Sunday, February 13, 2011

Third Grade

My goddaughter is in third grade.

The school year is more than half over, so this shouldn't have come as a shock. But my goddaughter, Codename: Princesa, lives far from here, and somehow I'd forgotten. (Somehow? Let's not even consider the list of things I've forgotten lately.)

But when Princesa's mother told me a few days ago about the third-grade class Farmer Boy breakfast, it started to sink in: this girl had reached the age at which I read my first grown-up books.

My third-grade year, 1991-92, was a pivotal one in a lot of ways. I was put in an advanced class that year, half third-graders and half fourth-graders, my school's way of accommodating gifted students. (I never did figure out how the school handled actual fourth grade for those of us who went through it early, since I moved away at the end of that year. They must have had some way to keep it from being repetitive.)

The teacher was Mrs. Reeves, one of those teachers you remember two decades later for all the right reasons.

Mrs. Reeves made us all keep journals she called "lifebooks," which we had to update regularly and turn in weekly. Mine had a lot of pages left at the end of the year, so it served as my diary until sometime in high school. There's nothing like flipping back through your eight-year-old insights to make a teenager feel superior.

We all did a lot of writing in that class, but I did even more, because somehow Mrs. Reeves had me doing an independent project every month on top of the regular classwork, and somehow that was a prize, not a burden. The topic and format were left up to me: one month I created a newspaper and reported on the Salem witch trials; another month I turned the Little House books into Laura's first-person diary.

(Can we take a moment here to reflect on the awesomeness of the Apple II GS, the machine I used to create just about all of these? I can't remember the name of the program I used, a cross between a word-processor and a desktop publisher, but I remember clearly the 5 1/4" floppy it lived on.)

And we did writing projects in class, too - looking back, this was the most creative-writing-oriented school year I ever had.

At one point we wrote our own stories based on The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, which I will forever think of as a book of writing prompts. We wrote poems about colors, and then at the end of the year we each bound them into a book, with pseudo-marbled endpapers (created by sprinkling chalk dust on the surface of a bowl of water and setting a paper down long enough to let the dust adhere) and covers made of foil-covered cardboard, which we went to town on with markers.

(That book was also notable for including an author bio in which I completely misidentified my place of birth. Of course I wasn't born in St. Paul. I know that. But if you needed proof of my tendency to forget things, there you go.)

We must have had some kind of free time for writing too, because I remember stretching out on the classroom floor with a pile of looseleaf, hard at work on Book #2,137 of The Babysitters Club. Yes, that's right. My fanfiction days started early.

But we didn't just write in Mrs. Reeves' class. We read, and we were read to. Every afternoon the class would gather on the floor in the corner that held the classroom library. It was called Australia, after Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day. Anyone who was having a day like Alexander's was always allowed to retreat to Australia for a while.

The twenty-some of us would settle in - with two randomly-chosen students getting to abandon the floor in favor of red bean bag chairs, which were the coolest thing ever as far as I was concerned - and Mrs. Reeves would read. She must have been a Roald Dahl fan, since Matilda, The B.F.G., and The Witches were among the books she read to us. (I'm sure there was more variety, but the only non-Dahl title I remember was The Castle in the Attic.)

And when I got home from school, I read some more - besides The Babysitters Club, series like Sweet Valley Twins and Cherry Ames were favorites, along with the historical fiction I loved even then.

That was the year of Gone With the Wind.

I picked it up from my aunt and uncle's bookshelves when we visited them for Thanksgiving. Once again, the details escape me - though I very clearly remember their "Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Star Trek" poster; yes, I love my family of nerds - but somehow the book, a rather nice navy blue leather-bound hardcover with one of those sewn-in satin bookmarks, went home with me.

I devoured it. I was eight years old, and I just couldn't get enough of Scarlett. I quoted from it. When Cricket magazine invited readers to send in the opening lines from their favorite books, my contribution was "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, though men seldom realized it when captivated by her charms as the Tarleton twins were." Somehow it never ended up in the magazine.

There was a description of someone's low and elegant voice, so I tried to imitate it. (From the backseat of our minivan, where it was a little out of place. My mother, in the driver's seat, kept telling me to speak up.) Inspired by the Disney version of Robin Hood, I wrote a lifebook entry explaining what animal I thought each of the characters should be. I don't know for sure, but I probably tried writing my own sequel to it.

But something even better happened that spring: Alexandra Ripley wrote Scarlett.

Of course I got a copy. (From a swap meet - very California!) And I loved it too.

I don't know why my parents went along with it - I might hesitate before handing Princesa a copy if she asked for it - but I'm so glad they did. There were some bodice-ripping scenes, but they went completely over my head. The romance, the drama, the story - that part I understood.

(Most of the slavery-related aspects of both Gone With the Wind and Scarlett also went over my head at that point. I was a white child living in suburban Orange County, and I don't think I had the necessary frame of reference. All I knew of the Rodney King riots of the year before, for instance, was that for a while the news was on in the afternoon instead of the cartoons we usually watched. I just wasn't aware at that point, and I say that in explanation, not excuse. I don't think that meant I wasn't ready for the books, any more than my superficial take on "romance" did. As I returned to the books over the years, I brought new perspectives to the text each time.)

Gone With the Wind was the defining book of my third-grade year, but it wasn't my only foray into books that don't get shelved in the children's section. Somehow I acquired a copy of Nicholas and Alexandra. (Not gonna lie: I think it was the cover image that grabbed me, especially Alexandra's dress.)

Nicholas and Alexandra, a doorstop-type history book, wasn't quite as smooth sailing as the novels, but I tore through the first (young tsarevich, Princess Alix) and last (fall of the House of Romanov) parts. Between that and the Russian expats who always seemed to turn up in the ballet stories I was also reading, I got hooked on Russia.

But I was still a third-grader, not some mini-Ph.D. candidate, so those books shared mental real estate with horses, dress-up, being a bossy big sister, and school.

Despite the general excellence of Mrs. Reeves, school had its drawbacks. I ended up in the midst of some alpha/mean-girl drama that year. (With the inimitable logic of elementary school, it principally took the form of mocking me for a nonexistent crush on a classmate I'd barely spoken to, and for some reason that was a source of torment. Go figure.)

I don't know if Princesa's third-grade year has involved that kind of drama, but if it has - oh, well. For me it was momentous at the time, but hardly life-changing. (Thank you, Mrs. Reeves, for never responding to the "why do they make fun of me all the time?" lifebook entries. You were way smarter than I was.)

Maybe this isn't the time for her to have a definitive connection with books - or maybe it is. Whenever she gets there, I hope all of us will be smart enough to step back and let her figure it out. For my part, I'll repeat as often as necessary: you read Alexandra Ripley at the age of eight, and somehow you turned out okay.

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