I was lost in my school for two years, at least figuratively if not actually, lost. Kindergarten and first grade were baffling. I simply did not understand why everyone else was so smart and I was such a dummy. I can still remember looking at the ducks that marched in a perfect line across the wall above the blackboards (yes, I am that old, they were all black chalkboards and only in the front of the class back then) wondering why I couldn’t remember how to spell ‘brown’. There was that smirking little brown duck, the letters clearly printed under him. He strode defiantly between the green duck and the orange duck, mocking me, daring me to remember where the ‘w’ was supposed to be.
Somehow I got to second grade and two remarkable things happened. One, I became interested in dinosaurs and two, I was placed with new teacher named Mrs. Fletcher. Mrs. Fletcher worked her spell on me. She was not a witch, she did not do magic or conjure up miraculous cures. Quite the contrary she was a pleasant, dedicated young teacher who simply accepted and understood that not everyone needed to do everything at the same time.
That was her gift to me: time. It was a valuable present for a child who was at the time the youngest and most immature in her class. She allowed the me the time to catch up. And I caught up by chasing dinosaurs.
There are a lot of people who believe they understand how reading works. I am one of them. I believe you read when you want to read.
In October of 1957 we had a book fair at Sheridan Elementary School. At that fair I saw a book called All About Dinosaurs by Roy Chapman Andrews. It was a hardback copy that cost the astronomical amount of $2.00. These were the days when candy bars were a nickel and a gallon of milk cost a dollar, delivered to your door! Somehow I persuaded my mom that it was worth almost two hours pay for her to get that book. She scraped it together, literally, I paid in change carried in an envelope, and I got it!
I still have the book.
I am surprised I still have it as I virtually devoured the book when I got it. I kept it in my desk and whenever I finished my work I got out paper and drew dinosaurs. Sometimes when I was just half finished with my work, I drew dinosaurs. OK, often when I hadn’t even begun my work I drew dinosaurs.
But the dinosaurs I drew had a life of their own that made me smart. They were long and heavy or small and light and some were numerous and others were uncommon and all the data I studied forced me to learn what that data meant.
Then David Anderson, a kid in my room who was really smart, gave me a present that opened all new worlds. He too was a dinosaur nut. As he was writing his “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up” opus, he used the word, archaeologist. I asked him what it meant. He said that was a person who digs up dinosaurs. I was enthralled and began using the word immediately by copying it off his paper — a faux pas he still probably hasn’t forgiven me for.
Donalyn Miller writes a blog called “The Book Whisperer” 1. She says it is important for teachers to show they are readers for their students to want to be readers. While I do not remember what she read, I know Mrs. Fletcher read to us every day, as did Mrs. Berg and Mrs. Westerman and Mrs. Strohmaier and Mrs. Brown. All my elementary teachers read to their class, out-loud everyday.
I do remember one book Mrs. Berg, my third grade teacher, read. It was the The Boxcar Children, a classic children’s book that I have subsequently read to every class I have taught. I also make it a point to read a poem out-loud from two of my two favorite authors everyday; I read a Shel Silverstein poem and one from Emily Dickinson to start our morning meeting at school. Every year at Halloween I read Poe’s “The Raven” out-loud and on the last day of school I always read Kipling’s “The Elephant’s Child” to my students thus finally making clear to them why I have used two phrases: “O best beloveds” and “Come hither little one” all year long when speaking to them.
Studying dinosaurs was one of my interests but I had others. I like to tell the story that I didn’t find out it was ‘paleontologists’ that study dinosaurs until I was almost done with my degree and that’s why I became an archaeologist instead. Maybe that was David’s revenge.
In actuality I started reading about archaeology in middle school and became hooked, especially when I found out we were moving to Arizona, a hotbed of archaeology research. Dinosaurs became my avocation instead of my vocation. I have passed their engrossing devotion to them on to my grandson. But to this day I am grateful to dinosaurs for forcing me to want to read.