I cannot believe I was once unable to read. I know there was a time within my span of memory when I could not, but for reasons unknown to me I cannot remember that time. Whether because of my voracious appetite for words (I’m one of those people who reads the shampoo bottle while sitting on the toilet if nothing else is handy), or because of some trauma related to feeling inferior to someone who could read (as a small boy I seemed to have had a rare ability to bring out in my peers the need to feel superior), it seems to me I have read since birth.
This, I suppose, makes the following story remarkable.
My first grade teacher was a kind-hearted Presbyterian minister’s wife named Mrs. Whitsun. Despite her best efforts and the somewhat hysterical rebukes of my mother, a hearty and facile reader herself, I could not, for the life of me, get the reading thing at first. As was the case in most elementary schools of that period (Dick and Jane still ruled—Dr. Seuss was the writer of hip new children’s books that they read in places like California—phonics and whole language approaches were not even on the radar), we first graders were divided into reading groups based on our ability to plow through “See Spot run/Run, Spot, run/ Run, run, run.”
Our three groups were the Red Birds, Blue Birds, and Yellow Birds.
Red Birds were the kids who actually made the nonsense that was a Dick and Jane reader sound like stories (inasmuch as anyone could). Blue Birds could get through the books, but not without some struggle and a corresponding loss of meaning.
Yellow Birds weren’t worth a damn. They looked at the page, saw some squiggles, figured out that they were a word, said the word (or guessed at it), then moved to the next set of squiggles one space over on the page. There was no pretense of making sense of the text. Getting a word without a hint from the teacher was considered triumph enough to make a kid smile as if she’d just been given two ice cream bars at afternoon break.
As I’ve said, I was the star of the Yellow Birds. I could read well enough to sound like a Red Bird one sentence, then become absolutely illiterate the next. What frustrated both Mrs. Whitsun and my mother was that there was no rhyme or reason to my Jekyll/Hyde performance in reading.
I have a memory of a teacher-parent conference between those two individuals from the fall of that first year of my stellar NC public education. While I paid little or less attention to what they said (I was far too excited that I wouldn’t have to ride the bus home that afternoon), for some reason, whenever that conference crosses my mind (and it does more often than I would admit), the words “focus” and “concentration” arise in my memory like Banquo’s descendants before poor old Macbeth.
I like to think this focus and concentration problem of mine came because I have such a quick intellect that reading that Dick and Jane crap bored me after three words and my attention wandered, but I am sometimes nagged by the suspicion that other elements of my composition might have played a part. At any rate, I found myself in succeeding days the object of Mrs. Whitsun’s particular attentions.
I mentioned that my joy at the teacher- parent conference was that it freed me from riding the bus home from school. In those days, most families were “one car.” Ours was no exception. The problem was that my father had moved us to a home outside town for reasons unknown to me then and now. Something about getting me in touch with the farmer lineage on his side of the family, I think. It didn’t take. Since my father worked the 3-11 PM shift in a textile mill (he’d left the dairy business), I had to ride the bus to and from school most days.
As a six year old, the pecuniary distress of the public education transportation system in North Carolina impinged upon my personal happiness considerably. There weren’t enough buses to go around for all the students in my small school district, and I found myself one of the unlucky ones forced to ride “1st load mornings/2nd load afternoons.” What this meant was that I had to catch a school bus at 7:15 in the morning, endure the thirty-minute trip to school (I was one of the first picked up on my route), then wait 45 minutes for school to BEGIN.
The afternoon was worse. As a first grader I was dismissed from school at 2:45, some 15 minutes before other elementary school kids (30 minutes before the high school dismissed– where buses were kept in those lost days of student drivers). My initial wait, then, was 30 minutes, plus the 10-15 minutes it took for the bus to load at the high school and stop by the junior high before coming to the elementary school to deposit “2nd load” kids and pick up “1st load” kids. Running time to take that group home took another 30-40 minutes, so it was often 4:00 PM or a little later when I finally boarded a bus for home.
This was a lot of free time for any kid, much less a 6 year old. The mornings were usually just playtime spent either on the playground or in the school gym. Afternoons were more problematic. We were assigned to stay in our classrooms in the afternoon. Since play was extraordinarily constrained in that environment, Mrs. Whitsun, gentle soul that she was, found herself hard pressed, even with her many years of experience, to offer enough activities to keep us busy. There were maybe 5 of us who were “2nd load” kids. There was one other boy who always brought little green army men in his lunch box and played with those the entire time. There were three girls, all Red Birds, who read voraciously.
And there was me. I would’ve played army, but the kid wouldn’t share his army men and my mom would never have let me bring toys to school. So that left reading. I knew when I got home that there’d be 30 minutes of that with my mom, so I wasn’t all that keen on it. By that time of day I was a pretty tired little cuss, too.
And so it came to pass that Mrs. Whitsun decided to make me the object of her attention.
The afternoon after the conference with my mother, she huddled for some minutes with the Red Bird girls, then called sweetly to me, “Come here, Charles, please, sir” in the dulcet tones of a well brought up Southern woman.
I took what I knew was a uselessly longing look in the direction of the general of the little green army. Nothing doing. He hunkered over his half-dozen-man squad like a county farm inmate over his plate of stew. The Red Birds were arrayed around Mrs. Whitsun’s desk looking at me with a mixture of pity and condescension.
I made my way to Mrs. Whitsun slowly, hoping to waste enough time to keep the reading lesson, which I was sure I was going to have to endure, as short as possible. I peeked at the big old clock. Not even 3 PM yet.
When I reached the desk, Mrs. Whitsun said brightly, “Well, Charlie. Glenda has a new book and we’d like for you to help us read it. Come stand by me, Charlie, so I can help you”
Great. This would warm me up for reading with Mom in a while.
“Glenda, why don’t you start, then Betsy can take a turn, then Alice, then Charlie can have a turn.”
I went and stood by Mrs. Whitsun’s chair. Glenda began to read.
In about two nanoseconds I realized that the new book Glenda had cracked open wasn’t that Dick and Jane shit. This was a story about some turtle whose name was Yertle who was king of the pond and who wanted a bigger kingdom. Not only did it have a great story, it also had a great beat and you could dance to it.
I listened with “ravished ears” like Alexander to Timotheus as the story moved from Glenda to Betsy to Alice. Finally, after about a year, Alice handed the book to me with very little effort to hide her disdain for the pitiable mess she knew I was about to make of Dr. Seuss’s verse.
I didn’t care. I just wanted to see what happened to old Yertle. I waded in—
“And all through the morning, he sat up there high
Saying over and over, ‘A great king am I!’
Until ‘long about noon. Then he heard a faint sigh.
‘What’s that?’ snapped the king
And he looked down the stack….”
I read perfectly. I read with feeling. I read with rhythm. I didn’t miss a word. By the time Mrs. Whitsun got me to let Glenda have another turn, the little Red Birds were all leaning on their elbows listening to me, rapt looks on their once contemptuous brows. And Yertle had just fallen “Plunk! In the pond.”
As Mrs. Whitsun took old Yertle from me and handed it to Glenda, she looked at me, slightly amazed, I realize now, and said, to none of us in particular, just thinking aloud, “Charlie Beagle, you’re a Red Bird reader now.”
I have been one ever since.