Art class remains a favorite among schoolkids, and why shouldn’t it? It’s nice to take a break in the middle of the day to stop reciting times tables, grab a paintbrush and a smock and go to town on a piece of canvas or poster board. It’s like recess, but with less sweating. Kids also tend to love their art teachers, which is why one Battle Creek, Michigan, class of eighth-graders will undoubtedly be a little disappointed to learn that one substitute art teacher won’t be returning to the classroom.
The substitute, Allison Wint, was given her walking papers after she used a very specific word in an art history conversation about a certain body of work by famed American artist Georgia O’Keeffe. Want to guess what the word was? Here, we’ll give you a hint:
If you’re looking at that painting and heading straight to Freudville in your mind or saying, “Gee, that sort of looks like a vagina,” then you have reacted like most people when they’re confronted with O’Keeffe’s stunning color work and magnified interpretations of flowers, a group that almost certainly includes a class full of eighth-graders, who can see genitals in anything. You’re also probably not a good candidate to replace Wint, who did in fact point out that most people find that O’Keeffe’s work immediately call vaginas to mind.
Because Michigan has a strict rule that says reproductive health can be discussed in class only with prior parental consent, Wint’s use of the word vagina got her canned. The only problem with that is that a discussion about how O’Keeffe’s flower paintings are dead ringers for vaginas needn’t include a graphic lecture about STDs and crowning babies. So what can teachers do when they don’t plan on rolling condoms onto bananas but might want to discuss a common interpretation of a famous artist’s oeuvre?
Wint said she thought of using a euphemism but ultimately decided against it, because she doesn’t think the word is bad and imagined it would set a comical tone when she wanted to have a serious discussion. And she has a point. Vagina isn’t a bad word, and it’s hard to keep kids on task when you open a lecture with, “Does anyone else think ‘Red Canna’ looks like a gigantic bajingo?”
Did Wint need to discuss the vagina-esque quality of O’Keeffe’s work to the eighth-graders? Maybe not — you could always pretend no one has ever noticed the similarity before and talk exclusively about oil painting techniques and artistic license, but that’s a pretty disingenuous discussion to have. Plus, chances are that eighth-graders who have already seen up close pictures of actual vaginas covered in herpes sores in health class will make the connection and giggle their way through anyway. There’s enough negativity surrounding vaginas in the world at large that treating an anatomical term like the actual C-word can only deepen the negative feelings both males and females have toward them. Having pubescent kids liken a vagina to Lord Voldemort by refusing to speak its name is a good way to make sure the lesson sticks.
O’Keeffe maintained until her death that her paintings were not secret vaginas at all, but that’s not a lesson you can explore without also using “that word.” So that brings us back to what teachers are supposed to do. If you can’t talk about controversy without using the words that describe it, how do you lend gravity to conversations? At some point we’ll have to pick between a good education and misplaced modesty, because if you grow up never hearing that “Autumn Trees – The Maple” looks like a set of labia, you’re going to look like a fool when you walk into your college’s art history class and make the connection for the very first time as an adult.