“Can I be done?”
The little boy stared at me, a complete stranger, waiting for an answer.
Being the only childless grown-up here I must have been a confusing presence to a pre-school aged person. Tuesday was the United Nation’s International Peace day and while the world’s leaders assembled to discuss their goals for 2016, the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy and the American Kitefliers Association hosted kite flying workshops at Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island, right across the East River. The newspaper said the event was going to be fun for all ages, but children outnumbered adults by a long shot.
The conservancy had a number of ready-made kites for participants, who only needed to decorate and fly the things. Markers, cray-pas, crayons, and a place to sit were also provided. The kites’ bodies were made of thin white plastic, of the sort used in throwaway tablecloths. They looked like cooped up doves as they sat in their boxes, waiting to be handed to participants by smiling volunteers.
It was a perfect fall day, the sky a blue you’d want to swim in. Many kites had taken flight already, bobbing above the trees while children and a handful of adults bounced in excitement below.
I grabbed my kite and took a seat at the table next to a nerdy couple who looked like they were at least in their mid-twenties. There were no children at our table, which I felt mitigated the sense of creepiness that a single adult can sometimes lend to situations like these. But soon enough the seats were filled with wiggly rumps and small hands abused the tables, and I learned the couple was not as old as I thought they were when I heard them debating whether or not they should write Class of 2016 on their kite.
My friend Adam was coming later on bike but until then I was a suspicious, solitary stranger. I seemed to fit in easily enough, however. Children and I have a lot of things in common. We enjoy the same things–markers, crayons, cray-pas, and drawing with joyful abandon. Before long I started a precise but simple chevron pattern to match the angles of my kite.
A winsome girl, probably eight years old, joined me at the table. I had seen her come with her mother and the same little boy who was now inquiring about his doneness. Once her children deposited themselves at my table, their mother went to fetch some coffee at a nearby food truck. The girl had curly blonde hair, freckles, and bright blue eyes. I don’t know if anyone’s ever taught her about stranger danger, because she immediately started talking to me.
“I like your drawing.”
“Thanks!” I smiled only a little. I did not know how long her mother would be gone, and didn’t want to appear too gleeful about talking to a seemingly unaccompanied child.
“It’s very colorful.”
“I like colors.”
I hoped the girl would leave it at that, but she wanted to keep talking.
“Can I do what you’re doing?” Back in my day, we called it copying, but I appreciated the girl’s blossoming grasp of euphemism.
“Sure. But I think any design you choose will look nice.”
Then we both bowed our heads to our work and the girl’s little brother engaged in a short-lived coloring frenzy. If he were my kid, or my student, or my anything, he would most certainly not be done. His kite lay lifeless on the table, an uncertain offering to the sky gods. All most kites is a breath of wind to take flight, but this one looked like it needed an IV drip.
I had seen him as he gripped the blue marker in his sweaty paw and roughly defaced the virgin surface of his kite. For a whole inspired five seconds he scraped the marker across the delicate plastic surface so hard it looked like he was trying to murder it.
Once the blue blob achieved the size of a small fist, he promptly capped his marker and placed it on the table. The kite looked like it had gotten into a bar fight. Then the boy looked at me, his giant blue eyes were like pinwheels caught in a hurricane. He repeated his question.
“Can I be done?”
Though he was looking directly at me, I wasn’t certain he was addressing me. I looked for his mother and spotted her at the table next to ours, drawing on her own kite, probably happy her child was bothering someone else for a change. I waited a second to see if she was aware of the question of her child’s doneness, and when it seemed she wasn’t, I addressed the issue.
“Well, you have a lot of blank space. Why don’t you add more color?”
I’ve been a teacher and a nanny and nothing bothers me more than a piece of paper that is left mostly blank. Too many times kids have come to me, proudly bearing a stick figure all alone in a vast field of white, like it was caught in a blizzard.
“That’s nice,” I would say, thinking it was only the beginning of their work.
Realizing how easy it was to earn praise, the budding dilettante quickly went on to the next fresh piece of paper and did the same thing, until I had seen thousands of iterations of the same drawing. Mommy, daddy, sister, brother, teacher, several versions of me, invisible friends, Harry Potter, Hanna Montana, Derek Jeter and grandma all merged into a singular blur on a white flag of surrender. Something had to change, otherwise each drawing session would have felled an acre of the rainforest.
Also, I did not want to set them up for false expectations about commitment and follow-through later in life. Drawing is always more than just drawing, right? As a grown up you can’t just toss out your life when you get tired of it, right? A fresh, blank page is a privilege, not a right.
