The apple used to be a symbol of a job well done at Washington Elementary. It was all I thought about as I handed in my paper of work. Spelling. Math. Telling time. Passing it up through the row of desked children, I crossed fingers and toes hoping that Mrs. Strand would take out her ink pad, press the rubber stamp deeply into the red and rock it over the top of my paper, marking it forever with a beautiful apple. Seeing the apple in the upper right corner of my returned paper, the red moved from hand to heart to cheeks. (Maybe that’s why they call them apple cheeks.)
I lingered in the classroom one day as all the other five and six year olds went out for recess. I saw that she had our papers on her desk. Ink pad resting beside. My chubby fingers rested on the side of her wooden desk. My eyes peeking just above. “You like the apple, don’t you…” she smiled. I shook my head yes. “Do you want to try it?” she asked. I shook my head briskly. She handed me my paper. “Go ahead,” she said, “You deserve it.” I gripped the handle of the stamp, pressing it into the rouge stained sponge. Pulled it up slowly, then pressed it down onto my paper, slowly rocking it back and forth, as I had seen her do a million times. I pulled up the stamp, and there it was. I gasped. So beautiful!
My lips were much more shy than my heart when I was five. I didn’t have the words to ask for what I needed. But she must have seen the apple panic on my face. (I pray teachers still have the time and inclination to look.) “Do you want the others to have one?” I shook my head yes. “Go ahead then.” She refilled the pad with ink, and the rest was, as I remember, just a glorious red blur. Perhaps I remember this day so well, not only because of what she gave to me, but what she allowed me to give to everyone else. My first lesson in humanity.
Maybe it’s why I love to paint the apples now. I live in the land of Cezanne. He once proclaimed, “I will astonish Paris with an apple.” I have often thought this is why I paint them. And it’s probably true. Partially. But looking back, maybe it was Mrs. Strand who first astonished me. Who showed me the power of something so simple. Rosy-cheeked still, I sit before the canvas and paint another. Hoping you can feel the magic, and pass it on, through hand, heart and cheeks. An apple a day… go ahead, you deserve it.