“Sounds to me like you’re an artist.” My therapist said.
“Why did you just do that?”
She laughed. “You made a face.”
“Oh,” I smiled softly. “I hate that word.”
“Why is that?”
“I guess I just always thought it sounded so flaky.”
“You *always* thought that?”
There was a long pause.
“Hm.” She said. “Let’s explore that a bit.”
“It’s just that you’re a singer, songwriter, pianist, writer, marketer…” She ticked off the list with her fingers.
I said nothing.
“Sure sounds like an artist to me.”
The truth was, there was a lot of baggage that came with that word.
Public school for me was a nightmare. It’s nobody’s fault and I’m thankful to live in a country that provides free public education.
I have a new piano student who is about 10 years old. As we were working on her first lesson, I asked her what her favorite subject in school was.
“I really like science.”
“Oh yeah? You’d probably get along with my husband then. He has a Physics degree. What’s your second favorite subject?”
She had to really think about this. “I would say reading class, but they don’t let you read in there. They just give you a bunch of worksheets.”
It was like I was staring into the face of my younger self.
“Once,” I began. “I was reading a book in reading class and my teacher had to take it away because I was off task.”
My student looked at me in the eyes for the first time in our 30-minute lesson. “But you were reading! Isn’t that on task?”
I remember crying after my first week of 8th grade because there was so much homework.
“If this is affecting you like this now,” my mom said. “High school is going to be tough.”
I didn’t cry because I was lazy.
I cried because I had just spent 8hrs in a place that told me what to do all the time. Where doodling in the margins was frowned upon, where writing poetry instead of doing the science lesson was considered rebellion, where singing was confined to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays when I had choir.
I begged my parents not to make me take advanced classes in high school. Not because I wasn’t ambitious, but because if I took advanced classes I was allowed fewer electives in my schedule.
Electives like theater, art, band and choir.
If I had things my way, I would have taken all of them.
I wanted to be all of them.
But then I was sat down in front of the guidance counselor.
She took one look at my grades and standardized test scores and asked my father, “Why isn’t she signed up for the MAPPS advanced program?”
And that was the end of my dream of coasting through high school. I was allowed one elective.
I chose choir.
I studied my choral music like some study math or science. I was placed in the Advanced Ensemble, Showchoir and recommended for a solo at state.
As a Freshmen, this meant I was above par.
I also joined an after-school theater program called ITS. I became part of a band that practiced out of my garage. I wrote songs and mixed them myself, uploading them to Myspace music. I became the music leader for a club called FCS.
I wrote poetry and essays and stories in my school notebooks.
The problem was, I ignored my regular core classes. I refused to do homework, as I believed that school already took up so much of my day. Why should I give it more of my time?
Time that could be used for creativity.
Eventually, it came back around to bite me in the butt. I was grounded for a whole summer because I failed College Algebra.
With a score of a 36 F to show for my effort, which translated to none at all.
This led to a roundtable meeting with both my parents and all of my teachers. All of them trying to figure out what was going on in my head. Why someone with so much potential refused to try in school.
My Geometry teacher, Mrs. M, felt bad for me.
“Well, I don’t know what my opinion is worth, but Sandi is very kind to me. I think she’s great. Very polite.”
I had a C in her class.
I started dating Jesse my Junior year and the stakes were high. I was on my third round of trying to pass College Algebra. If I didn’t, I would be grounded for the entire summer.
But I had a new teacher this time, his name was Mr. W. and I liked him. He was a straight-forward, no-nonsense kind of teacher who left me the hell alone.
Which is why it surprised me when he called me up to the front of his classroom one day.
“You’re showing exceptional results in my class, Miss Klüg.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“You’ve gotten high As on the first three tests. Two of those were a 100%.”
Then he looked at me suspiciously. “But you only have an 80% in my class.”
“Why is that Miss Klüg?”
I sighed, gearing myself up for a lecture. “Because I don’t do the homework, sir.”
He stared at me. “You’ve taken this class once before, haven’t you?”
“Twice before,” I corrected him. “Sir.”
He squinted and looked at me with an evaluating look. “Why have you failed twice?”
It took years and perspective to realize he wasn’t judging me, but genuinely curious.
I loosed a deep breath. “I refuse to do homework, sir. I think it’s a waste of my time.”
Hey. No one can accuse me of not being honest.
And stubborn. I’m that, too.
He rolled his eyes. “You can sit down now.”
Later on that year came the defining moment. If I didn’t manage exactly a 78% on my final exam in College Algebra, I was going to be grounded for another whole summer.
After the bell rang on the last day of school, Jesse and I ran to Mr. W’s class. Jesse stood outside the door, waiting on the results.
“Miss Klüg, what can I do for you?”
“I was wondering if you had the exams graded yet, sir.”
A questioning look marked his face. “This is the first time you’ve ever cared to ask me for your grade. Why?”
“Because if I don’t get exactly a 78% on my final, sir, I will get a D and be grounded for the whole summer… again.”
He laughed. “Exactly a 78%, huh? You did the math?”
Still laughing, he flipped through his pile of scantrons until he found my name.
My whole body tensed. I could feel Jesse’s anxiety through the door.
“What was the grade you said you needed again?”
“78%.” He repeated, shaking his head. He looked at me, back at the scantron, then at me again. “You got a 78%.”
I whooped with glee, thanked Mr. W and ran out of the classroom to give Jesse the amazing news.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I looked back on this moment in my life with dawning understanding.
I’m 95% sure Mr. W helped me finally break free of College Algebra.
God bless that man.
Today, I do math all the time.
I do math to calculate the ROI on Facebook ads. I do math to calculate my client’s invoices. I do math to draw up my taxes.
And I’m good at it.
It took years after high school, and dropping out of community college, to figure myself out. I had been conditioned to believe that my brand of genius was lazy, unmarketable, unworthy…
… that if I went down the creative path my soul longed for, I’d be a starving artist.
So instead of just hating the phrase “starving artist” I hated the word “artist.”
But sitting there with my therapist, looking back on my life, I finally started to embrace it.
I have a total of six streams of income coming into my household right now, because of my art.
Three years ago, I hit an income goal of 30k made in one year through my business. It wasn’t a million dollars…
But I got to wake up every day…
…and PLAY. Just… play.
And make a living doing it.
It’s only gone up from there.
“I guess, yeah, I am an artist.” I finally replied to my therapist. “It’s just that the word feels icky to me. That word carries baggage to me. It’s synonymous with lazy, incompetent, childish, impractical, unorganized and so many other awful words. Words I used to describe myself with.”
“What would it feel like to embrace that word again?” She asked.
I thought for a while before replying with a small smile. “I don’t know.”
There’s no outrunning who you are, because there is no other way to be.
They asked me in school, “What color will you choose?”
“What job do you want?”
“Who do you want to be?”
“What are your goals and your dreams?”
“But, no. Not those.”
Yet, I had no choice. It’s in my makeup, it’s how I live, move and breathe in the world.
My heart and soul whispered, “All of them. I want to be everything.”
Asking me to choose one thing to do with the rest of my life is like asking a painter to choose one color.
I just can’t do it.
There is so much to DO in the world. So much to BE.
There is just SO MUCH COLOR!
So I paint with my life a wondrous masterpiece, pushing the boundaries of what it means to be successful, what it means to make an income.
There are a million ways not to starve.
I get to wake up every single day of my life and PLAY.
It’s work, yes. So much work.
I’ve never had to be more organized than I am right now.
But freedom. The freedom. To paint the life I always wanted. To move through this life gloriously untamed.
I’m an ARTIST.
And not the starving kind.