My new rule was that they had to fill the whole page, front and back, before they got a new piece of paper. If they protested I told them to think about the trees. I tried the same logic with the little boy.
“That’s a nice start, but why don’t you use more colors? You have so much space.”
But this little boy would not be reasoned with. He shook his head with overmuch conviction.
“I don’t want to add more color. I want to be done.”
“Okay, so be done.” It was not my place to teach the finer points of art and ecology to a stranger’s four-year-old, and besides, I had my own kite to work on.
After determining his own doneness the little boy grabbed his kite and scampered to his mother’s table. I listened, waiting for him to ask his mother if he could get a new kite to draw on, but I soon learned that drawing is not always about drawing.
“Mom! Look! I’m ready to fly my kite!”
His mother lifted her head from her work—an intricate paisley design that was slowly revealing itself on the thin plastic—and turned to his kite.
“You don’t want to add more colors?”
“No! I only want blue. Can I fly my kite now?”
“You can fly your kite when I’m done.” She continued gently working with a red cray-pa.
“Moooom! Just draw scribble scrabble, okay?”
“Toby, I don’t want to draw scribble scrabble.”
Thunder and lighting flashed in Toby’s blue eyes. “But Mooooom, I want to fly my kite NOW.”
Toby’s mother kept her eyes on her kite and held the cray-pa as if it were a talisman for calm and tranquility.
“Toby, just let me draw.”
Toby threw himself into a chair, roughly placed his feet on the edge of the table, and stomped on it.
His mother slammed the cray-pa on the table and brought her face close to Toby’s so her eyes could show his that she could throw a tantrum too. “Get your feet off the table.”
Her voice was dangerously low when she spoke. “You don’t have to fly a kite today. I can take it away from you.”
Toby folded his arms and dropped his feet, letting them dangle off the chair. His mother drew herself up and spoke louder. “Besides, we also have to wait for Katie to finish.”
But Katie was oblivious to Toby’s plight and proceeded to talk to me about her new design idea. She opted for hearts and flowers instead of following my pattern and held up her kite to show me.
“That’s lovely. And very colorful.”
“And I’m going to draw on both sides of the kite so everyone can see my design better when it’s up in the air!”
Toby could only sit and fold his arms for so long, so he hurried over to Katie .
“Katie, are you done yet?”
“No, I need to fill all the blank space, and then I need to color on the other side. See?”
Katie flipped over her kite, so he could see the side she hadn’t even started working on. Toby pouted, sighed heavily, and stomped his foot.
“But I want you to be done!”
“But I’m not going to be done right now.”
“But I just want you to.”
Their mother glanced up from her work.
“Toby, come here. Don’t bother Katie.”
“But I’ve been waiting for a long, long time.”
“It hasn’t even been five minutes. Come here. I’m almost done. Katie can join us later.”
Toby joined his mother again, and stared ponderously at every line she made until she stood up, collected her cray-pas, returned them to the communal tray at the center of the table and smiled at her son.
“Okay, let’s go and get tails for our kites!”
Toby smiled too, grabbed his bruised kite and scampered away with his mom. Katie, meanwhile, diligently worked on her kite for another ten minutes before she decided she was done.
That’s when Adam rode up happy and sweaty on his bike, wearing the same manic grin that so many of the kids here sported as they gamboled in the sunshine.
“Hey Robin! When can we fly your kite?”
I was two-thirds done with my kite and couldn’t leave it blank even though I was itching to get it up in the air.
“Don’t you want to color your own kite?”
“But you’re going to be done with your kite soon, and it’ll take me forever to finish mine.”
“Well, you don’t have to do a design like this. You can do something quicker.”
Adam shook his head.
“I don’t want to draw on a kite! I just want to fly a kite!”
He also pointed out that he wouldn’t be able to take his kite with him on his bike. I looked down at my kite. The only thing that separated us from flying was me and some blank space. But it was so close to being exactly how I imagined it would look.
“I can’t just leave it like this. You are just going to have to wait. Or help me.”
But Adam didn’t want to help. “I’ll just mess it up.”
“Okay, hold on. Just give me five minutes.”
I stood up as I drew. The less sedentary I felt the quicker I worked. I saw all the other kites taking flight in the sky. Now, instead of looking like a flock of jailed doves, they looked like a flock of tropical birds let loose over the park. The East side of Manhattan loomed large across the east river and the boom of the FDR ricocheted off all buildings adjacent to the river, but did not drown out the flutter of the kites as they thrilled in the wind.
I bent my head and steeled my hand for the final rush of colors. I, too, wanted to be done.