Volume 18 • Issue 26 | November 11 - 17, 2005


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 wasn’t cut out for the relentless, tedious grind of the city room, but boy was he cut out for writing.

I recalled White’s 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. He’s been tested in reading and math and placed in appropriate groups. Normal parents might not find this troubling, but then I’ve 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. He’d 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 couldn’t 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 I’d sunk down.

So sitting there on the miniature chair in my son’s 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. “It’s not a problem,” she said. “The kids don’t focus on that. Of course an individual may see it that way and that’s 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 husband’s family ever went to remedial reading. “It must be my fault,” I thought. But then I remembered that no one in either my husband’s or my family could throw a 30-foot-pass at Rusty’s age either.

It got me thinking. I don’t know where White was at in first grade but I’m clinging to the idea of his being fired at 20-something. Everybody’s 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 children’s books, “Charlotte’s Web,” “Stuart Little,” etc. Now that would have really been awful.

So maybe my son isn’t reading as well as other kids. One reason I’ll bet is that we can’t get him to put down a ball long enough. But that’s okay, he’s 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.


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