Saturday, May 21, 2011


When you work in an elementary school classroom, the one thing you can guarantee is that there are always pencils that need to be sharpened. And if you don't want your jaw to rattle all day with the sound of the electric sharpener (a noise akin to that of a dentist's drill, to my ears), you might sharpen them yourself with one of those 50-cent sharpeners that gather the shavings in a self-contained holder. There are 24 students in the second-grade classroom to which I'm currently assigned, and between their wanton destruction of the pencil population and their heavy hands when it comes to putting pencil to paper, pencils need to be sharpened at about the rate of six per minute.

As I was sharpening the latest batch this week, it occurred to me to wonder why pencils are usually yellow. Not just yellow, but the orangey-yellow of Velveeta cheese. I know you can buy pencils in every color of the rainbow nowadays, and with any picture or words, glitter, velvet, and other embellishments you can imagine, but if you go to the store to buy cheap pencils in bulk, they are going to remind you of Kraft macaroni and cheese. Why? Who decided that was the color pencils should be?

Furthermore, why are erasers always pink? Pink erasers and orangey-yellow pencils don't even match, but if you look up clip-art of pencils, nine times out of ten, they'll be yellow pencils with pink erasers.

There are a lot of these unspoken rules about what we agree things should look like. My daughter says that all pizza should be pepperoni. As proof, she points out the fact that whenever you see an illustration of a slice of pizza, it is invariably topped with little reddish-brown circles of what is clearly pepperoni.

All babies have blue eyes. Well, Caucasian babies. Except mine, who were all born with murky gray eyes that were clearly destined to darken and never had a hint of blue in them, regardless of the myriad blue-eyed relatives on both sides of the family tree.

I listened to a teacher berate a child who had colored leaves purple, saying that was not a color that occurs in leaves. In fact, it is. I don't know the name of the plant, but I have seen it for sale at Walmart and its leaves are purple. (I know this doesn't support my topic, but it's kind of the inverse of my point, so I left it in.)

Who eats eggs sunnyside up? I'm an over-easy gal myself. (Hmm, maybe that's not the best way to put that.) Pictures of eggs? Sunnyside up.

How about cupcakes? Cupcakes always have pink frosting. The weird thing is, a lot of the time they have cherries on top, but I've never had a cupcake with a cherry on top. Of course, sundaes are always shown with hot fudge, and cookies are always chocolate chip. Maybe chocolate trumps everything else.

Apples are always red. We know that apples can be green or yellow or even pink, but when we draw apples, we always color them red.

Don't you feel bad for oranges? They don't even get their own name; they have to share it with their color. Why don't we call lemons yellows or limes greens? Could it be that oranges are just that unique that the color was named for them rather than they being named for the color?

Why are school buses yellow? Why are tractors red (when they're not John Deere green)? When did car manufacturers agree that they could paint cars in colors other than black?

Look at any picture drawn by an elementary school child and notice that the sun is always angled across one of the top corners of the paper, with huge spiky rays extending from it. Have we ever actually seen the sun look like that? I doubt it, but we've all drawn the sun that way. Furthermore, we most often draw the moon as a crescent, even though it only appears that way about a fourth of the time. Is it to distinguish it from the sun?

I guess it boils down to a form of shorthand. We portray things the way we most often see them, and then we know exactly what we're talking about. When we see an egg sunnyside up, there's no doubt we're talking about an egg. If we see an oval, it could be an egg, but there's always that tiny shred of a chance that it might be something else. If it's yellow, it must be a pencil.

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