Coloring, as an art form, is neither creative enough to warrant the concentration it requires, nor passive enough for casual enjoyment. It’s an art of drudgery — of appropriation. Fill in the space with one of the sixty-four colors you have to choose from in the Crayola box — Macaroni and Cheese, or Fire-Hydrant? And that’s only if your parents were willing to shell out for the box with the Crayon sharpener. Some of us lower-middle-class scrubs were relegated to 24, or even 12 choices, turning even our most painstaking coloring projects into patchwork atrocities. A pirate with orange skin. An ocean the color of a ripe bruise.
While my sister could spend hours hunched over a black-and-white sheet with her colored pencils, painstakingly tracing the inner edges of each swath of white, my own concentration devolved to distraction after my first lines escaped the edges of the drawing. Her surgeon-steady hands filled in the spaces with the flat edge of her pencil, while I stared down at my artistic failure and cursed my inability to create. I longed to express myself through color, to marvel my parents with a perfectly filled-in drawing of a muppet, each lock of fur shaded perfectly to capture the light as it fell across Fozzie’s face. They would fawn over my ability to stay within the lines, my perfect color selection, my convincing impression of precocious artistic talent.
But that day never came. My frustration grew.
Each day of first grade, Mrs. Gaston tasked us with coloring the picture in the top right corner of our morning worksheet: a perfect steepled house on a low hill, a tug boat, or a colonial soldier carrying a musket. The sheets set the theme for the day, and the pictures were accompanied by review questions and grammar exercises. These I devoured, leaving the dreaded coloring for last, like the broccoli on last night’s dinner plate.
One morning, the weather a uniform gray outside my butter-yellow classroom walls, I stared down at my worksheet. I’d filled out all of the grammar exercises, leaving only the empty line-drawing at the top of the page. It was an airplane, hanging in the sky serenely by two puffy cartoon clouds. A smiling pilot waved from the cockpit, oblivious to the vital controls in front of him.
Looking back and forth between the crayons and the picture before me, I couldn’t reconcile my vision for the scene with the 24 colors in the box. Every blue was too light or too dark for the sky. Inexplicably, the 24-color packs weren’t equipped with the sought-after “peach” color, the only one fit to replicate caucasian skin. (I wasn’t racially progressive or creative enough at 6 to think about making the pilot a race other than my own, though the solution seems obvious now.) And what color is an airplane? Instead of tainting yet another grammar sheet with my disappointing efforts at coloring, I decided the the picture was best served, artistically, by remaining in black and white.
My attention wandered as I waited for my classmates to complete their sheets. Most colored in the picture first, as a means of staving off the educational activities below. Eating their desserts first, every single one. I craned my neck to see what color Amber Brown had chosen for her airplane, and Mrs. Gaston spotted me.
She was an elderly woman with an Einsteinian cloud of gray hair over her pinched face. Black glasses outlined her piercing brown eyes like gun scopes, the crosshairs of which were already centered on me before I knew I was caught.
She stood up slowly, smoothing out the hem of her blue cardigan before walking down my row, glancing at the fully colored sheets on the desks she passed.
She carried an air of solemnity with her that, thanks to television, I now associate with nuns. And just like a Catholic, she seemed to spend most of her time thinking about death. In her case, these deaths were caused by standing too close to the edge of a protruding bluff, or riding a motorcycle between two semi-trucks. Two of her close friends had done these things, and she had related their grisly fates to our class as if they were just two more points on her curriculum, like the answers to subtraction story problems. She even drew a diagram on the board of a bluff overhanging a pit of jagged rocks, a smiling stick figure perched perilously close to the grassy edge. The story of her friend who was crushed to jelly between two semi trucks was enough to put me off of the idea of motorcycles for life, even without a visual aid.
After making her way down the row, she stopped at the corner of my desk and looked down her nose at my un-colored airplane.
“Are you going to color the picture?”
I stared at the sheet as if bewildered by the very existence of airplanes, paper, and desks.
“And why not?” she asked. She had inferred my real answer telepathically, it seemed. The jig was up.
“I don’t feel like coloring.”
Her eyes scanned the class before she bent down next to me, bringing with her the smell of her dense perfume like a week-old bouquet.
“Sometimes I don’t feel like teaching,” she whispered. “But sometimes we have to do things that we don’t want to do.”
She stood up.
“Color the picture,” she said before continuing down the row.
Photo by Scott Norris