Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Circle on the Oaktag

A random memory.

When I was very young — I have no idea how young due to my memory’s noncommittal attitude, but my best guess would be somewhere between the ages of 4 and 6 — I attended another kid’s birthday party.  I can’t recall whose birthday party it was, nor my association to this person, so it’s entirely possible that my mind has conjured this story from cobbled together memories of elementary school projects and Sunday School classes.

Either way, there was a birthday party, and as is the case in many children’s parties of the time there were various organized activities planned to keep the kids occupied and the adults’ nerves in check.  It is during one of these activities that the actual memory part of this memory kicks in and the vivid scenes of what transpired take hold.

At one point during the party, I remember being herded along with the other children into a room that contained one piece of oak tag paper for every child laying on the floor in a row and a box of crayons accompanying each.  At first glance, I remember feeling elated that I was being presented with a chance to draw and show what I could do.  I was in my element!  I rushed in and claimed piece of oak tag and, as I knelt down to start drawing, I noticed “it”. 

“It” was a circle drawn two thirds up from the bottom of the paper in permanent, black marker and as I looked up at the adults in the room to get a read on the situation, it was explained to the lot of us that we were to draw anything we wanted on the paper and we should feel free to utilize the circle in any way we wished.  Hmmmm...

You know, for kids.

Immediately all the other children dove into their drawings and went for the jugular, while I froze and began to ponder what I deemed an unsatisfactory situation.  The restriction of the black circle wasn’t the problem.  I’d tackled coloring books before, and what are coloring books if not restrictive?   No, it was the fact that the circle was drawn in permanent marker.  We were provided with crayons and it was made clear that permanent marker was off limits, and so I was unable to outline anything in a way that was consistent with the circle.  In short, the two different mediums were at odds and the aesthetic challenges this would create were more than I cared to tackle.

The other problem I was facing was that the circle itself was perfect.  I’m not sure if it was traced around a coffee can or if an actual compass was employed, but there it stood in all its circular perfection, the only mark upon an otherwise clean, white surface.  I knew that no matter how hard I tried, I could not live up to the perfection of the circle and, as we were not provided with straightedges or compasses, the aesthetic dilemma deepened.

After several minutes of pondering, I looked over at the other kids’ papers and realized how far behind I was.  I saw trains and dolls, teddy bears and space scenes — a whole host of imagery being poured out all over the papers that sat before them — a glorious sight to behold!  But to me, they were all rendered ugly by the black circle that cruelly stuck out on every one of them, defiantly clashing with the vivid lines and fields of color that began filling every page.

Finally, after being chided by one of the adults present, I tested the waters.  For some reason, a clown came to mind and I began an attempt to utilize the circle as its head.  After only a minute or two, however, I recoiled in disgust.  My work, too, was just as ugly!  I hated that circle and I wanted it gone.  So, I did the only sensible thing: I flipped the paper over and started drawing on the other side — the side with no circle, no restrictions, no rules.

I remember the relief I felt as I began to draw that same clown the way I wanted to draw him, and how effortlessly the drawing flowed.  I remember my heart soaring as I colored furiously.  I remember the suspicious looks of the other children as they watched my furious creation.  And I remember being chided once again by the adult in charge for not following the rules of the game, and their attempt to flip my paper back over to the circled side.

Given how much larger they were, my protest went unheeded and the paper was returned to its original position, its ugliness staring up at me and forcing me to once again flip the paper over and return to the clown I had so defiantly started. At this point, I began hearing words traded about me by the various adults in the room and I remember my heart sinking.  I wanted to please them but I didn’t want to compromise my artistic vision.  What could I do?  I pondered my predicament for a while and finally — wanting to be liked more than to be right — obediently I returned to the drawing with the circle, half-heartedly following directions and finishing it at last, allowing us all to move on to the next planned activity.

I really don’t remember much about the rest of that party, but two things of which I am positive are this: 1) I threw away that drawing when I got home and I don’t regret it; 2) I was never invited to any of that kid’s birthday parties ever again.

In some ways it is ironic that I was pulled toward a profession that is at times so full of guidelines and restrictions.  There are many times when I am bound by a circle on a page and have no choice to follow directions lest the adults in the room start chastising me, or talking behind my back.  I guess the difference is that while I’m still bound by the rules of the game, I’m the one who gets to draw the circle.


  1. Classic story, Steve! The conflict between our neurotic desire to please others and our healthy desire to make something beautiful... does it ever go away?

  2. I don't think it will, for me. It's actually one of the more interesting aspects of the job for me. Trying to serve more than one master can be a fun challenge!

  3. Great story! I remember asking my mom to tell me what to draw. Nothing really changes I guess.

  4. Totally did that, too. Sometimes I ask Amy. She rarely gives me any ideas. Sigh.

  5. HA! Excellent essay, SB. You must have excelled at creative writing as much as drawing circles.


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