Once Upon a Purple Pipe

One coffee table, one carton of cigarettes, and one unattended six-year-old is a recipe for disaster. For just a moment, he’d left the room – and the cigarettes – and me – to go to the kitchen, or the bathroom, or wherever. A moment was all I needed.

Like cats, kids are curious. And they’re imitators. Mirroring behavior is a significant piece of a child’s learning process. So while he was out of the room, I opened that shiny Marlboro carton and put an unlit cigarette into my mouth – just like I’d seen him do. It was . . . good. The fear that followed when I heard footsteps wasn’t as palatable, but I put the smoke away just in time to avoid a scolding. Thankfully, I never contracted a habit of reaching for Marlboros (or cigarettes of any kind). But smoking and authority and I have had more than one run-in.

The year was 1997 or 1998 – probably ’98 – and the assignment was to color a series of pictures according to the instructions. I don’t remember most of the assignment, but I do remember the pipe. I was given a directive to color the pipe purple. It didn’t seem right; I was pretty sure that tobacco pipes were brown. (Didn’t the Little Mermaid have something like that in her possession?)

I furrowed my unwrinkled brow and colored everything else first, according to the directions I was given. Then I returned to the pipe. I stared it down . . . glared at the word “purple” . . . and rolled a waxy, paper-covered crayon between my fingers like a cigarette. There was a war waging inside of me. Was there a misprint? Of course, I didn’t know precisely what a misprint was at that age – but I did wonder if the teacher had made a mistake. Didn’t she know that pipes aren’t purple?

Reader, I was torn. If I colored the pipe brown, I’d be coloring it correctly – but I wouldn’t be following directions. If I colored the pipe purple – well, that was just silly.

So I picked brown.

Mrs. Klug corrected me, of course. “You were supposed to color that purple, Justine.”

I didn’t say anything. At that age, though I could read and write, I barely spoke. I just thought and felt. In that moment, I felt wronged – because, from my youthful perspective, I had been asked to do something incorrectly. I had to choose between being in trouble with the teacher and being in trouble with myself. Either way, I was going to lose!

Frankly, I’m still not sure if I made the right choice. I really should have followed directions. Mrs. Klug wasn’t asking me to do anything morally wrong, and she either thought I was ignoring instruction (which I was) or that I couldn’t read the word “purple.”

I’ve had many Purple Pipe incidents since then – battles of the will fought at home, at school, at work and in leisure. Authority and submission sometimes feel like unsearchable concepts to me. I’ve grappled with these constructs on many levels. But equal to or greater than the number of times I’ve picked the wrong color is the number of times I’ve meekly pulled out my purple crayon to make the picture – my picture – align with another person’s vision. It’s almost cultivated an unhealthy need for approval at times. Is this what you were looking for? This assignment I wouldn’t have chosen to do – this dress size I didn’t know I needed to fit into – this response to your behavior – is this what you were looking for? Perhaps it doesn’t matter what color the pipe is, or where the cigarettes are, if I’m rewarded with an atta-girl.

Then again, perhaps expectations are opportunities to think critically and arrive at better conclusions. The consequences of critical thinking may be interpreted as defiant, stupid, brilliant, or useful . . . but perhaps that’s a small price to pay for correctly colored pipes, self-advocacy, resilience, and good stories.

Reader, I’d change some things if I had to live my life over again; but other decisions would remain unchanged. For example, I’d still explore boundaries and my own autonomy by sucking on that Marlboro filter and sliding my brown crayon right across that incorrectly labeled pipe.

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