63 years ago, Lizzie and I did indeed learn to read. Here, through the eyes of my childhood self, is how that finally happened, in the first-grade classroom at Concord School during a long-ago October…
Despite the disappointment of not learning to read on her first day in the first grade, Lizzie loved going to school. Each morning she had the kitchen table all to herself, with her sisters still sound asleep upstairs. She ate the soft-boiled egg over a piece of toast her mother fixed for her breakfast and listened to the morning farm broadcast on the radio.
As the days passed into autumn, Lizzie donned a red jacket and scarf at recess to ward off the cooling temperatures. But her first-grade classroom never failed to offer warmth and fascination.
Those days were filled with the letters of the alphabet. Although the pace seemed incredibly slow to Lizzie, she and her fellow first-graders learned one new letter each day.
Mrs. Pratt reinforced the daily lessons with sheets containing a word such as “horse” or “umbrella,” accompanied by a picture and examples of the new letter to color. Mrs. Pratt used her half-blue-half-red pencil to grade the sheets: a blue checkmark was good, but papers with red checkmarks needed improvement.
Lizzie and her classmates also spent time recognizing, reciting, and writing the numbers 1-10. They moved on to the -teen numbers and continued with the 20’s, 30’s, and beyond.
Then a special assignment excited the children as much as it made them nervous. Each child would stand in front of the whole class and count to 100. And there was a reward: a Hershey bar!
Most everyone accomplished the task easily and gladly accepted the chocolate treat, although they were not allowed to eat it at school. Occasionally someone counted out of order and had to start over the next day. Sadly, one girl reached 99 but simply could not remember the next number, although everyone tried silently to help her say 100. Lizzie counted to 117 before the teacher made her sit down. Unfortunately, she arrived home with a very melty candy bar.
The children learned to cut neatly with their blunt-tip scissors and used their eight Crayolas to color inside the purple lines of pictures Mrs. Pratt passed out to them. Once they colored and cut out autumn leaves, then used paste from jars with little brushes to attach the leaves to construction paper. Mrs. Pratt hung their creations all around the room.
One morning, Lizzie noticed some little books piled on Mrs. Pratt’s desk. After each first-grader received one of the slim paper volumes, Mrs. Pratt pointed to three words she had printed on the front blackboard, “Come and See,” which she explained were the title of the book.
Lizzie saw the words on the cover of her book and watched carefully as Mrs. Pratt pointed to each word and again pronounced: “Come and See.” From that moment, Lizzie heard nothing else. She turned page after page searching for “come.” Each time she spotted the word, she placed her finger under it and said it very quietly.
She did not notice the pictures of Dick, Jane, and Sally, nor did she pay the slightest attention to what the other children were doing. She would find “come,” pronounce it, and move on. When she had found all the “comes,” she closed the book, reopened it, and found every single “and.”
As she repeated the process for “see,” she could scarcely contain her excitement. Even as she searched, discovered, pointed, and pronounced, she knew her wish had come true. She could not stop telling herself: “I am reading! I am reading!”
From that day on, Lizzie loved school more than ever. The class learned about stringing letters together to make words and all about long and short vowels and silent letters. They practiced spelling words correctly.
The children also wrote in their “Think-and-Do” workbooks. Lizzie always finished long before everyone else because she turned her workbook sideways to read the teacher’s instructions while Mrs. Pratt was explaining what the class should do on the page. It did not really matter; she always received blue checkmarks for each workbook assignment.
Lizzie read at home and at school. Although she still liked to listen to her mother read aloud, Lizzie could read some of the weekly library books all by herself. She listened to her teacher read after the noon recess and also read some of the books Mrs. Pratt had shown them on the first day of school.
And then came a most memorable school day. One of her sisters had received a copy of The Little Gingerbread Man for Christmas. Lizzie read it several times to her sister and several more times to herself. One day she took the book to school for show-and-tell.
So impressed by how well Lizzie read the story, Mrs. Pratt sent her across the hall to the third-grade classroom. Although she was nervous standing in front of all those bigger kids, Lizzie read the whole book aloud without making even one mistake.
It had taken longer than she had expected, but Lizzie spent all her autumn days doing what she had gone to school to do. She had learned to read and, in the process, had also learned that reading was more wonderful than even she had ever dreamed.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.