Stumbling early can lead to better paths
By Jane Flanagan
I recently discovered that one of my favorite writers, E.B. White, failed as a press guy. As a newspaper reporter I was almost useless, he said, reflecting on his early career. I love this story. Maybe White wasnt cut out for the relentless, tedious grind of the city room, but boy was he cut out for writing.
I recalled Whites early stumble, because success and failure have been on my mind lately. My son Rusty, 7, is in first grade now and suddenly adults are taking his measure. Hes been tested in reading and math and placed in appropriate groups. Normal parents might not find this troubling, but then Ive never really been normal.
I still remember the morning the teacher pulled me aside at drop off to say that after testing Rusty, she decided he needed some remedial reading. Hed be going to see Mr. Stone, the learning specialist, twice a week. I could tell by the way she gingerly told me that she was afraid of my reaction. She had reason.
At back to school night I made something of a spectacle of myself. I was sitting there along with other class parents listening to a discussion of reading groups. We learned that the children would be screened and put into suitable sections. Most of the parents were nodding and I wanted to nod, too, but I couldnt seem to get my head to move. I was too busy focusing on the pit in my stomach.
Suddenly I was back in fifth grade. It was the second week of school and I was sitting at a table along with some classmates. The reading sections had just been announced and I could tell from who was sitting on either side of me which one I was in. The bottom! The previous year I worked hard to maintain my status as a member in good standing of the middle group, but Id sunk down.
So sitting there on the miniature chair in my sons classroom, I shot my hand up. How do you handle the stigma of the reading groups? I asked, proceeding to blurt out the details of my fifth grade trauma. The teacher looked at me as though I were from Mars. Its not a problem, she said. The kids dont focus on that. Of course an individual may see it that way and thats a different problem.
Hmm. Seeing things as an individual has long been a problem of mine. On this subject in particular I could use a little help. I started to worry. Then I felt guilty. I learned that no one in my husbands family ever went to remedial reading. It must be my fault, I thought. But then I remembered that no one in either my husbands or my family could throw a 30-foot-pass at Rustys age either.
It got me thinking. I dont know where White was at in first grade but Im clinging to the idea of his being fired at 20-something. Everybodys different. White was a meticulous and enchantingly insightful writer who never would have really been happy on a daily deadline. And thank God he was booted out. Can you imagine if he stayed on as reporter out there at the Seattle Times, or worked his way up to the big papers? The New Yorker Magazine would never have been the New Yorker. White, one of its early writers produced Notes and Comment and Talk of the Town for decades, setting a warm, intelligent and perceptive standard that continues today. Also, perhaps White never would have had the time to write his childrens books, Charlottes Web, Stuart Little, etc. Now that would have really been awful.
So maybe my son isnt reading as well as other kids. One reason Ill bet is that we cant get him to put down a ball long enough. But thats okay, hes in the hands of Mr. Stone now. If anyone can get Rusty reading he can. The man rides a unicycle and jumps on pogo sticks. Remedial reading is the highlight of the day. I think E.B. White would have liked it there too.