Alison’s Story

by Mary Murphy and Alison Stonbely

My friend Alison is an artist. Not long ago, she was hired to do a four-day weaving workshop for a local school. She was to take 25 nine-year-olds through the process of spindle spinning, dyeing yarn, threading looms, and creating an original weaving.

If it was up to the teachers who were hosting her in their classrooms, it would have been 24 nine-year-olds. Robert, “the incorrigible,” was supposed to sit out the sessions in his accustomed chair outside the principal’s office.

But Robert’s mother had called Alison the night before the workshop to ask if he could participate despite the objections of his teachers. “I know he acts up, but he loves art — he’s really very creative,” she said. Alison assured her that she’d never met a child that didn’t like at least part of the weaving process. There is a rhythmic quality to the process that seems to calm the most difficult of children. Robert’s mother was grateful for Alison’s words and promised to bring him herself to the first workshop session.

Alison claims she heard Robert before she saw him. He came screaming and charging down the corridor with his mother in hot pursuit. That first day with Robert was one of the most difficult that Alison had ever taught. The other kids were fed up with his hyperactivity and wiseguy remarks. They were very unhappy that he was allowed into the workshop. Robert didn’t seem to notice that he was the object of scorn rather than applause. He seemed driven to grab attention anyway he could.

The third session, in which they threaded the looms Alison had built for them, was a disaster for Robert. The class was divided into two parts. The kids started by threading up the hand-sized looms with the yarns they’d dyed. They spent the second half of the class dyeing recycled materials they’d brought in to add to their weaving.

Robert found the threading of the warp very hard. He was like a jack-in-the-box, out of his seat every second Alison wasn’t with him. Apart from choosing the colors, which he had very definite ideas about, he expected her to do everything and demanded help constantly.

Alison wanted this to be his work, so she refused to do it for him and told him he’d better get going if he wanted to finish with the rest of the class. He stormed out of the classroom crying and calling her names. She felt as though she’d failed him. The weaving project didn’t give Robert the sense of self-worth and accomplishment it so often gives other children.

Or so she thought. At the next lesson, something amazing happened. Robert’s father came with him. They both marched in grinning widely. Robert, with the help of his whole family, had finished threading his loom and begun his weaving. He’d taught everyone the things he’d learned in the workshop and got them all busy with a different task. After he chose the colors, his father and younger brother cut the threads. Robert looped the threads over the top of the loom and his mother tied them off.

His father said they had worked together as a family for the first time. They turned off the TV and happily focused on Robert’s project. “We never thought we could enjoy being with each other so much,” he said.

Having received the support and encouragement he was craving from his family, Robert worked hard during that last session. When it was finally finished his weaving was a thing of beauty. It was born as all great works of art are born: out of chaos, frustration, creativity, and love.

It is said that when you become a teacher by your pupils you’ll be taught. Robert and his family taught Alison (and all of us) once again about the transforming and healing power of art.