Society’s Child

It was scary starting a new school although I’d done it since changing first grades six times. My 8th grade class in Hoboken, Georgia consisted of 30 kids. We had different teachers for history, English and PE but we girls all moved down the hallways together, as did the boys. We played together at recess, swinging on the big truck tire, spinning around, boys tossing chestnuts at us girls.

Langley High was gigantic! It was built one year before I entered, so it was brand-new and filled with the shuffle of teenaged boys’ big shoes, girls’ laughter, bells ringing, teachers shouting “get to class!”

Dad dropped me off for my first day at LHS on his way to D.C. He had begun his new desk job with the USGS only a month before.

He let me choose the radio station on the way from Great Falls to McLean, a long distance down winding roads. I twisted the knob until a familiar song came on; one our Georgia PE teacher played while we girls did calisthenics :
“I Was Born to Love Her” by Stevie Wonder. As Dad drove down the windy highway, more soul songs played. Good station. I took out my new Saxon notebook & wrote down the call letters.

“You’ll do great!” my father shouted as a I slumped up the stairs toward Langley’s main doors.

My parents had taken me to meet the principal and get a tour around the new school back in August. He gave me the syllabus for World Civilization I (AP classes). He handed my parents a list of students’ names and phone numbers. These were kids whose parents agreed that they could be available to meet new students. In August, I’d met two nice girls, who had transferred from Catholic school to Langley. I hoped to see them in World Civ’.

I consulted my class schedule for the 40th time since getting it in the mail two weeks prior. My first class, hooray, was Art. I loved drawing, painting and making collages. My sister was a much better artist than I was but drawing relaxed me.

The map of LHS was confusing until a friendly boy who looked like one of the Kinks saw me fumbling around with it. He took the map out of my hands and said:

“Going to Art? So am I.” He reached out his hand to shake with me. I gave him the firm handshake Dad had taught me to do, so I’d seem confident, although I was shaking in my black flats.

“Mike Powell.”

“Dixie Elder.”

“Um, Dixie.” “What? Did you say Dixie!”

Eager to be seen as cute, I used the Southern accent perfected by my sister, brother & me when we lived in North Carolina, Georgia and Florida for years while Dad did topo for the USGS. It was fake but my accent sounded more interesting in that slow drawl.

“I love it! I’m Irish. I have a brother, he’s on the football team.”

Golly.” Now I sounded like Gomer Pyle. Red-faced, I looked down at the floor as we rushed through the crowds, toward Art. We got to the huge art room and a kind-faced woman teacher greeted us at the door.

“Hi there! I’m Miss Lintner, find a table. You’re going to enjoy my class this year.”

Langley Art Teachers

Mike and I sat down at a metal and linoleum table. We’d each brought sketch pads and art pencils and began arranging them in front of us.

Other students ambled in, most well acquainted with each other. Miss Lintner asked everyone to say his or her name & a few sentences about us. I said I’d just moved to the area from Georgia. All my classmates laughed with amused affection at my accent. Art class was great from Day One.

Toward Spring, we all began sketching, painting & making linoleum prints for the school-wide competition. Everyone, Freshmen to Seniors would have art examined by Miss Lintner, Mr. Tidwell and others on the Review Board. I was in a fever pitch, trying to come up with an interesting subject for my painting. I sketched & sketched for weeks. Then I showed Kathi my drawings.

“This one!” She pointed to the rough draft for “Society’s Child.” It was based on Janis Ian’s song “Society’s Child,” about a white girl lamenting her doomed romance with a black guy.

Langley only had two black students that year. At Hoboken High, we’d had No black students. In fact, one of my favorite teachers announced one hot day in 1965, “If they integrate this school, I will personally take each of them out back & scrub them in a washtub.”

When an Air Force “brat” girl & I gasped in shock, our teacher snapped,
“You think they smell nice? Ain’t none of ‘em got runnin’ water around here.”

My friend bravely stated, “that is because of prejudice!” I raised my hand in the air, made a fist & shouted, “Yeah!”

Of course, we were sent to the principal’s office. Our parents argued that we were using The First Amendment & that the time had come for equal rights. But we were in trouble with Mr. Gass & ridiculed by some of the boys. We girls stuck together. Girlfriends came up to us during recess & said things like:
“I agree with ya’ll but I was chicken to fuss at Mr. Gass.”

So here it was, Spring in Great Falls, Virginia. 1967! Time was a’wastin’!!

I went to the basement where Dad had set up a mini-art area for me. Light shone in through a slanting, pull-out window. There was a naked light bulb over my wooden easel. Like Dad, I never liked bright light. My father wore dark, reflecting sunglasses whenever he was outdoors. He said our Cherokee blood made us prefer night-time, when white men were afraid to go out into the woods. I just accepted his comments as Gospel Truth.

