When I started first grade, I almost immediately ran in to one of those arcane policies that only seem to exist in public school districts. At the time, the schools in Clarksville required you to go through the kindergarten reader if you did not attend kindergarten in the district. This policy applied across the board whether it was sensible or not. I attended a Montessori school for both pre-school and kindergarten, so the policy definitely applied to me and I was not happy about that at all.
I was a precocious six-year-old who got along better with adults than my peers. I usually charmed adults. In fact, they often remarked on how “grown-up” I acted. That was how it usually happened. When my first grade teacher informed me of the reading policy, I acted like a typical six-year-old who did not get his way.
“Leighton, I know we already gave you the reading level test, but before you can start the book, you have to read the kindergarten reader and pass a test on it.”
“But I tested at level five!” I whined, “I’m past first grade reading. I don’t want to read a little kid book.” As an aside, the level five reader was titled Gingerbread and Airplanes, which somehow did not sound like a “little kid book” in my head.
“Yes, you did, but you still have to go through the kindergarten reader since you haven;t already,” she patiently explained.
“Because it’s policy and we have to make sure you read at an age appropriate level.”
“But I already tested above my level. I think I can handle something for little kids.” I should also point out I was the smallest boy in my class, which perhaps explains my fixation with that phrase. Possibly (and much more likely) I was just an obnoxious six-year-old.
“You have to do it or you won’t pass first grade.” She had finally hit on something I cared about. I would happily stand there the entire day and debate my reading ability, but she just slapped me with the threat of repeating first grade. It was only the first week and I had no intention of starting of on that bad a foot.
“Fine, then. Give it to me.” She ignored my surly attitude and handed me the reader.
“Bib the Cat!” I exclaimed, “I have to read something called Bib the Cat? It’s obviously for little kids!”
“Yes, you do,” she said as she pointed to a spot in the corner of the room, “And you have to start now.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but she fixed me with the Teacher Glare. I went to the spot and read the book. Immediately.
A few minutes later, I came back to her desk, plopped the book on it, and said ,”Okay, I’m done.”
“Leighton,” she said wearily, “You have to read the whole book. You can;t just glance at it.”
“I did read the whole book.”
“Then read it again.”
“I don’t want to.”
I clearly pushed it too far because the next thing she said was, “You will read that book until you know it forwards and backwards. Don;t come back until you do.”
My tiny body shook. I listened too much when my mom told me how special I was and this woman wasn’t treating me special at all. I stared at her, fuming. Then I began, “See Bib. Bib is a cat. Bib is a gray cat. See bib the gray cat. See the ball. The ball is a read ball. See Bib the cat with the ball. See Bib the gray cat with the read ball. See the hill. See Bib the cat on the hill . . .” and I quoted the entire thing. Hey, it was a short book.
When I finished I said, “Well that’s forwards. When you say backwards do you mean the words in backwards order or do I need to learn to actually talk backwards?” Teachers loved me. “Why are you rubbing the side of your head with your hands?” I asked.
She sighed and informed me she’d give me the test on the reader the next day. I passed.
When I think back on that day, I realize how lucky I was she didn’t give me the punishment I clearly deserved. It was years before I learned to reign in my attitude and intellect (some would argue I still haven’t) and act properly.
In some ways, life gave me the punishment I deserved from her. The next year, I actually asked a bully if he did what he did to get attention. He indicated he did not, so I explained that his behavior demonstrated that he most likely was acting that way just to get attention. He quickly gave me a lot of attention and explained, in his own way, just how much he disagreed with my assessment.
Though I hated it then, I came to love Bib the Cat and I still have the very book somewhere in my parents house. It reminds me of a time when defying expectations could be as simple as reading a little better or knowing a few more words. It also reminds me that greatness comes not from an ability to do something, but the wisdom of knowing to do that something in the right way.
I could have politely taken the book and done as instructed. I still could have quoted it back, but the recitation might have been met with joy at a hungry student rather than exasperation with an obnoxious one. I could have set up a year of encouragement instead of one characterized by butting heads with my teacher. Often.
I know I will be horrified if either of my children acts the way I did in school sometimes. I try to be honest with them so they will not repeat such mistakes, though I know they will still just make their own.
Whenever my sarcastic nature comes from my six-year-old daughter, either my wife, father, or anyone else who knows me actually, will point out this is my fault.
“What do you mean?” I always ask (and try to sound innocent as I say it).
“They are exactly like you!”
“I know, they are awesome aren’t they?”
Hey, I’m not going to grow up completely.