Saturday, June 04, 2005

An essay about reading

My mom (who teaches at the school I went to) asked me to write something on the occasion of my third-grade teacher's retirement. I'm posting it here because of the way it turned out to be an essay about reading. Here goes.

For Miss Corson’s retirement
May 15, 2005

I can never think of Miss Corson as Carol, though I am not so very much younger now than she must have been in the school year 1978-79, when I spent third grade in her 1-2-3 classroom in the back corner of the Lower School building at Germantown Friends. The smell of gingko fruit always takes me back to that year; so does the sight of those little milk boxes that used to come on a plastic tray from the lunchroom (regular milk came in red boxes, skim milk in blue, chocolate milk in brown—a twice-weekly treat—and small cartons of orange juice only one day a week, to my chagrin as I was not then, as I am not now, a milk-drinker).

What surprises me most is how much I remember about that year. Miss Corson was a truly exceptional teacher, the perfect teacher for me at that particular point in my life: she shared my passion for books and animals both. I remember her introducing me to a magical novel by Ursula Nordstrom called The Secret Language, a book about eight-year-old girls and their complicated alliances, uniquely appealing to me and my two best friends Debby Stull and Dara Rossman that year we were all eight, the three of us (I am ashamed to admit) a tight clique who played an elaborate game of witches in the Live Graveyard, illicitly slipping through the hedge during recess when we were supposed to be on the playground.

I remember Miss Corson’s promise to give a real grown-up fountain pen to anyone who mastered the elementary stages of the Richardson handwriting method; I spent hours and hours practicing the rows of joined c’s, right-side-up and upside-down in a pattern like a stylized drawing of waves, and when I got the Pen (we all thought of it with a capital letter, like a kind of award) it was my proudest moment. I remember drawing a picture of myself in explorer’s gear (my idol that year was Jane Goodall, and I was absolutely mesmerized by In the Shadow of Man) with an explanation of how I wanted to become a scientist and study chimpanzees in the wild. I remember painting a huge picture of my toy chimpanzee Jim, becoming terribly upset when the blue of his pants dripped in a way that made several classmates jeer that Jim was peeing, and Miss Corson coming up with the solution of painting over the drip so that Jim was sitting on a kind of blue throne. I remember learning to put together the map of Africa—the continent another obsession of mine by way of the chimpanzee preoccupation—and memorizing all the names of the countries and being puzzled by the switch from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe (written on a label in Miss Corson’s distinctive handwriting) without being old enough to know how to find out what it meant or why it had happened. I remember writing a huge long story in which all my stuffed animals (Jim the monkey at their head) came to life secretly when people weren’t watching and had adventures, and Miss Corson asking me to read it to the whole rest of the class; it was my first taste of how enjoyable it is to write something to entertain an audience.

I remember an extraordinarily exciting thing, Miss Corson (well aware of my fixation on primates) inviting me to come with her and her grown-up friends to an evening lecture by a woman who studied orangutans (in retrospect I am sure it must have been Biruté Galdikas, though I couldn’t swear to it). We met up at her house to travel to West Philadelphia together, and Miss Corson made sandwiches for everyone for later—cream cheese and sprouts on black pumpernickel bread, which she handed to us in little plastic sandwich bags—and I embarrassed myself by taking a bite of my sandwich then and there, as it was 6:30 or so, my usual dinner time. Miss Corson placidly said, “What a sensible idea! Let’s all eat our sandwiches now,” thereby saving me from mortification.

I remember the large and handsome rabbit called Fuzzy traveling home for the weekend with Miss Corson on Friday afternoons in a large canvas L. L. Bean bag. Fuzzy had a taste for crayons, and if anyone accidentally left them lying out, he would eat them during the night, his diarrhea greeting us the next morning in smelly colored splashes throughout the room. I remember the way Miss Corson’s classroom had the best book collection, even better than the Friends Free Library (I’d already read an awful lot of the books at the library), and that she would let you borrow a book if you filled out a card. I remember that at the end of the year, Miss Corson took the whole class over to Browser’s Bookstore and let each of us choose a book which she actually bought and paid for; I agonized over what to choose, finally picking Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Witches of Worm, which I devoured when I got home—it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it was a book I read again and again, and years later when I actually got to know a real Abyssinian cat I realized that the cat in the story, Worm, isn’t just strange-looking, he’s an Abyssinian (a revelation I rank with the belated insight that Scooby Doo’s a Great Dane).

I knew Miss Corson outside of school as well as in. At that time we lived near her in Chestnut Hill, and I sometimes took care of Fuzzy while she was away. The book collection in her house is the thing I particularly remember and associate with Miss Corson. It was an extraordinary trove which she treated like a library, lending freely and providing me with many, many hours of most magical reading. (I can still smell that attic-y hot smell you get at the top of a house with wooden floors in the middle of summer.) She had a huge number of those English Puffin paperbacks—the child’s counterpart of Penguins—that you couldn’t get in libraries or bookstores in America. I read Noel Streatfeild’s novel The Growing Summer and Robert C. O’Brien’s The Silver Crown and Leon Garfield's novels about Dickensian children in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century London and Oliver Twist and a novel whose name I can’t remember about an evil doll and my very favorites, the novels I permanently associate with Miss Corson, Alan Garner’s remarkable and evocatively named fictions: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, The Owl Service.

I still adore young-adult fantasy fiction; there is something magical about these books, as if they represent the essence of reading distilled. All novels transport you, in other words, but these ones are so very explicit about children traveling from an ordinary world to a magical one, they represent a very special kind of solace (one I was reminded of when I read Francis Spufford’s recent memoir The Child That Books Built, which perfectly captures that experience). Miss Corson transported me to other worlds with her kindness, generosity and imaginative grace in those years of my childhood.


  1. Thanks for pointing me to this essay, Jenny. I enjoyed it! I feel the same way about my elementary school librarian, Mrs. Tuttle. I volunteered in the library in 5th and 6th grade, and when I graduated from the school, she gave me three books, inscribed, and which I still treasure. You're fortunate in your long-time association with you teacher - I sadly lost track of Mrs. Tuttle long ago.

  2. I remember Miss Corson, i had her in first and second, she was completely patient with me and helped teach me to read at the very end of first grade, she's my favorite teacher

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  5. you are not our mother. She has a soft, pleasant voice, but your voice is rough, you are the wolf.