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a red crayonRed Crayons

It’s probably not news to many who know me that I’ve had my challenges subbing in the lower elementary grades over the years and that I have a great deal of respect for those who teach the youngest children all day. Every day. I recall Dr. Zimmer telling us years ago that if he was organizing a school, he would prefer to put his best teachers in the lowest grades, and I agree. The following took place in a first grade classroom about 15 years ago.

Well, they let me out near the kids again last week. The first grade teacher came down to my office about 10:30 one morning. She had gotten a call from her daughter over at the high school—the young lady was not feeling well, and we had some real hard flu going around. “Could I cover first grade while I pick up my daughter and take her home? The kids are all busily working.”

Yeah, right. I won't be in there 15 seconds, and they will have 10 questions. I've done first grade before, and I know how this goes. But I head down to the classroom anyway.

They are hard at work, like she said, on words that have long vowel sounds, especially O. “Mr. Strohacker, is this word spelled ow or oe or oa...?” The questions start immediately.

“Does Mrs. Krafft have a dictionary somewhere to look that up, Jonathan?”

From the other side of the room Chloe cries out, “We're only allowed to use that book when we are writing a story! He's supposed to know these words!”

“It's oa, Jon; move on,” I whisper, hoping Chloe doesn't hear me.

“What is it, Molly?”

“Steven's pencil is too short! Mrs. Krafft says our hands will get tired, and we should throw our pencils away when they get that short!”

“Thank you, Molly.” (“Mrs. Krafft says... Mrs. Krafft says…,” I feel like yelling out. It's like I'm in the first-grade room!)

“Mr. Strohacker, can I sharpen my pencil?”

“Sure, go ahe...”

“Mrs. Krafft says not to sharpen our pencils during class! We're supposed to sharpen our pencils before class!”

“I'm sure it will be O.K., Sarah.” As I walk away, I hear Sarah whisper to the boy next to her that she is going to tell Mrs. Krafft on me when she gets back! (When Mrs. Krafft gets back, I'm going to tell her that she is raising a bunch of mommies!)

First graders sure use a lot of exclamation points and capital letters when they talk.

“Yes, Patty, you may use the restroom. Hey, hey, hey! Nobody question me on this one! I've told little kids before that they couldn't use the restroom, and I'm not going to make that mistake again.” Besides, we've got flu going around the school; better, they leave sooner rather than later.

After a while, both sides of the kids’ worksheets are finished. Long vowel sounds are identified, things that should be circled are circled, and things that need numbering are numbered. “Now go back and color only the pictures of the words that have the long O sound.”

Mitchell calls me over to show me the most beautiful dark green crayon with sparkles! He has the big box of crayons. As I went through school, the big box grew from 24 to 48 and eventually larger and included a sharpener in the back. Strict rules in my Lutheran school, however. We were only allowed to bring a box of eight. Didn't want to make anyone feel bad, I guess. Today's big boxes of crayons are probably measured in megs and gigs.

“That is a really neat crayon, Mitch. We didn't have that one when I was kid. In fact, there were only five crayons in the box when I was in first grade.”

The room went quiet, awestruck at my deprived childhood.

“Yep, just five crayons—blue, yellow, green, orange, and black.” (Don't anyone send me e-mails about primary colors. I already told this story to our art teacher, and I have been chastised for my ignorance.)

“No red?” Taylor asked.

“Nope, the color red wasn't invented until I was ten. Boy were we excited!”

“Saaaay...are you making that up?” (One of the mommy girls again.)

“Actually, yes.”

“Wait, don't stop him!” someone wails. “I like to tell Mr. Strohacker's stories to Mom and Dad at supper time.” The class agrees; they want to hear more.

“Well, you all know Mr. Steffens is a lot older than me, don't you? When he was in school, Mr. Steffens only had two crayons in his box—black and white!”

The next morning at faculty devotions, Mrs. Krafft told everyone what I had done. She also added that the kids got to talking after I left and decided that God created red. “So Mr. Strohacker must have been talking about when red crayons were invented, not the color red.”

Chuck Strohacker retired at the end of the 2014–2015 school year after serving 40 years in the Michigan District, 37 of those years as a principal. He and his wife, Diane, live in retirement in St. Joseph, Mich.

Photo collage by Kathryn Brewer.