Saturday, April 18, 2009

Daily classes, Grade Two

As I said, my memories that may be of Grade One are hard to distinguish from Grade Two.  But in light of what was done with six of us when we were in Grade Two, whichever grade I missed a lot of, the communicable diseases cannot have been a factor.  In both grades we were taught in both reading and arithmetic in groups.  By Grade Two I knew that my group was ahead, in the sense that we read library books and home books (my grandfather brought home all the Caldecott and Newberry award winners from every Teachers' Institute, and if he saw a children's book at the stationer's that took his fancy, he brought us that one, too) and Children's Activities a couple of grades ahead; in fact, we could read almost anything: Sunday School papers, Bible stories for children, the Gospel of Luke and the texts of carols for Christmas, the panels on the cereal boxes, and so forth.  I already have described my grandfather's teaching New Math long before it was introduced in curricula.  By "we" I mean my seat-mate Shirley Ruth and I.  Our mothers had gone through high school together, too.  If anything was particularly conducive to our reading so well that we hardly knew how it had happened, besides the ease of reading that makes progress snowball and having our own chalkboard to practice letters on, it was, of course, being read to, often in my grandmother's lap and following the text as she read.  And having our own books.  And our parents and grandparents liking the books just as much was we did (by "we" now meaning my sister and me; Shirley Ruth was an only child).  And the 1929 Electrola that my grandparents had.  We had every A. A. Milne song that Frank Luther recorded and lots of others; when Peter and the Wolf, narrated by Basil Rathbone, was issued (and I think this was the first U.S. release, and I still have the album), we had it, and it could be played for us almost whenever we asked.  To this day I know every emphasis and every pause by heart—not to mention the changes of the records about every four minutes.  Knowing so many A. A. Milne verses by heart, and the first half of "Silver Pennies", too, meant that we had far more vocabulary than house and neighborhood provide, and words that we knew were easily read.  (Dr. Seuss was not yet known; I was nominally too old for it when I found it at the library, but I loved "And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street" nonetheless, and when it came out, and of course my grandfather loved it, "The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins" most of all.  Nothing he wrote later delighted me so much.  But that was another episode).  My grandfather was by no means the poet he might dream of being, but he was an inveterate verse writer.  In fact, several times a week, in the Telegram Tribune, he had a topical verse, definitely cracker-barrelish, which was quite popular.  The young painter who had made the photo of me on the Oceano dunes into an oil painting made a masthead for his verse with a tree bearing bottle corks and a poet leaning against its trunk, and, since my grandfather loved Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson, too, in honor of Ferdinand the Bull the verse-column was called "Under the Cork Tree."  My grandfather also loved Harry Lauder songs (my grandmother less so), and I knew (and still know) all the words of Wee Doch an' Dorris (however spelled), and he didn't mind if children sang them, as well as Roamin' in the Gloamin' and I Love a Lassie.  He never lost these simple tastes, and neither have I.  There were certain kinds of cheap sentiment that they didn't like, though.  My grandmother, who had not gone to school past grade 8, deplored some of the pamphlets that inspired other women in her Ladies' Aid.  Consider, e.g., the words to the devotional song, "In the Garden" ("And he walks with me,...").This just seems to be the best place to insert the foregoing, because sharing such a variety of accessible verse and tunes with grandparents that we loved must go a long way to explain our being so "advanced" in language arts (which was then simply Reading and Writing).  My grandfather even sang to us early George M. Cohan songs, like "Ragtime Violin" and my father the songs he'd sung in high school, to his ukelele, including "Show me the way to go home".
But back to Shirley Ruth and me seated front, right in the classroom, where Miss Cheda could keep an eye on us.  When we weren't reading aloud, or learning longhand script, or taking down a new list of spelling words or learning some new wrinkle in arithmetic, we were given activities, such as purple-ditto work sheets (not run on a machine but off a tray of gelatin onto newsprint paper), or pages to complete in our workbooks,  or practicing writing, or, sometimes, working on phonics with one of the other groups.  Phonic families, such as will, mill, till, sill, bill.  Back at our seats, if we ran out of 'work' we might try making new phonic families of our own.  Or drawing pictures in our work books, or deliberately coloring Jane green, but leaving her clothes uncolored  and only greening her skin (when the workbook said, Color Jane green).  Once, and I really don't know why, we drew boys that had genitals.  Well, I had a brother by this time, and the drawing certainly showed nothing more dramatic.  Miss Cheda called in our mothers and gave them those drawings; she may have wanted to warn against the possibility of our "playing doctor" with other children.  Miss Cheda had her hands full, but managed admirably teaching a group of about 24, ranging from children just beginning to Shirley and me and Rosemarie and the Dart child (I think he mother called her Missy).  Apart from drawing the wrong things in the workbook that once, we never did anything worse than whisper to each other, and the content was never memorable: Can you come over tomorrow?  The tooth fairy gave me a nickel.  Did you see The Wizard of Oz?—I did.  If she saw us too bored, Miss Cheda sent us to the Library Corner of the room.  In this way I read all the California State Series of readers and social studies and science books.
A couple of years ago watching and enjoying all the Annenberg programs on elementary-grades teaching on PBS, I had to think that Miss Cheda had done everything right.