It was a very risky idea, given how much he wanted Beats headphones ($200 headphones for a kid?) and a Wii.  But this past week I gave my tween-age son his holiday present, choosing to surprise him with the gift of an experience over a thing.

Here’s what came out of his 5-day art class (and I’ve got the pictures to prove it!)…

The night I handed my 11-year-old a handmade card describing his holiday gift from me, he glanced at it quickly then looked back in the envelope as if to say, “That’s it?  Is there cash in here at least?”  But that was it — five days with a small class in an artist’s studio in SoHo, NYC.

He was dubious.

When the elevator opened right into the studio the next morning, five other students turned to look at us.  There were two boys who appeared to be high school seniors (one of them sporting Beats), and a few adults who had the air of honest-to-goodness artists already.  The teacher seemed like he might need a second cup of coffee as he casually pointed to a table where my son should sit.

As I left, I said a desperate prayer to the holiday gods, asking for this not to be a total disaster.

My son called me several times that day asking what I was doing with his younger brother, who is also on school vacation.  “We’re sitting here doing absolutely NOTHING,” I replied, hoping not to make him jealous.  “You’d be BORED OUT OF YOUR MIND!

By the end of the first day, he brought home this:

Hand, Day 1

And this:

My son's copy of a Picasso portrait of Igor Stravinsky

Copy of Picasso's portrait of Igor Stravinsky

This is nothing short of miraculous.  Only the day before the class, he’d painstakingly drawn some stick figure-like pictures of hockey and soccer players.  They were the absolute best he could do, and for that, I was proud of him.  But these new drawings were a whole new ball game.

In the remaining four days, he came home with a drawing of a chair, the view outside the studio window, and a profile of a classmate, each one better than the next.  He was full of talk about negative space and right brain/left brain.  His enthusiasm was contagious.

Yesterday, he handed me his self portraits — the one he made in the first hour of the first day, and his final portrait:

Before: self portrait

After: self portrait

Though I’ve learned it’s best not to pry, I couldn’t resist asking him what he had thought of this gift.

It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” he said, flashing me a bigger smile than I’ve seen in preadolescent months.

I snapped a picture of that moment in my mind’s eye and will cherish it as my favorite gift this holiday season.