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Man of the House by Chris Erskine

Another fine mess, as leader of the finger-paint brigade

May 22, 2003|Chris Erskine

SO HERE I AM AT the little girl's elementary school, with a bunch of her Huckleberry friends.

They're midday dirty, these kids. Knuckles tinted with mustard. Their sweat comes out in whatever flavor of Kool-Aid they last consumed. They have pickle breath even when they haven't had pickles.

"What do we do now?" one of them asks.

"Make a line," I say, a schoolyard answer that always works.

For some reason, we have given them paint. In this noontime activity, they are to dip their hands in a pie tin full of red, blue or yellow, then make a handprint on the canvas tepee here on the playground. Don't ask me why. I'm just helping out here.

"It's part of multicultural week," my wife explains.

"Of course it is," I say.

Across the playground, there's a woman clomping around in wooden shoes. In most places, wooden shoes might be part of the Dutch display for multicultural week. Here in L.A., it's probably just another fashion trend I haven't picked up on.

"How come," I ask, "the displays from other nations don't involve big pans of paint."

"Because they don't," my wife explains.

"That's not an answer," I say.

"Here, have a piece of beef jerky," says someone else.

Here's the deal on multicultural week: The kids will finish their lunch, then swing by the half-dozen booths that the parents have set up to represent various nations.

Ours is a table with some Native American artifacts and the tepee nearby. Behind us sits a Humvee with an American flag draped across it. If you don't like such heavy-handed symbolism, you've come to the wrong schoolyard.

"The Indians drove Hummers?" I ask.

"No, but their attorneys did," says my wife.

This is where it all started for the little red-haired girl, this small school on the hill. It began six years ago, a Monday probably, when she held my hand to steady me as we left the house on her first day.

"Now when you get to kindergarten, don't put your mouth on the drinking fountain," I warned her. "That's like kissing people you don't even know."

"OK, Daddy."

"Never kiss anyone you don't know," I said. "At least till college."

"OK, Dad," she said with a giggle.

A week later, I volunteered to help in her kindergarten class, you know, just so she could keep an eye on me.

"I'm going to put you outside," Miss Landau said.

"I'm used to that."

"With the finger-paints," the teacher added.

So out we went to a picnic table, me and a dozen kindergartners. In minutes, we had created a sixth Great Lake. Finger-Paint Lake.

"Are we really supposed to be doing this?" asked one of the kids, up to his elbows in goo.

"Just keep painting, Picasso."

When we were done, we had painted not only the plastic picnic table, we had painted several of the slower-moving kids. I distinctly remember that their little Gap clothes were completely covered.

"Um, we have a bit of a mess," I told the teacher 20 minutes later.

"You didn't use smocks?" she asked.

"Smocks?"

Apparently many of the lawsuits have since been settled, because here we are again, full circle, at the little school on the hill.

The kindergartners now are sixth-graders, in their last few weeks here, again smearing their hands in the paint under semi-adult supervision. A little chunkier, some of them. A little skinnier, the rest.

"You sure this is OK?" one kid asks skeptically.

"Just keep painting," I say.

When they are done, they come to my station, a 1-gallon bucket, in which they are to wash their hands. By the time two or three kids have washed their hands, the water is like a gallon of Mississippi mud. By the time a hundred have, the EPA is hovering.

"Here, have a paper towel," I say, as if that would help.

"The Indians had paper towels?" one kid asks.

When it is over, the mothers seem satisfied enough. Not only did no kid drown in the 1-gallon bucket I was overseeing, but the tepee looks terrific. Two hundred handprints. Sort of like our walls at home.

"I'm glad you were here," one of the moms says as we pack up the Hummer to leave.

"Me too," I say to myself.

Chris Erskine can be reached at chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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