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Fiction #306
(published November 30, 2006)
A World in Black and White
by Ray Sikes
Nobody can tell me that television does not influence children. I know better because some of my earliest misunderstandings centered on the Montgomery Ward TV we had in the corner of our living room. Now, it may have had something to do with the fact that we only had black and white television back then. I'm not saying that color TV didn't exist because they had color TV back in those days, but we were one of the last families on our street to get one of those sets, so our picture was always black and white. Sometimes I think I assumed what we were seeing actually only existed in those variations of light and shadow. In fact, I recently rented Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, which I first saw on that old Montgomery Ward TV, and I was surprised to find that it was filmed in glorious Technicolor. Somehow I remembered it as being so much more mysterious and suspenseful when all the people were monochromatic. That poor man who was found dead in his bedroom looked creepier when he wasn't covered in fake Hollywood blood, and his clawed-out eyes were more terrifying when they were only vague dark circles.

Nonetheless, when I was a kid, I watched that Montgomery Ward TV until my own eyes hurt like birds had been working them over. Once in a while my parents even let me stay up until all the shows went off the air. Back then the end of the programming day was marked by a brief inspirational message from a clergyman, followed by the Star Spangled Banner. While the music played, there was nothing on the screen except a flag waving in the wind, not waving in red, white, and blue, but just in black and white. Finally, there was a test pattern that looked like a radar screen mixed up with an Indian's head before the picture went to snow and the sound clipped off and became crackling static.

Before I was old enough to stay up that late, I went to kindergarten where we all sat at little tables and did our work. I don't remember doing much that was really like working, but we did color a lot of pictures. One day I got the idea that I wanted my picture to look just like the TV show I Love Lucy, so I took out only one black and one white crayon from the big box of Crayolas. I tried my best to color all the dark parts with the black crayon, but discovered that the white one didn't really do much, so I quit using white and merely left the non-black spaces completely blank.

My teacher was Miss Fanny, whose unfortunate last name probably drove her to teaching kindergarten. We were too young and naïve to make fun of her, unlike the bigger kids who ran around on the playground. Sometimes they called us little ones "Fanny's Farts," but Miss Fanny was our protector and kept an eye on us, so we were rarely called farts. She was young but still had a maternal air about her. A bit overweight, she wore heavy black-rimmed glasses and smiled continually, but when she saw my picture, her countenance drooped considerably.

"Wouldn't you like to use some color?" she asked.

"No, ma'am," I answered, clutching my black crayon. "This is all I want to use."

"Well, I suppose that's alright," Miss Fanny said, and she moved on. I could hear her voice rising, effervescent and lovely when she lavished praise on little Alice Kohlman, who probably used every color in the box.

My "black period" lasted for at least a few coloring sessions because I remember Miss Fanny coming by and her smile flattening out more than once.

"Wouldn't you like to try some other color?" Miss Fanny asked.

"No, ma'am," I answered.

"But it's a big beautiful world," Miss Fanny said.

"I know," I said. "But this is all I want to use right now."

During one of our coloring times a new woman was in the room along with our regular teacher. She hovered over us just like Miss Fanny, only there was something less teacherly about this other woman. She was very thin and wore shoes that had taller heels, more like the women who got all dressed up for church, the ones I only saw on Sundays. She seemed to be very interested in my picture and asked me to come with her to her own special place. She actually called it her "special place," but it wasn't that special. It was only a tiny room beside the nurse's office where the floor was covered in square green tiles, and the walls were painted in a shade that was an awful lot like the inside of a cucumber.

She sat down at her desk, which looked just like my teacher's. Smiling at me with incredibly white teeth, she spoke in a tone that I now can recognize: it was the same voice I've heard undertakers use. It was round and smooth and very gentle, but not genuine. I sometimes wonder why the people whose lives center on both ends of our lives talk this same way. Is it because we become like children when we are confronted with a "great loss," to use the undertaker's term, or is it that adults live in some nether world between the innocence of youth and the reality of death? To this day, I really am not sure.

I was probably sure of more things than I am now when that woman in her fancy shoes spoke to me for quite some time in that sweet, false tone. She asked me about my family, my friends, and favorite toys. I asked her if she was a teacher. She told me she wasn't and that she was a psychologist who worked for the school system. She was only in my building on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

"That's too bad," I told her. "This is a nice place. I would want to be here every day."

That remark seemed to surprise her. "You like it here?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Do you like it better here than at home?"

"No, ma'am. Home is best. My mother is there."

"Oh, I see. But why do you also like it here?"

"It's nice here because Miss Fanny lets us do fun things."

"Like what?"

"Building with those big cardboard blocks that look like bricks is fun. And she has neat toys, like the clock with the big plastic gears in it."

"Oh, I see. How about coloring? Do you like that, too?"

"It's okay."

"Just okay?"

"Yes, ma'am."

After that the psychologist seemed to be thinking and picked up a pencil on her desk. She leaned way back in her chair and kept turning that pencil in her hands and looking at it. Then she spoke: "I noticed that you were only using one crayon when you were coloring. Why is that?"

"Well, I was trying to make the picture look like TV. It's in black and white, so my mom tells me. I use the black, because it's the only TV color in the box besides white, and that doesn't work at all. You see, the paper's already sort of white."

The woman nodded her head. "Oh, I do see."

She didn't say much after that, and I went back to my classroom where the kids were already having "rug time." All of us kept our little blankets in a wooden rack that had slots with our names on them. I took out mine and found a spot between Alice Kohlman and Danny Dunn. I always liked rug time. We all curled up on the floor on our little blankets for fifteen minutes and didn't talk. We were simply to rest. It was wonderful, just lying there for those few minutes before we rolled up our blankets and went on to the next thing, whatever that was.

Not long after my meeting with the school psychologist, I was coloring again, but this time I used a different crayon, Indian Red, which is now known as Burnt Siena. I was just starting when Miss Fanny came by to look at my picture. She had a huge satisfied smile and said, "I see you're using some color now."

"Yes, ma'am."

"That's wonderful," Miss Fanny said. "It is a big beautiful world. Your picture should have color."

"Yes, ma'am," I said, but as I reached for another crayon, I knew that nothing in that box would make my picture look like TV anyway, so I might as well stop trying. Not long after that, I realized nothing I could find in that box or do within those lines was like the big beautiful world either.

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