Friday, March 8, 2013
First Grade: My Dick and Jane Dilemma
Sometimes people ask me why I became a writer. I have several explanations, but the clearest answer to me involves the Dick and Jane reading series that lined school shelves in the 1950s.
I worried about those kids.
Try as I might, I simply couldn’t understand why they only shouted one-syllable verbs at each other. Nor could I see how that was “fun,” even though they insisted it was.
They looked like they were capable of more. They just lacked imagination. I searched the pictures for a hint of something better, a possibility they couldn’t see. I knew their lives could be improved.
Every morning in first grade we sat on tiny wooden chairs circled around the teacher who called us up, group by group: Red Birds, Blue Birds, Yellow Birds. That puzzled me, too. Why couldn’t we ever be: Pandas, Parrots, Porcupines? (I’ve yet to meet anyone my age whose reading group was allowed to be anything but primary-colored generic birds.) I always volunteered to read first to get it over with so I could peek through the pages, searching for an upcoming story of adventure and mayhem for Dick and Jane. Surely the teacher saw me, but she never said a word. Other kids got in trouble for doing the same thing, but I escaped such reprimands.
Fortunately, I married an elementary education major who has translated the mysterious aspects of my early school years. He asked if I remembered vocabulary flash cards. I did.
I told about the early September day when Miss Long turned quickly through the cards. We raised our hands if we knew the word. I still remember the moment a new and very different card was presented. It was not the cat-sat-rat stuff. I knew this word, but I worried because no other hand was raised. Something about her manner told me she wasn’t surprised, but before she could return it to her deck, my hand rose slowly. She looked at me doubtfully. I said, “Floor,” as politely and quietly as I could. She stared. The class turned. That was my Get-Out-of-Jail card for the rest of the year.
Now there was a character with a life. I remember looking at those movement-filled pages and wishing I’d see Dick and Jane with him. I was desperate for them to visit the zoo. I imagined their antics. They’d finally have real fun. The reading bird groups would have fun, too. We’d laugh and cheer and smile in our circled chairs. We’d want to be friends with Dick and Jane. We’d want to turn the pages eagerly.
That’s how I knew the right story could change everything. And I wanted to write it.