I set up a canvas Dad had kindly bought me for the competition. Usually, he said art supplies were “Too God-damned expensive.” He made me paint on slabs of wood or drywall. Even Mylar left over from one of his topo projects! How embarrassing!

Shakily, I began sketching the figures. I was horrible at drawing people but this idea had my brain on fire. It took me two hours to get the young man looking like he wasn’t floating in the air. He was supposed to be perched on a park bench.

Then I started drawing the girl, on his lap, facing him, staring into his big, brown eyes. Well, they would be brown once I mixed ebony black with burnt sienna. I scrabbled along happily until Mom called everyone to supper.

I worked on my painting for weeks before finally bringing it to Art class for Miss Lintner’s critique. We students set our paintings, drawings & linoleum prints up on easels but covered. As our teacher walked around the room, she complimented everyone’s work. “Wonderful use of color.” “Lovely neck on that horse.” “Strong lines in your linoleum print.”

She came to me. I was shivering & shaking, sweat streaming down my ribs. I hugged my skinny chest with bony arms to keep from running out of the room.

“Oh! My God!” shouted some of the students as our teacher pulled the cloth off my painting.

Society's Child sketch

this is the sketch I did for my painting. Ultra-Primitive/Amaturish

“Dixie—I don’t know what to say.” Miss Lintner stammered.

Mike stood up for me, “It’s ‘Society’s Child’.”

He got it! Without me even telling him about my project.

Kids crammed toward my easel. “You did Not paint that!!” Some laughed, others gasped, still others whispered “This is Crazy!”

“It’s crummy,” I said. “My idea looks better in my head.”

Pretty soon, students from out in the hallway crushed in through the doorway to Miss Lintner’s art class.

“That’s a Statement,” said a senior I admired. She nodded to me, as if to say “Right on, little sister.”

Miss Lintner clapped her hands together. “OK, everyone. It’s time to settle down. Dixie, if I could speak with you for a few minutes?” She led me into Mr. Tidwell’s supply area, an adjoining room with her art classroom.

“We need to figure something else for the competition. I want you to know that I agree with your sentiments. But this painting would cause a riot or a scandal or something. You are talented & have a real heart for what’s right. Perhaps you could come up with a lino’ print that has the same message but not quite as provocative? Linos are easier than acrylic paintings. It wouldn’t take you much time to finish one. The last one you did was excellent.”
My teacher was talking a mile a minute, trying to get her words in before the bell rang.

Face burning hot as my brain, I stared at the floor.

“OK, sorry.” Tears were in my eyes but Elders never cry. The bell rang. World Civ’ English next. Brother! I was so far behind in that class, it wasn’t even funny. I rushed out of the door, into the bustling hallway.

Mike rushed to catch up with me. “Dixie! What did she say?”

“I can’t enter that painting in the competition.”

“What? Not cool. I love it.”  

“Yours is only eight billions times better.”

Mike’s painting was a gloriously beautiful ocean sunset, done in difficult oils. He was gifted. It looked just like Ocean City in August, orange sun melting through transparent blue waves.

For a week, I sweated over a lino’ print. Sketch first. Scratch that one. Start over. Consult with Kathi. Then get to work in class. Finally, it was done. Miss Lintner took one look & said, “Oh, Dixie. That is absolutely wonderful.”

It was a print of two boys fishing on a pier. On was dark, the other tan due to carved lines flat & in relief. I’d pulled the prints onto ochre paper.

The card beneath that print in Langley’s lobby said:
“Sittin’ on th’ Dock O’ th’ Bay by Dixie Elder.” Another great song. It won 3rd prize in my category, Freshman Lino’ Print. I was ecstatic!

My sister clapped her hands, spun around & exclaimed, “You’re a genius! It doesn’t matter if you didn’t get First. That is such a cool print. Can I have it?”

I gave it to her on the spot. She kept it with her through many years & moves. Along with a copy of Andrew Wyeth’s “The Weed” which I painted in 10th grade, and art works she did in college, it was burned to ash in the Black Forest fire of 2013.

Kathi had passed away by then. But her husband, his new wife Pati & Kathi’s daughter Kerra lost many beautiful things in that fire, including priceless photo albums, classic books, a portrait of Pete done by his mother. Melted was Pete’s family silver which he’d inherited from his great-great-great Massachusetts grandmother. Pete’s sister later went hiking on the three acres of burnt out property. She found a huge pyroclastic remnant: family sterling had become an abstract art piece.

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