Third grade was all about reading. I read 200+ books that year according to my reading folder, a record of my reading that required me to offer a paragraph of description to prove knowledge of the book recorded.
I became enamored of one particular genre: biography. There was a series of books that I suspect all Boomers will recognize – they had names like Ben Franklin: Boy Printer and George Washington: Boy President and authors like “Augusta Stevenson” (a pen name probably, but real enough to an eight year old who pictured a refined lady like his grandmother toiling away in longhand to tell the story of our nation’s Founders). In that year alone I read 125 of those “biographies” (a term sorely abused by this genre which consisted primarily of either imagined anecdote or legend – and yes, the story of Washington and the cherry tree is recounted in George Washington: Boy Leader as actual biographical information).
Their publisher, Bobbs-Merrill, who also gave us the Bobbsey Twins series (a guilty pleasure of sentimental children’s fiction for which I refuse to apologize to this day) offered a plethora of volumes on everyone and anyone who even remotely qualified as a “great American”; among those I read about beside those stalwarts of American history mentioned above were Molly Pitcher and Sacajawea (among the few women included the in Bobbs-Merrill pantheon of American greats) as well as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and sports figures such as Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb. Some of these heroes of The American Experience figure prominently in the ensuing story.
I have a sort of high I.Q., “experts” tell me. And I read at an extremely high rate of speed. I raced through these “biographies” at a ridiculous rate. And I craved more. Always more. Such is the drug of knowledge to the intelligent.
Library Day for my 3rd grade class was Tuesday. Every Tuesday afternoon after lunch we third graders trooped down to the library and were free to read (and eventually check out) any books we wanted to. For me, of course, often times that meant reading (and checking out) biographies. I read voraciously – so much so that I usually had read the books I checked out by Thursday after those Tuesday library visits. Too often, come Friday “free reading” period, I had finished all my books.
A Friday early in October of that “year of reading,” was when I began my love affair with biography – and eventually became a Burton Grove Elementary School “reader kid.”
I explained as best as I could in my shy 3rd grader style to my teacher, Mrs. Granger, that I had read the books I’d checked out (I had already been given the special privilege of checking out three books – the usual limit for 3rd graders was two and most students only checked out one). She, a veteran teacher nearing retirement, was, I think, slightly nonplussed by my reading voracity. It ruffled the calm of her sedate routine.
I was, if unoccupied by my schoolwork, which I pursued with vigor and deep concentration, a fidgety kid. Mrs. Granger watched me fidget as I stood by her desk. She mulled over her options. She turned to the book case behind her desk and I realized she was scanning for something for me to read. After a few minutes of searching she evidently concluded that nothing there would hold my attention.
She took a note card from the stack always ready on her desk and wrote a few words, then handed it to me. “Charlie, do you have your books in your desk?”
“Get them and take this card to the library. You know where the library is?”
“Give this card to Mrs. Snow, the librarian. She will let you check out three more books. Try to find something more challenging, Charlie. I’ve told Mrs. Snow you may look at books from the 4th-6th grade section. Would you like that?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I had been reprimanded, quite mildly but nonetheless reprimanded, for reading in the “big kids” section on several trips to the library.
I looked at the card, written in a fluid cursive that I could only partially decipher. I pulled my lower lip over my upper and squinted in my customary fashion. Mrs. Granger, having dealt with hundreds of 8 year olds recognized my gesture as puzzlement. “Do you have a question, Charlie?” she asked quietly.
“Well, if you tell me what it is perhaps I can answer it for you,” she suggested.
I nodded again. “Yes, ma’am.” I hesitated, then decided to shoot at the midday sun rather than at a bush. “Can I -“
“May I” Mrs. Granger corrected automatically.
“May I” I began again “check out four books?” I wrinkled my face at her which I knew had made her smile at me before.
Mrs. Granger tilted her head at me. “Charlie. I think – ” a muffled swell of laughter rolled across the room and Mrs. Granger stood and peered over the class. “Dennis, stop whatever you’re doing and get back to your reading.” She turned back to me. “For now, Charlie, since you’re going to be choosing books from the 4th to 6th grade section, let’s leave your limit at three books. After a week or two, if you still need more reading material, we’ll see about letting you have a fourth book. All right? Now, hurry along and don’t forget your books.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I returned to my desk, got my books, ignored the inquiring looks of my neighboring students and made my way to the library. I gave the note to Mrs. Snow who glanced it over, smiled thinly at me, and led me over to the “older kids’ books” as we called the 4th through 6th grade shelves.
