Black Crayons

I got this in 1997 from a friend. It was written by Deirdre Sholto-Douglas*. I’ve discussed it with her and she assures me it’s a true story, and gave her permission to publish it. I originally ran it on December 9, 2000, when Randy’s Random was a long-form joke email publication; she originally posted it in the Usenet newsgroup alt.peeves in 1994.

She did a very good thing for her daughter.

Black Crayons
by Deirdre Sholto-Douglas

Your comment reminds me of one of the run ins I’ve had with the school psychologist. After our discussion, I’ve gained a reputation of being unreasonable and my daughter has gained the freedom to construct anything short of atomic bombs without psychological interference.

If I haven’t peeved about this in the past, I certainly should have and if I have, I beg the readers’ indulgence.

It all started shortly after my ill-fated Parent-Teacher Conference (as did my public school reputation for being unreasonable). Within a week of this conference, I received a phone call from said “psychologist” requesting that I present myself in his office to discuss my daughter’s “problem.” When questioned, he indicated that the “problem” was different than the one the teacher and I discussed (which was not addressing adults by first name), but coyly refused to “discuss a situation of this magnitude over the phone.”

The following day, at the appointed time, I appeared with offspring in tow. Horrified looks resulted and said offspring was shuttled off to play in the gym. Apparently these discussions are SECRET.

He began by folding his hands on top of his desk and wearing his “saintly, patient” expression. This is a man who has not only read the psych books but believes them.

“Has Lauren appeared depressed or been behaving unusually at home?”

“No, she has not.”

“Her behavior hasn’t changed?!”

“No it hasn’t. Pardon my abruptness, but precisely what are you driving at?”

He is now refusing to meet my eyes and fiddling with a paperclip on the desk. Hmmm. I should have trundled my copy of “Body Language” along with me. He could have fidgeted and I could have merrily looked up all the underlying psychological causes.

“Well, erm…you see, Lauren is using only black crayon when she’s drawing and studies have indicated that when this occurs the child is usually depressed and attempting to deal with repressed emotions.”


Hand with black crayon drawing black lines on paper.
Photo: _Alicja_ on Pixabay.

At this point, I was having considerable difficulty repressing one of my own emotions….namely laughter. What rocks do these nitwits crawl out from under? Realizing that my original response would be a Bad Thing, I quickly pasted my Concerned, But Amused Parental Expression on and continued:

“Have you considered asking Lauren her reasons for using black crayon?”

Shock. Horror. Complete dismay. He actually began stammering. One does not ask the child. It could cause deep-seated emotional problems, stunt their growth, cause them to suffer from low self-esteem and possibly begin hanging about on street corners with gangs of second graders.

I excused myself from his office, ostensibly to collect myself, in actuality to collect my offspring from the gym. I arrived at said gym to find my depressed, repressed, emotionally devastated monster attempting to deal with her deep-seated frustration at not being able to reach the rings. Was she crying, fussing or sulking? Nope. She was trying to negotiate with the custodialdrone for a stepladder. At this point, I decided she was entitled to draw with black crayons the rest of her life, if that’s what she wanted.

We meandered back to the office and I ignored the look of distress that was shot at me. I parked my recombinant DNA in a chair with orders to “Behave like a lady.” (Yeah, I know. So sue me.) The conference resumed, this time I addressed my questions to Lauren.

“Lauren, Mr. Shit-for-Brains indicates that you only use black crayon when you’re drawing.”


“Do you like drawing in black?”


“Then why do you do it?”

I was treated to the expression that is reserved for humouring slightly thick parents and watched as my offspring pasted on her Mom’s Old Lady But Harmless Expression:

“They make us line up in alphabetical order when they pass out the crayons. And I’m always last in line…there’s nothing left but black!”

I turned to witness what our psychological brainchild is making of all this. He has gone strangely quiet. Fine. This interview is over as far as I’m concerned. Although I confess, I couldn’t resist lobbing one more over the fence at him.

“Thank you sooooo much for your concern regarding my daughter’s emotional well-being. I suppose your job would be much easier if all depressions could be cured by simply starting the crayon box from the other end of the queue. In the future however, do you think you could at least ask her before you haul me in here?”

He managed to mutter something which I took for assent — neither Lauren or myself has heard anything from him since.

He now scuttles around the nearest corner whenever he sees me coming.  I think the poor man probably suffers from deep-seated, repressed emotions.

