“I have to go blank. I can’t be myself. No one knows me.” My ten-year old daughter was explaining why she wanted to drop her Zoom art class. The teacher was very nice, the projects were well designed, and her finished work was interesting; but she dreaded the entire day of the class. She looked for excuses to miss. I had a standing meeting during that time, so it was easy for her skip without notice. When I did happen to walk by during class, I almost didn’t recognize her voice — it was so tight and constrained, pushed through a forced smile of pleasantness.

I had thought it would go better. She knew kids in the class, but they didn’t act like they knew her and digital divide allowed them to keep it that way. She felt ignored when the teacher didn’t notice her and singled out when the teacher did. She wanted to sink away, to be anywhere else, to escape the video of herself smiling blankly.

I wrote the teacher to drop the class and donate the rest of the tuition to any kid that might be excited about the opportunity. She was thrilled with our generosity; when I explained the reaction to my daughter she suggested we do that again! It just wasn’t for her.

She went back to her ink dropper and watercolor experiments, to her folio dedicated to cataloguing all of the characters and sets from her favorite show, then watercolors of all of the book covers of her favorite series, then Sculpey renditions of the crests and badges, then… There is always some project in the works. She is fantastically creative, inventing techniques, exploring materials, but also a completionist, setting out long tasks that carry over time.

Execution was never the problem, feeling the strain from never being able to be herself was exhausting. Consciously removing everything interesting or noticeable about herself, being blank, made her feel empty and sad. I knew exactly how she felt, smiling so vapidly I thought my face would crack, speaking in a higher register than normal speech with sing-song quality, holding the body stiffly, mesmerized and horrified at your face staring back at you. It’s possible we could have had the same result with an in-person class, struggling to make the social connections. It’s also likely that someone would have tripped or made a joke and the tension would have broken like a thousand glass shards, letting their natural kindness and empathy break through, allowing their common love of all things creative bind them into a community of young artists, encouraging each kid to be themselves in all of their many vivid colors and wild textures, never blank.

Writer, researcher, observer