She stopped at a low set of shelves that jutted out from the wall. “You might find these interesting if you like American history,” she said.
And there they were. Four complete shelves of those biographies I mentioned earlier. I ran my fingers along their spines: Ben Franklin: Boy Printer, George Washington: Boy Leader, Buffalo Bill: Boy of the Plains, Wilbur and Orville Wright: Young Fliers. I chose the first two as well as Paul Revere: Boy of old Boston and, despite my indifference to girls in those days, Betsy Ross: Girl of old Philadelphia. I knew when I got to the desk Mrs. Snow would tell me I could only take three books. I figured I’d make my final cut when I got there.
I lugged my stack of books (four of those biographies was a decent load for an 8 year old) to the counter near the door. Mrs. Snow looked over my books, relieved me of them, took the check out cards from all four, wrote my name on them, stamped the date slip in each, and handed the books back to me.
“I’m only allowed to check out three books at a time.”
Mrs. Snow smiled at me, not the least bit thinly. “Students who check out books from the 4th grade section may check out up to four books, Charlie. That’s the library rule.”
I nodded and turned to go, then turned back to Mrs. Snow. “What about the 5th grade section?”
She held up her hand with all five digits. “Can you guess how many for the 6th grade section, Charlie?”
I grinned and nodded while holding up my stack of books to show that I couldn’t hold up six fingers.
“Now, you’d better get back to class. Miss Williams’ 6th graders will be here any minute.”
“Yes ma’am.” I darted out the door of the library and was a few feet down the hallway when the 6th graders came streaming around the corner from the main hall down towards the library. One of them, a neighbor of mine and already a well known athlete, pointed at me and told his stocky friend, a more distant neighbor, “Hey, look. A smart 4th grader.”
Never one to leave well enough alone, I retorted, “I’m a 3rd grader. I get to read 4th grade books because I really am smart. You probably read them, too.” My implication was clear.
The 6th graders stepped out of their line and loomed over me. “So. A smart aleck 3rd grader….” I waited for the punch on my arm. Instead, the stockier of the two slapped at my stack of books and they scattered across the floor. I went to my knees to gather them and the athlete kicked one away from me. It skidded – right into the feet of their teacher who had turned the corner and was coming towards us.
“Ricky! Mike! Help this boy pick up his books. Right now!” She stood glaring at them, hands on her hips. She was a young teacher and stern disciplinarian – probably she had to be given her youth.
Mike immediately fell to his knees, grabbed a book I already had my hand on and handed to me. Ricky, ever cocky, sauntered over to his teacher and knelt and picked up the book he’d kicked. He held it out to her. “Here’s one book,” he said smoothly.
Miss Williams wasn’t buying his schmoozing. “Give the book back to the little boy you kicked it away from, Ricky,” she said evenly, arching her eyebrows.
Ricky’s demeanor changed when he knew he was caught red handed. He turned and brought the book to me. “Here,” he said, laying it gently on my stack.
I didn’t push my luck. I lowered my head and headed for my classroom. I could see out of the corner of my eye that the line of 6th graders was moving again. Just as I reached the end of the hall and began my turn to get back to my room, an arm reached out and stopped me.
“You’re Charlie Beagle, aren’t you?” asked Miss Williams gently.
I nodded shyly.
“I thought so. Mrs. Granger says you’re a smart young man.” She smiled at me. “I look forward to having you in my class in a few years.”
“Yes ma’am.” I fidgeted and my stack of books started to slip. Miss Williams reached out and steadied them and helped me get them back into order.
“Well, if Ricky or Mike bothers you again, you come and tell me. I’ll make sure they leave you alone.”
“Yes ma’am.” I wasn’t about to tattle on those guys. As a 3rd grader I knew the schoolyard rules well. If you want to make your life truly miserable, get a reputation as a tattler.
“You’d better hurry back to Mrs. Granger’s room now.”
“Yes ma’am.” And I did just that.
* * * * * * * *
For a couple of weeks the new system worked well. Mrs. Granger was slightly surprised to find out I had been allowed to check out four books, but when I’d recorded all four with my paragraph of description on each in my reading folder, she was satisfied that I could handle the extra reading. Inevitably, though, my voraciousness for the written word led me to an act that colored the rest of my elementary school experience.
