This is a story written by teacher Jane K. Marsh. It teaches a lesson about the redemptive power of the arts.

The Artful Anastasia

In the eyes of most people, Anastasia was a compliant, dutiful twelve-year-old — a respectful daughter and a model student. Yet, she had another, subversive side that found its way into her art. When she entered the world of creation, she dreamed of worlds as yet undiscovered – beautiful places where all of the earth’s inhabitants were listened to – even children. Of course, many who viewed her work failed to recognize the underlying message. Her paintings were seen as whimsical – those pictures of kittens and birds sharing a drink of water in a dish formed by a peculiar confluence of fallen leaves. Her renderings of foxes and chicks dancing in the moonlight, too, simply were regarded as a pleasant diversion. But Anastasia knew better. Her paintings represented the opening salvos of a battle for the hearts and minds of her community.

Early on, Anastasia had witnessed the all-too-usual, negative behavior of people who did not listen. Unfortunately, her family members were often troubled, and they expressed sorrow and frustration in the usual way – by yelling, accusing and so forth. Sometimes the adults found solace in alcohol which of course led to more yelling, accusing, etc. Her brothers also reflected a combative gene that seemed to rule their waking hours. Even their games involved competition and the outsmarting of one another. Anastasia vowed to live in another way.

At first, she retreated to her own place of peace and creation. When she was upset with the atmosphere of her home life, she created an alternative world in her art – losing herself in her imagination. This activity formed the groundwork from whence her later subversion would take hold. Her paintings also provided others with images of peace that, at least for a moment, appeared to affect them subliminally. That is, the shouting momentarily ceased when others viewed her work.

During one particular painful, parental argument, Anastasia thought to herself, as she had so many times before, “Why can’t they listen to one another? Tell each other calmly and honestly exactly how they feel and why?” Then she decided to create heart-shaped, post-it notes that read: “Ask her how she feels” and “Ask him how he feels.” These she placed in strategic places for her parents to find. Once again, her imagination provided momentary relief for her family. You see, her mum and dad were then aware of the feelings and thoughts of their then ten-year-old daughter, and there was talk of “out of the mouths of babes” and so forth. Anastasia suspected that she had not so easily solved the dilemma of her parents’ relationship, but the “cease-fire” was a start. When tempers flared once more, she would post signs that read “Listen” throughout the house.

Unfortunately, the listen-sign campaign backfired. “I don’t appreciate being scolded by a ten-year-old. You don’t understand everything.” Anastasia knew this to be true. Yet, she had tried, anyway – and would keep on trying – though maybe not at home for a while. Anastasia saved the heart-shaped, post-it notes for another situation that she found troubling.

You see, her school had lately seemed more like a prison. Gone were the days of laughter, conversation and discovery. Rigor and testing had become the norm. There was only one class where Anastasia felt really free to express her inner-most thoughts – and that was art class. The rest seemed like endless preparations for tests that would determine her future. Students were advised to practice self-discipline, to listen intently to their teachers so as to reach potential – that is the next step as determined by tests. Competition became the order of the day. Everyone was trying to outdo the other, and all were vying for the same prize. Then it occurred to Anastasia that the adults who expected to be carefully listened to, had very little time for the thoughts of students. As a result, students ceased to come up with their own ideas. What was the point? No one would hear. Anastasia decided that the focus on testing was the real problem. These big state tests, especially, made everyone nervous and unhappy – and unwilling to listen.

Anastasia would once again use her heart-shaped, post-it notes to send a message – this time to the teachers and students at her school. When no one was looking she placed these notes with the message “The Real Test!” in various places in the school. This anonymous, and somewhat unclear to many, signage, created a discussion in her school, for young and old wanted to know who was behind the message as well as what it meant exactly. Anastasia was pleased to overhear at least one person claim that the signs had to do with love being more important than tests. After a week or so had passed and the furor over the post-it notes had died down, Anastasia followed up with additional post-it notes that were decorated with flowers and simply stated: “Listen.”

As it turned out, this latest admonition largely went over the heads of the population of the school. She had been trying to say that when people take the time to listen to one another, something beautiful grows, but somehow that message was not received in a meaningful way. “Perhaps, it was too vague,” Anastasia thought. She also felt that the message was really aimed at those teachers who had forgotten how to listen to their students. Anastasia decided to paint a picture that would clearly state her concern. So, she drew a comic-strip-type illustration of a teacher and a student poring over a test-preparation booklet in the first frame. In the next frame the student asks the teacher: “Will you listen to me?” The final frame shows student and teacher looking at one another rather than at the test booklet, and the teacher responding: “Yes, I will.”

Maybe it was Anastasia’s imagination, but for a while it seemed to her that teachers were listening better. However, the testing continued all the same. Anastasia was disappointed that her messages and picture had not changed the feeling of the school in a big way.

However, when she admitted to her art teacher that she had been the one behind the mysterious post-it notes and larger illustration, her teacher listened very carefully to Anastasia’s explanation. She also said that it had made a difference because, for a moment in time, Anastasia had encouraged her community to question the road they were taking. The teacher said, “Big change doesn’t happen overnight. However, the artist can at least point the way and start a conversation. And remember, Anastasia, art endures – perhaps because it goes beyond simply stating (or yelling) a concern. Art enables people to stop for a moment – and to think their own thoughts in response. Good work!”

Anastasia felt much better after this conversation. Maybe she couldn’t change the world – nor even a small part of it such as a family or a school – but she could voice her opinions in interesting ways that caused people to listen, though perhaps only momentarily. And she remembered, too, the other purpose in creating art. It made her feel better when she was frustrated, angry or sad – even when she tried and failed to convince others with her views. Art meant healing herself through the illustration of a better world and remaining open to the most exciting part of herself, her imagination.