1956. Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Walter Allen Elementary School. First Grade. Having only recently mastered the Latin alphabet and basic Hindu-Arabic numeric system, we were in the process of learning the history of the written word: touching upon Babylonian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Phoenician alphabet, Johannes Gutenberg and his movable type, and also block printing – an ancient Chinese invention.
As part of this learning experience we were given the task of making our own block print using a freshly cut potato as the print block and finger paints as our medium. We were told to bring a potato and a paring knife from home.
My mother, being of the diligent, conscientious, very caring and careful sort, never, ever let us, her young children, handle sharp objects. So it was that this became my very first experience wielding a sharpened knife. I was both a bit nervous and rather clumsy.
Perhaps I misunderstood the teacher’s instructions or perhaps she didn’t explain it right, but, with tongue firmly clenched in teeth, I set about carving a shape out of the potato. Rather than producing an image of some object as one might see in a woodcut, what I wound up with was a simple rectangular chunk of potato. In retrospect, I think what the teacher had in mind was for us to carve a figure in the flat or facet of the halved potato, in order to produce an example of a simple woodcut or engraving.
I smeared some finger-paint on a small piece of paper. I dipped the rectangular chunk of potato in the finger-paint, and on a clean sheet of paper I pressed the potato to the paper and produced a rectangle, so:
The rectangle’s height to width ratio didn’t seem to lend itself to further expansion of the figure before me, so I set about experimenting with different colors. I covered a whole sheet of paper: We cleaned up the finger-paints and moved on to another topic.
After the Dismissal Bell rang at the end of the day, my teacher handed me a note to take home to my mother.
The next day my mother walked me to school. This was not an ordinary Parent/Teacher Conference however, as we went straight to the Principal’s Office; a Mr. Ziemann by name. Alone in his office, my mother and I were questioned as to our political sympathies. My mortified mother answered a few questions but throughout the interrogation he never got anything out of me, except an occasional shrug.
What? Did you expect a confession? I was six, dammit!
I think true stories are the best kinds of stories, don’t you?