About a month after my promotion to the four book limit, I’d increased my reading speed (or maybe just my avidity) and found myself completing my fourth book on Thursday night by flashlight shortly after bedtime. My satisfaction at having conquered Jeb Stuart: Boy in the Saddle so that I could assure my grandmother I’d read about a great Southern American was tempered by a realization: I now had nothing to read during the next day’s free reading period. I wondered if I should go back through Ben Franklin: Printer’s Boy, my favorite in the series and one that I had checked out again though I’d read it before. But even as I thought this I knew I had committed chunks of the book to memory already and realized the specter of boredom hovered before me.
I went to school the next morning still preoccupied with my reading dilemma. As we worked through a math lesson and took our spelling test (I was well prepared and made a perfect score), I found myself wondering if I should ask Mrs. Granger for permission to go to the library and exchange my books. Then I thought about the previous Tuesday: she’d been standing at the library checkout desk when I approached with my stack of biographies and had warned me about checking out the Ben Franklin biography again. I’d pleaded that I liked it very much and wanted to re-read it to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. Mrs. Snow had come to my defense by noting that I took very good care of books and that as a budding scholar re-reading was a good skill to be developing. Mrs. Granger had relented – but with a warning that I shouldn’t ask for an extra trip to the library on Friday if I were bored and had nothing to read.
Then Mrs. Snow had made a statement I took to heart – and that, in retrospect, I realize prompted my actions the following Friday afternoon. She said to Mrs. Granger, “It’s a shame that gifted children like Charlie can’t be allowed to come to the library as they need to and get books. That’s why we’re here – to provide books to those who want to read them. And Lord knows I can’t think of a child who wants to read books more than Charlie. There ought to be a rule for such kids.”
When free reading period came, I dutifully began wading into Ben Franklin: Printer’s Boy. I could not get going no matter how I tried. I turned to my favorite scene in the book, “Ben’s Mistake,” and re-read it. At supper Ben had criticized the cornmeal mush (which my mother had explained to me were grits). This was a violation of, as the book called it, The Rule ( a family prohibition against criticizing the food put before one) and eight year old Ben went to bed without any supper.
For whatever reason, this scene resonated with me. I’d re-read it more than any other in the book, perhaps a dozen times. I was fascinated by young Ben’s error: he had said something that he shouldn’t have. I thought of the conversation I’d heard between Mrs. Granger and Mrs. Snow. Mrs. Granger had warned me not to ask to go to the library because I’d checked out a book I’d already read. I didn’t want to get into trouble. So I couldn’t ask Mrs. Granger to let me go to the library.
But Mrs. Snow had said there should be a rule for kids who love to read – a rule that said they could go to the library when they needed to and check out books. A rule for children like me. Mrs. Snow understood that someone like me needed another book.
It was then, while thinking about that rule, that I decided that I would go to the library. I looked in my desk and remembered that I’d brought only the Ben Franklin book. Since library day wasn’t until the coming Tuesday, no need to lug all those books back and forth. I closed it softly and looked about me. The kids to my left and right were engrossed in their reading. Behind me Jerry Brandon was face down in his book dozing or near it. I looked over toward Mrs. Granger’s desk. She was grading papers and paying no attention. My desk was directly across from the door to our classroom and was open. In one swift, silent motion I stood, book in hand. In three steps I was in the hallway.
I almost turned and went back to my desk. Being in the hall was exciting but frightening. Yet the siren call of the library and all those biographies I hadn’t read was too strong. I started down the hall as quietly as I could. Within a few steps it was as if I’d been sent there.
I thought it out as I walked. I would turn in Ben Franklin: Boy Printer and tell Mrs. Snow that I wanted to exchange it for another book. Then I’d pick out another biography. I already had one in mind: Molly Pitcher: Girl Patriot. I’d liked the Betsy Ross book more than I expected and had spotted the Molly Pitcher book the last time I was at the library. Except for feeling the need to get Jeb Stuart: Boy in the Saddle to please Grandmother, I’d have taken it out the previous Tuesday. Jeb’s story was great, but I was more fascinated by Revolutionary War stories than Civil War ones despite my grandmother’s admonitions that I ought to feel the opposite. Then it occurred to me that I’d have already read Molly Pitcher’s story as I had read the Jeb Stuart book. I became more convinced than ever that Mrs. Snow was right – some children ought to be able to go to the library and get new books whenever they needed them.
