Jimmy’s Secret: Why the Red, Yellow, Green Behavioral System Doesn’t Work.


Dear Diary,

So I’m back to school for the year. The thought of school makes me want to squish my sweaty palm into my sweaty armpit over and over. I’ve been practicing that sound all summer.

On the first day of second grade, Mrs. Jenkins gave each kid a clothespin, and explained that she would clip the clothespin to a  certain color -green, yellow, or red- depending on our behavior. Mrs. Davis did the same thing last year.

The same three girls stayed on green all of first grade because they never once tried to land a spitball in the middle of tangrams. Mrs. Davis let those girls be line-leaders a lot. Alex and I liked to make forts during reading, because sitting on a yellow square for ten whole pages is boring. That means me and Alex were on red a lot. And who cares about being a line-leader anyway?

But the thing that I do care about is the big pile of Mario Kart erasers in Mrs. Jenkins’ prize box. Only kids that get on green for the whole week get a prize.

Yesterday, Mom dropped me off with her usual “Have a nice day, and stay on green!” I looked Mom in the eye and gave her a very grown-up nod. I promised myself that I would keep my lips zippered-up when Mrs. Jenkins was telling us about topic sentences for the millionth time. And I wouldn’t shoot any spitballs or build any forts. I had my eye on a Donkey Kong eraser that was almost as big as my hand.

In the morning, Jack Stricker grabbed  my sleeve and pretended to cut it with his plastic scissors. “Fringe!” We laughed. I thought it was also funny to pretend to put glue on Jack Stricker’s head. “Shampoo!” Only the glue came out a little and Jack Stricker whined louder than my two-year-old brother. Mrs. Jenkins didn’t think it was funny.

So, later, during read-to-self, I made a fort out of my folders since I was already on red. Who cares about Donkey Kong.

“What color did you get on?” was the first thing mom asked when she picked me up. Last year I used to try to tell mom stuff I learned in school-  “Did you know pterodactyls weren’t really dinosaurs?; George Washington cut down a whole tree and didn’t even get in trouble!; Danny Owens said if you take a gingerbread cookie out of the oven too soon, it might come alive!”- whenever she’d ask about my color. But mom didn’t appreciate my subject-changes. That’s how important your color is….


So maybe I do care a little bit about that eraser, because I counted the days before I can try to get on green again. Three school days until next Monday. I already blew it this week.

I got on yellow today since I licked Maya Glasgow’s birthday cupcake before Mrs. Jenkins had passed out a cupcake to all the kids.  Mrs. Jenkins said she told the class three times to wait, but I guess I was too daydreamy about the chocolate icing to listen. Maya Glasgow looked at me with the same look Gramma gave me when I spilled the dog water with my lacrosse stick on accident. Gramma says “Jimmy, you need to screw your head on right.”  Sometimes I feel stupid.

I was my stupid self during art too, when I colored eleven lines on my spider instead of 8. I just lost count and the marker was one of those stamp markers that makes a thick line or a star, depending on how you use it.  Mrs. Fink didn’t notice or my stupid self would probably be on red.

Mom sighed when I told her I was on yellow. I didn’t tell her about my 11-legged spider. And I also didn’t tell her that my plan is to TRY to get on green next week, since I can’t get a prize for this week anyway.

I also didn’t tell mom my big, scary secret:

I am afraid that I can’t do it. Sometimes I don’t know that what I’m doing is bad. Or if I do know  what the rule is, I don’t know how to control myself. I don’t want to tell mom or Mrs. Jenkins because they make it seem like kids should just be able to do this stuff. What is wrong with me?

In fact, I hate this whole red, yellow, green light thing. I have some stuff I need to learn, like not eating snack until everyone gets snack. And also how to deal with being so bored in a way that doesn’t get me in trouble.   And how to handle being frustrated when I don’t get what I want want. Also how to get my head on right so I’m not so stupid and bad.

Maybe there’s some grown-up out there who can teach me some tricks for controlling myself.

Or maybe Mrs. Jenkins could tap me on the shoulder or write-out the stuff she wants me to do, like how Coach does. Coach says he knows I want to try really hard, but I sometimes don’t really hear him.  Also, Coach says I sometimes think some stuff is funny even though grown-ups think it is bad. He bought a big wipe-off board to use during practices. Also, one time I put wood chips in Sean Michael’s shoe, and Coach just put on his serious face and taught me that is disrespectful even though Sean Michael was laughing and maybe I could do counting backwards in my head when I get really bored. No wood chips in shoes is a dumb rule, but I will follow it because Coach is the only grown up that doesn’t see my stupid side.

One time Coach patted my back and told me he saw me wanting to squish Mason Meyers all the way off the bench because I was mad that he got me out. I only squished Mason Meyers only just a little.  So Coach said, “You stopped yourself. I’m proud of you.” That made me remember to control myself later when I wanted to say a naughty thing to Sean Michael since he was bragging. “Your new shoes smell like barf and you’re still not as fast as me.” I just kept that to myself and Coach stayed proud of me.

If grown-ups taught me all the  different rules and ways to handle my feelings and deal with my boredom, maybe I could get points for trying my best.  Even if I got points taken away for pushing Mason Meyers just a little sometimes, or licking a cupcake before I’m supposed to, I would still have a reason to keep trying. I could still earn a Donkey Kong eraser with all the points I would earn.

And maybe I could show off all the things I learned, and be proud of myself for learning that “white” is not a color and remembering not to push when Susan Jensen cut in line, if my life stopped revolving around a dumb color.

Maybe if I leave the lock off my diary, someone will read this and notice my secret.  And maybe, after learning about my secret, grown-ups would even get rid of that useless color system. Because I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one with my secret.  And I’m pretty sure grown-ups want us kids to learn and keep trying, not to feel stupid and give up.

Jimmy Vickers

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