I started doing the exercises from 90 Days to your Novel by Sarah Domet. Day 1 is to brainstorm about early memories. This was one of mine.
When I was in first grade, I went to Catholic School for exactly one year. I don’t remember much about that year, other than a few flashes of memory. My babysitter’s kids went there, so it was convenient for me to ride the bus home with them and stay at their place until my mother got off work. I remember not minding the uniforms at all; I was too young to care. And I remember only one specific incident in class. My teacher, Mrs. Self, had asked us to draw a picture of somebody, I can’t remember whom. When I turned in my carefully executed drawing (I was a perfectionist even then), Mrs. Self examined my work and then said, “People aren’t really orange, are they?” She was questioning my choice of crayon color.
Even as a 6 year old, I was stunned. My memory today is poor and- perhaps in cases of painful episodes like this one- deliberately incomplete; I don’t recall how I reacted. But knowing myself as a perpetual teacher’s pet, I’m sure I was deeply mortified and humiliated by her critique. As a grown woman with children of my own, I would often share this anecdote as an example of how times have changed: such a comment would never be tolerated in today’s politically correct schools where a person’s feelings should be preserved above all else. We’re all winners, right?
A few weeks ago my 5-year-old daughter (a tiny clone of myself in all respects) brought home her work folder. Among the kindergarten cut-and-paste projects was a portrait she had drawn of Abraham Lincoln. It had all the Lincoln criteria- a giant top hat, a beard, ridiculously long arms and legs… it was a spitting image! My pride in her artistic ability was enormous. Then I read her teacher’s comment in giant curling letters across the top: “Abraham Lincoln was not blue!!” My daughter had sketched her portrait using a blue crayon.
And suddenly I was back in school wearing my Catholic girl’s uniform but staring at my daughter’s teacher while gripping her collar in my tiny, shaking fist. The words came easily this time: Fucking hell! What’s the matter with you? Lincoln wasn’t brown or black either. What do you expect from us when all we have is eight colors to choose from? If complexion accuracy is so G’damned important to you then you should spring for Crayola’s 96 count box instead of the standard 8! Or how about this: focus more on the quality of the art and the effort of the artist rather than on the superficial details like skin color.
I was back in my kitchen. Unclenching my fists and smoothing the now slightly crumpled portrait on the refrigerator, I smiled and congratulated my daughter on the best portrait of Lincoln I had ever seen.