Popsicle Stick Cathedral
By Rob Roensch
The county was so desperate for teachers they didn’t fire me, but instead insisted I admit I had a problem and stop drinking, which I mostly did. In the fall, the school they sent me to was further out: NO TRESPASSING signs posted on barbed wired fences enclosing empty fields, a daycare called Precious Angels in an old Pizza Hut.
In my new classroom there was a jumble of scarred folding tables, paint-spattered stools clustered around each one. I could have arranged them more sensibly; I did not.
In the last class of the first day there was one boy who no one would sit with. He was ordinary looking: freckles, short hair, sneakers and shorts and T-shirt like everyone else (though it would become clear after several weeks that he, alone of the boys, never wore a shirt with Thunder or Sooner logos, never any words in jagged energy-drink font). The second day I ordered half of a packed-full table to move over to his. There was no grumbling, but only blank compliance, as if I was an adult, a woman to be respected. The day after that he was again alone.
The teachers at the school either have been there forever or they’ll never belong. There are so many my-mothers. So many giant cheerful toddlers. Then there is the eighth-grade math teacher who looks like death and used to work on supersonic aircraft. The PE teacher who indoors is wide-eyed, a deer stuck in a mall. Me.
Once upon a time I was going to move to New York. My portfolio was the end result of months of being annoyed by what other people put on the radio in an alternately mossy-or-bleachy smelling corner of a studio used also as storage for sculpture courses: nests of twisted wire and melting mannequin collisions. I sat atop a stool with uneven legs that ticked back and forth to work; I could have switched stools, but I did not. Working from photographs of strangers, I produced thirty-six open-hand-sized studies of parts of open eyes. Up on the wall for critique it looked like nothing, like a bunch of tacked-up postcards.
For the color wheel assignment (a requirement noted on page 2 of my extremely lightly used curriculum binder), the lonely boy painted a haunted blue and orange bird perched on top of a long low brick building that I saw right away was an uncannily accurate representation of the school we were inside of.
I decided to run the unit on clay pinch-pot “sculptures” (a unit I knew from experience that could be messy but would at least keep them occupied) but I discovered that I had of course not thought to put in the order for the clay ahead of time. So, the supply closet: along with reams of crummy construction paper and tubs of crayons and jugs of paint, was a shelf full of staplers and chalk, quarter-full bottles of white squirt glue, giant cans of ketchup for some reason, and promising looking taped-up boxes that turned out to be full of popsicle sticks and toothpicks. I asked the kids what they wanted to make and they looked up at me like I was supposed to know.
Some mornings on the drive out to school there are millions of birds on the power lines; I noticed them more once the leaves started falling; the wind sometimes was a giant vacuum sucking them all up into towering swirls. I wouldn’t say I’m lost. What I would say is that I have always had a sense that there is something I have to do but I don’t know what it is.
Out of bored desperation to plan the next unit, I spent a not terrible evening on popsicle stick Youtube. The next day, before I introduced the architecture assignment, I placed piles of toothpicks and popsicle sticks on all the tables, along with, for each table, one tub of rubber cement, one new squeeze bottle of white glue, a roll of scotch tape.
The third day of popsicle stick architecture, the students came into class and went immediately to the drying racks to bring out their projects without my having to order them. We quickly discovered that white glue often failed. Under the closet ketchup tins, a box of never-opened masking tape, which you could draw or paint on better than scotch tape. The next day, for each project I brought in a photograph of a relevant building for inspiration—the Coliseum, a New England farmhouse, Notre Dame of Laon--that I printed out on my never-used photo-printer, a gift from my parents. We discussed the Golden Ratio, the worth of windows.
The lonely boy worked alone, standing up. He’d brought in a set of fine-tipped color markers of his own that he used to saturate individual toothpicks that he then laid out in rows before joining them into walls, corners, arches.
There were stacks of small cheap paper cups next to the sink. One day one of the stacks was on the lonely boy’s table. It turns out the cups could easily be disassembled into useful pieces: the stiff rim could be cut out and pulled straight, the bottoms could be cut into translucent white circles, the body of the cup could be unpeeled and cut into any useful shape. It was stiffer than paper, but waxy enough to be easily manipulated. Soon everyone wanted cups. I found several bags of them jammed behind a tub of snow-melt salt in the corner of the supply closet. The half-done architectural models grew new elements: flags, turrets, weathervanes, window shades.
Alone in my room after school one day, I set out all of the popsicle stick architecture projects. Walking among them was oddly peaceful, like driving into the city at dawn. There were a couple OSU and OU stadiums, including one guarded by a team of army guys painted maroon. An almost Eiffel tower half rainbow-colored. A castle with a functioning drawbridge and a Lego queen.
The lonely boy had constructed a cathedral: spires, a great central steeple. He’d used what looked at first like too much blue but then, upon further attention, was not. There was no door in.
The next morning when the kids came into the classroom, I had them line up against the sink counter and wait. I’d stacked the stools in a corner and pulled all the tables to right angles and spaced them evenly and then arranged the models on top. I talked about how to experience art, which is also how to live, I once knew. I talked about how to take your time, about how to see the work from the perspective of its creator, about how paying careful attention to the world was a kind of prayer. Then I invited them to look.
Most kids at least tried to follow directions, leaned in closely, making hilarious imitations of serious faces, making serious faces, looking.
I was not surprised to find that the class, minus some logo-shirted boys in the far corner doing something with something in their pockets, soon clustered around the lonely boy’s cathedral.
“How can anybody even do that?” said a normal girl to no one, even though the lonely boy stood among them.
A reply began to assemble itself in my mind, about how the focused expression of a unique imagination is evidence of the inherent value of each individual soul when in the same moment the lonely boy leaned forward and brought the double hammer of his fists down on the popsicle stick cathedral. It didn’t shatter, but smushed inward, somehow flesh-like. He raised his fists to repeat the act and I stepped forward and grabbed one and held it up and grabbed his other shoulder to keep him still and he grunt-whined, through his nose, and did not look at me. He was not strong.
The other kids stayed where they were, as if this was not unexpected.
“You’re not supposed to put hands on anyone,” said a normal girl to me, not like a tattletale, but blankly, like a bank teller. I looked in her face. It was set; she knew how things worked. At first I wasn’t going to ever let go, but then I did, and the lonely boy dashed off, into the hall.
The next day he was again at his table, alone. I assigned two other kids, nice kids, to sit at his table. I didn’t let them abandon him.
Here, the sky is infinitely far away and also everywhere. In the winter the early morning skies are baby blues and comic-book bright pinks and translucent oranges with clouds like cotton balls pulled apart and smeared on glass. Outside my apartment the landscape is flat and in one distance suburban and repetitive and in the other bare, scraggled and prickly, like someone combed all the green and life up and out. But I feel very alive, and I am painting again. It’s not that the work I am creating is perfect, or complete, but my relationship to it has changed. Sometimes I imagine taking my work in my hands and tearing it and crushing it, destroying it like the lonely boy destroyed the popsicle stick cathedral.