When I was, perhaps, nine-years-old or so, I was required to sculpt an art project out of clay. Others in my class created the clay expected: Animals, their Initials, flowers, and cars. I, for some reason, decided to create a life-sized Winston cigarette pack — flush with a few cigs sticking up out of the top.
I didn’t smoke. Nobody in my family smoked. I had no interest in smoking. I have never smoked to this day.
Yet, the inspiration I took for the “make anything you want out of clay” assignment in fourth grade art class — was a pack of Winston cigarettes.
The other kids in my class loved my creation. I made that lump of clay look just like a Winston pack. It was delicately carved and shaped. I was feeling sublime and artistic.
We delicately placed all our clay creations on a counter near the sink in the room. It would take a couple of hours for the clay to cure and then we could take our masterpieces home.
We all filed to the cafeteria for lunch.
In the middle of eating my chocolate pudding, I was recalled back to the classroom by my teacher.
All the other kids in the cafeteria watched me being led away. My teacher’s hand steered me from the back of my neck.
My mother was standing there in the classroom waiting for me. Her arms were crossed.
My mother was a teacher in the school and I testify now that no child should ever be subjected to having to attend any school in which their custodial parent teaches — because that experience is horrible and it brings instant pain, it disallows social growth, and it makes you the target of every other kid who hated your mother’s idea of discipline.
I finally learned to avoid my peer schoolyard revenge beatings by saying, “If you don’t like how my mother treated you, imagine living with her!” They would stop, look at me, and pity would fill their eyes as I was released — only to race back to the Panopticonic incarceration of my home. There was no escaping the revenge of mother’s glare.
“What’s the meaning of this?” she asked in that furious, controlled, and condescending tone that meant I was really going to be in for it later.
My heart raced.
I disappointed her.
I embarrassed her.
I interrupted her lunch.
She pointed a spiky fingernail at the clay Winston pack drying on the counter. “I asked you why you made that.”
My teacher, who was never my protector or educator, simply smiled at my discomfort. She was the one who fetched my mother from the faculty lounge with a tattling malice for my flaying. I was used to this sort of condemnation from my mother, but not my teacher.
I went over to my beloved clay Winston — the corners of the pack were just starting to turn light grey as they dried — and I smashed my fist into the clay.
I reformed the clay into a square bar and presented it for approval. “A pack of… cards,” I stammered.
My mother shook her head and her eyes hissed at me with hatred previously reserved for her ex-husbands. “Do you play cards? Do you gamble?”
I took a fingernail and scratched “S-O-A-P” across the front of the square bar of clay. “There. A bar of soap.”
My mother turned on her clicky heels and left the room.
My teacher, who had betrayed me and my aesthetic freedom, shook her head at me and told me to go finish my lunch.
I followed them out the classroom door and into an expanding hallway — no longer hungry, but stewing in a swirling pool of self-rising terror — as I realized the punishment had only just begun and the real evisceration would happen later, at home, where nobody can hear you cry.