A Reader Shall Never Be Illiterate

Back in those magical 1950s, Texas had a law that a child couldn’t start first grade unless they were six years old on or before September 1st, the standard start of the school year. So my birthday came on September 17th, rendering me ineligible for formal education.

As my neighborhood friends marched down the sidewalk in their new school clothes, off to George C. Clark Elementry, I stood on the front porch feeling like life was passing me by. In a way, it was, and for a kid, the slightest things seem dramatic.

My Mother and my aunt Norma hatched a plan. They got their hands on two years of Dick and Jane books. First and second-grade editions that taught kids to read. Within a few months, I was a reading machine, having breezed through the books learning to read and then write in the lined notebooks used in school. My Mother and Aunt Norma were determined that I would enter the first grade on a third-grade level. I suffered through the year of drills and teaching techniques, but I emerged a better student for it.

My aunt Norma, a crazed reader, introduced me, by reading me, Micky Spillane, Zane Gray, and a long line of pulp fiction paperbacks that in a decent world should have been off limits to a kid my age. Murder, mayhem, sex, and salacious behaviors seemed normal to me before the age of seven. ” Mike Hammer stood in the doorway as the cool redhead dropped her robe to the floor exposing her watoness to the hardened detective.” What kid reads that crap? It seemed normal to me.

Entering the first grade, my teacher was perplexed by my abilities. I had already advanced to the third-grade level of reading and cursive writing. She assumed I was an idiot savant and recommended I be sent to a special school for mal-adjusted children. Fortunately, my Mother and aunt intervened and explained the situation and their tutorial extensions. I was saved and allowed to attend classes with my peers, even though I was bored and apt to nap most of the day. My teacher asked the class about their favorite Dick and Jane book, and I explained that Mickey Spillane was my most endured famous writer, along with Mark Twain, of who I wanted to become. An hour in the principal’s office did nothing to deter me from my goals or abilities. Once again, I was on the savant list; and another conference was convened on my behalf. With no kindergarten in those days, kids were expected to trod along at a slow pace and learn as a group at that level. My additional year at home had allowed me to surpass in the form of hyper-speed, eclipsing my peers that were by no means ignorant but only learning at the average speed expected.

By fourth grade, I had read Mark Twain’s collection of works and started on “The Grapes of Wrath.” I didn’t grasp many of Steinbeck’s words and his sentence structure, but in all, I got the jest of the story because my grandparents had been the Okies that traveled to California and did the fruit and vegetable picking Steinbeck wrote of. Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, Gertrude Stien, and F. Scott Fitzgerald found me. I was ruined for life. Dick and Jane were nothing but fodder for a good winter fire in our hearth.

9 Replies to “A Reader Shall Never Be Illiterate”

  1. (1) Cursive is dead. Audio books are convenient, but…
    (2) Teachers have been directed to concentrate on bubble kids in some cases (those students who are “performing just below or just above the “proficiency” line) and, at other times, on the kids at the bottom who should not be “left behind.” Students who test at or above standard are usually ignored, which can affect motivation.
    (3) In the Title I elementary school where I taught for a few years, homework was made voluntary, and no student could receive a percentage grade of less than 60%.
    (4) I bucked the system, but teachers were encouraged to give every student in class an award in one school assembly or another during the year. Students who didn’t qualify for A/B honor roll were rewarded for progress, social contribution, congeniality, breathing, or whatever the teacher could invent.
    (5) With the rise of critical race theory, a public school should be scrutinized by parents before sending one’s kid to classes there .Private schools and home schooling are becoming ever more popular among conservatives.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your input. I didn’t know you were a teacher, and as I would a veteran, “thank you for your service,” because I know from a few friends and cousins that were educators, what a battlefield it can be. You are right on all points. I saw this emerging in the 80s when my boys were in school. Awards for everything, lowering the bar so each student felt good about themselves. My kids went through their education in Plano, Texas, which at that time was considered the one of the best systems in the US. My oldest chose a career with his hands and my youngest went to Texas State where he became an indoctrinated liberal, as did his wife. I am forever grateful for my mother and aunts foresight to take home schooling to task to insure I was more than ready for public education. It was so different in the 1950s.

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  2. Phil, As usual, your piece brought up memories. Luckily, I was born smack dab in the middle of the summer, so I started on schedule. However, the public education timeline was not sufficient for my folks. Accordingly, I got a lot of home tutoring and was expected to be ahead of everyone else in my class. That led me down a path similar to yours, reading-wise. However, my reading list focused on writers such as Jules Vern, H. G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Asimov, Vonnegut, Heinlein, etc. Thanks for the flashbacks. Eric

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    1. I did read Jules Vern and Vonnegut as well as Roth and Capote but my first author that turned me into a “book-o-phile was Mark Twain. It was easy to see myself as Huck.

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  3. Similar memories. Similar authors. My first Steinbeck was Travels With Charley and I absolutely loved it. In fact, it inspired a trip to northern California just to see Steinbeck sights like Cannery Row, Salinas Valley & Monterey.
    I even traced some of route in Texas.
    “Writers facing the problem of Texas find themselves floundering in generalities, and I am no exception,” he wrote. “Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.”

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Going to check out his two bookstores, DQ, the kwick stop, the rodeo arena and maybe Los Doloros where Jacy lived for a while. Most of McMurtrys characters were real folks with different names. Of course Sam the Lion is long gone. Yeah, we thought CS would be cooler, its going to the in the mid 90s. Geeez.


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