Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Great Red Crayon Wars

One summer that I worked as a teacher's aide at a local elementary school, I noticed how early children begin to think about gangs. Perhaps even thinking about whether they'll be joining a particular gang in the future, possibly by the time they arrive in Junior High School, about 6th grade, usually around the age of 11 or 12. I had to take as step back and wonder what it was that made these children become so interested in gangs, during that summer, with one class in particular. It was a summer school class made up children who were going to be fifth graders once the school year started. As it is in most of these elementary school classes, the teacher had divided the students into groups of 4 to 5, clusters of desks for each group cluttered the classroom. In the middle of each group, the teacher had placed a cardboard basket, full of crayons. I'm guessing this was easier than giving each student their own set of crayons, that would eventually be misplaced and would probably lead to headaches for the teacher for budgetary reasons, just as much over having resolve disputes amongst students accusing one of another of having stolen each others crayons, but I'm guessing the teacher also did this, to create a type of communal sense, a sharing is caring community building through a co-op of a basket of crayons. However the teacher's plan would soon backfire.

There was a jungle theme for the class, so the teacher would have them color in a variety of animals, along with some free drawing and coloring every other day or so. From the onset, in one particular group that I usually assisted, I observed that a few of the students would reach for one of the red crayons. There were maybe 2 or 3 red crayons in their basket, so at first there wasn't really a problem, they would be willing to wait patiently for one of their group members to finish using that particular hue. However a few days later, they became a bit more aggressive about it, the teacher would announce that the class was going to spend some time coloring, and as soon as she did this, the students in this group reached rapidly into the basket to be the first to grab the red crayons. It got to the point where some of the students would whine that there weren't enough red crayons in their group; to wanting to get into fist fights with one another because one felt the other had taken the red crayon away from him or her, or that the other person was taking too long with it, and not sharing with the rest. I knew from the get go what was going on, the teacher didn't really seem to comprehend at first. Soon, there was only one red crayon left in the basket, which caused more strife in the group; the other few red crayons possibly lost, or borrowed by other groups that forgot to return them. This would eventually spread to the other groups, where students were also beginning to bicker over the red crayon.

Around the 2nd week or so of summer school, one student confirmed what I already knew, this student reached for the red crayon and said, "I want the red color! Because that's the gangster color." If you know California, then you know the 2 predominant Chicano/Latino gangs in the state are associated with the colors red and blue. I, like these students live in neighborhood where the dominant gang is red. What that student said, rang true for all the other students, they were growing up in Watsonville, CA where they either had a relative who was in the red gang, they had a friend who had a relative in the red gang, or they saw someone on their street who belonged to the red gang. So they were associating the red crayon/color with the gang they were essentially already affiliating themselves with. I explained this to the teacher, who seemed to understand, but the way to she tried to resolve the red crayon wars, was by only allowing one red crayon per group. This didn't resolve the conflict, soon it almost felt like these groups were having their own little gang wars in the classroom to jack one another's red crayons, practically simulating what was going on outside the school, just without the guns, tattoos, and hand gang signs. But quite a few of the fifth graders continued to squabble over the red crayons, as if holding the red crayon the longest, let alone applying it to their tiger coloring page, would in some way prove their loyalty to the red gang on the streets, who could not possibly know what was occurring in this fifth grade class, or could they?

Unsurprisingly, the fifth graders for the most part avoided the blue crayon, as if it would lead to their own death sentence. Of course there were students who used the blue crayon, it was usually those that just wanted to color, and weren't interested in any one particular color, especially not red or blue. But this didn't stop one of the students from from telling another student he was a "scrap" for using the blue crayon so much. "That's the scrap color" he said to his classmate. His classmate shrugged his shoulders and continued coloring. Astonishingly this didn't lead to fisticuffs between the two, probably since the kid with the blue crayon didn't really associate the blue with his personal allegiance to a particular gang, whereas the kids with self a proclaimed affiliation to the red gang, were fighting amongst themselves to get ahold of the red crayon if only to color their parrots with a few strokes of red, if not the whole thing.

In this same class there was a student who unfortunately had gotten in trouble a few times, defying authority, along with an incident after school hours, where he and a friend used a baseball bat to assault a couple of other kids and I believe stole either some money, or a Gameboy from them. This incident some how got him in trouble with the summer school principal, I'm not sure if she was allowed that type of authority after school hours, but word got back to her, and I believe she wanted to teach him a lesson by expelling him from summer school, but the niño's mother came to school crying, and begging the principal to reconsider because she knew that if he stayed at home he'd simply hang around with the neighborhood homies all day, which in turn would continue to influence his misbehavior. The principal acquiesced, and I believe even tried to talk to the niño, in hopes of getting through to him. This seems like a one off about this niño, but his cousin came to pick him up one day he was suspended, the teacher told me that the primo that came to pick him up, was a homie, tattooed, and wearing red.

I don't know what became of those students. I wonder how many of them went onto to Junior High, maybe even High School and became fully integrated into the red gang by getting jumped in, or simply by wearing red to show their loyalty to the red gang. I wonder how many of them have been in jail already, how many have put in work: fist fights, drive-by's, walk-up's, stabbings, drug deals, etc. Or I could be wrong, maybe what happened in that summer school class, with that red crayon, was just a phase all kids in Watsonville go through. Maybe they're all well, maybe one of them went on to be valedictorian  college, possibly Stanford nearby, the military, making corporate deals instead, shady businessmen/women, or family men and women. Maybe it is just a phase kids in hometown go through, me and my friends went through the red phase too, not over a red crayon, but we saw things, and we wanted to be certain things too.


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