'Crayons' by Alison Wassell
He is concerned, he says, pushing the drawing towards her across the table. She glances at it briefly, without bothering to pick it up and, seeing nothing remarkable, looks up at him. He is young, she thinks. She has a vague idea that she taught him, years ago.
He takes the drawing back, and taps it with his finger. It is very important to them, he says, that Grace should be proud of her dual heritage. She raises her eyebrows, her face otherwise blank.
‘My wife is black’ he says, embarrassed by the bluntness of his words, which echo in the empty classroom.
She understands, finally. She looks again at the picture and barks out a laugh, which startles him. The blob with stick arms and legs, dots for eyes, and no nose is undeniably pink.
This is a normal developmental stage, she assures him, the jargon tasting strange on her lips. She gestures towards the artwork on the walls. If he looks closely he will observe blue faces, green ones, and purple ones. They just pick up the first crayon that comes to hand. At least pink is a flesh colour. He should be pleased he has a halfway intelligent one she thinks, but does not say.
He looks down at his hands as he flounders for a response. He needs a satisfactory outcome to carry home to his wife, and he knows that this is not it. Crouched on the tiny chair, his knees almost graze his chin. She looms over him, perched on the edge of the table. He feels like a child again. He doubts that she remembers him.
Bright pink, he says, at last, can hardly be described as a flesh colour. Growing suddenly bolder, he tells her that crayons in various skin tones can be purchased quite easily these days. In fact, Grace has some of her own at home.
She snorts, then says something about cuts and tight budgets. In an ideal world, she says, every child would have their own perfectly matched crayon. Unfortunately (she laughs in an attempt to soften her sarcasm), they do not live in an ideal world.
No, he agrees. They most certainly do not.
She rises and ushers him to the door, her hand in the small of his back. Grace is a bright little thing, she offers. Just like her daddy, she adds, as an afterthought.
He smiles, for the first time. At least he has something small to take away, although he fears it will not be enough. He reaches the school gate before he understands how badly he has failed.
In the staff room, she bangs down her coffee mug in exasperation. It’s not as if, she exclaims, the child even looks black. You would never guess, to look at her. She says it as though she is describing a particularly well disguised birthmark. She’s not a racist, she tells the room. She does hope that nobody thinks that.