Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Coloring outside the lines

Robert Fulghum wrote an amusing little ditty a few years ago that boasts "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten."

Hyperbole, to be sure, but a Brickey brat did learn such a lesson 25 years ago. The only problem is it was not the one the teacher intended.

Kindergarten for some is a moment of horror. Some cry. Some yell for mom. Others walk in, sit down, grab a crayon and get to work.

Nineteen eighty-three could have been a time of chaos. My parents were divorced that summer. I don't remember it.

I remember before, dad setting up my Chattanooga Choo-Choo on the kitchen table; looking down the hallway on Christmas Eve to see if I could spot Santa; driving my toy pickup truck around the living room while my parents watched "Dynasty."

And I remember afterward, opening the front door to see dad standing there just before he admonished me for not being careful in case a stranger was lurking on the porch; mom telling us that "lights out" would come early that fall because I was starting school; staying with Dad one night a week and every other weekend. One night we watched the last episode of "M*A*S*H." All I remember is Hawkeye kissing Margaret and her waving good-bye as she left the 4077th.

But kindergarten was no big deal. I walked past the office, clutching my knapsack (blue and white, with Snoopy and Woodstock on the front of it), made a right at the corner and strolled into the first classroom on the left.

My teacher was Sheena Beal -- tall, dark-headed, attractive. I made friends with a kid named Steven Smartt. I took naps. I played.

I remember the machine that cleaned the eraser. I remember my grandmother bringing homemade ice cream in the spring. I remember Mrs. Beal being astonished that I could read.

And I remember the day that Kristy McMurry talked me into coloring outside the lines. I smiled and went to town in our coloring books. We giggled. And I soon learned that falling victim to a woman's charms will get you into trouble every time. (Well, I say I learned -- I keep repeating that mistake again and again.)

Mrs. Beal admonished us. She showed us another pupil's workbook, all clean and perfect, the crayon-drawn colors painted with precision between those cursed lines. She made us color another page, this time with strict instructions to "do it right."

It has taken me 25 years to get over that good-natured but erroneous lesson. Coloring outside the lines showed independence, creativity, independent thought.

But what I took from it was the disappointment in Mrs. Beal's eyes. I was eager to please. I rarely got into trouble again before leaving primary and secondary education behind.

My boss took me to breakfast back in the summer. "You're indecisive," she said. "You need to take direct control of our writers."

You know what? My publisher, my friend, my mentor -- William Shawn to my would-be Calvin Trillin -- was telling me to color outside the lines.

Who gives a damn if society tells you otherwise? Sometimes you've got to go for it on fourth and six when conventional wisdom says to punt the ball. You can fall flat on your butt; you can score a touchdown. Either way, it's OK. You learn something valuable that can be used later.

Sheena Beal almost died that next year giving birth to her son Isaac. They wrote about her in the daily paper. My grandmother saved the clipping in my photo album. I read it about once every five or six years.

Mrs. Beal insists I call her Sheena when I see her. She doesn't like me to remind her how many years have passed since that kindergarten class.

Isaac, a tall kid with a winsome smile, came up to me his senior year at Powell High School and said his mother talks about me all the time. I loved her like an aunt and I will never forget her.

Nor will I forget, too, the lesson learned from coloring outside the lines. It has taken me a quarter-century to accept it, but it feels like heaven when you tell conventional wisdom to shove it, and the Hail Mary pass finds the receiver in the end zone.

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