Flowers Are Red

Twin Nephs started first grade on Thursday. They were blithely dismissive of the fact that there must have been some sort of mistake and they must still only be about three years old. They were excited to get school supplies—well, alright, Neph 1 was excited—and bore the burdens of heavy backpacks well on Day One, as evidenced in the photos I received. But along with all this excitement came not only the usual tinge of sadness for us grown-ups, but a little extra kick in the head. And not the way Sinatra would mean it.

Sister 1 took Neph 1 (Neph 2 chose to stay at home) and her mother-in-law to the store to get the supplies listed in the emails the boys’ respective teachers had sent. There was a distinct difference between these lists, I’m told. Neph 2’s teacher requested the usual stuff: four folders, a few sharpened No. 2 pencils (awwww, remember No. 2 pencils?), a pencil box, crayons, markers, paper, etc. Neph 1’s teacher, on the other hand, was much more precise.

  • 12 No 2. pencils, sharpened
  • 12 No. 2 pencils, unsharpened

(“Can I get a pencil sharpener?!” Neph 1 excitedly asked. Sister 1 and her mother-in-law looked at the list.

“Sorry, honey. Not on the list.”

Cue minor dejection.)

  • 1 pencil box, primary color
  • 4 folders: red, green, yellow, blue – no other colors

(“Mom, what about this one?!” asked Neph 1, holding up his favorite color: orange.

Sister 1 checked the list again. “Nope. Can’t be orange. Sorry.”

Cue rolled eyes.)

  • 1 marble composition notebook – black and white only (awww, remember marble composition notebooks?)

(“‘Com…poh…sssih…’ I found a composition notebook, Mom!” exclaimed Neph 1, proudly holding it up. 

Sister 1 wrinkled her nose. “Sorry, buddy. That one’s purple. It has to be black and white.”

“But I like purple!” Neph 1 declared, wide-eyed and smiling with remaining hope.

“I know. Sorry.” My sister frowned for him.

Cue big sigh.

“I hope I wasn’t this tough on my students’ parents,” remarked the mother-in-law, a retired elementary school teacher.)

  • 1 eraser, pink, rectangular
  • 2 1″ binders, black
  • 1 16-pack Crayola crayons, standard colors
  • 1 8-pack regular size (not fat) Crayola markers, primary colors

…et cetera.

Neph 1 was still enthusiastic despite having some creative hopes dashed during the shopping trip. So was Sister 1, who was later photographed sitting at the kitchen table with her label maker, carefully branding all the kids’ stuff with their names. Amazingly, she did not label the kids themselves.

At a family get-together a day or so later, Sister 1 was telling a cousin, Callie, this story. Callie is a third grade teacher. She explained that she bets Neph 1’s teacher is older, more experienced, and more structured, while Neph 2’s teacher is probably younger and less organized. “By the time I get them in my class, I can tell which teacher they had in first grade,” she said. “The kids who had the tougher, structured teachers are more organized by the time they’re in third grade.”

My sister realized she’d forgotten to get Neph 1 the hand sanitizer from the list. Brother-In-Law 1 ran out on a quick trip to grab it, and, since there were no rules listed about what kind of sanitizer it had to be, he grabbed a bottle with an orange cap. It turned out to be peach scented stuff. Which thrilled my nephew. Less so, my brother-in-law.

I called the boys at 7:15 a.m. on their first day. My sister was combing their hair before sending them downstairs to get breakfast. “I’m going to do my hair sideways, because I think my teacher will like it,” said Neph 1. (“Do my hair sideways” means “part it on the side.”) He likes to impress people. He and his brother chatted to me energetically via speakerphone about how they get to ride the bus and how Neph 1 knows one other child in his class already but Neph 2 doesn’t know anybody in his. Neph 1 was giddy as he told me, “I get to have my own hand sanitizer! And it smells like peaches!” I’m telling you, it really doesn’t take a lot to make this kid happy. Realizing that they probably weren’t chewing their nutritious breakfast while they were talking to me, I wrapped up the conversation and let them prep their bellies for a day of learning.

That night, I got a message from my sister. She’d come home from work and asked the boys how their first day of first grade went. Unsurprisingly, my darling, exuberant, people-pleasing, sensitive, curious, purple-and-orange-loving, peach-scented godson piped up first.

“Well, I had a GREAT day!,” he told her. “I only got two time-outs—”

Two time-outs?!” my sister cried. “On the first day?! What did you do?”

Neph 1 screwed up his face in a classic expression he may have inherited from his favorite aunt. “I talked. I talk a lot, Mom.”

He may have inherited that from me, too.

“And do you know what?” he continued with vivacity. “Did you know that you’re not allowed to sing in class?”

He turned and looked sadly out the window.

“Today I learned that you’re not allowed to sing in class,” he finished.

Well. I went all Harry Chapin “Flowers Are Red” about it. Do you know the song? It’s about a little boy who goes to school all excited and starts coloring a picture, and the teacher says, “What are you doing?” and the boy says he’s painting flowers, and the teacher says, “It’s not the time for art, young man. And anyway, flowers are green and red.” She lectures this boy: “Flowers are red, young man. Green leaves are green. There’s no need to see flowers any other way than the way they always have been seen.”

