A boy’s birthday is a special day. But for Danny Lansman, this day was no ordinary birthday. On this June the 23rd, Danny Lansman hit a milestone. The big one. Double digits. And with that milestone came the one thing Danny dreamed of. The thing he’d waited his whole life for. And there it was, in his hands … or at least so he hoped.
As his mother looked on, her eyes eager with anticipation, Danny’s father handed him his silver letter opener. Not a word was said. Just a subtle nod indicating that this, indeed, was Danny’s moment.
One by one, Danny slid the blade between the folds of paper, slicing neatly through each strip of transparent tape, until all the package’s binding broke free. Then, like a surgeon peeling back skin, he unfolded the layers of royal blue and lemon-yellow stars until the gift revealed itself.
Though he already knew what was inside, the smile that broke across Danny’s face still was that of pure joy. For this year, he finally had become old enough for his very own official Clarence County Paint by Numbers board.
Many of the other children at school had already received theirs, so the black and white outlined parrot with it’s neatly numbered color labels was no surprise. But still, he had never had one of his own and as the oldest of three brothers, no one else in his family had either.
“It’s a fine parrot,” he said, beaming. “I’ll start in at it once.”
“Not so fast, son,” his father replied. “First, you’ll need these.” And his father handed him his very own set of paints. “There’s one of every color in there: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, white and black.”
Danny leaped from his chair and embraced his father and his mother took a picture for her photo album. Then he rushed upstairs to put his creativity to work.
Three months later, on the night of September 27th at precisely 7 pm, Danny and his family stepped through the front door of the Clarence County Civic Center. Just as everyone else in attendance, they wore their best. After all, tonight was a very important night.
The adults traded many hellos and how-do-you-dos as they walked through the foyer, but as they entered the main gallery a sudden hush overcame them, just as it had everyone else who had entered. The room before them shone in absolute beauty. A remarkable menagerie of parrots, hanging wall-to-wall. Orange beaks, red and blue plumage, lush green foliage. All of them the same, with not a single bit of paint outside the lines.
“It’s beautiful,” Danny’s mother whispered.
“It certainly is.” Danny’s father grasped her hand tight and pushed back the tears.
“It certainly is,” Danny echoed.
The next year, on his 11th Birthday, Danny received another gift. This one a wonderful paint-by-numbers giraffe. And at the event that September, everyone in the town oohed and ahhed at the wonderful beauty their children had made. Perfect orange fur. Perfect brown dots. Perfect purple tongues. And not a drop of color outside the lines. Perfection multiplied by thousands. One for every child of age in the county.
On his 12th Birthday, he received a lion. And again, every piece of art that autumn was beautiful and the town was happy to be blessed with such an aesthetic gift.
The year of the panda, however, everything changed.
That September night as the Lansman family stepped through the door at 7 pm, they were not met with oohs and ahs and how-do-you-dos. Instead, they were met with much turmoil and disarray. Frowns marred the faces of neighbors, and ugly words muttered from the edges of their closed mouths.
“My, what is everyone so glum about?” asked Danny’s mother.
“I’m not quite sure,” Danny’s father replied. “I shall talk to the moderator and find out at once.”
And with that, Danny’s father stepped away, through the crowd of dismayed neighbors, while Danny and his brother Charlie remained behind with their mother.
Danny craned his neck to search above the crowd—to catch a glimpse of his father to find out what all this hullaballoo was about. But it was no use. Even at thirteen, he still stood well short of the adults in the room and saw nothing but the backs of other anxious grownups. A tug at his arm and a screech in his ear drew his attention back from the room, and his brother sped off, dragging Danny and mother behind him.
“There’s mine! There’s mine!” Charlie shouted.
“It’s his!” screamed a woman.
The room fell into a hush, and all eyes turned to Danny, Charlie, and Mother.
“It’s ghastly!” shouted a voice.
“Horrendous!” shouted another.
“An abomination,” echoed a voice from the back of the room.
There on the wall before her, amidst an array of wonderfully painted pandas—each of them with fur painted crisp black and white, chewing on wonderful green shoots of bamboo, hung the painting of a panda with purple and orange fur, chewing a bright red shoot of bamboo. A speech bubble floated off to the side, in the empty space at the right of the panda’s head. “I love bamboo!” it read, in hand-painted blue lettering. A yellow sun shone brightly in the sky at the other corner. It was not painted in the lines. It wasn’t even supposed to be there.
Charlie’s mother looked on in horror at the beastly thing, frozen in time at the mere shock of it. A thunder of footsteps rose in clamor as Father ran to his family’s side. Seeing the purple panda himself, he tore it from the wall, crumbled it up, and led his family away in shame.
No one said a word the entire drive home. Though later that night, Charlie asked if he could hang the painting on the refrigerator. Mother burst into tears and Father threw the painting into the fireplace and took a match to it, where the shame quickly disintegrated to ash.
The next year, Danny and Charlie welcomed their youngest brother, Jack, to the age of art. That year, every one of the Lansman boys unwrapped a special gift on his birthday: a wonderful black and white outline of a daffodil. Each boy remarked at how wonderfully crisp and clear the lines were, and what care had gone into the labeling of the proper color for each individual space.
As the Lansman’s entered the door to the Clarence County Civic center, they did not pause. Not a single heart even skipped a beat. For they knew this year things would again be beautiful.
And beautiful they were. A luscious garden of daffodils spread before them as they entered the room, each one pristinely painted in yellow and white and green, with skies of blue and clouds of white offering majestic backdrops behind them all. Not a single stroke broke through the lines, and everyone remarked at the magnificent perfection of this art. Possibly the most perfect art festival in the history of Clarence County.
But everything was not back to normal. This year a special award was added to the event. The very first award in the history of the Clarence County Art Festival’s long and wonderful history.
Later that evening, as Charlie placed his trophy on the shelf of his room, his mother and father and two brothers clapped with joy and Charlie couldn’t help but beam with pride.
The award for “Most Improved Artist” was his and he would cherish it always.