Sheila O’Malley shares this wonderful post every year when the school year is about to start:
My friend is extremely intelligent. His parents did not value this in him. On the contrary, it threatened them. It implicated their ignorance. To add to this, my friend, from a very young age, knew he was “different” from other boys. Somehow. How many other boys enjoyed putting hot-rollers into their sister’s Cher-doll’s hair? How many other boys could recite Meet Me in St. Louis? How many lip-synched to Barbra Streisand albums? He couldn’t put a name to what was different because he was just a little boy. But he knew it was there.
The teasing he got was brutal. Teasing of this particular kind has one goal and one goal only: to crush what is different. The difference in him was like a scent and other kids could smell it. His father could smell it. To avoid the terror that school had become, he would stay home from school playing with his sister’s Barbies.
The little boy reached the second grade. He had already learned some very hard lessons. He had already experienced cruelty, betrayal, fear. All of the cards were stacked against this person, and the end of his story could have been a terrible one, were it not for his second grade teacher. Her name was Miss Scofield.
I did not meet the “little boy” until college when we became fast friends, and in my view, Miss Scofield was directly responsible for the fact that he actually went to college (the first one in his family to do so), that he broke the expected pattern of his life and got out, saying No to what seemed to be his logical fate.
What did Miss Scofield do to accomplish this? It’s very simple. She read E.B. White’s Stuart Little to the class.
And my friend, then seven years old, had what can only be described as a life-changing experience, listening to her read that book.
Stuart Little is a mouse, born to human parents. Everyone is confused by him. “Where the heck did he come from?” My friend, a little boy who was so “different” he might as well have been a mouse born to human parents, a little boy who was, indeed, smaller than everybody else in the class, listened to the story unfold, agog, his soul opening to its implications.
First of all, for the first time, he really got reading. By this I mean the importance, and the excitement, of language. Language can create new and better worlds in your head. Language is a way out. To this day, my friend is a voracious reader. I will never forget living with him while he was reading Magic Mountain. We lived in a one-room apartment, and so if I wanted to go to sleep and turn the lights off, my friend would take a pillow into the bathroom, shut the door, curl up on the bathmat, and read Magic Mountain long into the night. I believe that this voraciousness is a direct result of Miss Scofield reading Stuart Little to the class.
Please read the whole thing. The story doesn’t end there, and the postscript to the story is just wonderful.
I, too, had a second grade teacher who read Stuart Little to us. This was the year we lived in Elkins, WV. I can’t honestly say that I think that Mrs. Pnakovich was actually reading it to me, but I remember her reading it and I remember the whole class losing itself in the story for a bit, each day, until it was done. That book was the first time I can remember that a story doesn’t necessarily require resolution to satisfy; if you’ve read the book, you know that we never learn if Stuart Little ever found Margalo. I’ve never come down in my own heart as to whether he found Margalo or not. All I needed to know was that he was going in the right direction.
A sad footnote is that years ago I tried searching for Mrs. Pnakovich online, hoping maybe I could drop her a line on the off chance she remembered a student she had for a single year in 1978 and who moved away from Elkins when that year was done. Sadly, Mrs. Pnakovich died in 2002.
She played a part in my approach to story, which might be the most enduring thing of all.
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