But the little boy says, “There are so many colors in a rainbow, so many colors in the morning sun, so many colors in a flower, and I see every one!”

And the teacher says, “You’re sassy.” And after he argues again, she puts him in a corner, where he gets lonely, and he goes to the teacher and tells her she was right, that flowers are red and green leaves are green, and there’s no need to see flowers any other way than the way they always have been seen.

Then the boy’s family moves to another town and he goes to a new school and the teacher is smiling and says, “There are so many colors in a flower, so let’s use every one!” But do you know what the little boy does? He paints all the flowers green and red. And when the teacher asks him why, he says, “Flowers are red, and green leaves are green. There’s no need to see flowers any other way than the way they always have been seen.”

Like lots of other Harry Chapin songs, it means a lot more than a cute story about a fun kid and a dour teacher. It means that kids start out in life all excited and full of joy and natural curiosity and natural creativity, and stupid rules and the way they’re enforced start beating all of those great things out of them starting in first grade.

I read my sister’s story and thought, “That kid is going to get all that precious, wide-eyed excitement and innate joy beaten out of him, starting today.”

I actually cried.

This is another reason I can’t have kids, by the way. I’d be that mom who’s always falling apart at some perceived injustice or another.

Hell, I cried just typing the story out.

I totally get, by the way, why the kid can’t sing in class. I remember first grade, and I don’t recall being scarred by the realization that I wasn’t allowed to sing in class. (I don’t recall getting in trouble for singing, anyway. I recall getting in trouble for talking and being out of my seat without permission. And I recall standing in corners. In fact, I recall a particular moment in second grade when, standing in the corner, I glanced up at the crucifix nailed to the wall above my head, and my teacher saw me and said, “Yeah, you’d better pray!”) I am not psychologically damaged or less creative for these rules. I think Callie is probably right about structured teachers instilling organizational skills and an understanding that there are times and places for behaviors. It’s not the teachers’ fault. You can’t have a kid busting out with a Katy Perry song in the middle of an addition lesson.

Still… I think I might buy Neph 1 a few supplies he can keep at home. Like a purple composition notebook, and an orange folder. Because there are so many colors in a flower. And I want him to see every one.

And I’m glad my brother-in-law accidentally picked up peach-scented hand sanitizer. 

Now on my bookshelf: The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

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12 thoughts on “Flowers Are Red

  1. Awww, love this story. Yes, some rules are necessary but this teacher does sound a little too rigid. Unlike you I wouldn’t be crying. I’d probably be marching into that school waving a purple notebook under the teacher’s nose. Your nephews sound adorable. My mother was an identical twin. Back then they were kept in the same class. Double trouble for sure 🙂

    • It will be interesting to see how things go as the year progresses. They were in separate kindergarten classes, too, so that they could learn to socialize without each other. It went very well.

      Neph 1’s blessing is also his curse: he’s a step ahead and always trying to find ways around the rules. I suspect there will be lots of stories. And notes from teachers, which I hope my sister and brother-in-law will wad up and throw away unless he’s hurt someone, been disruptive to class, or set the building on fire. In which case, I can promise you, that boy will feel terrible and insist on writing an “I’m sorry” note to whomever he has offended. He’s been doing that since he learned how to write.

  2. Ha! Great Post SC.So true. I like the Dali Lama’s way of looking at it: “First learn and understand the rules so you you know when and how to break them.” My mantra. ha! It’s a lot ore fun learning rules when you are lookign for ways to break them. I love your idea of getitng him a purple notebook and an orange folder. He can practive both oberying and breaking the rules at the same time. Sometimes, not knowing the rules can get you into trouble when you break them. As a segue to a new Guest Post that I wrote yesterday over on Cordelia’s Mom http://cordeliasmomstill.com/2014/09/04/red-stars-guest-post-by-paul-curran/comment-page-1/#comment-3469 .I’d be honored if you’d drop by and have a read SC, if you have the time. Thank you very much. Great Post.

  3. This made me sad too. Hopefully he is a resilient boy.

    I got in trouble every day in kindergarten for not eating my Scooter Pie fast enough. That’s probably why I’m overweight. I should sue.

    • He generally is, but he’s one of those conundrum kids. I see so much easy happiness, but also so much quieter sadness in him, which his sensitivity sometimes reveals. I’m a little worried about it.

      It is DEFINITELY your kindergarten teacher’s fault, and I hope she realized it and lost sleep.

      • This happened in 1960 or 61. I don’t think she would have felt the least bit guilty. It wasn’t that age. She was also named either Aligator or Crocodile (or something very similar) so I think she probably had a rough life and took it out on the slow sweet-eaters!

  4. Love it, love it, love it. This is a side of you I haven’t seen (although truthfully, I’ve been negligent in coming around). I sometimes get discouraged at how my daughter and SIL encourage sports and academics but not creativity (read art). So my oldest grandson surprised us all by turning out to be an artist. I’ve never liked teachers who have to have everything just so. One of my 12-Step meetings was held in a grammar school classroom where there were pictures on the shelves of exactly what was supposed to be where. It’s sort of freaked me out to be there. Teachers have it tough, I know … I couldn’t handle a whole room of kids … but stifling creativity is a crime. It’s so hard to recover it as an adult.

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