Keith Snyder
Door always open.

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Outside the lines

Kathleen said later that I was very restrained, for me. I didn't feel it at the time.

"I see a cockpit," I said, tapping the drawing laid on the child-sized table. "I see a ladder at a pretty good angle, I see a door, I see wheels, I see... not sure what that is, maybe a hat--"

"Maybe the firehouse door," said the substitute teacher Butchie doesn't like, and she said it with restrained disapproval. I don't like her now either.

"Do you see this much detail in any of the drawings you did hang on the wall, that you've claimed this is inferior to?"

"I haven't said it's inferior."

"You have."

And she had. She'd taken it out of his folder (out of his folder, not off the wall with the others) with a sorry-to-be-the-one-to-tell-you sigh and sort of flipped it up vertically to show us.

It was Butchie's drawing of a fire truck.

I looked at it some more. She was holding it sideways.

I said, "You're holding it up as though we're supposed to understand something from this, but I don't know what."

"Well," she said. "Look!"

She was still holding it sideways. I turned it. Looked pretty good to me, if you ignored the red scribbles. The pencil rendering was kind of great. Butchie has always had an affinity for line art. Even before he could walk, he would draw these careful little curves in my notepads, each curve respecting the space the others had already carved out. Then when the space was used aesthetically he'd scribble all over it, but what artist doesn't need someone to tell us when we're done?

"What is it you'd like to be seeing instead?" I'd asked. This was before I got all dandered up, but I could feel it coming.

But give her a chance. Don't just attack. Listen to what she has to say.

"Well," she said, as though it should be obvious to anyone as intelligent as she, and made something up about it not having wheels. There were wheels. I was looking at them. They were under the body of the truck. They were hard to see through the red crayon scribbles, but they were there. She stopped for a moment and touched the rear one. This is when she could have said, "Oh... wait, I see it now. Hey, this isn't bad."

She didn't. So I said, "That's a wheel. What would you like to see differently?"

"Well... I'd... like to see the wheels more distinct."

More distinct?

While I was still trying to figure out how a clearly drawn circle could be made more distinct from a clearly drawn rectangle it wasn't touching, she said (as though this would hammer the final nail into my coffin) "Well, look--" and indicated the pictures she'd hung on the wall.

Solid red rectangles, solid black wheels, mostly without detail. Ladders at the wrong angles. No differentiated cockpits. Wheels mostly not round.

All the crayon inside the lines.

"So this one doesn't go on the wall because you only put up the ones that make the class look the way you want it to?"

"Well," said the substitute teacher I agree with Butchie about. "Why don't we come back to that?"

"That's a good idea," I said. Not casually.

She maintained her veneer of mildness--Kathleen had been taken aback by her anger in a previous conversation that I wasn't privy to about Butchie's reading abilities--and moved on.

We didn't come back to the fire truck. I'd been handled.


Butchie's reading abilities were, the teacher about whom he and I concur had told Kathleen, at an A level. "Look," she'd said, holding up a paper, on which he'd done some half-assed work.

Kathleen came home and told me about it. She also told me she'd never seen a teacher angry when showing a child's work before. She asked me what I could think of to help him with his sight words.

A is the lowest reading level. It goes up to H. His brother was at C.

"I'm not reading at a A level!" Butchie said at the table.

"I don't think you are either," I said.

The next day I cut up some colored Post-its, wrote his sight words on them, and stuck them to a Candyland game to turn it into Wordland. I made cards with the same words on them and shuffled them into the deck, to replace the cards with pictures of tooth-decaying treats. When a kid picks a word card, he has to find the same word on the board. He also has to say all the words his plastic man jumps over on his way to other words.

No matter which kid picked a word card, it was a dead heat reading it off the card, and a dead heat finding it on the board. Every time.



"You're not an A-level reader," I told him.

"No," he said.

"I didn't think you were, and you're not."

This teacher is a substitute. Butchie's real teacher was hit by a car. She's been out for a couple of months.

"Let's see when Ms S---- is coming back," I said at the table that night.


"You know what I see when I look at that," said Kathleen, sitting to my left, across the table from both Ms S---- and the one I think Butchie's doing a great job of not kicking in the shins. "I see that he was drawing with his pencil and someone told him he had to use red."


At the end of the parent/teacher conference, I strolled over to study the other fire-truck drawings. I know I'm his dad and thus biased. But I also know I'm a production artist who deals with the visual conveyance of information all the time.

No, it's not in doubt. Before she tried to cram him into the kind of little box that hacks always try to cram everything into, giving him no choice but to flip her the finger with a scribble, he'd created a better depiction of a fire truck than most of what was on that wall.

I'd leave out the "most of" but I'm taking paternal bias into account.


"Butchie, let me talk to you. Mommy and Mac, you go ahead."


"Hey bud, do you like Ms S----?"

"Yes I do."

"Me too. Do you like Ms F*******?"


"Why not?"

"She's naughty."

"How is she naughty?"

"She..." I knew it was too complex a question for his syntactical abilities, but I wanted to see where it would go. "She plays kicks." He kicked his foot like a naughty person.

"No, she doesn't play kicks."

"She--" I forget the other things he made up.

"Yeah," I said. "I don't like her either." I gave him a little swat on the rump. "Come on, let's go."

Should I have said that? It's ambiguous. Respect for authority vs. not teaching your kids emotional untruths. Pick a team. I picked.

After an above-little-heads consultation with Mommy, I said, "Who wants to go to the diner and get dinner--and dessert?"

"Me me me me me me me!"

"Your teachers said good things about you, and I'm proud of you both."


"I saw your fire truck drawing. You did a good job on that."

We were into the ice cream. I was poaching.

His face lit up. "Yes!"

"I saw wheels, I saw a ladder, I saw a door, I saw..."

I realized cockpit was the wrong word. Right, it's a cab.

"Hey, do you guys know what the front part of a truck is called, where the people sit?"

"A seat!" said Butchie.

"Uh, yeah, well--"

My visual memory caught up.

"You drew a seat, too, didn't you."

"Yes I did!"

"Nice. Very good. The front part with the seat? Is called a cab."

They concentrated on their ice cream. So did I.

"You know what?" I said. "I got your back."

Mac perked up. A new expression! "Why you got our back?"

I explained.

"I got your back!" said Butchie, and pantomimed stealing mine from me. "And I got your back!" (Mommy's) "and I got your back!" (his brother's).

I like my team better.

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