Black letters on a gold sign: “Learn the rules, then throw away the book.”
On my first day at the Universal Education Complex, my parents left me off at the huge auditorium and told me to wait by that sign so my cousins could find me. Only students were allowed in the auditorium that day – and there must have been two or three thousand of them, chattering and running about like minnows in a pond. I stuck close to the sign. How would I ever get used to going to school with so many people? My cousins had, eventually, and I knew that I would, too, in time. But on that first day, I was scared silly. I didn’t even know what colors my cousins would be. I hadn’t seen them in two years.
I stood there, looking at that frightening big crowd. There were so many of them! It made me dizzy to think of all the classrooms and all the lessons.
There were so many students that I didn’t notice three of them coming toward me until they stopped beneath the gold sign. They stared at me, and I stared back. One of the boys – I guess I should call him a young man for his age – was white like me, only with yellow eyes. The other was almost completely red. The young woman with them had yellow hair with violet streaks, and her eyes and ears were the purest, brightest blue I had ever seen.
“Aniline,” the young woman said. She looked me over from head to foot. “How have you been?”
I was embarrassed that I didn’t recognize her. “Citrine?”
“My cousin, Aniline Batik,” she told the young man. “Aniline, this is Bice Damascene – “
The white boy bowed. I curtsied.
“- and Stammel Chatoyant.”
The red boy shook my hand and said, “Pleased to meet you.”
“I don’t know where Eaudenil is, but you can stay with us for the entrance exams,“ Citrine said.
“Thank you.” It was all I could think of to say. Citrine seemed so different from before that I hardly knew how to act around her.
Taking my hand, Citrine dragged me into the crowd. The two boys followed us. A bell rang, and the students crammed into a thick line that went all the way around the auditorium. With Citrine’s friends, I felt completely out of place. I was so pale and transparent and just starting UEC. They were so bright and colorful and all they could talk about was graduation. Even Bice Damascene, who looked so white, had proper colors for graduation. When he rolled up his sleeve, you could see, plan as day, five narrow stripes of color on his arm.
“That’s enough to graduate?” I asked him.
“As long as the teachers can see it, it counts,” he told me.
Citrine pushed down her socks to show me her red feet, and held up her elbow, which was perfectly orange. Then she folded back her collar. Splendid green dots speckled her collarbone.
“I was beginning to think I’d never get any green,” she said. “It didn’t show up until the end of last term. It’s faded once already, and I’m scared it won’t last till exams. If I don’t graduate this term, I may quit.”
“Now, now,“ Bice said. “It’s only a few more minutes.”
“What would you know about it? You’re just a boy.”
“He can’t help his age,” Stammel said.
Citrine stamped her foot, which I though strange because she was so much older than I. “I know it. I just don’t think I could stand one more term.”
Two more girls ran up to us, skidding on the smooth floor. I knew the bigger girl was Citrine’s sister, Eaudenil, even though her hair had changed from yellow to glass-green. Eaudenil nearly smothered me with a hug.
“Aniline! I haven’t seen you in so long! How’ve you been? You’ve grown. Welcome to UEC! Let me see your marks.”
I smiled a little as I held up my hand. Two blue stripes crossed my palms. Eaudenil laughed and showed me the fat blue stripes on her own palm. “Must run in the family.”
But we couldn’t talk then, for three examining teachers came to us. They wore teachers’ dark blue hoods and brightly colored clothes. One of the women carried a portable keyboard.
“Who’s first?” she asked.
We all looked at each other, and Stammel said, ”Citrine.”
“No, no. Aniline’s youngest. She can go first.” Citrine put her hands on my shoulders and gave me a small push.
The woman asked me my name, and I told her. She spelled it into the keyboard. I was nervous.
“Ten and a half years.”
“You’re new, then.”
“Yes, ma’am. From Pavonine Preliminary School.”
“Alright, Aniline. Let’s see your entrance marks.”
My hand shook a little as I held it out. The male teacher patted me on the shoulder. “Looks fine, young lady. Congratulations.”
I couldn’t keep from smiling. The woman with the keyboard gave me a Primary assignment and said I was officially a UEC scholar.
Citrine went next. She was a little ashamed of being twenty-four, but the teachers didn’t seem to care about her age. They mainly wanted to see her colors. Her hands were shaky, too.
“No assignment, then,” the keyboard woman told her. “You’ll graduate this afternoon.”
I think Citrine would have hugged the teacher if it had been proper, but it wasn’t, so she hugged me instead. We stood there grinning at each other while the others took their turns.
Bice Damascene was only eighteen, but he showed all six colors, so he’d graduate, too. And red Stammel Chatoyant also passed the exams. But Eaudenil and her best friend, a short girl named Gamboge Canesce, had only three colors apiece and so must go back to school.
Eaudenil and Gamboge let me sit with them at graduation ceremonies. Sixty-three full-color students in white caps and robes paraded across the stage to get their diplomas. Alphabetically, Citrine Argent came first, so she got to lead the parade. UEC’s president shook her hand and gave her a rolled-up paper with a ribbon around it. As soon as Citrine accepted the diploma, her colors vanished. She marched back to her chair and sat down.
Citrine turned to wave to us, and I was near enough to see that her eyes were now sweet yellow. Her thick white, hair, hanging smooth over her shoulders, sparkled like mother-of-pearl when she turned her head. But other than that, she had no color at all. There was nothing to tell her from the albino babies just starting preliminary school.
Beside me, Eaudenil sighed happily. “One day , I’ll lose my colors, too.”
“You’ve got to get them first,” Gamboge whispered back.
“Oh, I will. You just wait.”
“You think it’s worth waiting fifteen years, like your sister?”
Eaudenil sighed again. This time she didn’t sound so happy. “I don’t know.”
Gamboge poked me in the arm. “What about you? You going to be an old held-over like Citrine?”
The people in front of us told us to hush, so we sat quietly while the other sixty-two graduates collected their diplomas and lost their colors. Except for their eyes, which never seemed to end up the same shade they started.
When it was over, everybody wanted to congratulate the graduates. Everyone was so happy and excited. Eaudenil and Gamboge chattered a mile a minute. There was hugging and laughing, handshaking and joking, and tea and cakes.
We found Citrine and her friend talking to their parents. Mine were there, too. They were all white. Now I felt out of place for being colored.
Citrine looked tired.
“What are you going to do next?” my mother asked her.
Citrine didn’t answer, but Bice Damascene did. He said, “Now we go out in the world and do whatever we think is important.”
Bice wanted to be a doctor. Already he had chosen a medical school and he was going there tomorrow. Stammel would be either a doctor or a teacher.
“I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ve been here so long, I forgot why I came,“ Citrine said.
What a silly thing to say! We all went to UEC for the same reason, and I told her so. “You came here to learn, just like I did.”
Citrine smiled at me. “So I did.” Then she hugged me again, to say goodbye.
“Sorry I can’t stay, Aniline. Eaudenil can help you get settled, and I’m sure you’ll make friends soon enough.”
“Yes’m. I’ll try. And when I’ve learned everything, will you come see me graduate?”
“Of course I will.” Citrine laughed then, and I didn’t understand why. But I figured that I could know one day, when I graduated. You couldn’t graduate unless you had all the colors. And you couldn’t have all the colors unless you’d learned everything.
© 1989 Libby Block
originally published in “The Nocturnal Lyric” #9