I was pondering my wisdom when something caught my ear. Mrs. Hendrix, a 5th grade teacher, was talking to her class about the Revolutionary War. Despite my desire to get to the library and back to class, I slowed as I passed her open classroom door, then stopped altogether as she continued. She and the class were talking about a book about the Revolutionary War called Johnny Tremain. Then she began to read aloud to the class. I was drawn to her voice telling the story of the hero being arrested over a silver cup that his uncle claimed he’d stolen. Without thinking I leaned against the doorway soaking in Mrs. Hendrix’s reading of Esther Forbes’s words.
It took a moment before I realized Mrs. Hendrix had stopped reading and was addressing me. I started and stood up very straight. “Yes ma’am?” I answered timidly.
“What are you doing?”
I couldn’t tell if her tone were accusing or simply inquisitive. She was known as a stern teacher although she was small and slender and favored wasp-waisted dresses. “I was – I was – just listening,” I stuttered. The class snickered.
She put her hand to her lips to hide a smile. “I see. Well, where are you supposed to be right now?”
I panicked and forgot my plan. “Um, um, Mrs. Granger’s room”
She crossed her arms, her finger holding her place in the book. “Why, then,” she asked, smiling more openly now, “are you standing in my doorway?”
By this time I had recovered my poise a little. “I’m going to the library,” I said confidently.
I could tell by the look on her face that she didn’t find that sufficient explanation for why I’d been standing in her doorway listening to her read. I tried again. “I – I heard you talking about a story about the Revolution. I like Revolutionary War stories.” As proof I held up my copy of Ben Franklin: Boy Printer.
Mrs. Hendrix took a few steps towards me and perused the cover, then nodded. “So I see,” she said. “Well, perhaps you should get along to the library. I’m sure you can find another story about the Revolutionary War there.”
I nodded “Yes ma’am.” I turned to go then turned back to her. “I’m sorry Mrs. Hendrix. I didn’t mean – “
She smiled again, waved the book at me to shoo me away, then turned back to her class.
Eight year old boys don’t have a good sense of time. By the time I left Mrs. Hendrix’s doorway and made my way to the library, I’d been gone from my classroom over ten minutes. About the time that I entered the library, Deborah, my old nemesis from 2nd grade who sat in the same front seat in the next row over, raised her hand. When Mrs. Granger finally noticed her and asked what she wanted, Deborah asked her where I’d gone. That was when Mrs. Granger discovered I’d left class, I learned later from friends – and Deborah.
I went into the library only to discover that Miss Williams’ 6th graders were there for their library visit. That meant Mike and Ricky, so I hesitated. Mrs. Snow and Miss Williams were across the room talking to students, among whom were Mike and Ricky. I saw an opening and took it. I gently laid my book on the checkout desk and eased my way over to the 4th grade shelf of biographies. I dropped to my knees to be less conspicuous and began searching through the rows of books for Molly Pitcher. I hit upon a biography of a famous baseball player (I could tell from the cover), one I hadn’t noticed before: Lou Gehrig: Boy of the Sand Lots. I took it from the shelf and was engrossed immediately.
So much so that I failed to notice Mike and Ricky until they were standing over me. I looked up and my eyes went from one to the other, wondering who was going to give me a “frog punch” or “Indian sunburn” on my arm first. Then something amazing happened.
“Whatcha reading?” asked Mike, seeming genuinely interested.
“A- a book about Lou Gehrig,” I stammered softly.
“The baseball player?” asked Ricky, dropping to his knees and scanning the shelves.
“Yeah.” I reached out and took a book down and handed to him. “This one’s on Babe Ruth.”
“Whoa.” He opened the book and began reading. I noticed that his lips moved but thought better of mentioning it to him. I remembered my grandmother’s observation when I’d mocked a child for doing the same thing one afternoon at the public library: “Charlie, that child’s reading. That’s enough.”
Mike dropped down beside me. “You want a baseball book, too?” I asked.
“Maybe later. They got any on Civil War heroes?”
I handed him an early favorite of mine, a book called Robert E. Lee: Boy of Old Virginia. He took it almost reverently and began reading. I watched the two of them a few minutes, then my curiosity got the better of me. Like Ben Franklin in my favorite biography, I always had to ask questions even if it got me into trouble. “Why didn’t you all punch me again?” They’d caught up with me on the walk home from school after that first run-in and both had given me frog punches on each arm that were sore for days.
Ricky just smiled and kept reading.
