On Perfection

Today’s project may not have been my most brilliant idea to date.

We bought a Scrabble set from a thrift store a few months ago, only to find that all the tiles were missing. Having racked my brains for ideas, the answer came when a friend gave me some air-drying clay. I rolled the clay, cut it into little tablets and used a set of alphabet stamps for the letters. I found a gif online showing the distribution and value of the each letter.

When the tiles were dry, I set about painting in the letters with black acrylic paint. My boy wanted to help – naturally. Having started painting with a pointed brush, I found that a straight edge worked better. Not so for him. He kept his pointy buddy and proceeded to paint all of the Os for me. I also gave him S and T to work on, as a way of reviewing the alphabet with him. Go, mama! I tell myself. Way to create a tangible learning exercise out of art!

A few minutes later, my boy has his own opinion about this exercise. He has painted in a whole bunch of Os, declaring that it worked just fine if you painted the whole tile in black. “Deal!” he announces. It is not a question.

I point out that it makes the letters hard to read. He disagrees – what else – and continues, only to strike a new deal later: he sloshes on the black paint and I come in afterwards to paint in the not-letters in white. He has done a smashing job of cleaning his paintbrush in water (on his own initiative), and kept his hands moderately clean with a wet cloth. He is still pretty pleased with the all black approach because “it’s actually working out.”

I disagree. What else?

He correctly identified O, S, L and X. In my Internet-bullied mind, the letters would be perfect, my son would be able to identify all 26 letters and we’d go on to have a splendid game of Scrabble with him, with Mozart playing in the background.

Meanwhile, in my living room, the letters are a bit of a splurgy mess but my son is having a wonderful time, trying new approaches, assessing and re-assessing the quality of his work. This in itself was fascinating because at one point, I caught myself saying, “I’m really proud of my E! Look at my E!” I paid attention to this because earlier in the morning, he told me he was “horrible at painting on leaves,” which had been one of my first suggestions. I also paid attention when I said, “oops! I botched my R,” taking care to keep my voice light. I started to think that my tone of voice could be a lesson in itself, indicating whether errors are a disaster or a natural consequence of curiosity and experimentation.

He organized his letters into lines, checked when the paint was dry, ┬ámade sure he had all of the Os and surveyed the collection over and over again. That’s him. He can sit silently for several minutes, just gazing at things. He also ate apples and planned his ┬ánext plaster sculpture. He also finished his cereal and taught himself to squeeze a lemon. Taking deep, cleansing breaths, I neatened up a few of his letters and filled in the missing bits.

And at the end of it, here’s what I learned: I had spent 45 minutes trying to get my son making Scrabble tiles that looked as though they had come out of the manufacturer’s box. I looked at the ones I’d made. Pretty rough. I thought about what I had told him: we were painting the letters in. Did I tell him that we were trying to replicate someone else’s design, so that it would be a serviceable tool for an actual task?

Ah. I did not.

I am forced to admit, his black on black letters look pretty darn good. And can we play with them?

Of course we can.


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