Art Lessons by
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One day in fourth grade, our art teacher passed out crayons and asked us to draw a picture of the most beautiful thing we could imagine.

Only now does the sheer phallic audacity of that picture make me chuckle.

I started with a verdant forest beside a lush green meadow. Above it I added a blue sky, wispy white clouds, and a yellow sun. And in the middle of the meadow, I placed a sleek, gleaming, silver rocket ship, pointed skyward and bearing an American flag.

It was 1960. The space race was in high gear. The Russians had launched two Sputnik satellites in 1957 and the U.S. was trying desperately to catch up. Both countries were rushing to put astronauts in orbit. The excitement captured my nine-year-old imagination. I had even abandoned my beloved Hardy Boys books to pursue Tom Corbett, Space Cadet.

Only now does the sheer phallic audacity of that picture make me chuckle.

The art teacher, roaming the classroom, finally stopped behind my desk. “Is that really the most beautiful thing you can think of?” she sniffed.

I got the message. Since that day my artistic endeavors have been limited to doodles and scribbles. And my brilliant career as a rocket artist was snuffed out before it began.

An edited version of this story was published in The Sun magazine, June 2004.

Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.

Characterizations: been there, funny, well written


  1. Oh, the crushing effect of one snide, offhand remark from one authority figure! I can feel the young John’s embarrassment. Darn that teacher.

    Find that drawing and post it for us to see. Nothing wrong with a little innocent phallic representation of beauty for us Baby Boomers!

  2. John Zussman says:

    Unfortunately I fear the drawing is lost, as I didn’t realize its significance until many years later. If someone finds it when cleaning out my mom’s basement, I’ll let you know.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    I had a writing teacher who talks about the effects of “losing one’s voice” due to harsh words from a critical remark. You lost your artist inspiration due to your art teacher’s remarks. But perhaps not your enthusiasm for the space race, which caught up our generation. I love the way you describe changing your reading habits due to your enthusiasm for the subject matter!

  4. Live Aloha says:

    Nice to hear that more than one elementary school teacher snubbed student work. I had a very similar experience, although it didn’t involve a rocket. We turned out ok though – right??

  5. rosie says:

    Each story that I read here brings on related memories of successes and failures which seem to be universal. I enjoyed the story.

  6. Ha! Enjoyed your short but sweet ‘confession,’ JZ, especially the teacher’s ‘sniff.’ The equivalent of one musician telling another, ‘Don’t give up your day job.’ Only you were a kid!

  7. You really brought the scene to life. If I were still working as a teacher educator, I would ask if I could share this. It’s interesting to think about the gendered implications. We know girls have been sidelined within the educational pipeline for generations in math and science; have boys been similarly sidelined in the creative arts?

  8. Marian says:

    I think the rocket ship is a beautiful thing, John. It’s a shame your art career was stifled, and I can relate. I was criticized because I couldn’t color within the lines.

  9. Laurie Levy says:

    How sad that a teacher discouraged you by saying that. Reminds me of my daughter’s nursery school teacher excitedly handing me her easel painting of a bowl of fruit. I thought it was amazing and had it framed. She hated it and later said it wasn’t fruit and she hadn’t finished. Process is definitely more important than product for kids.

  10. Suzy says:

    Whenever you move an old story to a new prompt, I have to play detective and figure out where it was before. This one must have been “Lost In Space.” I’m surprised I didn’t comment on it, but I was new to Retrospect then. It’s so charming up until the end and the teacher’s dreadful question. Sorry that squelched your artistic endeavors, otherwise we could have been writing about you as a famous artist!

    • John Zussman says:

      Well, I doubt that, I’ve always been more of a “words” person, but it’s too bad we didn’t get the chance to find out. On the other hand, it did give my younger sister a chance to blossom as an artist, and she worked as a graphic designer for many years. Maybe all for the better.

      I think this story has been around the block a couple of times, first for the prompt “Lessons” way back in the Pleistocene (alpha). In any case, thanks for your kind words.

  11. Ah John, you poor boy, but for the sheer audacity of that nameless art teacher, you might’ve been another Michelangelo!

  12. It’s not too late, John…but maybe something (ahem) a little less audacious?

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