I was raised in a financially poor household in the late ’50s to early ’70s. I know now that we were rich in the things that matter, but no one could have convinced me of that when I was a lonely child looking for toys to occupy my long days while my two older sisters went off to that glorious place called school. Not having much stuff and having too much time on my hands afforded me the blessing of a vivid imagination. I loved to play “school.” I loved books and the power they held. I loved to write important information on every scrap piece of paper I could find. No envelope or piece of mail was safe from my “school work.”
In the weeks leading up to my first day of school, I spent a considerable amount of time wondering what my first teacher would be like. Would she have a nice smile? Would she be young and pretty, or would it be the same teacher my sister had three years earlier? I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get her. There were pros and cons. A pro was that she liked my sister, so surely she would like me. There were, however, more cons. She was old, and only smiled half-smiles. She wore high-top nanny shoes like Mary Poppins. Mary Poppins was stern but fun, though—this woman was just stern.
Well, I ended up getting my sister’s old, un-fun teacher, but the important thing was that I finally made it to school. I had finally entered the fantasy land of books and papers and pencils.
For five long years I had watched my sisters wait at the end of the driveway for that elusive school bus. Their arms would be piled high with books and notebooks. They looked so important. I fantasized about the day I could join them on that bus. I envisioned my arms over-loaded with books stacked to my chin. When the first day of school finally arrived, I could hardly contain my enthusiasm.
So you can imagine my disappointment to learn that first graders weren’t allowed to take their own paper and pencils to school, and we had to leave our books there too. Getting on that bus empty-handed was just about more than I could bear. I had to take action.
One afternoon, I collected every old workbook I could find that my sisters had from their earlier school days. When that bus rolled up the road the next morning, I was ready, my arms loaded, just like the big kids. Upon my arrival at school, I dutifully placed that stack of books underneath my desk. And then I promptly forgot about them, until the student next to me raised her hand and said, “Sandy has two workbooks!”
I didn’t know what she was talking about. But the teacher rushed over to my desk, grabbed my sister’s previously used workbook from under my desk, angrily thumbed to the page we were working on, and proceeded to tell the class what a low-life cheater I was.
“You even missed the same problem!” she snapped. She seemed very proud of herself, as if she had busted an evil cheating ring with her tremendous sleuthing skills. She was going to make an example of me if it was the last thing she did in her teaching career.
In one brief encounter on that fall morning, this teacher single-handedly transformed a little six-year-old girl from a child who could barely contain her enthusiasm for books and learning, to a child who absolutely dreaded each subsequent school day. I no longer jumped out of bed in the mornings excited to go to school. Books no longer held that magical place in my life. And I was not about to be caught dead with a book in my hands at school!
Without that needed practice, my reading skills reached a plateau. My comprehension was terrible. My mind wandered as I read, and I would often find myself reading page after page, never knowing a thing they said.
That is not to say I didn’t sound
like a good reader. I never missed a spelling word, and my vocabulary was that of a third grader. My high school sister was so proud of my skills, she asked me to showcase my talent for her boyfriend by reading the back of the Crest toothpaste tube for him. (This highly intellectualized sales claim is still etched in the useless information lobe of my brain.) But in the recesses of my mind, I was at recess!
I’m sure my first-grade teacher never picked up on my lost zeal for reading, and she certainly never troubled herself to discover my comprehension problem. In fact, she never really engaged with me the rest of the year. I stayed under her radar, and I was just fine with that.
Near the end of that school year, she called each child to her desk to read individually. No problem. I was the best out-loud reader in the whole class. When it came my turn, I approached the desk and read this paragraph about candy. Only, that day I had a problem confusing my lower case d
with my b
. So every time I came across the word “candy,” I pronounced it can-BUY.
My teacher allowed me to read through an entire story
about can-BUY. When I finished, she said, “Well done, but that word is candy.
Shouldn’t that have been a clue to her that I didn’t comprehend a thing I was reading? Who goes to the store to buy canby? What is canby? Again, this woman squandered a teachable moment.
I received exemplary grades that year, and my reading problem was never discovered. I managed to make good grades through high school as well. (Perhaps that’s an indictment of Georgia schools in the ’60s and ’70s.)
As an adult, I have learned to employ some strategies to help me stay focused. I still read aloud. I try to visualize everything I read, and apply it to my own life when possible. And when all my strategies fail, I read a passage two or three times until it sinks in.
We learn from everyone we encounter, the good and the bad. From my first grade teacher, I learned the damage that can be done to an impressionable young mind and spirit. She broke my spirit, and caused me to be turned off by books and pleasure reading. It took many years of introspection to discern the real damage. If my teacher had spoken to me in private about my little book fetish, without resorting to public humiliation, I suspect I would have had an entirely different attitude about school and reading. If she had only employed some teaching strategies to help me with my obvious comprehension problem, it may have prevented me from being a college dropout.
As much as I would like to blame all my failures in life on my first grade teacher, I can’t do it. To be honest, I was just a tad lazy in college the first time around. But I do believe if I had been a strong reader, it would have made a world of difference. (So, no, I’m not going to let her off the hook completely.)
I was a student who was left behind before “left behind” became a political buzz phrase. In elementary school, I was quiet and caused no trouble. I did as I was told. Aren’t those the people in most of life’s situations who seem to get left behind? The non-complainers, the non-tattle-tales, the rule-followers—they’re the squeak-free wheels that don’t get greased.
I contend it’s that middle-of-the-road student who has the greatest untapped potential to grow and expand his horizons. That’s also the student who will absolutely thrill any teacher who is willing to look at him or her as a human being rather than a task or statistic.
My first-grade experiences have made me acutely aware of the power teachers hold. I hope that I will always use it to be an encourager. I hope I will be keenly tuned to the student who is struggling quietly. I hope that I will be able to ask the right questions to get to the heart of his or her struggles.
After a career in retail management and consulting, Sandy McClure returned to college to pursue a degree in secondary English education. She is currently teaching and writing. In 2011, her first children’s book, THINGS I PONDER, was published. It was a finalist in the children’s division for the 2012 Georgia Author of the Year Awards. Sandy and her sisters also published a children’s epic, THE CHIPMUNK FAMILY ODYSSEY. For more information about these books, visit www.threeheartcreations.com.
© 2013 Sandy McClure. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise. Reflections of a Former Alliterate Reader