“Ma’am, I want a purple crayon.”
“I want black, please!”
I take a second to look at the mini-people making these polite requests.
You see, we are colouring ‘suns’ to make finger-puppets. Cookie-sized ‘suns’ they will later play with to understand what Mr. Sun does in the summer season. The elephant in the room was of course, the yellow crayons waiting to be given out, ready, in my hand.
I was instantly transported to a phase in my own childhood, where I used to draw a particular picture over and over again, one that I am sure is familiar to many others as well- a house, two zig zag lines that stood for two mountains, a winding path from the door of the house, a single, awkward tree that stood in a lonely yard.
The singular goal of my childhood, as well as that of my immediate friends’ was to duplicate this picture to perfection. The tiled roof was always red, the tree was always cloud-like and green, there was always a spiky yellow sun, the house always inevitably faced the right and had only two miserable rectangles for windows. With each year that passed, we refined this picture with little flourishes (such as shading, or the additions of finer details like flowers or blades of grass) but we never really changed it. We never, not once, questioned it. It wasn’t that we didn’t draw other things (we certainly did!) but this picture was a recurring theme, coming up unexpectedly in drawing sheets at slumber parties, on tissue napkins at boring restaurants, on desks in a substitution class, even in our first attempts at MS Paint (two years of making that house come onscreen, I tell you).
It was only much later, when I sat down to draw with a little friend, and my fingers instinctively reached for that red crayon that it hit me that I had never seen a house that remotely looked like that (one of the perks of growing up in a middle-eastern concrete jungle). That I had never seen a plump tree and two shapely mountains. That windows seldom looked like matchboxes. All my years of perfecting the idyllic landscape suddenly seemed incredibly unimaginative and silly.
Today, I realize that the obligatory bowl of fruit and scenic cottage are part of our inheritance from landscape painting and classical art, but that its blind reproduction has done untold damage to the creative vision of many generations of possible young artists.
My student reaches out for the crayon box I am holding in my other hand. It has purple, certainly, and black, and brown, and every other colour I hadn’t considered in my grown-up realism.
My mind races back to a conversation with another teacher. I was telling her about a student telling me about pouring blue water and green water for a plant, and how being the rational adults we were, we had been tempted to laugh at the adorable mistake, that is, until we quickly realized that the student was trying to describe something he had actually seen.
You see, water looks green when you pour it from a green plastic bottle.
When I shared this story with that teacher, she responded with one of her own. An anecdote of how she had asked her former students to draw the sun and one of them gave her a blank sheet of paper after a while. When asked why he didn’t draw the sun, he explained that he could never look at the sun and that he could only see white blinding light.
I am drawn back into the moment by the little ones who are pushing small squares of papers into my hands.
There is a purple sun…and a black one.