‘The Starry Night’ and Working with Special Needs Students

In my soon to be published book ‘Voyage to the Bottom of the Bathtub,’ the scene where Erik is confronted by Vincent van Gogh’s painting ‘The Starry Night,’ was inspired by a visit to the university’s poster shop as an undergraduate. Moments prior, someone had decided I should have a drink at the tavern next door, and on the strength of just one beer, I pored over the different prints on display. Something arrested my gaze. For a very long time I stared spellbound at what I thought would be impossible: the swirls of giant nebula Vincent had painted in the night sky were actually moving in a pulsating rhythm before my very eyes! The impression has stayed with me ever since and ‘The Starry Night’s’ eleven stars and moon play a significant element in my story.

Vincent painted ‘The Starry Night’ while at the asylum in Saint-Remy in France in 1889. After his death, the world learned he was mad or suffering a mental illness. But how quick we are to put labels on people and labels have a tendency to stick, whether they are warranted or not. I have witnessed this as a teacher working with special needs students labelled with autism or intellectual impairment.

Others have put a new interpretation on what Vincent was going through. In his book ‘Lust for Life,’ Irving Stone portrays Vincent as a man of great sensitivity, and Don Mclean, in his song ‘Vincent,’ sang about “...this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”

Possibly worse than labelling others, is when we label ourselves—putting limits on what we can achieve or expect from ourselves in life. Did Vincent label himself to the point where he could no longer bear it? Incredibly, did he feel a failure, selling little and always relying on his brother for finances? How poorer the world would be if he hadn’t kept on trying. He stayed committed, continuing to trundle out his easel and paint amongst the sunflowers.

Maybe the stars in your eyes are also moving. But if you keep reaching high, maybe...quite maybe...you may not come away empty handed.


A whimsical portrayal of The Starry Night

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