616, 616 East Lincoln Avenue, Ass-Whuppin', Imagination, Intellect, Learning, Mrs. Shannon, Parent-Teacher Conference, Peter Cottontail, Reading, Reading Level, Reading Scores, Runaway, Running Away, Teacher Crush, Third Grade, World Book Encyclopedia
I’ve talked about how World Book Encyclopedia literally changed my life from a reading standpoint between December ’78 and April ’79. It was after running away from home to get away from my new stepfather, the now-and-forever abuser and idiot Maurice Washington. I talked about how after my mother gave me an ass-whuppin’ that seemed to last forever, I was forbidden from having any playtime for six weeks. I punished myself, my mother and my idiot stepfather by picking up the A volume of World Book Encyclopedia and began to read it. “I’ll show them!,” I thought.
I made a point of reading and reading. By the time I decided to go outside again, it was April ’79, well past my six-week grounding. And my SRA test for fourth grade confirmed that I had raised my reading score from 3.9 (just barely at the fourth grade level) to a 7.4 (the equivalent of an above average seventh grader). So much for punishing my mother and myself!
Many of my former classmates, and certainly a number of my closest friends, have heard parts and various versions of this story over the years. But I’ve hardly ever told the story of how I had access to the ’78 edition of all thirty or so volumes of World Book Encyclopedia in the first place. That started because of a teacher crush, the second one I had in my first four years of K-12. This one involved my third grade teacher at William H. Holmes Elementary, Mrs. Shannon. She was fun, funny, beautiful, and dressed like a young Sue Simmons from WNBC-TV New York did when she started working for Channel 4 earlier in
Like most crushes I’ve had over the years, this one snuck up on my eight-year-old self and hit me in the head like a 90-mph fastball from Randy Johnson. And like the crushes I’d have when I reached Humanities in middle school and high school, I acted weird throughout February and March ’78. I became shier than I already was. I found myself daydreaming during reading time, not following instructions for assignments, just generally out of sorts.
Then there was the Easter play, the Peter Cottontail play. I wanted to play the lead role of Peter the Bunny, but all Mrs. Shannon wanted me to be was a stupid flower. I was mad, acted out, and she punished me by taking me out of the play all together. Following that, I refused to talk to her in class the next day. “You don’t have to speak,” Mrs. Shannon said as she sent me to sit in the corner until I was ready to talk again. I stayed in that corner the rest of the afternoon.
The following week, this week thirty-three years ago, Mrs. Shannon called for a parent-teacher conference with my mother and soon-to-be idiot stepfather. My mother, who had only been to two meetings at my schools since kindergarten, now found herself finding out that I was a bad student. Well, not exactly. Mrs. Shannon told them, “He has the ability. He has the potential. He just doesn’t want to concentrate.” Then she suggested that my mother could find a way for me to focus through World Book Encyclopedia. “It’ll draw out his imagination,” Mrs. Shannon said.
That’s all I thought and talked about on my way home with my mother. I brought it up so much that my mother said, “Alright already!” after two days of me constantly asking about it. We met a World Book sales person, and my mother wrote a check for $310, which was a lot of money for her. Within a week, four or five boxes reached 616, by far the largest order of books I’d see until grad school.
I didn’t start reading them immediately, and my mother complained about “spending all that damn money” on these books. But after December 2, ’78, my Saturday of running away from home, the investment began to pay off, and with it, the ability to think and imagine while being as weird as I wanted and needed to be, and others believed me to be as well. It’s a bittersweet memory, how I became a brainiac, how a teacher crush put me on a path of intellect and writing, of constant remembering and of painful transformations. How insidious knowledge — and the search for it — can be.