“After we got you back for the thing in the hall with Miss Williams,” Mike said, “you could have told on us. She told us she’d told you to – and you didn’t. So you’re okay, Beagle.”
He went back to his book and so did I. In fact, we were all engrossed in our books when Miss Williams, Mrs. Snow, and Mrs. Granger found us.
* * * * * * * *
I remember lots of confusion from those next few minutes. Mrs. Granger saying something on the order of “Lordy, Charlie! Here you are. You frightened me half to death.” Mrs. Snow, trying not to smile, adding, “Probably the first place you should have looked, Louise-” then correcting herself to “Mrs. Granger.”
And Miss Williams looking from me, now standing holding the Lou Gehrig book, to Ricky, working away at the Babe Ruth, to Mike, oblivious, sprawled on his stomach devouring Robert E. Lee at an impressive pace. She frowned in puzzlement and I was about to ask her what was wrong when Mrs. Granger put her hand on my shoulder. “Come with me, Charlie. We need to talk with Dr. Norman.” The principal. The place where you went if you were really bad. The place where you could get paddled – or expelled. Expelled, which I’d looked up in the big dictionary in the library (with Mrs. Snow’s help) meant you were thrown out of school – and you couldn’t go to the library.
Mike and Ricky’s heads snapped up. I glanced down and Ricky made a throat slashing gesture, then winked and grinned at me before returning to his reading. Mike simply shook his head and plowed back into his book.
“What book do you have, Charlie?” asked Mrs. Snow gently.
“Lou Gehrig,” I whispered, terrified I’d never get to come back to the library. Never get to come back to school. Never get to learn anything else.
“Have you checked it out?”
I tried to answer, but I felt myself starting to cry. The world I loved was about to be taken from me and Mrs. Snow was worried about her library book. “Would you like to?” she asked.
In spite of myself, I nodded. Mrs. Granger began, “Myra, I think-“
Mrs. Snow, in that gesture attributed to librarians everywhere, put her finger to her lips – and Mrs. Granger got quiet.
We went to the checkout desk. Mrs. Snow saw Ben Franklin and picked it up. “Did you bring this book to check in, Charlie?” she said.
I nodded. Tears were running down my cheeks.
“Well, let me have the Lou Gehrig book and we’ll check it out for you.” She checked her card file, found the Ben Franklin card, replaced it in the book, and stamped the check in slip in the back of the book. Then she took the card from the Lou Gehrig book, wrote my name on it. Stamped the check out slip, and handed it to me.
I looked up at Mrs. Granger. She sighed and nodded.
“Wait for Mrs. Granger by the door, Charlie,” said Mrs. Snow. “I need to speak to her for a moment.”
I went to the door and waited. They talked earnestly for what seemed a long while to me, then Mrs. Granger nodded and smiled. She came to the door and I held it open for her. “Come along, Charlie,” she said, and started down the hall.
As I turned to follow, I saw Mrs. Snow reach for her telephone.
* * * * * * * *
Mrs. Granger led the way down the side hall from the library to the main hall that ran across the school from side to side and that led back to the classroom. But instead of turning left towards our classroom, she walked almost directly across the hall – and into the principal’s office. I followed timidly.
Mrs. Leake, the school secretary, asked us to wait a moment, then sent us into Dr. Norman’s office. It seemed enormous to me. Dr. Norman sat behind a desk that seemed twice the size of Mrs. Granger’s. Her dark hair, which seemed odd given her probable age (I realize now it was dyed), was a helmet of sorts. Her eyes, though kind, were piercing. She wore those little half glasses that reminded me of Ben Franklin’s specs.
She was on the phone when we entered her office. With the words, “I think I understand, Myra. I’ll handle this. Goodbye,” she hung up and turned to us. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Granger,” she said, “what can I do for you?”
“Dr. Norman, I need your help with a student. This-” she held out her hand to indicate me, “is Charlie Beagle. He’s one of my brightest students.”
Dr. Norman, remarkable, though I didn’t understand it then, was the smartest, best educated woman in my town (hell, my county) and the only one to hold a doctorate in the entire school system. The following interchange between an eight year old would be wunderkind and a wise and gifted academic is brought to you by Charlie Beagle, one time would be wunderkind.
“Hello, Charlie,” said Dr. Norman.
I waved hello. I was too intimidated to speak.
Dr. Norman looked at Mrs. Granger. Mrs. Granger offered a terse explanation of what I had done: left her classroom, gone to the library without permission, frightened both Mrs. Granger and the class.
