What I remember most about first grade was the distinction of each color. From time to time my classmates and I would put together sprawling collages of Red and Blue onto everlasting sheets of butcher paper. Bricks, roses, lips, apples, fire trucks could be sharply divided from sky, water, sapphires, blue jays, jeans. We managed to herd it all together and sort it out just fine, and that was a great relief to me.
Colors classified everything that year. They marked our reading groups, in particular. Here, Green was dominant, and meant you could read. Yellow Group could read somewhat more fuzzily. Red Group needed help. Green Reading Group was the kind of exclusive club only a first-grader could appreciate. But I certainly did. I remember passing around a book on fruits to my colleagues and thinking how great it was to be Green, to be able to enjoy the story, reading like professionals. Nothing against the other groups, but we Greens wore our color with pride. And we felt lucky to have Yellow group to keep the barbarians beyond the gates. There was little danger of a stray Red making it all the way up here.
Yellow-shaped buses framed school days. This was the opposite of Green club: here the rabble arranged itself around you every day. I minded my own business, ignored the noise, smells, and sights as much as possible. Those brown plastic seats stuck to you if you sweat at all, so you had to keep it together. I didn’t mind all that much if someone sat by me, but I hated sitting by someone else. Having to choose my seatmate—my society—felt like too strong an endorsement of the strangers who shared my neighborhood. It was better to have these pairings sent down from above; I didn’t want the responsibility. The Yellow-Brown Bus Society marked childhood’s nadir.
Still, school itself remained unadulterated. Colors stayed put and students followed rules. There was order that allowed me to take things in. Ideas and concepts made perfect sense when divided sharply from one another, pressed against a contrasting background. Today we play in the gym; at this time we sing; at that time we recite. Nothing mixed together, no tube of tempura diminished itself within another’s shadow. Brown laminate tables had orange rims, to keep the brown from sliding off. School hallways flowed with blue carpets, dammed by red trim. I remember color more than anything else that year. No shades, only solid hues.
Color even bled into math: later that year, when I hit division for the first time, I ran into problems like dividing twelve into four, or fifteen into three. Like the division of colors on poster paper, these challenges were easily solved. I was satisfied.
But after encountering only this sanitized strain of arithmetic I began to believe only in such solid, clean mathematical breakdowns. One day another kid, perhaps Ross, asked me if I could divide nine into four parts, or something equally grotesque. I like to think I gave a knowing chuckle, smiled, and put my arm around poor Ross. Certainly, I handed down judgment in one tidy motion: no, friend, of course you can’t divide nine into four, that would be nonsense. Nine into three, sure, easy, but nine into four was an abomination. Did he want to pick up all those bits of broken numerals? He agreed, it didn’t make sense.
I was generally content that the math makers wouldn’t let me down. But that day Ross planted a seed of doubt that I could never uproot, and it dogged me until First Grade ended. What about all the things that spanned categories? Was this block blue enough to remain with those bluer? Does a Red-and-Yellow car belong with one or the other, or with Orange? What would happen if some reckless soul did manage to split a number with division’s ax? Summer was approaching, and these questions would have to wait until Second Grade. I would know what to do with them then.
The next two decades of my education ruthlessly split colors, numbers, and me. Shades are tiring, though: I want to see categories sharply defined against one another, again. Splitting—whether dividend or atom—eliminates more than the difference of its parts. I’m weary of gradients, slopes, and shades. I miss the Red days.