Get Back in Your Box!
Copyrighted by Lorna Tedder. Originally published in Third Degree of Contrast.
Looking at pics of me in the first grade brought back a sudden, surprising memory of just how out-of-the-box I was at six years old and how true individuality can be a struggle. It’s probably the most memorable lesson of the first grade, and that includes learning to read.
In those days, we had long recesses where we’d play outdoors for a whole hour. The first grade teachers would take lawn chairs to the playground and sit together, gossiping as they kept an eye on the kids and dispensing justice based on who tattled on whom. But the last thing we did before recess was some kind of art assignment to help us learn our colors, or more appropriately, to color between the lines. In every meaning of the phrase.
It’s the only assignment I remember in my entire first grade year. A mimeographed (complete with that sicklysmelling purple ink and a cool-to-the-touch) page from a coloring book. A little girl with freckles and an umbrella and raincoat and raindrops in the air and clouds behind her and grass at her feet. We were to color the picture and when we were done, we were to go to recess and hand it to our teacher in her chair. Then we could play for the next hour.
We were told we could use any colors we wanted. In hindsight, I believe my teacher meant any color hair or eyes, but I wasn’t even thinking about that! I promptly colored the raincoat my favorite color—purple!—with galoshes to match. I gave her blue eyes and brown hair like mine, made the grass green and brown, and colored the sky blue with purple clouds. I made the umbrella red. I happily turned it in to my teacher and started to bounce off to play when she called me back angrily.
“What do you call this?” she demanded. Like many
first graders (I never went to kindergarten), my teacher was the first significant adult outside my home and I adored her and wanted to please her. “What is wrong with you?” my favorite non-relative asked in a voice that made me clam up with terror. “I want this colored right!”
I took the new, uncolored page she gave me and trotted back to my classroom where one or two other kids— the bad boys who couldn’t seem to sit down and focus long enough to finish a project—were working on their first renditions. I had no idea what she meant by coloring it right.
I sat for along time, worrying. Finally, I knew what she must mean! I hadn’t colored the girl’s freckles or the raindrops!
I carefully colored the picture again, this time using the same color scheme but dotting her freckles with a red-brown crayon and tracing the streaks of raindrops with blue. I happily took my new artwork back to my teacher’s chair. I had thirty minutes left to play with my friends.
“Lorna!” she yelled at me before I got ten paces away.
“Come back here! What is this?” She shook the page at me. “What’s wrong with you that you can’t do this the right way? You take this new page and go back to the room and you’d better get it right this time. If it’s not right by the end of recess, you’re in big trouble, young lady!”
I finally got up the nerve to ask her what was wrong, but that made her more upset. She poked a finger at the girl’s shoes.
“Galoshes are yellow. Have you ever seen galoshes that are purple?”
I shook my head. I’d never seen galoshes at all. The closest things were Daddy’s pond-wading boots, and those were black, not yellow. I’d thought these were boots and I wanted to make them to be pretty purple boots to match the girl’s raincoat. I tried to explain that.
“Raincoats,” my teacher fussed, “are yellow. Not purple.
I swear, I don’t know what’s gotten into you. You know better than to make a raincoat some other color. Now you go back to the room and you do it right this time. I want your work to look like everyone else’s and you can stop this
Yes, her exact words stayed with me as I trudged, crying, back to the classroom, just as they’ve stayed with me all these years. For a while, I couldn’t color at all because my tears got in the way. Then I sat back and looked up at all the perfect pictures her assistant had brought back inside and taped to the classroom walls. Perfect little girls with uniforms of yellow raincoats, yellow galoshes, yellow umbrellas, blue sky, and green grass. The only differences were in the color of the hair and the color of the eyes. Everything else was woefully boring and the same. But that’s what she wanted, and what I had to do to stay out of trouble.
I took a deep breath of defeat and colored the raingear yellow, the grass green, and the sky blue. I didn’t dare use any color hair or eyes than my own. When I finished, my art looked just like everyone else’s.
I walked all the way to the other side of the playground and held my breath while my teacher regarded my third rendition. I was frightened that I’d done something wrong on this one, too.
“Well. That’s more like it. You can go play now. Until I blow the whistle and recess is over.”
With a sigh of relief, I turned and stumbled away. I made it no more than twenty steps toward my playmates before she blew the whistle.
She lesson she was trying to teach me was one of conformity, whether she realized it or not. From it, I learned that there would be times in my life when I would have to look and act just like everyone else and that my individuality might be ridiculed, demonized, and demolished. I do know how to conform when I must, just as I did that day in the first grade, but I don’t have to like it.