Here’s an Excerpt
The very, very, very best Grade 2 art day is asbestos clay day. Asbestos is a wonderful material in the 1960s. Not only does it cover our floors and insulate our walls, it is a mighty fine modelling clay: malleable, full of texture and most of all fire proof. Ideal for making ashtrays.
Miss Biggs asks for a volunteer to pour the bag of asbestos into the bucket of water to make the clay. Either she knows something we don’t or she is in on the secret that one of the most fun things about asbestos day is mixing up the clay. Everyone’s hand goes up. Everyone practically stands on their chair to get the teacher’s attention. “Me Miss! Me Miss! No fair, he did it last time!” Somehow, I end up winning this round. The paper bag of asbestos clay makes a satisfying whoosh as the contents avalanche into the pail. Or at least, most of it makes it into the pail. The remaining cloud of dust hovers over the teacher’s desk then wafts lazily to the floor.
Next step, the yardstick. Three feet of stirring power wielded by four feet of kid. Miss Biggs stands at the back of the room with a tight smile on her face. For some reason I don’t think asbestos day is as fantastic for her as it is for us. But we are all so happy and struck with awe at the beauty of grey glop so I’m guessing Miss Biggs sees some sort of value proposition in a temporarily well-behaved classroom.
I line up to scoop a wet clump of clay into my hands and bring it back to my desk. You can make anything you like as long as it is an ashtray or other smoking accoutrement like maybe a pipe-rest or lighter holder. The crafting of the ashtrays takes about an hour, as it’s important to try several times to get just the right shape, and maximize the asbestos exposure.
There’s a painful art intermission while we wait until the clay dries, trying to will the musty, mineral smell of wet asbestos into submission. The hands on the clock over the blackboard go nowhere. The two-times table gets repeated a bazillion times in an endless high-pitched monotone that could put an ashtray to sleep. “One times two is two, two times two is four, three times two is six, four times two is eight, five times two is ten, six times two is twelve, seven times two is fourteen, eight times two is sixteen, nine times two is eighteen, ten times two is twenty.”
Then it’s finally time to give our handiwork its coat of decorative paint. And this is where our artistry really shines. We paint five-petaled pink flowers. We paint blue and white stripes. We paint a smiling yellow sun. We paint a jaunty red potted plant. We paint an army green bus. It was probably lead paint.