One day in school our teacher held up a colored page that we all had worked on the day before. “Look at this,” she announced to the class, doing that thing that all teachers of little kids do where they move the picture slowly from left to right so everyone can get a peek. “Look at how softly Mary colored and kept inside the lines! Look at how she didn’t press too hard! Isn’t this beautiful?”
I think it says a lot that this memory has crystalized to be a part of my long-term memory. One day, one short little comment about another girl’s colored picture has stuck with me for over 25 years.
Because I instantly knew, I didn’t color right.
I always pressed too hard. There was never a smooth consistency to the big areas of shading – instead there always seemed to be areas too dark or too light. When I would accidentally color outside the lines, I would try and make up for it by coloring uniformly outside the same line, so as to cover up my mistake.
I hated coloring.
I hated it because I couldn’t get it perfect. I hated it because Mary could get it perfect. I hated that Mary was being publicly praised and I was sitting in my little plastic chair internally wrestling with shame because obviously my teacher was talking directly to me. Obviously she was showing this to the whole class to save me the embarrassment of calling me out.
Because my coloring was not like Mary’s, my coloring was not acceptable.
Because my teacher liked Mary’s style better, my style needed to be adapted.
I never could color like Mary. In fact, I still can’t. My adult coloring pages still contain outside the lines mistakes. I like to hold them at a distance and sort of squint my eyes because then the imperfections blur away and all I can see is the brilliant colors and design that somebody else created and I brought to life.
I find myself falling into this trap in so many other areas of life. Mary has morphed herself now into a body type, an interior designer, and a mother, among many other things. Mary is the mom who loves the newborn stage, who loses the baby weight in two weeks, whose house is perfectly Pinterest-y. My teacher is still often at the front of the room holding up a picture or moment of Mary’s. Look at how laid back Mary is at parenting! Look at how she does fun creative crafts with her kids instead of watching TV! Look at Mary in her bikini! Look at Mary being an easy, breezy, beautiful Cover Girl who loves planning parties and always offers to babysit your kids for you and only feeds her children organic meals and says things like “oh, everything else can wait, I’m just going to sit here and rock my babies.”
And here I am, sitting in that little plastic chair again, absolutely certain the teacher is talking directly to me, nine months pregnant in a men’s sweatshirt un-showered with yesterday’s leftover makeup. Here I am, the one who gets a little physically ill at the thought of planning a party and a little nervous-breakdown-y about the thought of babysitting any more children than the ones that have been grown in my own body. Here I am feeding my daughter popsicles while we watch Toy Story for the 8th time in 2 days. Here I am anxious and twitchy thinking about rocking a baby to sleep when I would actually seriously prefer tidying up.
And here is my teacher, holding up Mary to punish me. To hopefully shame me into being better. Better is more like Mary, you know.
Well, I know better now. Or more accurately, I am learning to know better now. I am learning the opinion of one teacher probably shouldn’t be what I live my life around. That there are actually teachers who would say “WOW! Look at that TALENT in this picture of Ashley’s! Look at how beautifully she colors outside the lines!” My teacher didn’t speak for all of humanity. I have it on good authority that some pretty popular artists are not the stay-in-the-lines-gentle-pressure-only-pastel-and pretty type.
I am finding I am pretty addicted to getting gold stars from authority figures. I am generally, in life, sitting in that little plastic chair searching for approval from the teacher, aching for the teacher to hold up MY picture to praise in front of the world.
But – spoiler alert – life doesn’t actually work like that. Sometimes the teacher holds up your picture, and then sometimes the teacher really is looking right at you trying to shame you into being more like Mary’s picture. But – are you ready for this? – turns out you can choose to look the teacher square in the eye and say “Hmm, yes, that’s very interesting. I actually like my own way better though, thank you.” You actually do not need the teacher’s approval, blessings, praise, to color. You actually get to color your own damn picture however the hell you want – messy and bright and pressing hard if that’s your style.
Fun fact: Mary actually grew up to be a gifted artist. And so did I. Her art is with photography and mine is with words. I got an adult coloring book, and I’m still not as good as 6-year-old Mary. But I hold up my work and squint my eyes and its bright and beautiful to me.