A female third-grade student looked ruefully at a male third-grade student seated across from her. Both children were painting shoebox-sized models of Greek temples as a group project, but the male student was jabbing his paintbrush violently at the roof of his temple.
The columns were coming undone, and the art project was beginning to deteriorate.
"You're not going to finish, and your group's going to be mad at you," the girl said.
"Uh, uh," the boy replied obstinately.
What happened next is a matter of dispute. According to the girl, the boy said something crude. According to the boy, the girl invented the story to get him in trouble.
Enter Victoria Walchak, art teacher at Patrick Henry Elementary School in Alexandria and, for the moment, judge.
"Sit down over here and write your side of the story," she told the boy.
While the defendant was making his case on paper, the judge took testimony from the plaintiff. Then she read the defendant's document, asked a few questions from each side and made a quick ruling: The girl made the story up.
JUSTICE IS SWIFT in Walchak's classroom, and petty arguments will not get in the way of creating and learning. Juggling roles as an art teacher, role model, psychologist and judge seem to be effortless for the 45-year-old New Jersey native who has taught elementary school art for the past eight years.
"It's a balance," said Walchak. "You want to have guidelines, but you also want to give the students freedom."
Striking the right balance between authority and expression is crucial to Walchak's larger goal: creating actualized citizens. One of the books that she returns to again and again is Herbert Read's 1942 treatise "Education Through Art," in which the British essayist theorized that the objective of art education is not the production of more artworks but the creation of better people and better society.
"What I like about kids' art is that it's so free," she said. "I like seeing the pride that students exhibit in their art. And that's a pride that can make individuals more actualized, which can help create better communities."
Teaching is a profession that came to Walchak in one of those accidental ways that sometimes dot the important moments of life, like reading a certain book or being in the right place at the right time. Or both.
FOUR YEARS AFTER she graduated from the Corcoran School of Art and Design, she answered a newspaper advertisement to help create a decorative frieze for Barnard Elementary School in Washington, D.C. She was reading "Education Through Art" at the time and thinking about how art could be used to forge stronger communities. While drawing a strawberry motif on the wall of the school, she struck up a casual conversation with the school's principal.
Within minutes, Walchak was offered a job. Although she had been making good money waiting tables in downtown restaurants to supplement her art career, the prospect of teaching children seemed to offer an intriguing way to break out of the day-to-day monotony of the hospitality industry.
"It was really a trial by fire," she said. "My training was in art, not education. So I had to find new ways of thinking about art."
As a child, she had imagined a career for herself that involved art and teaching. So the chance encounter at Barnard Elementary School was the spark that lit an important fire. After a few years, she knew that she had responded to her calling, so she got a master of arts and teaching in elementary education from Trinity College. But eight years of teaching art in the District of Columbia came with its share of bureaucratic headaches. So last year, she began looking for available positions at Alexandria schools.
This is her first year teaching at Patrick Henry Elementary School, a working environment that she says is "like heaven."
"SHE'S A TEAM player, and she's really helped bring out the creativity of our students," said Patrick Henry Principal Coleen Mann, who hired Walchak shortly before the school year began. "She has been a great asset to the staff, and we're fortunate to have her."
Walchak is so impressed with Alexandria City Schools that she is considering moving to Virginia with her husband, whom she married in 2003. She currently commutes from Takoma Park, Md., where she has lived for the past six years. Although she enjoys watching the sun rise behind her as she drives across the Memorial Bridge each morning, living closer to Patrick Henry Elementary School would give her more time for planning lessons and making her own art.
"I'm still following my muse," said Walchak, whose art appeared in a solo show at the Takoma Park Municipal Center last year. "My recent work has been moving toward installations and mixed media."