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October 19, 2019 Nonfiction

The Sharp Edge of the Crayon

Anna Laird Barto

The Sharp Edge of the Crayon photo

Our first grade teacher, Miss Baudendistel, summoned us  to her desk one by one. When it was my turn, I opened my mouth and tipped back my chin so that she could inspect the progress of my six-year molars. The results she recorded in a ledger, along with my attendance, heartbeat, and head-to-body ratio. She kept the ledger on her desk beside the beeswax candle, the glass inkwell and the silver chime she used to called us to order. 

Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner, founder and patron saint of Waldorf education, believed that children are not ready for academic instruction until their permanent teeth grow in, their limbs have elongated in proportion to the head, and their heartbeat settled into a consistent sixty-beat-per-minute rhythm. According to Steiner, these changes were the physical manifestation of “formative etheric forces” at work. To begin instruction before this work was completed could result in permanent physical and emotional damage.

All this meant to me, as story-hungry six year-old, was that I wasn’t allowed to learn to read until my molars grew in and had to wait an eternity until bedtime, when my parents read aloud, to find out if Pa had returned safely from town and brought Mary and Laura a real doll that wasn’t a corncob. 

Meanwhile, I had to listen to Miss Baudendistel tell the same old stories over and over again: brave knight/Prince/saint rescues beautiful, virtuous princess from evil dragon/gnome/stepmother. 

Miss Baudendistel was in in her early thirties and fiercely beautiful, like a hawk. With her sharp nose, tanned skin, and broad shoulders, she could have been Jody Foster’s hardier, German cousin (she was actually from upstate New York). Her personal style was a cross between Jane Eyre and Heidi of the Alps. She wore long pleated skirts, puffy blouses, bodice hugging vests, and a square of silk about the neck. A few wisps of hair escaped her tight blond bun, as if she had just come in from a bracing jaunt in the fresh mountain air.

 

Since we were not yet spiritually evolved enough to learn writing, we retold Miss Baudendistel’s stories in pictures. Every week a new letter revealed itself organically in the shapes we drew, or was superimposed upon by Miss Baudendistel. We discovered the letter B in the curves of a butterfly’s wing, K in the slant of King George’s sword, poised to slay the dragon. We were given only “block crayons,” to work with, 1-by-1 1/2-inch beeswax bricks whose edges wore away after one or two uses. This was intentional, so as to discourage us from drawing fine lines or other representational detail that might interfere with our direct creative experience.

“Not with the edge!” Miss Baudendistel said when she caught me outlining the figure of a princess. “Use the side of the crayon, like this!” She guided my hand in a grainy arc of shading that only suggested the human form.

 

I longed for second grade, when we’d graduate to stick crayons. When Miss Baudendistel wasn’t looking, my friend Morgan and I ground our block crayons into scratch paper to form sharp new edges. The daughter of a well-known artist, seven year-old Morgan already had the finely-tuned motor skills of a Swiss clockmaker. Despite the block crayon handicap, she filled the margins of her Main Lesson Books with lifelike seals and micro ponies, which I did my best to imitate. But when Miss Baudendistel got to Morgan’s desk she clapped her hands on Morgan’s shoulders and exclaimed, “Broad strokes, my dear Morgan, broad strokes!” Miss Baudendistel had a clear, resonant voice, the kind you imagined ringing out across alpine valleys, like in a Ricola cough drop commercial, not that we’d been exposed to anything as crass. Steiner did not approve of TV. It didn’t matter that he died two years before it was invented. 

 

At last our molars burst forth from the gum and we emerged from the rose-colored womb of our first grade classroom. Miss Baudendistel was still our teacher, because at Waldorf students are shepherded from grades 1-8 by the same teacher. For second grade we moved upstairs to a classroom painted a Steiner-approved shade peach. The wall color, like everything in the Waldorf universe, from the wooden desks and transparent silk curtains down to the naturalistic font on the Welcome sign above the door, was carefully curated to align with Steiner’s theories of child development.

One day, not long into the school year, I noticed a stack of shiny new tins on Miss Baudendistel’s desk beside the beeswax candle, the silver chime, the glass inkwell and the recent addition of the Pentatonic flute (not to be confused with the Recorder which has seven holes, not five, and wouldn’t be introduced until fifth grade). Stick crayons at last! I imagined the pictures I'd draw, the detailed maps of the worlds Morgan and I invented at recess, the individual blades of grass.

Miss Baudendistel would not distribute the tins until we were ready: voices still, backs straight, feet planted firmly on the floor, hands clasped on the desk before us. 

A wise old owl sat in an oak,” she recited. “The less she spoke, the more she heard-“

Shhh! Come on you guys!” If Miss Baudendistel made it all the way through the verse, time would be taken off recess.

“-the more she heard, the more she learned, why can’t we be like that wise old…” At last it was so quiet I could hear the fourth graders down the hall reciting the Odyssey in ancient Greek. 

“Ah now, that’s better,” Miss Baudendistel said.

When I received my tin I didn’t open it right away. First I ran my fingers over the smooth lid with its elegant German calligraphy and sample illustration of horses—chestnuts, blacks and bays against rich green shading that evoked grass—less intricate than Morgan’s work, but still impressive in its realism.

