Color Lightly & One Way

I kept fighting with myself about how to start this blog. The perfectionist in me is a merciless editor; she edits me down to silence until I can no longer stand it, and then I tend toward exactly the sort of long, embarrassing confessionals that I had hoped to avoid in the first place. I think it’s only fair to warn you right out front: if you’re reading this, it’s basically a given that you’re going to read these rambling confessional posts every so often. This entire blog was created out of a need to be heard, to explain myself, though no one asked for an explanation.

I’ve tried to think of the best way to begin, and though the beginning is both too hard to pinpoint and not the clearest picture I’d like to present, I have decided to start early. Kindergarten, to be exact. The only background you really need to know here is that I was a highly creative child in several different areas, and gradually, one by one, those creative instincts became muffled and muted and silenced. And I’ve never quite been able to pinpoint why until I sat down and really, honestly thought back as far as I possibly could and landed at this — maybe the first instance, and maybe not. Certainly not the only instance at that age. Maybe the first in what was to become a long string of creativity-and-confidence-crushing moments. 

At age 5 I had already perfected the art of coloring. I was good at it. I’d filled up countless coloring books by then. My favorites from the 72-color-box were very precise, orchid, thistle, midnight blue, periwinkle, cornflower, copper. My preferred method was to color in small circles, so that there would never be any telltale lines to indicate that the picture had been colored in with mere crayons, and sometimes I liked to make parts of the picture super-saturated, pressing down harder with the crayon and going over a spot until it glowed as bright as I wanted. And then, one day, when we were making a self portrait, of all things, I received the following bizarre instruction, written in red pen across my masterpiece: “Color lightly and one way!”  

I was mystified. I raised my hand to ask the teacher what it meant, and she told me that I should make the strokes of the crayon go all the same way, and that I shouldn’t press too hard on the crayons. From a practical standpoint I could understand the second part – lot of kids broke the crayons that were available during playtime, ruining them for others. They weren’t careful. But since these were my own crayons (only eight colors, and the too-big, fat ones that they made kindergarteners have – I hated these crayons on principle, but I was very careful with them!) it would hardly have mattered if I did break them, since no one else had to use them. No matter, I wasn’t even given a reason for that, or for the coloring one way. It was Catholic school, and this was the least important of questions that went unanswered, but the first time I remember being told that my creativity was wrong. That it needed to be less, less intense, more conformist. Quieter. Never mind that it was pretty; never mind that it was technically very neat and resembled a face, a feat that my classmates couldn’t all uniformly manage; my teacher absolutely hated children, and would later tell me that I shouldn’t read to the other children (I could read at age 3, and as it was my favorite activity and the other kids enjoyed it, you would have thought they’d encourage this sort of activity. You would be sane, but wrong.) and even later would discourage some sort of imaginary game I’d made up that involved an imaginary bunny.

The entire year was an exercise in learning to be the same as everyone else, quiet and inoffensive and everything unnatural to who I was. Every time I spoke up with something exciting that had occurred to me, I was told that it was wrong. My parents tried very hard to undo this, and in fact I was in an advanced class one day a week for those of us who could read, and that teacher also encouraged me to keep doing what I was doing, but gradually I began to learn the art of not being different. To color just like all the other kids, and not to be heard. I don’t think I stopped singing yet – I still recorded my own “radio shows” on the little cassette recorder that was my favorite thing in the world, but it wasn’t long after that I decided my voice was just as wrong as the rest of me and instead started lip-syncing along with my favorite radio songs rather than trying to sing them. 

I only managed one year at that school. I don’t even remember most of it. But I remember my coloring being corrected, and after that I remember trying very hard to color as lightly and evenly as I could, in one direction. A picture was perfect if it looked like the crayons had barely touched the paper. Such a difference from my oversaturated early pages. 

I think about how so much of my trouble with my voice seems to stem from not wanting to be heard making an unpleasant or even odd sound, of wanting to sound pretty and correct, and how criticism makes me feel like I’m doing it all wrong. And I wonder how much of it started even that early.