“The class?” asked Dr. Norman.
“Well-” Mrs. Granger hesitated. “I just don’t understand why-“
“Mrs. Snow said good reader kids should be able to go to the library and change their books as they need to,” I blurted.
Both women looked at me – Mrs. Granger oddly, as if she’d found me reading her diary, Dr. Norman interestedly, as if I’d offered an explanation for my behavior.
“Charlie,” Mrs. Granger began, “if you heard Mrs. Snow say that…”
Dr. Norman held up her hand and Mrs. Granger stopped speaking.
“What do you mean, Charlie? You said ‘good reader kids should be able to go to the library as they need to.'”
I nodded. I pulled my lower lip over my upper in my accustomed fashion while I considered my response. I looked up at Mrs. Granger who looked at me with a mixture of concern and exasperation. I looked across at Dr. Norman, still seated at her desk, hands folded in front of her, calm, yet attentive. It seemed to me that if I could just explain about Ben Franklin that everything would be okay.
“Dr. Norman,” I began, “it’s…about Ben Franklin-“
Just then Mrs. Leake put her head inside the door. “Mrs. Granger, you’re needed in your classroom. One of your students just came in and said that two little boys are about to get into a fight.”
“Go ahead, Louise. I can talk to Charlie,” said Dr. Norman.
Mrs. Granger leaned over and whispered to me, “Be good and tell Dr. Norman the truth, Charlie.”
She ruffled my hair and went out. I turned to Dr. Norman. As I did, I heard the door creak slightly behind me. There stood Deborah – it had been she who’d reported the fight to the office. She’d been eavesdropping and touched the door to Dr. Norman’s office and it had swung open revealing her.
“Yes?” Dr. Norman looked at Deborah – who looked as if she’d just seen a ghost.
“Thank you for reporting the fight, dear. You may go back to class now.”
Deborah bolted like a squirrel. In spite of myself I laughed as I watched her flee. Dr. Norman cleared her throat and I whirled around and came to my best approximation of attention.
Despite her better judgment, Dr. Norman was smiling a little. “You were telling me about Ben Franklin, Charlie.” She looked at me over her little half glasses.
“Yes ma’am” Lower lip went over upper again.
“You can tell me more now.”
I nodded. “Well, I really like the 4th grade biographies. The ones that tell about famous Americans when they were kids. You know the ones I mean?”
Dr. Norman, still looking amused, nodded as sagely as she could.
“Well, my favorite of those is the one about Ben Franklin. He was always asking people questions because he wanted to learn. In the book he even talks to an Indian and gets invited to the Indian village.”
Dr. Norman was looking at me in that way my dad did when he thought I was wandering from what I was supposed to be telling him. I wasn’t, but I figured I’d better get to the point quickly. “Anyway, Franklin is always trying to learn more. And figure out things, okay? And I feel like that, too.”
Dr. Norman leaned back in her chair and folded her hands and put them to her lips. Then she tapped her fingertips together. I started to fidget. Then she asked, “What does Ben Franklin have to do with your going to the library without asking, Charlie?”
I nodded, although standing there looking at her I wasn’t sure I could explain. But I figured I’d better try. “You see, there’s this scene in the book where Ben sits down to dinner but the mush doesn’t look right. And he says something about it. And that meant he’d broken The Rule, which was not to say anything bad about the food no matter what. So he had to go to bed without supper….”
I could tell that Dr. Norman thought I was wandering again and I wasn’t sure what to do next, so I just plunged ahead. “So, anyway, I had heard Mrs. Snow tell Mrs. Granger that there ought to be a rule for good reader kids – that they could go to the library when they needed to for new books and all – and as I thought about it, I began to think there was a rule and so I -“
And I stopped.
And Dr. Norman knew why I’d stopped.
There was no rule. I’d made it all up.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Norman. I shouldn’t have gone to the library without asking Mrs. Granger. She told me when I checked out Ben Franklin again that I shouldn’t ask to go to the library if I got bored because I’d already read that book. I was trying to read it, Dr. Norman. And I read that scene about the mush and The Rule and I just made something up. There isn’t any rule that lets good reader kids go to the library when they need to.”
Dr. Norman leaned forward on her desk. “So, Charlie. What do you need to do?”
I put my hands in my pockets – then thought of my what my grandmother had told me about behaving like a gentleman and tugged them out again and stood up straight. “I need to apologize, Dr. Norman.”
