What Color Are You Thinking Of?

“Okay, think of a color, any color,” I said. It was advisory and we were supposed to discuss Rachel’s Challenge, the recent all-school assembly.A program for which I have no end of conflicting opinions and unresolved questions, such as (i) is there something fundamentally cheap, exploitative, and contradictory in attaching explicit footage of the Columbine massacre to a feel-good message of being nice to people and Pay[ing] It Forward? (ii) is that message worth more, less, or the same amount of my time after the girl who wrote it up in a school essay was murdered? (iii) if a student hasn’t assimilated these basic elements of kindness by high school, can a school assembly scare her straight, so to speak? can the Rachel’s Challenge wristband? can the supplementary posters? does that kind of change last? (iv) what do the passages of the assembly celebrating Rachel herself (eg. Rachel was posthumously awarded a national kindness award, her father has met the last two Presidents, etc.) have to do with anything?. One moment later I called on Jen.

“Jen, what color are you thinking of?”

“Blue.” she said.

“Okay.” I pointed at Mara right next to her. “What color is Mara thinking of?”

Jen shrugged.

I’m not sure this moment did anything for my kids but it helped me understand why high schoolers find it so easy to tear the meat from each other’s bones so often.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Correct me if I’m misinterpreting your activity, Dan, but I believe that once Jen said the word “blue” then there’s a 95% chance that everybody in the room was also – at that moment – thinking of the color blue.

    Unless, of course, they are teenagers oblivious to beings other than themselves (and hence the meat tearing).

  2. From DFW’s Kenyon commencement address:

    Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

    I think this is why people find it easy to be cruel.

  3. The toughest part, to me, in addressing this is to expand the students awareness outside of their own meat without making them think that I’m only concerned about my meat.

    I’ve been pretty happy with the level of respect I can get my kids to exhibit towards each other in the classroom. My challenge to to extend that influence, to get them to continue it once they step out through my door. I’m not going so far as to make them internalize it – that’s just something that comes with repeated practice.

    I could probably rant for days about “motivational” school assemblies. It seems to mostly be a way to funnel our valuable educational dollars away from the schools and towards people that may have good intentions, but too little experience hands on with kids, and none in actually getting them to do more than sit down and watch a flashy show.

  4. Rachel’s Challenge lost this science teacher completely when the speaker began ascribing the power of prophecy to her. Not to mention the eerie, repeated comparisons between Rachel and Anne Frank… as if he was suggesting that the former was a reincarnation of the latter. Odd…

    Two weeks later I would estimate only 50% of my middle school students could relate what the program was about in general; less than 1/3 could describe specifics. Their world is the world of right here, right now.