Guest Column

Seeing the Possibilities With Crayolas in Hand

by Steve Singleton

Irecently read a newspaper article about the opening of the school year that included an interview with our state director of education, Ray Simon. He related how excited he became at the beginning of each new school year. This perennial feeling started way back as a student and had continued over the years through his newest assignment.

I was hit right between the eyes by that statement. Was I still excited at the start of a school year? Or was I the one in the joke that has the punch line, "But you have to go to school dear, you're the superintendent." It was time to take stock.

I remembered the excitement in my family when we went to buy my son's first list of school supplies. The memory gave me an idea. I would go to Wal-Mart the next day to see what kids and parents were doing to get ready for the first day of school. Were they excited?

I put on my anti-superintendent disguise that day: blue jeans, knit shirt, tennis shoes and a ball cap pulled down low. Standing in aisle 7, I listened to parents and their children discuss the school-issued shopping list as I pretended to be looking at crayons. The disguise was working. I couldn't believe the unguarded conversations I heard.

In addition to a couple of informal teacher evaluations, the conversations went like this. "That's not on the list." "Why do you have to have four different color folders for each nine weeks? Let's see, that's 16 folders, right? Couldn't you just keep the same folder for the year?" "This is going to cost a fortune!"

Seeing yourself or your school district through the eyes of others can open up all kinds of opportunities. I made a mental note to share this experience with our teachers and administrators.

Fond Memories

As I listened to the parents and kids, I opened a box of Crayolas. I smelled them. I examined the unspoiled new shape of the points with the flat heads. I was beginning to get excited. I picked up a box of each kind from the shelf, including a box of the off-brand variety and another of the new retro-colors. The box of off-brand crayons claimed they were "school quality."

There I was, standing in the aisle at Wal-Mart, juggling seven or eight boxes of crayons. After dropping a few boxes, I decided things were rapidly getting out of hand. I headed for the checkout. This was going to be the most interesting and exciting start to school in a long time, I thought to myself. I wondered if people who recognized me would think I had lost my mind before the school year started.

When I got back to the district headquarters, I did a standard "man and woman on the street" interview with the secretaries and others who came into the office. I asked everyone what recollections they had of crayons and school. Some recalled the distinctive smell. One staff member said she never wanted to use her set because it would wear down the fine point. A coach told me he always wondered what students have in their lunch boxes if they could afford the box of 64 colors replete with built-in crayon sharpener.

This being the end of summer vacation, I went home for lunch where I shared the details of my research with my wife. I asked about her recollection of crayons. She told me the story of a classmate in the first grade who always drew the most beautiful pictures. She did this with a box full of broken pieces of crayon that had all of the paper removed. My wife thought that if she had broken crayons she could draw beautiful pictures too.

I knew I was onto something. I headed back to the office to continue my research. I spread all of the boxes out on my conference table and started to make observations after examining each box. Here are some of my findings:

* In a large box of Crayola crayons, there are 16 different shades of green. They are green yellow, yellow green, magic mint, shamrock, screaming green, electric lime, jungle green, pine green, tropical rain forest, granny smith apple, spring green, olive green, sea green, asparagus, forest green and green.

* Some of the off-brand crayons were broken and had been placed in the box backwards. The box said "School Quality."

* The off-brand crayons didn't smell as good as the name brand.

* The retro-colors really take you back in time. My favorites were "give peach a chance," "shag carpet orange" and "Woodstock mud brown."

Striking Parallels

So what did I learn in this seemingly inconsequential research and personal escape to the past?

I discovered I could still get excited over a box of new crayons. I learned that it was up to me to be excited about the opening of school and all of the opportunities awaiting us this year. I learned there are many possibilities in a large box of crayons. I learned it is useful to look at school from a different perspective—that of the parents and their children.

Finally, I learned a few things about crayons that struck me as true of our students and our outlook as educators:

* Some are broken when you get them. Don't throw them away. Remember, placed in the right hands, even broken crayons can make beautiful pictures.

* When you see an off-brand headed in the wrong direction, help turn him or her around. They are all school quality and capable of shining in some areas.

* The colors of our past are worth recalling. The shag carpet orange or the give peach a chance remind us we were once young and full of excitement.

* Stopping to smell the crayons has great value. See the possibilities in each of the 16 shades of green. And don't forget to use your imagination.

Steve Singleton is superintendent of the Mountain Home Public Schools, 1230 South Maple, Mountain Home, Ark. 72653. E-mail: