Monday, March 1, 2010

Charlotte, Wilbur, and a Room Full of Big Kids

I don't remember learning how to read.  I just remember reading, from the time I was very young.  My mom tells me that I was reading the box scores in the sports section when I was four.  I read everything I could get my hands on; Highlights Magazine, picture books, the back of the Cap'n Crunch box.

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.
Wilbur obeyed.
"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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31 comments:

Grumpy, M.D. said...

Yeah, I have bookshelves everywhere in my home office, overloaded with books, some going back to grade school, of my favorites.

I liked "The Ghost of Dibble Hollow", "The Mad Scientist's Club", and "Tunnel Through Time".

All from Scholastic, of course.

Homemaker Man said...

R.I.F. baby. I get all happy every time I see my toddlers cuddle up with a book and point out their sight words or pretend to read the whole thing.

I will say, you misses the boat on Gatsby . . .

Moooooog35 said...

I'll read if there are pictures involved with no words.

Unless it's Marmaduke.

That dog be crazy.

Quirkyloon said...

Beowulf.

A-woooooooo!

Is there a full moon?

Eva Gallant said...

that was a wonderful post. What a great teacher you had! I can picture you as a 6 year-old, standing up there reading and getting those 5th graders enthralled with the story!

Mike said...

Aye kawnt rite guwd.

Theresa said...

I know what lesson I was supposed to get out of this post, but all I can focus on is, "...I was nervous. I didn't even like getting up in front of my...".

You nervous? You not wanting to talk? Please...

Nooter said...

know how you feel, i get nervous when i eat a book too.
er, i mean 'read', when i read a book. crap. hope the human doesnt see this

screwdestiny said...

I didn't realize I was better at reading than most other kids until 4th grade because before then I was home-schooled. My mom taught me to read at the age of four, and I've loved it ever since. It's too bad I was never a good writer though...

Heff said...

Playboy magazine is about all I "read"

Uncle Skip, said...

You're right. Assigned reading sucked. That was because it interfered with the stuff we wanted to read.
Great post.

Uncle Skip, said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Reading an assigned book is like being raped by a pretty woman. Sure, you're technically doing what you enjoy, but you still wish you could've had a say in the matter...

Michelle H. said...

I was the same as you in grade school. I knew how to read in kindergarten, was bored out of my mind for the rest of the grades. They gave me special workbooks to pass the time and I sat out in the hallway or in a different classroom to read them.

I know you'll be surprised to hear this, but I envy your "required reading" in high school. My English classes were definitely lacking, and most of the classic novels I had to read on my own time. There was one year where the teacher showed movies BASED ON books, for the entire semester, and then we took the tests. I can honestly say I only read 4 books in school. Yet I still developed a love for reading, and writing.

Maggie said...

What a wonderful experience that had a nice ending! I hear ya about reading... And as a former English teacher, I understand about the "required reading"- those books usually suck.

ReformingGeek said...

Lord of the Flies - Uber Ick!

I'm not surprised you were entertaining folks at age six. Good for you!

Brahm said...

Charlotte's Web was my all time favourite from when I was a kid, and helped turn me into a reader, aka book geek now.

And Encyclopedia Brown...

And Lord of the Rings...

and...

Cagey said...

I also learned how to read well at a very young age, although I sorta remember doing it. I remember thinking even then that there were a great many secrets locked up in written things, and it was imperative that I learn how to decode them. Little did I know it was also going to be a great source of entertainment.

Ziva said...

This was a wonderful post. One thing that I disliked about growing up in a small European country is that all the great classics were written in English. I never got to read books like Charlotte's Web, because we read books in Swedish and Finnish. I remember at the age of 11 or 12 when I for the first time read a 'real' book in English, and I realized the remarkable difference it makes if you read a book in its original language. Since then I've filled my book shelves with English books.

I never buy a translated version if I can find the original English version. Likewise, Stieg Larsson's books I read in Swedish, and I believe the experience was even better in the language of the author.

You really captured the joy of reading in this post. :)

Beth said...

I'm impressed that you could read so well to an audience. I was so shy (seriously) that I probably would have vomited.

My mother was a reading teacher and taught me how to read when I was 4. She was so worried that my hearing issues would set me back in school so she gave me an awesome jump start! I have loved reading ever since.

nonamedufus said...

Loved reading s a kid, too. Took extra English credits in high school. Majored in English at university. But never finished. Switched to journalism. Good thing. Knowing how to read was a prerequisite.

Shrinky said...

"Fat-Headed Dodo's" Haaaaaaaaa! I don't know why I'm laughing, I was stuck in the Pelican group (how can you lumber a four year old with a label of "big-mouth", like that?)..

Candy's daily Dandy said...

I think you have the gift of writing too Chris.

Now you've gone and made me want to re-read Charlotte's Web.

Well done. My mom always told us that Eagles don't fly with crows.

Me-Me King said...

I don't know quite what to make of this, but I went from reading Charlotte's Web to Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" which my mother had hidden in her side table drawer under the Ian Flemming novels.

otin said...

Total opposites in this realm. I do almost no reading. I have read very few classics. I don't think that I ever read a book for an assignment. I have read 3 novels in the last 5 years. Now DC comics..... lol!

Also, I was not very much of a public speaker.

MikeWJ at Too Many Mornings said...

You and I have this reading thing in common, Knucklehead. The very first thing I remember reading is The Bible, cover to cover. I was like 5-6 years old. No joke. I'm sure I must've read something in between -- Dick and Jane or Go Dog,Go! -- but I don't remember reading those books until I was an adult. I still love to read, and probably devour thousands and thousands of words a day. I consider it a gift....

KaLynn said...

You have a love of words!! We both have a love of John Sandford!! I love love love your writing! Thanks for sharing with blogger land!

Alice in Wonderland said...

I have always loved reading too. Living in such a remote place, there is nothing else to do!
But I used to hate standing in front of the class to read a paragraph, and my sister reading out loud, while I was trying to read to myself, used to drive me mad!
I really get involved with whatever I'm happening to be reading, I could actually be there!
I loved this post!

Cloudia said...

Aloha, Friend!


Comfort Spiral

cloudia

Suldog said...

Thanks for sharing this, Knucksie. Ever since I wrote my little piece about reading, and you left a comment hinting at this, I've wanted to hear the whole story.

Jenn said...

I loved Charlotte's Web when i was little too. I too was an early reader and would devour Nancy Drew books in one sitting. I think somewhere along the line I felt I had read all I could because I barely make time for it anymore and it really is a bummer, I love to visit these imaginary worlds others have created. Makes it that much easier to write my own. I just snagged a huge box full of all those old required reading books from my grandparent's house and intend to finally discover why they wanted us to read more than the Cliff's notes back in high school.

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