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My mother taught me to read when I was 5 years old and sent me off to school a year later, figuring I was ahead of the game. But before the year was over, the school sent me home to stay because I was “too immature to learn how to read.”
Yes, I got kicked out of first grade.
At the first of what would be many meetings between my parents and Lubbock Independent School District teachers and administrators, my parents pointed out that I already knew how to read. So I obviously was not too immature to learn something I already knew how to do. The heart of the matter turned out to be not my inability to read but rather my unwillingness to read the words the teacher asked me to read.
Mom taught me to read with a book that used phonetics as its teaching tool. My first-grade teacher used the “look-see” method. The teacher would show us a picture of, say, a horse with the word “HORSE” printed in bold letters.
“What’s this a picture of?” the teacher would ask.
The good students replied, “That’s a horse. H-o-r-s-e. Horse.”
I would reply, “That’s a cow. C-o-w. Cow.”
That’s what the school meant by “too immature to learn to read.”
After a year in a private school—the only one in Lubbock willing to accept me—I enrolled in second grade at another public school.
Second grade, same story.
My third-grade teacher even gave me an “F” in Citizenship and assured my parents that no one else in the history of Lubbock education had ever failed Citizenship. Teachers and parents instructed me time and again to “straighten up and fly right,” but I was an elementary school veteran, and I had a reputation to protect.
Mrs. Laird, my fourth-grade teacher at Parkway Elementary, was sweet, sincere and pretty. I wanted her to like me, but inevitably, the day came when Mrs. Laird had taken all she could handle and ordered me to stay after school for disrupting class yet again.
After the other students were gone, she pulled up a chair next to my desk and smiled with what I remember as a disconcerting combination of sweetness and pity.
“The reason I asked you to stay after school is because I have a problem, and I want you to help me figure out what to do about it. Will you help me?”
The only answer here was, “Yes.”
The she looked me in the eye and said, “You’re the funniest kid I’ve ever had in my class. You make people laugh. You even make me laugh! You have a wonderful gift—a sense of humor. Believe me, I don’t want to be the one who takes that gift away from you.”
I knew the hammer was about to fall, and I was the nail.
“The problem is, I can’t teach class when you’re cutting up and all the other students are paying attention to you,” said the hammer to the nail. “How about we make a deal? What if I give you a chance to crack jokes in class, but only at certain times? When I’m talking to the class, I want the other students listening to me—not you.”
How, I wondered, would I recognize when that certain time came around?
“If you start to say something while I’m teaching, I’ll give you a look.” She pushed her glasses to the end of her nose and peered over the top of them, making her look a little like a fussy librarian. “Like that. Got it? If I give you this look, you have to be quiet. If I call on you, I’ll give you the same look if I want a serious answer. You can be you. You just have to let me be me. Deal?”
No doubt Mrs. Laird got tired of people asking her why she always wore her glasses down at the end of her nose, but I finally got a handle on my place in the classroom.
As proof, I point out that my Citizenship grade improved to a “B.”
The last time I heard from Mrs. Laird, I was a senior in high school and my name was in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal because The Ingénue magazine had published a story called The Case of the Missing Vice Principal that I wrote about my continuing struggle within the school system. She called to congratulate me.
“I’m so proud of you, but I’m not surprised,” she told me. “I’ll bet it’s a funny story, too!”
“It’s hilarious,” I assured her.
We talked a few minutes, and I’m sure I thanked her for being a great teacher, but I didn’t get around to saying “thanks” for her most valuable lesson and the gentle way she got it across.
I gave scant thought to fourth grade until a few years ago when a friend posted on Facebook her trials with her daughter, who wouldn’t behave in school. The woman asked her Facebook friends for help, and their suggestions ran from grounding to various forms of embarrassment.
None of that worked, I knew, because well-meaning adults had tried those methods on me.
What worked was a few kind words and a certain look from a teacher who accepted a goofy, immature kid for who he was.
Mrs. Laird, if you read this: Thank you. And I’m not kidding.
Clay Coppedge, a member of Bartlett EC, lives near Walburg.