Following Mrs. Brown’s instructions, we reached into our school bags and got out our new Big Chief blue-lined manila paper tablets, along with our giant First Grade pencils - the fat ones intended to fit snugly into clumsy First Grade fists - each fitted with a bubble-gum pink eraser the size of a gumdrop, anticipating an abundance of First Grade mistakes. These we placed in front of us, the pencils laid to rest in smooth grooves cut neatly into the tops of our desks. We would need them later, Mrs. Brown said.
For now, we would use our colors, big cigar-sized crayons in the standard eight-pack of primary and secondary hues, plus brown and black. Take out the red one, and do as I do.
Open your tablets, she said, her taught straight back turned to us, her hand raised to the blackboard, her voice as crisp as her starched plaid cotton dress. We were going to learn to write today. We were going to learn to pay attention. I did so, or tried to, distracted as I was by the surprising display unfolding before me.
Mrs. Brown was writing in red. And she wasn’t writing words, either. I knew that much right away. She was drawing a picture. In colored chalk!
Crayons I understood. Chalk, too. We’d seen it in kindergarten, and at home in the sewing room. Sometimes Grandma let us use it to make hop-scotch squares on the sidewalk. Chalk was white, sometimes light yellow in grown-up grades, but never in colors so rich and vivid. And now Mrs. Brown was writing, drawing a long red box in the center of the board, bleeding deep, shiny lines as bold and tangy as strawberry Kool-Aid.
Do as I do, she said again, and I did, mimicking her bright chalk shapes on my page with poor waxy imitations in red Crayola. Mrs. Brown was drawing a wagon! Red rectangle. Black circles for wheels. Brown shaft. Green handle. I was drawing a wagon, too. My picture looked like hers.
Mrs. Brown wrote a large red S at the top of my paper. Satisfactory, she said. That meant Good, she said. It didn’t look as good to me, though, not any more, now that she had written right on the front of my nice drawing. I looked back up at the board. Nobody put a big S on her picture. Now they didn’t look the same at all.
Lisa, the girl who sat in the space next to me, had drawn a glorious picture, far better in my estimation than my own. Hers was a dark black rectangle filled with circles and triangles and spirals of yellow and green, with a zig-zag red fringe border, blue-purple wheels and a bright orange pull. Lisa was very pleased with her work. Her wagon was different from everyone else’s. It was very different from the one in the middle of the blackboard.
Mrs. Brown did not think it was Good. She marked Lisa’s paper with a broad, cursive U, looping like a deep red cut across the middle of Lisa’s wagon. Unsatisfactory, Mrs. Brown said, making a big frown. Lisa explained that her picture was prettier than the plain red wagon on the chalkboard. Mrs. Brown said that Lisa would have to learn to follow directions. That’s what First Grade is for.
Lisa took her paper back to her desk, buried her face in her arms, and cried for the rest of the school day. She earned many more U’s that year.
I liked Lisa. I liked her very much.
* Originally published in the Birmingham Arts Journal, Volume 4, Issue 3, © 2007, Birmingham Arts Association. Jim Reed, Editor