Monday, March 1, 2010
By the time I was in first grade, I could read anything my teacher Miss Betham put in front of me. Green Eggs and Ham? No problem. Tikki Tikki Tembo? Piece of cake. Eventually, she had to borrow books from the teachers in other grades, just to keep me from getting bored. It wasn't long before I was reading the same books as the fifth graders were, classics like Stuart Little, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and A Cricket in Times Square.
One afternoon, Miss Betham decided to march me over to one of the fifth grade classrooms and have me read a couple chapters from Charlotte's Web out loud to the older kids. I didn't want to do it. Wasn't it enough that I'd read it to my own first grade reading group, better known as the "Eagles"? That's what she called the high group of readers, "Eagles". It's a well-known policy among elementary school teachers not to name your reading groups the "high" group, "middle" group, and "low" group. Self-esteem issues, you understand. I think Miss Betham missed the point, though, because naming our groups "Eagles," "Bluejays" and "Fat-Headed Dodos" pretty much sent the same message. So anyway, there I was in the fifth grade classroom, reading Charlotte's Web.
I was nervous. I didn't even like getting up in front of my own classmates, and they were my friends. The fifth graders were big kids, they were scary. So I just started reading the story, blocking out the unfamiliar surroundings.
". . . and right spang in the middle of the web were the words 'Some Pig.' The words were woven right into the web. They were actually part of the web, Edith. I know, because I have been down there and seen them. It says, 'Some Pig,' just as clear as can be. There can be no mistake about it. A miracle has happened and a sign has occurred here on earth, right on our farm, and we have no ordinary pig."
As I read the story, the fifth grade teacher walked over to Miss Betham, who was standing right next to me, and started whispering about how she wished her own students could read with such expression and enthusiasm. Bolstered by the compliments, I continued with the story . . .
Next morning, Wilbur arose and stood beneath the web. He breathed the morning air into his lungs. Drops of dew, catching the sun, made the web stand out clearly. When Lurvy arrived with breakfast, there was the handsome pig, and over him, woven neatly in block letters, was the word TERRIFIC. Another miracle.
I was worried that the fifth graders would just tease me, or not pay attention to me at all. But to my surprise, they were actually paying attention and enjoying the story. I still felt out of place, but instead of worrying about being a "little show-off," I got into the story even further changing my voice to match the different characters. Templeton had a wise-guy voice, Charlotte sounded high-pitched and girlie. Hey, at age six, my mimicry skills were still in the developmental stage. I was no longer just reading, I was performing.
"Jump in the air!" cried Charlotte.
Wilbur galloped back. His skin shone. His tail had a fine, tight curl in it.
"Keep your knees straight and touch the ground with your ears!" called Charlotte.
"Do a back flip with a half twist in it!" cried Charlotte.
Wilbur went over backwards, writhing and twisting as he went.
"O.K., Wilbur," said Charlotte. "You can go back to sleep. O.K., Templeton, the soap ad will do, I guess. I'm not sure Wilbur's action is exactly radiant, but it's interesting."
"Actually," said Wilbur, "I feel radiant."
Miss Betham stopped me at the end of the chapter, and the fifth graders actually applauded. I was somewhat embarrassed, but for the first time I realized that reading was a skill that didn't come easily to everyone. I couldn't have put it in these terms back then, but I think part of the reason Miss Betham had me read to the older kids was to teach me to appreciate books and not take reading for granted.
And thanks to her, I've loved reading ever since, the only exception being all those "required reading" novels that teachers throw at you in high school. I hated The Scarlet Letter, had no interest in Gatsby, and cheated off Dan Richardson to get through the tests on Beowulf. Aside from that, however, books have always been part of my life, and a constant source of entertainment.
Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to get back to the latest John Sandford novel.
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