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A Shade of Difference

September 23, 2004

As everyone knows, many if not most of modern society's ills -- crime, violence, bigotry, budget deficits, Enron, Martha Stewart, traffic congestion, reality TV and the Lakers' demise -- can be traced directly to generations of schoolteachers correcting students' papers with red markers.

Maybe you didn't know this. But so deep were the wounds to tender young minds from red minus signs and oversized exclamation marks on homework errors, so profound was the emotional trauma of getting tests back corrected in bright red for all to see, that these malefactors are still acting out their scars years later.

That's why it's so profoundly encouraging to hear, as this school year's first corrected quizzes are being handed back, that thousands of teachers are moving to more sensitive colors for their notations. Stationery stores report sales of purple pens especially are up. Pen makers confirm this seismic shift in shading. In a few years, no doubt, our prisons will be empty, police forces unemployed, poor sports silenced and rude drivers deferring to everyone.

Colors have carried symbolic, cultural and even gender identities in flags, signs and clothing from medieval royalty to today's urban gangs and NFL fans. You fill in the color blanks: Dodger ---- and Angel ---. See?

Red is often used to call attention: ambulances, stop signs, flags, Valentines, Anaheim, misspilings. Quill-pushing accountants in the pre-delete-button days of Bob Cratchit noted all ledger errors in red.

So it seemed only natural for generations of teachers to note mistakes and make comments in red, which turned kind of rosy anyway when applied to Blue Book covers. Red was also used to compliment: "A+ Good Job!" But corrective red is more seared in the minds of former students and their teachers.

Recent media accounts quote purple teachers as saying red is too aggressive, over-the-top, arrogant, frightening, negative, harsh, scary, demoralizing and harmful to juvenile self-esteem. Some noted that blood and anger are red. So they switched to purple, which art students know is actually red and blue combined. Purple is gentler. Blue is also nice. And green.

Red teachers maintain that, in fact, they intend to call attention to mistakes. How else to correct and prevent poor work? They believe fragile egos will somehow survive red marks. Red also has the added benefit of preparing sloppy students for the meaning someday of an adult pink slip.

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