The hospital’s actual title: The Rosenblatz Institute. But that’s not the phrase patient-kids elbow one another with, my superiors informed me on my first day, along with the advice: ignore “cutesy” nicknames, and remember they all have trauma, medications, and triggers.
I’d been hired fresh out of college to teach Art Therapy—assigned to the ward for ages ten, eleven, and twelve. I went in starry-eyed and optimistic, wanting to make a difference, guiding kids toward transformative discoveries of the inner cosmos, leaving behind any cluttered need for words.
After the unfamiliar experience of staff-guards unlocking and locking my multiple levels of security-entry, I met thirteen children. The ward’s Director had generalized how some shared cracking and hole-hungers originating in their mothers’ arms and wombs. I’d studied coursework on developmental levels in children, with one unit focused on negative neonatal consequences. But supposedly there were also, sitting right around the crafting table with me, the offspring of cult members, plus a murderer, firebugs, and a few that textbook categories didn’t fit well. They all smirked and blushed and giggled, exactly like any other cross-section of kids their age.
The Director chose not to initially inform me as to which disturbing background manifested in which child—she wanted a commencement without bias of any sort. The kids appeared playful, verbally warm toward the new teacher, asking innocent questions.
To my right, a ten-year-old girl, with a runny nose, shook her head and leaned in to tell me, confidentially, You appear awfully young.
I tried dialing down their initial free-for-all, saying I couldn’t hear with everyone simultaneously talking. We would proceed around the table, one at a time. I confessed: it would help me to learn names if we went slow.
A boy identifying himself as Buzzy hemmed and hawed over his name and life at the Rose and Whack. Then he shared, They had to tie me down again last night. Overlapping table talk lit up once again, everyone in uniform agreement. They declared the tussle a legitimate institutional takedown, saying Buzzy had it coming. They congratulated Buzzy’s vigorous fending off of four night attendant adults, while managing two good teeth-drawings of blood before the needed restraints arrived.
I decided it might be best to space out introductions over the next few days, and I moved us forward: sheets of paper for everyone, three sixty-four-color boxes of crayons to share. My degree and training had prepared me for facilitating a therapeutic means of dealing with strong emotions, utilizing designs for soothing out stressors, while increasing self-awareness and self-worth. Typically, expression holds the power to decrease anxiety and tension. I launched our first step into the freeing world of art with personal choice: whatever you wish, draw anything the heart desires—could be flowers, or kitty cats, cars, or spaceships.
A few kids were ready to begin, but they were slow on the take. Moods turned slightly, aggravation escalating when the reds and yellows got snatched and hoarded away first. Walking around the table, I noticed their artwork illuminated who liked matches—apparently, I had three juvenile arsonists. The Shadow and Grey proved popular colors with my twin non-talkers, girls holding their crayons like daggers, scratching and smudging out pictures of babies and black roses. One freckle-faced boy showed me his paired drawings of a kitten: the cuteness of the before pose, then a graphic depiction of after; he correctly used the word vivisection.
Buzzy tried to be helpful, drawing a space shuttle navigating the moon-and-stars. He labeled it The Rose & Whack Express. Buzzy possessed talent: a likeness of me, with a rose in my hair, sat steering the helm, while smiling classmate caricatures waved at all twelve portholes. Buzzy brought up the rear, floating outside and holding on for the ride, clutching some sort of hose.
I’d been told by the Director, quite sternly don’t touch, no hugs, so I complimented Buzzy three times, hoping he might believe every word of my effusive praise. Something in his eyes appeared unmoored.
First day, and I’d made a mistake: allowing them choice. I wasn’t ready—the range and visual language of their imaginations hit paper in wider-ranging strokes than my own creative visions. I vowed: tomorrow, we would all draw brightly colored flowers. No reds, yellows, or grays. We would establish a constructive community and an affirming baseline.
After a couple of table rounds, smiling as I lauded the artistic skills of each and every budding artist, I noticed the room’s bluster quietly change. When I commented on it, the childish faces all told me: as the newest innovative force in the room, I was arriving late in the game.
A sharpener had been torn from one of the crayon boxes, during some brief moment when I turned my back. Probably when I was putting a positive spin on depictions of bleeding figures and roadkill. I leaned into my therapeutic training, employing an even voice, instructing them to stop what they were doing. Buzzy started to say, I wish, but I shushed him and demanded, What happened to the sharpener?
A ward-orderly had been sitting next to the door. His eyes jagged and blanched. He grabbed his walkie, placed an immediate all-call.
They came running. Staff roughly patted-down the children. They came up empty, suspiciously frustrated. The runny-nose girl—Scarlet—finished playing with us. She grinned at me, the tiny razor blade emerging from between the gap in her two front teeth. The Director carefully removed it from the girl’s lips, asked me to see her before leaving. The room emptied of adults once again.
I asked Scarlet if she’d have self-harmed with the blade.
They all looked at me as if I was mad. Scarlet winked, said Welcome to the Rose & Whack.
Sitting speechless in the darkened front seat of my car after work, I popped a couple of pills, finding my evening calm. Outside my window: wishes, full of moon and stars.