School Assemblies…

For reasons not entirely clear, these days I seem to be getting invited to do a lot of high school assemblies. The principal will gather the several hundred youngsters into the gym (on one side only, so everyone can see my easel), introduce me as “Mr. Joe McKeever from New Orleans. He’s a cartoonist and has a message for us today on ‘lessons in self-esteem he has learned from drawing 100,000 people. Let’s welcome him.”

And that’s how we start.

But I had started 10 minutes earlier. After setting up my easel on the floor of the gym (with cardboard under the metal feet), I began sketching teenagers as they entered the gym. Kids love this sort of thing, and soon a crowd had gathered. I can do one drawing per minute, so a fair number have been sketched by the time the school leader settles everyone down and gets us started.

The teens already know what I do, since they’ve seen the drawings, and are excited.

Earlier, the principal or his/her assistant has given us names of several teachers, the coach, and a couple of boys and girls to call out of the stands to be sketched. The best students to draw are the ones who, as soon as we call their name, everyone screams. They think, “This is going to be fun.”

And it is. It’s all about fun, but with some important lessons thrown in for good measure.

For the first half of the program, I sketch these adults and youth, then for another 12-15 minutes, launch into my talk about “lessons on self-esteem I’ve learned from drawing 100,000 people.”

What are the lessons? There are five.

1. There is a beauty in every person.

2. The beauty is different in everyone. So we should not compare.

3. Everyone looks their best when they smile big.

4. Everyone has something about themselves they would change if they could. So, if you’ve found something about yourself you don’t like, welcome to the human race.

5. The best thing you can do for yourself is to take a shower in the morning, put on clean clothes, fix yourself up as much as is necessary, and then, forget about it. Pour yourself into encouraging the people around you.

I give the youth several experiments to try over the next day or two…

1) Think of some adult you know–maybe 35 or 40 years old–whom you think of as really attractive. Now, the next time you see them, notice their features. (Don’t tell them you’re doing this!) Notice their nose, eyes, chin, ears, etc. They’re not perfect. But you think of them as a unit, as a whole. And so with you, even if you don’t like something about yourself–your teeth, your smile, your nose, whatever–the rest of us think of you as a unit, not as teeth or nose or whatever. So, relax. Just be yourself.

2) The next time you go to a party with a lot of people in the room, notice two people in particular. The wallflower sits literally against the wall alone. If you could read his mind, he’s thinking, “Nobody likes me. I don’t know why I bother coming to these things. No one has spoken to me.” Who’s he thinking about? Himself! Now, notice the most popular person in the room. She breezes in the door, hugs this one, greets that one, tells one what a great game he played Friday night, compliments that one on a great report in civics class this morning, and asks another how she’s feeling since she was sick yesterday. Who is she thinking of? Everyone except herself! That’s actually the secret of real beauty.

3) Here’s an experiment it’ll take 15 years to complete. Here are two teenagers. We’ll make them 15-year-old girls. One is plain on the outside, but beautiful on the inside with a great personality. Everyone likes her. The other is gorgeous to look at, but ugly on the inside, with a self-centered personality and a critical spirit. In time, if they keep on doing what they’re doing now, they will switch places. The one beautiful on the inside will become beautiful on the outside. And the one ugly on the inside will become ugly on the outside too. Whatever is inside you will eventually be shown on your face. (Scary, isn’t it?)

I was in the home of a Miss America six years after her reign. Her husband asked if I’d like to see her gallery from her year as America’s beauty queen. Down the hallway were large photos of her with various celebrities, the President, etc. When we finished, I said, “She looks different now. What is it?” He said, “After her year’s reign, she took part of her winnings and had her teeth fixed.”

Her two front teeth had been longer than the others. It gave her a distinctive smile, one the judges (and I) loved. But she didn’t like it and as soon as she could, she changed it. She had the dentist grind those two teeth down to a point and cap them, so her teeth would be straight all across. Even Miss America did not like something about herself. So, if you have found something about yourself you’d like to change, welcome to the human race!

The movie star Sandra Bullock says, “What makes you different, make you beautiful.”

So, don’t obsess over something in yourself you don’t like. Instead, celebrate the difference. Make the most of what you have, then go out and encourage others!

As soon as the principal dismisses everyone, the kids pile out of the bleachers asking me to draw them. I always allow enough time to do this, but subject to the school schedule and the guidance of the principal. Sometimes, a class will ask me to visit them the next hour and sketch everyone there. (In the case of large schools, they divide the student body, so after one group exits, the other half arrives, and we do the same program all over again.)

(Notes of explanation for those interested in having me do an assembly in your school:

a) I’m very careful to avoid mention of religion. I would never intentionally do anything to embarrass my host. These are unusual times we’re living in, and in order to help the young people, I’m willing to be as anonymous as possible when doing these programs.

b) Normally, I sign my drawings “joe” But in trying to sketch as many as possible as quickly as I can, I do not sign the drawing and don’t put their name on it. (There are exceptions, but this is the usual practice in schools.)

c) I take care of all the costs. The cost of the easel, poster-pad, markers, drawing paper, etc., is my gift to your school.

d) Any principal wishing to talk to schools where I’ve done programs may ask, and I’ll be glad to furnish contact information. Check my speaking schedule for availability and contact information.

e) Schools some distance from my home in New Orleans may be asked to pay mileage. (I’m retired, with all that this means financially!) Often, when I’m preaching revivals in distant cities, it’s convenient to do assemblies for nearby schools. At no cost, of course.

I’ve been asked, “Why do you do this?” The answer is probably simple and complicated at the same time. When I was a kid, if the school had brought in a cartoonist for a program, I would have thought I’d died and gone to Heaven. So, I do it for the children who were like I was.

It bothers me to see sharp, great kids with low self-esteem. In most cases, they’ve been messed with by maladjusted parents or cruel peers or poor teachers. My session with them will not change them all, but if it gets to one or two, this will be time well spent.

I love people and love to spread joy. I walk up to strangers in the mall and say, “May I draw you?” I draw the waitresses in the restaurant and passengers in the airports. At the food court at the mall, where idle teens are bored out of their minds, I walk up, drop my sketch pad on the table in front of them, and say, “Okay, gang, I’m a cartoonist and I draw people. Who wants to be first?” They’re silent a moment, then one of them will point at a boy and say, “Draw him.” When they see this is for real, that it’s quick and free and there are no strings attached, I quickly have a crowd.

If I can do this for your school, it will be an honor.