Originally published in The Globe & Mail, the following story is a tribute to my Gr. 9 English teacher, Lynn Kenneth Pecknold. I hadn’t seen “Mr. Pecknold” in 46 years when my story reunited us in 2014. We met each others’ spouses (& few family members), posed for some photo ops & did some serious catching up.
After our parents’ divorce, our mother moved her bedroom to the den and my brother took over the old conjugal quarters. Like a 1960s version of Tom Sawyer, he sloshed a purple-wash over a beige wall, then got his teeny bopper little sister to finish the job. I was only too happy to turn the whole room into nighttime for his new black light.
I was a skinny girl of 14, limbs flying loose from oversized wooly sweaters and mini skirts, flailing in this direction and that; legs dancing, leaping, flying; just as free as all those answers blowin’ in the wind Bob Dylan sang about. But when the school buzzer sounded its mechanical call I stifled the wild child and filed into the drab hallways and classrooms of Como Lake Junior High, an institution where I was about as far from free as my hem was from the grey linoleum floors.
Forced to sit still in a little prison they called a desk, I clenched my fists and dug my nails into the palms of my hands while my hormones raced to the beat of some wild symphony only I could hear. While the teacher’s voice droned on in the stale air, I sought salvation in daydreams but if I was called back to answer questions, I had to confess I hadn’t been listening and I didn’t know the answers; they were blowing in the wind.
What is the square root of Free?
My creative and theatrical impulses made themselves evident even in school. When I had to sneeze I made the loudest “aaa-choo” in the land, making kids laugh and teachers scowl – except for my English teacher, Mr. Pecknold, who encouraged that sort of bold expression. “Bravo!” he would say after a volcanic sneeze punctured the sedate pen-scratching soundtrack of his classroom. He was also an Art teacher, although not mine, and when he found out how much I liked to paint, he lent me a handsome volume with page after page of colourful plates of great works of art.
I decided to copy one of the paintings onto a canvas board in my brother’s studio. Every day after school, I rushed home to my very own Girl Before a Mirror in progress. With a kind of ecstatic concentration I endeavoured to mix the same blues Picasso had once mixed. I squeezed and stirred the oozy colours, rust red, spring green, tar black. The smell of the oil paints as I slathered them on was as fragrant to me as the hyacinths that grew in our rockery.
On the closet door that used to hold our father’s tie rack, my brother painted three fluorescent hearts. In one he inscribed “Sonny and Cher,” in another I put “Romeo and Juliet,” and in the last he wrote: “Mom and Dad.” Since our mother and father’s marriage had ended in nasty betrayals and terrible battles, this neon pink inscription made us smile ironically beneath the black light, glowing teeth concealing pain, confusion, fear.
One day while I stood before my easel in breathless abandon, a blob of turquoise paint landed on the book my teacher had given me, right next to the Girl, on a border as smooth and white as virgin snow. I was mortified and hurried to wipe it off, but the pigment had seeped in and left a vivid blue stain. I had deflowered the Girl, and the repercussions I imagined for this deed gave me nightmares.
When my masterpiece was done, I took it to school to show my teacher. Appraising the two-foot by three-foot canvas he smiled thoughtfully, and in a voice full of warm approval, said: “Call it ‘After Picasso.’ ” He told me to enter it in the school art show. I scrawled its title on the back and entered it that day.
Then, mustering all my courage I gave my teacher his book back. Quivering in my white go-go boots, I opened it to the blue blemish and apologized. He eyed the blotch with the same critical eye he’d given my painting. Then he looked at me and said: “I am honoured.”
My painting won a prize. I was awarded a sketchbook.
Thirty-six years after Pablo Picasso painted the Girl, I laid eyes on her for the first time in my teacher’s book. Thirty-nine years after that, I finally saw the original at MOMA. That was last year, and as I gazed at the painting, so large and vibrant and colourful, I became intensely aware of something about the Girl’s face. One side of her face is a soft lavender pink, the innocent child; the other side of her face is bright yellow accented with rouge, lipstick, and eye shadow, the emerging sexual woman. I realized then that I had painted a self portrait.
I had come a long way since tying my blonde Twiggy hair up and wearing bell bottoms. As the seventies kicked in, so did my sun-yellow woman, but I was still the lavender girl, too. Picasso painted the Girl’s future as contorted and anxious in her reflection in the mirror. I too was destined to know the dark night of my soul.
Violet, ochre, rust, black, verdigris, they’re all me. But mostly, I am that renegade splotch of turquoise paint that landed in my teacher’s book so long ago, that dash of joyful colour that didn’t go where it was supposed to, that runaway blob that made its worthy mark. And to be all those colours, I am honoured.