On my son’s first day of kindergarten I aged a decade. My heart beat outside of my chest with every step Chase took toward Huntersville Elementary School, his little head barely visible above his ridiculously large backpack.
Then after what felt like only one day had passed, an invitation arrived. To his kindergarten graduation. Wait, what? I glanced at the clock, hoping it was an appropriate time for a nerve-calming alcoholic beverage, when something on the fridge caught my eye.
It was my son’s artwork from one of his first days of school. A multi-media piece, the scene depicts Chase captaining a series of paper shapes glued together to form something that loosely resembles a boat. At the bottom of the paper, he used crayon to form the ocean which includes a terrifyingly large shark. His caption reads: “I have a bot. The shrk is in the woter.”
What made this piece “fridge-worthy?” From painted footprints shaped into strawberries to unrecognizable self-portraits (that I hope FBI profilers don’t call to inquire about in 20 years), an endless parade of paper poured home during the year. Do I need to keep it all? Will he crumble and question his self-worth in adulthood because I tossed whatever that half-milk-carton-tissue-paper-laden thing was without a second thought?
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Bleeding out from paper cuts, I became alarmingly creative in strategically covering up the pieces that I did sneak into the recycling bin. Perhaps a paper shredder stationed at the front door, I considered with military prowess; we will hold the front line, and not let any more enemy paper penetrate the home fort! I was delusional even attempting to make some type of enormous expandable file to be filled daily with artwork categorized by date, medium and mood.
But, sadly, my solution was to buy a Rubbermaid container so large it could double as a bathtub for a small adult. “It’s only temporary,” I promised myself, as I struggled to fit it into the back of my car in the Target parking lot. But the months have flown by and the paper is piled high. It now requires a caution-tape barrier for fear it may collapse and crush one of my children.
This year has broken me – I swore never to own nor need a hot glue gun, but just this past month I found myself hot-gluing together a Sharp Cheddar Cheese costume for my son’s role in the kindergarten play, “The Cheese Stands Alone.” Delightfully embarrassing my son, I sobbed with pride and waved at him like a drowning maniac as he took the stage with his fellow cheeses, including Gorgonzola, Brie and Swiss. But my mind did momentarily wander: would the giant foam-core Cheese Wheel be spared a curdling in the recycling and age long enough to hang around my grandchildren’s necks?
I know others suffer from archive angst.
‘Recycling is empowering’
My friend and fellow parent of elementary-school-aged kids, Niki Deaton, recently visited the brink of insanity when her daughter brought home yet another egg carton glued to party platter. Somewhere there’s a farmer’s market with an egg carton shortage due to this kid’s crafting.
Niki was caught recycling the sculpture, the crime uncovered by her daughter, Dylan. Cursing herself for not burying it deeper in the trash (remember ninja-style recycling strategy is critical), Niki did what any self-respecting parent would do in this situation. She lied. Blaming her husband, she insinuated he must not have understood the value of such a masterpiece, even Dylan’s younger sister, June, was falsely accused during the attempted cover-up.
After intense interrogation Niki finally broke and confessed.
“We now try to make decisions as a family or at least include the artist in the evaluation process of what stays and what goes,” Niki says. “As the girls get older they are beginning to understand the concept that we can’t keep everything and even the environmental aspect that by recycling some of the work the piece has a chance to live on.”
And, it seems the Deatons are on the right track. About the evaluation by jury.
Clinical social worker Laverne Fesperman recommends assessing artwork in the context of one year at a time.
“Involving the child in the decision of what to keep and what to recycle is empowering,” she says.
It’s also important to involve all family members, as different pieces will carry different meaning for each individual. “When you display an item on the fridge, communicate to your child that when it’s time for a new piece to go up the old one must come down. Children can understand the concept that no one keeps everything.”
Art complements learning
Jeff Ruppenthal, principal of Huntersville Elementary School, agrees with the importance of creative work not only in kindergarten to develop fine motor skills, but as an essential part of the curriculum. “We have deliberate discussions with staff about creative subject matter even in our current high-stakes environment focusing on academics and rigorous testing”.
The father of two teenage boys, Ruppenthal admits that his sons’ artwork is organized into plastic containers in his attic. Framed works are on display at home and in his school office.
When I question the volume of paper that comes home, Ruppenthal responded: “Even with the development of technology and screen-based learning I’ve not seen much of a change in the amount of paper generated by students over the past decade. Art complements and enhances the students’ understanding of every subject matter including history, math and science. What is sent home is designed to reinforce lessons learned during the day.”
Feeling like I’m the one being subjected to rigorous testing, hives rise at the thought of scrapbooking items into page-turning memories. But the fridge is becoming hard to open under the weight of my children’s artwork, and at this point we could swim laps in the Paper Sea of Rubbermaid Container Island.
I do plan to sit together with the kids and sort through the container. I imagine they’ll shout with tiny fists pumping in the air as we ruthlessly cull the clutter. Unless, of course, I find the lid. Then I’ll store it until they’re asleep and one night I’ll sift through it on my own with that alcoholic beverage. I promise.
Bek Mitchell-Kidd works in communications for nonprofits and do-gooders. An Australian native, she is mother of two children and wife of one husband.
Keeping memories alive
How do you decide what children’s artwork to keep or throw out?
Social worker Laverne Fesperman suggests taking a photo of all the work to store digitally at the end of the school year. Take a photo of your child with a sign that includes a few fun facts to document their favorite things, such as food, friends, activity, and words from the school year.