It is just a tiny memory, the flicker of an unexpected something seen from the corner of my mind’s eye – a bluish-purple line on a white paper background – and suddenly there is a rush of remembering one of my favorite parts of being in first grade.
The line of color is the outline of something, usually seasonal like a Christmas tree or a snowman or an umbrella or a tulip, or maybe something educational, like three letters that spelled out CAT, that we were supposed to fill in with colors from our treasured 8-packs of Crayola crayons.
And then, when we had done that, we got to choose, from the special box in the big art supplies cabinet, a pair of blunt-nosed scissors with which to cut out what we had colored, write our name on the back, and watch Miss Nina pin it on the classroom corkboard with thumbtacks.
There were rules, of course. We had to color inside the lines, and cut along the lines. Some kids had difficulty with that, but I didn’t. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I loved those projects – I was very good, back then, at following rules.
And even better, sometimes I got to make the hectograph copies – those purple lines on the white paper – for my class. If you don’t know what a “hectograph” is, you probably weren’t in first grade in a country school in the late ‘40’s.
A hectograph was a very simple duplicating device, a (non-toxic) forerunner of spirit duplicators and mimeographs, way, way before Xerox machines and laserjet printers. It consisted of a slab of thick clear gelatin set in a horizontal 8 ½ x 11 wooden frame. An original was drawn on paper with special ink, turned face down on the gelatin and smoothed until the image adhered. Then the original was removed and copies were made by pressing plain paper to the inked gelatin.
Because I could be trusted not to mar the gelatin, and because I learned how to make the printing surface just the right texture (not too much water on the moistening sponge, but enough so that the paper would come free and not stick and tear), and because I could count to 23 – the number of kids in my class – I got to help Miss Nina make those magical sheets of paper with the lines that told us where, and where not, to color and cut.
I loved coloring inside the lines. Perhaps it was the same satisfaction that is making adult coloring books wildly popular today. There are so many decisions to be made as a grownup, so much responsibility for good choices and judgments, that sometimes it’s a relief, for just a little while, to have someone else determine where the boundaries lie. It’s a lovely distraction to fill up those defined spaces with color, all the way into the corners where two lines intersect, and to feel as if at least for the moment we’re correctly following the rules and hoping someone – a former teacher, a co-coloring friend, ourselves – will give us a nod of approval.
Maybe even paste a gold star on our work.