Before every new school year, no matter how much remained of my stockpile from the previous year, my mother and I would make a pilgrimage to the office store to buy a fresh batch of school supplies. Every class in every grade had its own list, but the items on those lists were open to a certain degree of interpretation.
For a few years, it was Lisa Frank pocket folders. Later, I lusted for a Trapper Keeper — but my school had banned them for their noisy Velcro closures. We bought spiral-bound notebooks in different colors for each subject, college-rule loose-leaf paper and binders with clear plastic sleeves so I could design my own covers.
My taste in writing utensils grew with me, starting with Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils that smudged instantly as my left hand dragged across the page. In high school, my cramped cursive demanded the finest point, in Pilot’s deepest blue ink. I upgraded to mechanical pencils, with lead so skinny they snapped under any pressure, when I became one of the hot-shot eighth graders who took geometry at the high school.
Unrelated: We took our own bus back to the middle school after the high school’s first hour was over; my best friend and I sat in the back and drew signs that said, “HONK IF YOU LIKE CHOCOLATE” then lamented that all the commuters had lost their taste for cacao.)
And then there were the crayons.
In that yellow box covered with black squiggles and that round, squatty Crayola font.
Once upon a time, cardboard-backed, disposable children’s storybooks outnumbered trashy tabloids in grocery store checkout aisles — and there were coloring books, too. With monochromatic shells of characters that sprang to life as I turned their shirts red and hair…purple. Actually, that’s a lie. As free spirited as I’d like to think myself, I was always a rational, realistic little girl. And I hadn’t learned about punk yet.
I learned a coloring strategy from my father — not something he actively taught me but that I saw him do, like most of the lessons I’ve taken from him: Trace the crayons, pressing hard, along the page’s black outlines, then fill in the lines with a lighter shading in the same color. I felt like a real artist when I stood back from the refrigerator to admire my finished work: how grown-up, how beautiful it looked. And clearly, the artistic bug that bit me as a child has crawled out of my system altogether now.
Class supply lists never called for more than the basic box (few projects, let alone the simple minds of most children, would ever call for the nuanced shades that more than 24 could provide). But it was the box of 64 crayons — with the sharpener on the back and a top that flipped open like a display case — that grabbed me. Hell, it grabbed every kid; it was the Cadillac of crayon packages. You never knew you needed four different kinds of pinkish-red until you saw them lined up there, each blushing in its own way. Over time, the distinction between Raw Sienna and Burnt Sienna became abundantly, laughably clear. In a corner of the box, there were metallics, always reserved for special occasions: holiday cards, the glint of a princess’ precious jewelry. And white? Never necessary unless you were working in a truly advanced medium. Like black construction paper. Still, it was there.
As the years passed and I moved farther from the creative pursuits of elementary school, I came to love English and chemistry instead, and my supply lists ceased to include crayons. But I’ve always loved them: the tiny colored dots along the cardboard box top of a new package; the perfectly aligned, flattened points of the rainbow of colors. The matte paper wrapping that matched the shiny wax perfectly. Wondering why I had to push harder to get the same intensity from Cornflower as I did from, say, Periwinkle. I wonder now why I would even want to demand that same intensity of poor, watery Cornflower.
More than all these things, I remember when Crayola introduced Cerulean in 1990. (I was 7.)
I woke up yesterday thinking about it.
Specifically? The first time I picked up Cerulean, wondering how even to say the color, it looked like just another ordinary blue. But one brisk stroke to the page proved this wrong. A hint of green, a beautiful translucence. A wild bird. The deepest part of the ocean off a perfect Caribbean island, when the light hits it just right. Just…gorgeous. And so surprising.
That one color out of 64 could stick with me like that, 16 years later, seems silly. But I give it credence, the fact that I woke up thinking about it, because nothing in my life seems to lack meaning lately. The idea of something — or someone — seeming so like the rest then surprising me with its beauty is comforting and thrilling at the same time. It can even hurt a little, though it must be clear I'm really not talking about crayons anymore.
So much to learn that years in school couldn't teach me — but maybe that big box of color can lend me a little more insight.