From the Engine Room: Calligraphy, Dragon Bob, and Access to Opportunity

When I was child, my parents could not afford to send me to “extracurricular activities.” No piano lessons, ballet, or little league. That’s why I remember, like it was emblazoned in gold, the summer that my mother signed me up for two summer classes: calligraphy and theater.

My mother knew the calligraphy teacher, Shelly, who lived down the street, and I'm sure that had something to do with why I ended up in her class that summer, learning to hold a calligraphy pen at a 45° angle. Shelly kept correcting my grip when my i’s looked too fat and my a's look deflated. I kept practicing until I mastered the basics—and then I kept going.

This past summer, I had a blast teaching The Ancient Art of Letters at Spark Central, a playshop in which 4th and 5th graders learn calligraphy basics and composed a fictional letter, complete with a wax seal. The kids participating listened eagerly, fascinated—as I had been—at how a special pen and parallel lines could result in something so beautiful. They gathered in a tight circle, wide-eyed, as I carefully dripped burning wax onto their parchments so they could press a quarter into the red glob. Their imaginations were captivated.

At Spark Central, we make a point of offering educational playshops to local youth at no cost. Some have advised us to charge, or to simply offer scholarships. But, in my previous position as a teacher at Mead Alternative High School, I had students who were sleeping in their cars turn down full-ride scholarships for school trips because they didn’t want to feel different from the kids sitting next to them. They didn’t see themselves as “poor,” “homeless,” or “needy,” and honestly, who wants to? My mother, I know, would have never signed me up for a scholarship or even a partial scholarship. She probably would have turned it down if it was offered. “Those are for poor people,” she would have said, and by God, we were not poor. 

This summer, Lisa White, Director of After School Programs at Spokane Public Schools told me that on average, parents spend $8,900 per child each year on enrichment activities, compared to families in lowest income quintile, who can only afford to spend about $1,300—that is, if they’re lucky (Duncan, G.J. & Murnane, R.J. 2012). That equates to a 6,000-hour learning gap by the time children enter the sixth grade (ExpandED Schools). Think of all that time those lucky kids get to experiment, learn, explore new technology, and nurture their creativity. Now think of the child who doesn’t get that opportunity.

This summer, one girl in particular was enthusiastic about calligraphy. She came to Spark Central alone, and fashioned a letter in calligraphy from Dragon Bob, a character she created. After the second workshop session, she hung around and chatted about how she was going to write her grandparents a letter in calligraphy. She asked if we had any books she could practice with, so showed her our copy of Learn Calligraphy

“If you promise only to use this in your mom’s presence,” I said, holding up the coveted nub of sealing wax used on the letters, “I’ll let you take this home.” 

Her eyes widened. “I promise!” she said, taking it from me. “I just love this place!” she blurted out. “And every time I stay afterward, I get all kinds of special stuff.” 

I checked out the book to her using her membership card, packed her arms with extra parchment and calligraphy pens, and watched her walk out the door and across our front windows, a definite bounce in her step.

-Brooke Matson, Executive Director