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May 28, 2009


Mixed in the memory of first grade are clouds of chalk dust sifting through my sun-filled classroom and the absolute thrill of clutching a hardbound copy of my first “Dick and Jane” reader.

It seems amusing now -- but the wooden antics of Dick and Jane, Spot the dog and Puff the cat will always be etched in that timeless, magical place when the world of books suddenly began to unfold.  All of this is tied in with the essence of the uncelebrated Mrs. Poole, a teacher of ‘the old school’, as plain and strict as the uninspired texts she later parceled out to us as our first introduction to literature.

As was the style in the late ‘50’s, Mrs. Poole wore her greying hair in a well-lacquered bouffant.  Summer and winter, she wore what they used to call “sensible” shoes, with thick cotton stockings under A-line skirts just long enough that her knees were a continuous mystery.  Did she have knees, we wondered?  We never knew anything about Mrs. Poole, except that she rarely laughed and didn’t have children of her own.

On some days, she would arrive with her hair pulled back into a tight bun.  To five-year-olds, this was a disconcerting transformation.  Where was our teacher?  After a few moments, we realized:  Ah, it was Mrs. Poole, one and the same.  But on “bun days” we knew that we must be on our best behavior.  We must listen with rapt attention.  No nonsense whatsoever was allowed.

On those days, Mrs. Poole stalked the classroom with a metal-edged ruler.  Each of our wooden desks, which still held a round hole in one corner to accommodate an inkwell, were ordered to be lined up in rows with precision; our chairs an exact distance from the edge of the desktop.

Once the room was arranged to her satisfaction, the lesson began.  With a long wooden pointer with a rubber tip on the end, she directed our attention to the row of foot-high letters stretched across the top of the blackboard.  Spelled out in print form and then in cursive below, she led us through the litany of the alphabet like a linear rosary:  ‘A, B, C’.  Over and over we recited.  Then, we moved on the sounds of these strange symbols being strung together.  ‘C-A-T’.  Cat.

Cat!  Yes . . . One day it dawned on us.  Letters made sounds.  Sounds made words.  A line had been irrevocably crossed.  Suddenly, without any great fanfare, we could . . . read!  We snapped up every one-syllable word that came our way, slowly making our way through the inconsistencies of the English language.  Each word was a triumph.  Each sentence was like summiting Mt. Everest. Words, words, words!  We were brimming with words, swimming with words, overflowing with words!

Dear, sweet Mrs. Poole.  She could be a tyrant, but we loved her.  How she had the patience with some of us, I’ll never know.  It was she who flung open the doors of the universe for us.  For all her failings, she was the angel who taught us how to decipher all the mysterious symbols we were just noticing held sway over the lives of those around us.  But not only that.  Mrs. Poole taught us how to read, but she also taught us to love to read.

How she did this given all her rigidity and adherence to “the rules” and the bland escapades of Dick and Jane, I’ll never know, but she will forever occupy her rightful place on a pedestal of all pedestals for having handed us that marvelous gift.  That she did this simply, quietly, without any expectation of being thanked is all the more to her credit.

Later, real books were doled out to us like they were gold; as indeed they were to our thirsty, heretofore illiterate souls.  I became a voracious reader, a veritable "bookworm”.  They had to hide my books at night and take away my flashlight, or I would read until the bleary-eyed dawn.

I hope that Mrs. Poole will forgive me for this stark portrait and accept my deepest and undying gratitude for her persistence in bringing me to the light.  Without her spark, I may never have become the kind of reader I am today, or for that matter, a writer.

Though we may bemoan the written word in this age of twittering, incessant blogging and facebooking, that first moment of knowing that our passport has been stamped, our mind freed to wander at will among the thoughts of those who have gone before us, is well worth remembering.

I invite all of you to share your own memories of learning to read! 

Happy remembering!