Portrait drawing project connects students, prompts gratitude

Nov 22 2019

Portrait drawing project connects students, prompts gratitude

“We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.”
– Cynthia Ozick

Life can feel pretty hectic sometimes. As we try to balance work and parenting, and as our children feel like circus acrobats balancing the spinning plates of classes, homework, activities and social lives and hoping that nothing crashes to the ground, it’s easy to lose sight of all the things for which we can and should express gratitude. It is not that anyone intentionally sets out to be ungrateful; it just happens as we become busy. This can be all the more prevalent for children and adolescents as their developmentally appropriate myopia precludes their demonstrating appreciation.

Consequently, it was heartening and affirming to spend time with students in the Upper School Drawing Class as they worked on their portraits for The Memory Project. When Ms. Arnold approached me and asked what I thought about her class doing this drawing project, I quickly agreed. I had seen this project performed at other schools, and was enthusiastic that we could bring it here.

The Memory Project asks students in a school in the United States to draw or paint portraits of children from an orphanage somewhere else in the world. In our case, the children who were being sketched come from Pakistan. The purpose of the Memory Project is to “help children feel valued and important, show them that many people care about their well-being, and provide them with a special childhood memory for the future.” The Keystone students created beautiful portraits based on photographs of the children from Pakistan. After the portraits hang on the walls of Founders Hall for a short while, they will be sent to the orphanage in Pakistan.

One day during class, I interviewed the students to hear how they felt about the project and their part in it. Many shared that the project gave them a connection with other young people in a different part of the world and enabled them to realize their good fortune. Ali said, “it made me feel lucky to be where I am and appreciate what I have.” Katie and Veda pointed out that “we take for granted having pictures of ourselves while these kids don’t have this.”

Other students commented on how this project allowed them to use art to do good for someone else. Yuki remarked that ‘it felt nice to know that my art has an impact on other people,” while Gabe concurred that “it’s nice to do something for people who don’t have as much access to stuff as we do.”

However, working on this art assignment also reminded the students of the pain and cruelty in the world. They all discussed their sadness for the children and Griffin explained how this project put human faces on children in a war-torn country. In fact, the desire to get it right for these children made Caleb feel even more pressure than if it had been an ordinary assignment.

As I visited with the students in Ms. Arnold’s class, I thought about some of the research on gratitude. According to a 2018 Psychology Today article called “Science Proves that Gratitude Is The Key to Well-Being” being grateful has a number of salutary effects on our mind and body. It can stimulate “the hypothalamus, which regulates stress and the ventral tegmental area, which plays a significant role in the brain’s reward system that produces feelings of pleasure.”

Similarly, the website “Hey Sigmund” states, “Research has shown that gratitude can improve general well-being, increase resilience, strengthen social relationships, and reduce stress and depression. The more grateful people are, the greater their overall well-being and life satisfaction.They’ll also have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, better sleeps (and better waking).They’ll be more alert and more generous, compassionate, and happier. Grateful people also have a greater capacity for joy and positive emotions.”

Painting the portraits of orphans from Pakistan enabled our Cobras to connect with children in another part of the world and actually do something to improve their lives. It provided them with a way to be actors rather than spectators and to be engaged in making change. Through their art, they benefited children a world away from them, and were reminded of all the good in their lives.

On October 3, 1863 in the midst of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as an official American holiday. In doing so, he said, “The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”

As we prepare to leave for the Thanksgiving holiday, we should appreciate the lessons in gratitude from these Keystone students, and we should be grateful for the gifts we have. I want to thank our outstanding faculty and staff for their hard work, devotion, and compassion, our trustees for their commitment to Keystone, our parents for entrusting their children to us, and our students for making our work so meaningful and so fulfilling. I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving filled with the blessings of family and friends.

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