She sat up, slightly impressed, and nodded in agreement. “I think that’s a fine idea, Charlie. What made you decide that?”
“Well, my grandmother says that when a gentleman makes a mistake the first thing he should do is apologize. Then he should try to make things right.”
Dr. Norman nodded, impressed even more, it seemed. “Who is your grandmother, Charlie?”
I was puzzled for a moment. Grandmother was, well, Grandmother. Then I realized she was asking Grandmother’s name. “My grandmother is Cornelia Frances Lee, Dr. Norman.”
“Ah,” said Dr. Norman. I didn’t know it then, but that “ah” was good fortune. Grandmother had once been a leading light of the UDC (United Daughters of the Confederacy), a group in which Dr. Norman was quite active. And I doubt, in those misty days of my youth, if there was a more revered surname among that group than my grandmother’s.
“Your grandmother is a fine Southern lady, Charlie,” said Dr. Norman thoughtfully.
“Yes ma’am.” I knew that was nice of Dr. Norman to say. But Grandmother was, well, Grandmother. Of course, she was good. She was wonderful. I was glad Dr. Norman thought so, too.
“Do you think-” Dr. Norman paused for a few moments and I began to fidget. She eyed me complacently, almost – well, almost exactly as my grandmother did. Most adults got irritated by my fidgetiness. But Dr. Norman, like my grandmother, seemed to pay it no mind. And, as with my grandmother, my fidgetiness just sort of went away. I became calm and thoughtful.
There was a window behind Dr. Norman’s desk. It was a November afternoon and there was a wind blowing. I could see leaves being swirled up into the air. And I murmured aloud a line from “The Night Before Christmas”:
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly
Dr. Norman turned and looked out the window, then capped my line:
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky….
She turned back to me and smiled. “You really are a ‘reader kid,’ aren’t you, Charlie?”
I shrugged. “Yes, ma’am, I guess so.”
She tapped her fingertips together again. “Now. About those apologies-“
“You need to apologize to Mrs. Granger for upsetting her. And you must apologize to your classmates for upsetting them.”
I wrinkled my nose at the second of these directives. I didn’t relish the idea of standing up in front of my class and apologizing. But I nodded to show I understood and agreed.
“And, finally, you must apologize and thank Mrs. Snow,” Dr. Norman said as she began to write on a piece of paper.
“Yes, ma’am.” Lower lip over upper. “Dr. Norman?”
“Yes, Charlie?” She looked at me with a twinkle in her eye, anticipating my question.
“What do I thank Mrs. Snow for?”
Dr. Norman began writing again. “For the new school rule, Charlie.”
I didn’t say anything. Dr. Norman wrote on for 30 seconds or so, then looked up. My expression made her smile.
“You can’t guess what the new rule will be, Charlie?”
Then it hit me. But it seemed so unlikely and perfect that I couldn’t bring myself to speak. Dr. Norman saw the wonder on my face and took pity.
“Yes, Charlie, there will be a new rule for the ‘good reader kids.’ They will be able to go to the library and get new books when they need them. But – they must ask their teachers for permission. As long as they’re not missing out on class work, their teachers will let them go. That will be The Rule. Do you think you can obey that rule?”
I nodded, grinning like a monkey.
She handed me a folded paper. “Take this note to Mrs. Granger. Then, do as she tells you. Now, Charlie, it’ll be Tuesday before the new rule is in effect. Will you promise me not to go to the library again without asking?”
“Good. Now, go to the bathroom, then back to your class.”
“I nodded and darted for the door, then skidded to a stop. “Thank YOU, Dr. Norman,” I said.
She smiled and waved me out. I saluted Mrs. Leake and raced down the hall to the bathroom, then raced back to Mrs. Granger’s room.
* * * * * * * *
I apologized to Mrs. Granger as I gave her the note. She read the note, then asked me when I wanted to apologize to the class. I did it right then. I was so happy that it wasn’t hard at all in spite of Dennis Wise and Jerry Brandon making faces at me. Mrs. Granger and I went to the library after school and I apologized to Mrs. Snow. Then Mrs. Granger had her read Dr. Norman’s note before I thanked her. When I did, she gave me a hug and sent me on my way with a “Thank YOU, Charlie Beagle.”
The new rule went into effect just as Dr. Norman had told me it would. I was, as you can guess, one of the “good reader kids” who got to go to the library whenever I needed to – as long as I asked Mrs. Granger.
That was The Rule.