Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Case Against Crayons by Catherine Malley

Crayons are illegal today; Classroom contraband, reeking of play.

My box of new September crayons: Flawless, sharp tipped, begging to escape their yellow and green striped Crayola box. Each color was perfectly placed in the spectrum: red, maroon, scarlet, brick red and my favorite, magenta. Magenta fell somewhere in the purples, but it was rarely returned to its identified space. At seven, I revered the fuchsia hue, utilizing it at every opportunity to color lips, tulips, and princess gowns.

Now my second grade students’ crayons maintain their sleek points most of the year. They are rarely used for any length of time. Crayons are illegal, especially when they are gloriously scattered under a desk just as the principal walks in to observe my classroom at reading time. I watch two pony tailed girls, one mahogany, one peach, scramble to take exquisite measures to lovingly return errant colors to the box. They roll the crayons in their palms, check for broken tips, set them in rainbow hues. ROYGBIV, a mantra for the order of color. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet – the progression as sacrosanct as the words of a prayer.

The careful placement of each color in the Crayola box takes too much time, is too engaging, enables the students to avoid decoding and reading comprehension. As the principal typed comments on his IPad, I knew the act of crayon spilling would have consequences.

Coloring rainbows makes little sense; When standards based tests demand recompense.

Daisies, sunflowers and a soft gray cat with a celestial blue collar. Panda bears and butterflies. My students can barely contain their excitement when given rare opportunities for free time – crayons, scissors and folded paper are exponentially exciting. Soon enough, we will be back to searching for the main idea in a story, identifying the problem and solution and making inferences.

For those lessons, hands are kept still and quiet on top of their desks.

Instead, small child, put that crayon box away; You won’t need sixty-four colors, just the color gray. “Testing one, two, three” is the only goal; All colors but gray will be leached from your soul.

There were six of us, growing up, and the deluxe box of sixty-four crayons was a treat. When they were brand new, sometimes my sisters and I inexplicably spent time dropping colors like burnt sienna and royal purple through the heating vents in the floor. Later, I would peer through the silver grill to see the preserved crayons - inert, untouched. A mystery – what drawings of oak trees, kangaroos and king’s robes would never exist because these colors were abandoned?
What pictures using forest green, sea green and mountain meadow green lie dormant in my students’ imaginations? 

One child expresses his frustration by breaking crayons. Shards of red-orange and medium violet spray like flecks of mosaic glass around his chair. He strips off the paper, erases the identity of lavender or turquoise, leaves naked stubs piled like wax corpses in the recesses of his desk. It’s the only way he can access his crayons on a daily basis. By systematically destroying them, he protests the dearth of creativity in my classroom. The curriculum dictates that I pass out piles of Xeroxed papers, littered with hulls of multiple choice questions, assigned in preparation for standardized tests.

Pencils only please – graphite, the color of lead, is the single acceptable writing tool.

Metrics can’t be assigned to bright yellow suns; Smiles can’t be measured, so crayons are shunned.

I sit in the principal’s office for my observation conference. He brings up the crayon incident. What were those children doing anyway? It’s because of your lack of classroom management skills that students waste time in your class and have no accountability for their learning. I think back, remember the day it happened, remember watching in horror as sixty-four crayons tumbled to the floor. Knowing the students would not get back on task quickly because for a brief moment, pleasure had escaped. The reverential act of collecting crayons was much more compelling for them than reciting sounds of long and short vowels at reading time.
Small fingers, touching color, holding imagination in their fists. Dropping crayons, a last revolutionary act of childhood, a fervent cry for freedom.

There’s no grade for a child on the blue of their sky, no percentage for joy in an orange butterfly.
At the end of the conference, my teaching is marked as Ineffective.


  1. I can relate, after 35 years of teaching and loving it, I left because what they want is not teaching it is brainwashing.They have sucked all the joy and wonder out of teaching for both students and teachers. I retired which broke my heart.

  2. So beautifully expressed. Made this retired art teacher cry.

  3. All I can say is wow!!! It's so sad! What has learning become? We are teaching future robots. So sad. Thank you for sharing. Chills!!!


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