As soon as I lifted the lid, my excitement faded. These so-called stick crayons were positively obese, at least double the girth of the taboo Crayolas I hoarded at home. And the tin contained just eight colors: red, not any ordinary red, but carmine red; orange and vermillion; golden yellow, lemon yellow, green, ultramarine and violet. No black or brown for horses, or people of any race on earth. I looked at Morgan. She shrugged and reached into her desk for a blob of beeswax, and began to fashion it into a seal the size of an acorn.

 

It would be four more years before a cross-country move necessitated my transition to “normal” school—where instead of showing our teeth we filled in bubbles on Stanford Achievement tests—but in my memory that moment marks the beginning of my resistance. After all, my mom said that the main reason they sent me to the Waldorf School was to nurture my creativity, so who was Miss Baudendistel to tell me how to draw? 

I began to ask impertinent questions in class: how come we spent three weeks studying the Peloponnesian Wars, but never once talked about the War in Iraq? What was so great about the ancient Greeks anyway, didn’t they treat women like slaves? And just because humans walk upright doesn’t mean we’re not animals! While not outwardly heretical—like George’s mom, for example, who packed him marshmallow fluff sandwiches for lunch—my family did own a television, exposing me to subversive influences like Nova and Dan Rather. When asked to paint a picture of a lion, “The King of Beasts,” for our Zoology Unit, I was the only one who didn’t give their lion a mane. I explained that it was a lioness, and that they did all the work while the male lions just lay around.

Mostly I retreated farther into the fantasy world Morgan and I created. Miss Baudendistel’s occasional meddling in this world—by kidnapping our beeswax animals or forcing us to play dodgeball at recess—supplied enough dramatic tension to keep us engaged in our education.

In third grade, we were entrusted with set of Berol Prismacolor pencils and in fourth grade our very own fountain pens, just like Miss Baudendistel’s. She insisted I grip my pen properly, shaft pinched between my thumb and forefinger, but as soon as she looked the other way I reverted to my habitual quadruped grip, pressing down as hard as I could with my index and middle fingers. To this day, I have a small callous where the shaft grazed the skin of my inner right ring finger. Meanwhile, Morgan was given a grey marble sphere to squeeze in her left hand, forcing her to use her right.

It was with stick crayons that I painstakingly scrawled my first short story. Up until then, we had only copied Miss Baudendistel’s round, upright handwriting from the chalkboard into our Main Lesson books. Now at last, we were assigned to retell one of her stories in our own words. The story was no other than The Fall of Man. I was unintimidated.

 

No sooner had Eve eaten from the forbidden fruit and the wind began to howl and blow cold air upon the two humans. The voice of God boomed down like thunder from the dark heavens…

 

“You are a fine writer,” Miss Baudendistel told me when she handed back my corrected Main Lesson Book. “But you get bogged down in extraneous details and description.” This valid criticism only deepened my commitment to purple prose. From then on I lavished everything I wrote—mostly about horses and horse paraphernalia—with detail and multi-syllabic the adjectives, sometimes adding -ly just for spite. Miss Baudendistel’s warning went unheeded for the next twenty years, until I received similar critiques from classmates and professors in my MFA writing program. I wonder what would’ve happened if I’d heeded her advice at the time, and reigned in my love of language. Would I have made it into an MFA program in the first place? Certainly I wouldn’t have survived the world of workshops and rejections without that same childhood stubbornness that insisted on drawing with the sharp edge of the crayon. 

After the MFA I worked for a school-readiness program in Boston, where our mission included arming every toddler in the housing projects with books and crayons. We started them off with Jumbo crayons from Lakeshore Learning, which are approximately the same size as the stick crayons Miss Baudendistel bestowed upon us in second grade. They came in eight basic colors, plus an additional set of twenty-four different “People Colors,” ranging from peach to ebony. Our kids were scribbling before they had all their milk teeth, much less their permanent molars, and I covered the drab walls of the community center with their creations. We couldn't afford to wait on etheric forces; statistics showed that by the time our kids reached kindergarten, they would already be behind their more affluent peers.

Sometimes even the jumbo crayons snapped under the force of a determined toddler, who howled and burst into tears.

“It’s okay,” I told them. “Look!” The child watched, sniffling, eyes bright with tears, as I drew the wax shards across the page with big, broad strokes.

 

Recently, Morgan and I met up in a coffee shop, a warm, well-lighted space not unlike a Waldorf classroom, filled with potted plants and tables of reclaimed wood. We hadn’t seen each other in at least a decade. As we reminisced Morgan, who uses they/them pronouns now, worked a small piece of polymer clay between their fingers. By the time they finished catching me up on their career in video game design—a path beyond Steiner’s wildest dreams—they’d molded the clay into an acorn-sized gnome. They held the tiny figure up the the light, and grasping a pin between their left fingertips, began to carve a face into the clay. By the time we parted, they’d given it eyes, a nose, laugh lines, and the hint of a smirk. I like to think that Miss Baudendistel would be proud.

image: Carabella Sands


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