and a silence as we sat in anticipation of Mrs Martin’s final judgment. “The 1st place ribbon goes to…Derek!” Mrs. Martin shouted!
“Wha?” I thought to myself, in total shock. I thought it had been made clear that my house wasn’t eligible?!? I wasn’t quite sure what was going on.
“Come up here and get your ribbon Derek!” Mrs. Martin exclaimed with a smile. I was stunned; I didn’t know what to do! Had she simply forgotten about the one-room rule? How could she have forgotten about the one room rule? My house clearly had four rooms! FOUR ROOMS! Did she not notice? Could she not see? Four rooms! I looked around the classroom to see how the other students were taking it. Surely this was scandalous! Surely they would all hate me! Their single room shoe-box houses didn’t stand a chance against my four-room wonder! Had they been allowed an additional three rooms to work with, they may have been able to do something with it, but how could they compete, restricted to only a single roomed shoe-box? Everyone would surely hate me for having won the coveted 1st prize ribbon!
As I looked around the classroom, I noticed that none of my classmates seemed to really care. They had known on Friday that my house wouldn’t be eligible. I had talked to the teacher about it right in front of everyone. I had told my friends of my plans for the house and had let them know that my house wasn’t going to be judged. But, now, they didn’t seem to mind. They were all just smiling and they all seemed happy for me. Everyone, even Mrs. Martin, had seemed to have just magically forgotten that I had willingly excluded myself from the competition. I didn’t know quite what to do. Should I mention something? Should I remind the teacher that my house wasn’t supposed to have been judged? Surely, the competition wasn’t fair. The other students had worked under restrictions that I had not. Surely the right thing to do would be to have said something. But, instead, I decided to keep quiet about the whole deal.
I walked to the front of the class and claimed my ribbon. I kept thinking all day that someone was going to call me on it. Probably, I thought, one of my classmates would meet me in the hall after class and chew-me-out for my unfair win. But, it never came. I never received anything but congratulations. I walked home, unchallenged, with the 1st prize ribbon. My magnificent shoe-box house was put on display in the school’s trophy case at the main entrance of the school where it stayed for several months. I did feel a great deal of pride when I brought the ribbon home to show my family. I did feel as though I had worked hard, done a good job and that in itself was deserving of the ribbon. However, I felt kind of bad too. I did feel as though some kind of lie had been told, that some form of injustice had befallen the students at McGregor Easson public school that day. I’m not sure what I learned from that experience. Perhaps it was that if you stay true to your vision and work hard, you’ll get the reward you deserve no matter what. Could that be it? Or, perhaps it was that if you really create something spectacular, people have a tendency to kind of overlook the rules. I’m not sure. All I know is that I did get the first place ribbon. But, even if I hadn’t, I felt the immeasurable sense of satisfaction that my artistic vision was realized. I don’t know what ever became of my little, four-room shoe-box house. It’s a shame really. It was indeed a marvel to behold.