A Lesson in Humility

By Andrew Clark

Mr. Philips quietly wrote his name on the chalk board and then turned to face us.  Mrs. Fisher, my second grade teacher, had left the classroom just moments before, taking a brief refuge in the teachers’ lounge where all the teachers go to regroup, rehearse battle strategies, and suck down a bunch of nicotine before returning to the land of the little people.

He stood holding up a new box of Crayolas for us to see. A tall, broad-shouldered man in his late thirties, Mr. Philips was the art teacher, and, as far as I know, was also one of the little league coaches. He had short, neatly clipped dark hair and a thick mustache that covered his upper lip. Wearing a white, short-sleeved button up shirt—which appeared to be a size too small—our art coach looked like a cross between Magnum P.I. and Forrest Gump. Although he did have a slightly quirky manner about him, when he at last spoke, he sounded nothing like a mildly retarded, Ferrari driving action hero, and more like a philosophy professor. His instructions were clear:

“I want you to draw a picture of a tree,” Mr. Philips said. His voice had an even tone that exuded a calm assertiveness. It was a voice that commanded complete attention, without being overbearing.

“Whoever can draw the best tree,” he continued, “will get this box of crayons.” He then accentuated his quirkiness by lifting the box high above his head and waving it back and forth as though he had just discovered the final item in the annual Tricadecathlonomania scavenger hunt. Of course, this was no ordinary box of colors; as I looked around the room, I noticed that most of my classmates were equipped with the standard box of 24, with a few of the more “fortunate” kids sporting 32 colors. Looking into my own desk, I grimaced at the sight of my crumpled, neglected package of 16, most of which were worn down well past the letter “y” where I had been forced—on multiple occasions—to peel away strips of the paper in order to gain useable portions of Crayola surface. I longed for a new set, and what Mr. Philips presented to us was no less than Crayola’s famed box of 64 colors, complete, with a built-in sharpener.

Setting the crayons down on Mrs. Fisher’s desk, Mr. Philips picked up a stack of plain white paper and starting passing it out, starting at the front of the room, and moving methodically up and down the aisles.

“You only have one chance,” Mr. Philips bellowed, licking the tip of his finger each time he reached for another sheet. “I will collect them at the end of class.”

This I barely paid attention to, as I was already day dreaming about the new box of crayons and the many adventures I would have with them. I would travel across the country, coloring amazing portraits for all to see, taking them with me everywhere I went, and showing them to all my friends while recounting the entire tale of how I free-handedly defeated the entire classroom and was awarded the highly sought after utensils. Yes, indeed, I knew that I would have that set of colors for as long as I lived; they would become my legacy—something to be passed down through the generations.

By the time I got my sheet of paper, I already had a vision of a perfect tree, and knew exactly how I would proceed. I started in with the brown crayon, drawing from the base of the trunk up to the top, making sure to add a modest sized limb, suitable for a decorous bird house or other such ornament. From there I switched from brown to green and outlined the portion of paper above the top of the trunk which would serve as the leaves, and then proceeded to color them in. There. That was it. I had to admit, it was my best work to date. How could anyone possibly do better?  I sat back and admired my work, confident that I would be awarded the prestigious box of crayons.

Jeremy Johnson, a soft eyed, blond-haired kid, with freckles all over, sat two desks to my right. As I looked around the room, I noticed he was still hard at work while everyone else seemed to be done. This worried me at first, thinking that he too should be done—after all, good art takes time.  On closer inspection, it seemed that he was using a variety of different colors, which belied any serious intention to draw a tree properly. I decided that he was probably just fooling around; outside of the basic green and brown, there was little use for the other colors when constructing a single tree on a white sheet of paper. Obviously, he wasn’t following instructions.

“Time’s up,” Mr. Philips announced. “Pass your papers up to the front.”

There were two kids who sat behind me in my row; a husky, dark-skinned boy with a crew cut, and a red haired, pale faced girl who was known for her thick glasses and plaid skirts.  Neither one looked to be especially artistic. As they handed their papers forward for me to pass to the front, I stole a quick glance of their work. The boy’s drawing looked like little more than a twig sticking out of the ground, while the girl’s—although somewhat better—seemed to lack the proper proportions—too much leaf, and not enough trunk. My spirits soared as I added my masterpiece to top of the stack and handed all three pages to the front.  Here, I’d had a small preview of my competition, and I was more confident than ever.

Mr. Philips stood at the front of the room, for at least a year, thumbing through the papers, and giving the occasional grunt or chuckle as he evaluated the class’s portfolio.  Finally, when we couldn’t endure the suspense any longer, he walked over to Mrs. Fisher’s desk where he placed the stack of papers, save one. This last paper he held in his hand, with the back side of the page facing us. “We have a winner,” he said, still not showing the paper. My heart began to race just a bit and my stomach jumped to my throat as I knew he was about to say my name….

I felt a strange sort of dizziness envelop me, my sense of equilibrium giving way to a bizarre state of euphoria, as if I were about to see a woman naked for the first time. I could already hear the applause, could feel the claps on the back, and see the admiration dancing in the eyes of my class mates. “Hip, hip, hooray,” they all shouted, picking me up and carrying me through the halls on their shoulders; the tears of joy rolling down my cheeks, I proudly held the prize above my head, its sheen surface glaring down on the gathering crowd like a temple in the morning sun….and they all begin to chant, “Andy, Andy, Andy”…..thank you, Crayola, I couldn’t have done it without you.

“Jeremy Johnson,” Mr. Philips bellowed, breaking my trance, and effectually flattening my daydream with the stamp of reality.

What? I was both relieved and astonished: the hand of anxiety quickly released its grip, allowing me to breathe once more; then confusion set in. Jeremy Johnson! How could this be? This was the boy who couldn’t even follow instructions. Perhaps it was a mistake. Maybe the boy was in trouble. He didn’t follow instructions and now Mr. Philips was simply calling him out; he was going to reprimand Jeremy, for all the class to see, and then he would announce the winner.

But as Mr. Philips turned the paper around and held it up for the class to see, it became quite obvious as to why Jeremy was chosen. His drawing contained not just one tree but an entire forest of trees. He had trees of all sizes and shades: deciduous and evergreens; hardwood and softwood; flowering trees, budding trees, fruit trees, and family trees; live trees, dead trees, fallen trees, bread trees; tall trees, honey trees, short trees, money trees…anyway, you get the point. Wow! Jeremy had submitted a magnum opus worthy of ten boxes of Crayolas, and had unwittingly set the standard for all future artistic endeavors involving perennial plant life (at least for Mrs. Fisher’s second grade class). Indeed, this drawing went above and beyond anything that I had even imagined, let alone my own artistic prowess.

This incident may have served as my first memorable lesson in humility, though I didn’t realize it at the time; I only knew that I’d been beaten—badly. And to this day, I’ve never owned the Crayola box of 64.


Category: SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student