by Elaine Greensmith Jordan
Before Arizona, I raised a family in California. Back then I thought of myself as a teacher. It was a self-image I cherished: one who imparts wisdom to inquiring minds. But a field trip for kindergartners challenged that smug image.
Picture Kristina, Joelle, Zoe,Mark, Joey, all aged five, and me taking off from their kindergarten for San Diego’s Fine Arts Museum, complete with five apples. Kristina and Joelle were dressed for the museum with pretty skirts and clean faces. Zoe, whose mother is an artist, wore black tights and an orange tunic to set off her red hair and freckles. Mark’s chubby face was capped with blond curls, like a Renaissance cherub. Joey, in a blue tee shirt, pressed his pensive, dark-skinned face to the car window as if he’d spotted something in the distance.
We arrived, walked across the lawns and took time to find toilets. The children did somersaults on the greens. Everyone needed to feel comfortable before we entered the huge stone building. I thought they might become mute or frightened by what awaited us.
In the first-floor gallery of medieval art, we strolled past the tiny paintings and I told the children that the oils were over 500 years old. On a whim, I asked them to tell me what people were thinking about 500 years ago.
After a quiet look around at haloed madonnas holding babies, Joey said, “God. They were thinking about God.”
Kristina, from a Catholic home, quickly took the floor with an explanation about baby Jesus. “You can see him in our church. He’s our savior.”
Mark, child of a Jewish father, said, “What’s a savior?”
I swallowed. “Um. Well, a savior is a person some people think comes from God to make things better in this world.”
“Oh,” he said, satisfied.
Then the five children asked questions about the suffering they saw in the paintings: women weeping, Jesus bleeding, men grieving. I told the story of the crucifixion, and the questions continued. Where was Jesus buried? Why did he have to wear the stickers on his head? Was his skull still rolling around in the tomb? Oh dear.
I sputtered an explanation and ended the question period when I noticed Zoe’s eyes fill as she looked at a painting of Jesus’ bleeding body. Before she could really cry, we were on our way up the wide flight of stairs with vivid blue handrails. The glowing molded sculptures on the second floor changed our mood. The children dashed from one sensuous creation to the other. Joelle ran to “Star-Gazer,” a piece of indeterminate gender gazing upward. “My mother is going to buy this one,” she said as she stood beneath it, talking as if to an old friend.
Then we proceeded across the hall to the Pre-Columbian collection. I explained that this was an exhibit of sacred objects found in the earth of Mexico. The children stared, absorbed by the headdresses, pierced decorated ears, and outsized female bodies. “That lady has a big stomach and other things,”Mark said. By now he was annoyed by the museum’s rule that nothing could be touched. Fascinated by the enlarged genitalia on the figures, he wanted to go under the rope barrier and take a closer look. I encouraged him to talk it over with the museum guard, whose smile was kind. No luck.
“How could that fat lady bring good luck to a family?” Joelle asked. I had no idea, but answered, “When the family looks at her, sitting on a shelf in their house, they feel she’s watching over them, like a grandmother, sort of.” I took the quiet as acceptance. “Why did people need the things on their shelf to feel safe?” Mark asked.
“I think they were afraid of a lot of things, like wild animals and darkness. You remember they had no lights they could turn on.”
For the guard’s benefit, Zoe and Joelle each did a pirouette, or a facsimile, and we left the museum.
On our drive home, the children munched their apples while Kristina lectured about her church. “In church you have to be quiet, and there’s Jesus. He’s hanging on a cross and bleeding. It was a thousand years ago.”
Mark considered her comment. “I don’t understand people believing in stories about Jesus.”
Before I had to comment, we spied a nun in full habit walking on the sidewalk. “Why does she dress like that?” Zoe asked.
“She’s dedicated to a life in the church,” I answered feebly. “Some people love God so much they want to be in churches.”
Mark protested, “I don’t see what they believe!”
“I know,” I said. “It’s hard to understand. People’s families have different
beliefs and some go to churches and some don’t.”
“Can I throw my core out the window?” Kristina asked, ending the discussion.
When we arrived back at the school, I herded everyone inside, anxious to retreat to my home. Zoe told her friends about the blue handrails. Joey began sliding gold beads on an abacus, lost in thought. Joelle asked if she could write a story about the star-gazing sculpture. Just when I thought the children were settled, Kristina said, in a loud voice, “We saw Jesus.”
No one looked up. She hoped for more.
Mark’s mother, a teacher at the school, asked how the field trip went.
He took a long minute. “They had big bathrooms. The guy there wouldn’t let us touch anything.”
Nothing more to be said about great art and the world religions.
Elaine Jordan is a retired teacher and now does editing for local writers.