Sara Kirschenbaum
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A Lost and Found Portrait

Posted Sunday, Jul 18th, 2010 at 8:26pm

Jawan is a plump boy with a round face and eyes that roll, showing the pressure inside his seven young years. I am here to tutor Jawan in reading. I am a S.M.A.R.T. volunteer as in Start Making A Reader Today. Jawan hates to read. His fingers trace over the words, smudging any meaning; he soon looses patience.

The five of us SMART volunteers, me and my four students, knock on Mr. Glisan’s room at 8:30 in the morning. The normally pristine Mr. Glisan is in muddy coveralls. A visiting artist, a curly-haired hefty woman, is there lecturing the young class on the features of a face. Mr. Glisan asks if we SMART volunteers wouldn’t mind helping our students with their masks today instead of reading with them. We are happy to.

“The eyes,” the visiting artist says, “are in the middle of the face, not on the top!” She has drawn a big oval face on a large pad of paper. There is a line down the middle of the face and one across. Where they cross is the top of a triangular nose. The visiting artist has hairy arms and the beginnings of a mustache. Her apron is authentically covered in clay and paint; she has visited many classrooms.

“Jawan,” the visiting artist calls out and hands him his round slab of clay that he worked on yesterday. Today the children will add their features. The roughly round brown clay lies flopped over a wad of newspaper to help it stay convex.

The palm-side of Jawan’s fingers is pale brown, almost Caucasian. The outside is coconut-shell dark. He takes his pancake of puddle-brown clay and turns it in his plump-fingered hands. He has a brush, a Popsicle stick and a butter knife. He picks up the butter-knife.

“Good job,” I say encouragingly.

He takes the knife and cuts the slab, from top to bottom, in half. “What are you doing, Jawan?” He stacks the two pieces and cuts them across, dividing the face into quarters. He stacks the four pieces together, presses them. I can’t understand this brutal quartering until I realize he has taken the teacher’s lines, down and across the face diagram, literally.

“Are you starting over, Jawan?”

I take the four stacked pieces of clay and put them on the table and start flattening them, trying to get them into an oval. Jawan’s real face is actually more of a circle.

“There, how’s this Jawan?” I ask, smoothing the edges. “Now can you make the eyes?”

Jawan reaches his two-toned fingers to the top of the clay and presses his thumbs in. His thumbprint eyes sit near the top of his oval mask.

“Excellent Jawan!” I say.

His teacher in cover-alls walks by and says, “Jawan, the eyes are in the middle, not on top; remember the diagram?” The teacher reaches toward the top of Jawan’s clay mask and deftly rubs out the eyes. “In the middle, Jawan.”

Jawan’s real eyes, white and brown, roll in his head. He makes a big, exaggerated sigh.

I take his thumbs in my olive pale hands and put them over his clay, in the middle. “Press them down Jawan, like this, to make the eyes.” I push gently down on his fingers.

I look around the room. His 25 classmates are industriously working on their masks. Two girls at the next table are making finely detailed eyebrows and eyelashes and eyeballs.

Jawan presses his thumbs into the clay.

“Great job, Jawan! The nose, Jawan, now let’s make the nose.”

Jawan has a lump of clay in his hands. Way too big, if you ask me, for a nose. But he refuses to even press it. He throws his head down on the desk and his arm hangs loose over the edge with the clay barely staying in his hand.

“You’re so handsome, Jawan. You are such a handsome boy. Let’s make a handsome mask just like you.” Jawan lifts his handsome face. His eyes coast over to me and look incredulous. “Do know the best way to make a nose?” He looks surprised that I might have helpful information. “Just look in a mirror!” I answer, quietly defying any art teacher’s fancy instructions. I pick up the scratchy piece of mirrored Plexiglas that the visiting artist has put on each table, and hold it up to his face. I try to get the angle right to show him his nose, broad at the top, and perfectly shaped. He stares into the mirror, listless. He looks for a long time and then tries shaping the lump of clay in his hand. He squeezes it two times, lets out a big sigh, and pulls up the collar of his blue T-shirt over his face. He presses each hand on the shirt over his eyes and refuses to move. He sits facing me, hands clamped over his eyes.

“Jawan, you are such a handsome good boy.” I hesitantly pat his back, wondering for a moment whether this touching is allowed for SMART volunteers. “Let me help you make your nose. Let me be your assistant. You tell me what you want.”

For the first time since I have seen Jawan today, he says something. From inside his shirt I hear something I can’t make out. “What did you say?” I ask.

The shirt says, “Triangle.”

“Okay Jawan, we can do that! Here, give me your clay, I’ll show you how to make a triangle!” The shirt collar drops and he hands me the clay. I flatten it out and cut out a long triangle, thinking how un-triangular his nose is. Jawan snatches up the triangle and puts it in the middle of his mask. “Wait, Jawan, you have to score it! Remember, so it will stick to the clay and won’t blow up in the kiln.”

Jawan takes his knife and makes one deep line on the triangle. With coaxing he makes several more on the triangle nose and on the mask. To put “slip” on the scoring, he takes his brush and delicately puts one drop of the muddy water in the deep cuts. He puts the now slightly roughed up triangle on the mask. His eyes, his real eyes, smile with satisfaction.

“Let’s do the mouth now Jawan.” With my fingernail I make a line where I think the mouth should be, “Here, Jawan.” He takes the knife in his small hand and makes a line and he slashes almost through the cheek side of his mask. I rub the clay together so the cheek stays intact. The mask stares out at us both, limply smiling, looking alive.

“Eyebrows,” says Jawan. “I want to do my eyebrows.”

I look at the clock. It is time for me to go and tutor my second child, a tiny Southeast Asian girl, named Malia. I need to rouse the four other SMART tutors, who are my students. They are here to fulfill their required “Community Leadership” credits. If they don’t do their community service, I’ll have to kick them out of our school.

“Jawan, I’ve had such a good time with you today. I’m really moved.” I get up, realizing that Jawan has not looked at me yet today. As I get up, his teacher comes and sits down to help him with eyebrows. I have been with him for 15 minutes today. It is almost nothing in his seven years. And yet he has made a dent, a thumbprint, in my 41.

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