*Deirdre Sholto-Douglas a is Microbiologist/Nanoscientist at the Center for Synchrotron Radiation Research and Instrumentation at the Illinois Institute of Technology. You’ll find her as an author on scientific journal papers such as Elemental and Redox Analysis of Single Bacterial Cells by X-ray Microbeam Analysis and A New Suite of Plasmid Vectors for Fluorescence-Based Imaging of Root Colonizing Pseudomonads. So bottom line, the elementary school officials never had a chance of out-thinking her, so I’m willing to bet good money Little Lauren still grew up just fine.

At the Time I published this, it made me realize why zero tolerance was a thing in schools: it was probably originally an academic theory thought up by psychologists who didn’t actually work with children, and couldn’t imagine the inevitable consequences of school officials applying ZT to actual developing humans.

The only thing Dierdre got “wrong” was that if she had actually asked her daughter about “Mr. Shit-for-Brains,” he almost certainly would have replied, “Madam, that’s Doctor Shit-for-Brains.”

– – –

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13 Comments on “Black Crayons

  1. If nothing else, my years of reading your newsletter and post in general have taught me that every situation is unique. Blanket policies don’t work because we are all unique individuals. I use to think that ZT was perfectly logical. If you do x then y is the consequence. Now I understand how important it is to open up my mind to truly try and understand the situation from all points of view. This has been invaluable as a father and in my job as an attorney. Thank you for trying to teach the world to think.

    Thanks for your support to make it happen, Travis. -rc

  2. This may be the single best thing I’ve ever read on any of your sites, Randy.

    Thanks. Now that I’m, y’know, alive again.

  3. Nearly 40 years ago I had a similar experience with my daughter in High School. Seems she was reading an English language science fiction book in German class as she was done with her class assignment and didn’t just want to sit there like a bump on a log for the remainder of the class. The teacher sent her to the principal’s office for this. They knew her quite well and just let her go about her day, library, lunch, whatever. Good call on their part.

    When her mom and I found out about it that evening, we went to the school the next day for a talk with the teacher to ask him why was this a problem. He got all stuffy saying that that her actions were disruptive to his classroom (quietly reading a book, really?). We then suggested to him that if he did not want his students to do anything but read German in his classroom (which we felt was a good idea, after all it is a “German” language class) perhaps he should provide a variety of other materials in German for the students to pick from and read once they have finished their assignment. In that way they could learn even more German. He took great offense at our suggestion saying something like “I know how to teach” at which point we thanked him for his time and left to speak with the principal (whom we were on very good terms with) to relate to him the incident and our evaluation of this fellow’s teaching methods. We pulled our daughter out of that class. She could learn the language more effectively from her mother whose first degree was in German.

    The teacher did not finish the semester as he was fired a couple weeks later. Some schools have good administrations, and we were fortunate that ours was one of them. I wish all schools did!

    Now many years later our daughter is a middle school science teacher and highly regarded by her students, co-workers, and administration. Perhaps what she got out of the German class was not the German language but rather a more useful lesson, how NOT to teach.

    He definitely wasn’t teacher material, and I’m sure he was shocked to be fired. -rc

  4. I got called into the principal’s office when my kid was in 2nd grade. I asked what’s up. I got told that my child “used the f-bomb at the teacher.” I asked for details, but got none because the principal didn’t know them. I was summarily dismissed home with my kid.

    I got the whole story from my kid that night…and told my kid I was proud of him.

    He’d finished the assigned classwork and quietly pulled out other work (assigned by the same teacher) to complete while waiting for the rest of class to catch up. The teacher demanded to know why he’d stopped working. (“You can’t be finished already.”) He showed both the finished work and his new work. Teacher replied, “You can’t do that work in here. When you finish what I assign you’re supposed to sit there quietly.”

    Like a powered-down robot, with neither initiative nor a sense of personal responsibility. Huh.

    So my child, having taken a very mature action in the face of having nothing to do, looked down at the desk and used equally mature language to convey his confusion. In short, he muttered, “WTF?”

    So when I went back to the principal’s office for a meeting *I* called, I asked if she felt the teacher’s action was appropriate…if she’d really rather a kid **not** be proactive about his education.

    What I got was a quiet non-apology about how new that particular teacher was.

    I reassured the principal that I’d spoken with my kid about using adult language (which I had)…but I left out the part about my husband and I laughing uproariously while we did so.

