The Red Crayon, or the Blue?

Mary Modisette - Senegal

November 29, 2012

“What activity do you think the kids should do?” Tonton Njame asked me in French, referring to the group of five and six-year-olds in the Grande Section of Casa de Tout Petit, a nursery school I had been formally working in for a not even a week. Naturally my mind seemed to run a total blank. How could I have possibly formulated an activity after only being in the class for three days? It wasn’t like I knew to prepare a curriculum beforehand, and I barely knew how the system worked without a formal teaching education. And so as we sat in the thin white-and-blue chipped metal chairs provided for the class, I racked my brain for a response. Starting with going through a few sample ideas, from a simple English song to identifying shapes, but none seemed to appeal to me. Interrupting my thoughts, Njame began asking about when I was going to meet with the other students in my program next week and why. I absentmindedly told him we were getting together for an American holiday called Thanksgiving.


In the best-broken Wolof I could manage, I told Njame about an activity kids often do in the States to commemorate the holiday I would be celebrating with the other fellows. We eat a Turkey and celebrate thanks for those we love in our lives, I said. The activity was tracing one of your hands, coloring it in to look like the Turkey, and then telling the teacher about a person in your family you are grateful for and why. Granted there had to be a few tweaks because of Wolof’s limited adjectives, so it turned into asking whom the kids wanted to give their present to and what they liked about the person receiving it. Nearly every kid smiled shyly and refrained from responding directly, and upon answering said something about their parent buying cookies or juice for their snack. But what I found was most interesting about this activity was what I had initially thought was the easiest part: picking a color.

When I set the palate of different colored crayons in front of each kid and said tanal, they looked at it as if I put a calculus equation for them to solve instead. Some would simply sit staring at the crayons without moving to make a decision, where others hovered over the colors and looked at me with searching eyes, as if asking whether their choice would be right or wrong. “Choose? You want ME to choose?” I could practically hear the thoughts coming from each of them. Realization struck me when I knew why making an executive decision about something as simple as a crayon color was so hard for them: they were never given a choice.

In a culture where “take” is understood more than “choose,” giving a child any unnecessary range in their decisions is viewed as time-consuming. They are taught with the mindset to be grateful to been given something not seen as a necessity, for such a large percentage of children were not as fortunate. Their ability to go to school, eat more than their fill of food, and live with a sturdy roof over their heads is not a normal commodity, but a privilege. And so at an early age these children, who are given the luxury of education, are deprived of another freedom: choice.

I pictured my own childhood, and how it was the choices given to me at such a critical developmental period in my life shaped me into the person sitting in that classroom. Being able to make decisions as an individual was the whole reason I came to this country in the first place. The reason I knew I had a passion to travel and despite the societal norm to go straight to college, I chose differently. I chose.  So naturally watching a kid be genuinely incapable of choosing a color was somewhat baffling.

It wasn’t until I looked beyond the literal context that I saw the logic. Although one aspect was lacking, other equally valuable ones took its place. Generosity. Trust. Responsibility. Values I never would have thought capable to find in a child. Especially a child only five years old, who could take care of their siblings or willingly share their snack at school, but not choose between a red crayon or a blue one.

Mary Modisette