When I was six I was somewhat horrified to learn that a woman named Mrs. Wolf would be my kindergarten teacher. It turned out she was an okay sort of teacher (imagine!) but I felt it was a grave oversight on the part of the administration.
During the first weeks of school we were introduced to our behavioral paradigm, which — and the irony does not escape me — was all about sheep. Each student was represented by a paper sheep about the size of a lamb chop. On one side the sheep was white, with a happy, smiling face. All the white sheep, each printed with a student’s name, were pinned to a bulletin board that depicted a rolling green farm landscape. In the upper left-hand corner was a small empty sheep pen, clearly bordered by a sturdy yellow picket fence. Mrs. Wolf showed us our clean white sheep and described a good sheep’s behavior and their resulting happiness. But no one was prepared for what came next.
The other side of each sheep was black. Mrs. Wolf showed us, but only briefly. That quick flash of shadow was enough for us to feel the sucking, hungry pull of the dark side. The black sheep had a deeply curved sad mouth. If you misbehaved, you had to turn your sheep over. If you were bad again, your black sheep went in the pen and missed recess. Thus phrases like “Justin’s in the pen again,” and “Shirley is a black sheep,” entered my six-year-old vocabulary.
The leaves on the construction-paper trees on that bulletin board went from green to orange to brown, then to green again, and my sheep remained smiling and unsullied. For kids like Justin (not his real name) the black side of their construction-paper sheep faded right on down to pale gray from so much exposure. My black side remained unrevealed. But the inevitable day came when the Wolf came knocking at my door.
The student desks in my kindergarten class were silky smooth and just slightly inclined. There was a shallow routed groove at the top of each desk which held a fat kindergartener pencil in place as a student looked over a mimeographed paper of phonics work or a coloring page. But one day my work was finished and turned in, and as I waited in the silence for my classmates to catch up, I discovered the marvelous thing about that pencil groove. If I put my pencil in it, then just barely touched it with my finger, I could get the pencil to tip out and roll down my desk, and I could catch it at the bottom after it fell off the edge but before it fell into my lap. The sound of the pencil rolling down was absolutely hypnotic, and I could make it match a rhythmic pattern in my head. Tip, rattle, catch, wait, tip, rattle catch.
It was sublime.
I’m pretty sure I heard the Wolf tell me to stop, but the rhythm was already in play, and I couldn’t not complete the phrase. Perhaps she told me again, and I just added her warning to rhythms emerging all around me, the song of the universe unfolding in glory.
When I emerged, the entire class was staring at me in shock. The Wolf’s voice became the only sound in the classroom, and my doom was spoken: “Go turn your sheep over.”
I was shattered. Great tears welled up in my eyes and I felt a moan erupt from my chest and I began to shake with vast wailing sobs. Mrs. Wolf continued to insist that I make my way to the bulletin board, that idyllic pastoral place that had once been my home. I recall standing finally near it — inches away in fact — howling, my watery vision creating prisms in the harsh spring sunshine as I regarded my sheep, imprisoned in an existential dilemma. Was it white? Was it black?
They had to call my mother to come pick me up. I haven’t been the same since.
Image by boskizzi on Flickr