  5. In 1978, Harry Chapin wrote and put this song on an album. I have listened to recordings of Harry talking about the song, and the most poignant comment he every made, to me, was that this is what is wrong with the education system in the United States.

    We need to embrace ALL the colors of the rainbow, the differences that make life a joy. If we only see flowers as red and green, we miss out on what life should be.

    And that was 1978! -rc

  6. Also: anyone look for Lauren, who should be in her, what, mid-20s now?

    Be interesting to get the followup….

    It would. I did a quick look, but came up empty. Lauren, we want to hear from you! -rc

    • Which one? A last name would help, as there are tree singers listed on Google with the first name of Lauren.

      (Sorry if I sound short, coffee hasn’t kicked in yet!)

      I tried Lauren Sholto; Lauren Douglas is too common to even try. But obviously, Lauren’s last name could be something else entirely too, then and now. -rc

      • A quick Google search of Deirdre Sholto-Douglas comes up with more than a few hits that would most likely be correct.

        She is easy to find, but I’m not sure (even if she remembered me) she would entertain an inquiry as to her daughter’s whereabouts, and it feels creepy to even ask. -rc

  7. On pop-psychology diagnoses: In the 1980s my relative by marriage was going through a hostile custody process. A child psychologist submitted an analysis of some of the child’s drawings. One drawing showed the father on one side, the mother and sister on the other side, and the child riding on a bike from his father to the mother. The psychologist’s interpretation was that the child was scared of his father and wanted to get away, towards the safety of his mother.

    In the drawing, everyone is smiling. The child, the parents, the sister — all smiling. He’s learning to ride a bike, his father has started him off and he’s riding all by himself towards his mother. To me it sounds like the child was asked to remember an incident with his family and what his feelings were. He chose a time (maybe the last time) when he and his family were all together and all happy. But obviously I’m not cut out to be an expert child psychologist.

    (It rings a bell that one of the other drawings was in black crayon and the psychologist thought this was pretty ominous.)

  8. I recall an episode of “Little House on the Prairie” where a new teacher had taken over. One of the first things she did was order one student off of the front row and back to the back of the room where alphabetical order demanded.

    She was then repeatedly scolded for daydreaming and not paying attention in class.

    Laura finally managed to explain to the teacher that the student was hard of hearing, and had been moved to the front row so she could hear the teacher. It had never, until that point, occurred to the new teacher there might be a good reason for the Violations of the Standards she had inherited.

    • My sixth grade social studies/English teacher rotated his classes every three weeks — front row to the back, everyone else moves up a row. There were about 40 kids per class, and he felt that this was the only way to not “lose” the less intelligent kids in his classes, and for the kids to not get bored. There were one or two kids who didn’t get rotated for medical reasons, but everyone else got to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” if nothing else. Personally, I loved it, as I was tired of always being up front due to being short, and I loved seeing class from the back, as it forced me to focus more and gave me more opportunity to goof off if I knew the day’s lesson already.

      What’s surprising is that I never saw another teacher do this.

  9. When I was a child, 70 or so years ago, I was taken to a psychologist at the school’s insistence (probably I had something like Asberger’s, but that was not in vogue yet.) The psychologist gave me a box of toys to play with while he talked with my parents, and said I could do “anything I wanted with them”. I said “Anything I want?” “Yes”, he said. I took a wind-up car apart to see how the regulated mainspring worked. The psychologist said I was obviously destructive. My father said “You said he could do anything he wanted with the toys.” The psychologist got into a rage against my father. We left.

    That guy was obviously anal retentive and had self-control issues. Plus, he was a terrible psychologist! -rc

    • Possibly the only time my father participated in my education was when my mother was in the hospital when I was in sixth grade. My teachers were not concerned a bit, but the school librarian, a professional fussbudget who created crises when there weren’t any about which to fret, was concerned that all of my library selections were way above those of almost all my classmates.

      Dad listened to her and her pal the assistant principal moan about my reading at too high a level for a while and then said, “Let me understand this. My son is reading stuff most high school juniors and seniors can’t understand, and you think this is a problem?” When they both fumbled their way through their “concern”, he stood up, said, “My kids will read any g-d thing they want to read, and with the blessing of their mother and I. We deal with enough stupid people, and I’ll be da**ed if our children will also be stupid.”, and left.

      In truth, Dad didn’t really care what we read, but he cared a lot about people putting foolish limits on other people.

      Smart father. -rc


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