Tuesday, September 28, 2010

In That Enchanted Place

I have no memory of my parents reading to me. But when I was sick the aunt who lived downstairs would arrive at my bedside, noisily jolly with a kitchen chair in tow, to read a Dr. Seuss story. She favored the tongue-twisty types and feigned consternation and frustration over saying the right words in the right way and the right order. Her comical performance was generally limited to one read-through, though, and I was always left wanting more. How quiet the sickroom seemed when she was gone!

My first sustained experience of being read to didn't arrive until I was eight. In that long ago time, before parents thought to question a child's placement in school, the name of the next year's teacher was written in cursive at the bottom of the June report.

Grade 3 Miss Flynn Room 10

Quiet in school, eager to be good and do well, I didn't feel my future classmates' glee at our assignment when we left second grade for summer. Miss Flynn, you see, was known in Smith Street Elementary as the teacher who didn't believe in homework. That's the way the kids said it too. They didn't boast that she didn't give homework. The woman didn't believe in it!

In September Mildred Flynn proved to be mild and gray-haired with two routines that endeared her to me, neither of them concerning homework. The first was Oscar, the invisible flee she claimed lived in her hair. The second was circle time at the back of the room, when she read to us.

Oscar "appeared" whenever Miss Flynn held one hand out in front, palm to the ceiling. She talked to him and coaxed him to perform for us, her eyes following his movement as he jumped from one hand to the other with backflips and loop-the-loops. When occasionally he escaped during lessons, Miss Flynn walked up and down the aisles calling for him. Me, me! I'd think. Find Oscar in my hair! But no. Always somewhere else. Now a teacher myself, it suddenly occurs to me that Miss Flynn might have been recapturing straying attention. Clever lady! Perhaps it was a compliment to my attentiveness that Oscar never chose my head for his holidays, perhaps not. Back then, insecure child that I was, I could only wish for proof that she liked me.

I'm standing in the back row, the third from the left.

The stories Miss Flynn read were about A.A. Milne's Pooh. She affected voices for each character--excitable Roo, timid Piglet, depressed Eeyore, pompous Owl and slow-thinking Pooh. (This was before their Disney-fication and, besides Miss Flynn's, the cartoon versions pale.)

"Christopher Robin was going away," began Chapter X of The House At Pooh Corner, IN WHICH Christopher Robin and Pooh Come to an Enchanted Place, and We Leave Them There. The last Pooh story. Little by little it became clear that Christopher Robin was leaving the forest and his childhood for school. Before she could reach the last lines, Miss Flynn was overcome with emotion. As she brushed past me on her way out of the circle, she pushed the book into my hands and told me to read the end out loud.

"So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing."

The magic of these words! The rapt attention of the room!--despite Miss Flynn's theatrical sobbing into a handkerchief in front of the chalkboard. I was hooked. I successfully begged the hearty aunt for my own copy of The World of Pooh (I have it still), and read out loud at home to anyone who would listen. The stories I began writing were, I suppose, gifts to Miss Flynn, Miss Flynn who loved stories, Miss Flynn who collected mine in a desk drawer and told me I might be published some day.

Others in the class began writing stories too, an assignment I don't remember being part of my education at that time or for years afterward. We did it for fun. Room 10 positively sparked with creative energy during free time. We bragged to each other: My story is three pages long! Mine is ten! Those with other inclinations created different gifts. I remember that Ronnie L. wrote pages and pages of numbers. He claimed to have reached incredibly high figures, happily ignorant of the fact that 1,099 is not followed by 2,000.

I went on to imagine my own Oscars too--like the elf in our living room cuckoo clock, who wrote letters to my younger sisters that my aunt allowed me to post with real stamps--and began to wonder if I actually could become a writer.

My first two books were published the same year that my son was born, and some of my favorite memories of raising Peter and, later, my daughter, Gemma, include sharing books out loud. I'm convinced it reinforced for them how to be still and listen, how to focus their attention and use imagination. I feel sure they absorbed sentence structure and vocabulary as well as a love for words. It was after hearing Rikki-Tikki-Tavi that Peter, at four, said with passion, "You have to teach me how to read!"

He soon became a narrator himself, reading books like Brian Jacques's Redwall to his sister. And today I am delighted to read to his daughter, Riley, when she comes to visit. At two, she will sit and listen for as along as I will read. "The end," she announces upon reaching the final page. "Read more, p'ease?"

I wonder how many other flames were lit by the sparks in room 10, torches to be passed along generations.

Ready, Riley? "Once upon a time..."

Posted by Patricia Baehr, author of Boo Cow.

No comments: