How elementary school almost destroyed my ability to read



Teachers worked hard to make students fail in school.  I knew this had to be the truth.  After all, why else would they spend so much time screaming at you, assaulting you with a hail of facts that grazed your skull and scraped away your brain power, and telling you, as if it were the most definite, indisputable fact in the world, that you were stupid and incompetent.   I can remember at least 4 of my teachers, in the New York City Public School System, screaming at my class:  “I get paid whether you learn or not so just shut up.”

Now not every teacher was always belligerent.  Indeed, there was some teachers who were rarely hostile.  However, the relative benignity of certain teachers did not exculpate their race.  No, I was irredeemably and irreconcilably opposed to teachers, to everything that they stood for and were, and if a given teacher, on a given day,  behaved with kindness, or what I more accurately should say was purported kindness, I concluded that that abatement in pedantic pugilism was a passing affair, could not be derived from any real goodness on the part of the teacher, and was more like a military situation in which one’s opponent eased up on one front because he was so badly besieged on another.  And so if my English teacher was behaving nicely, I reasoned it must be because I was battering the forces of scholastic sadism by getting honors in math, necessitating the School’s deployment of  troops from English to Math.

Mrs. Brown, my fourth grade teacher, had a favorite way of scolding little boys.  She placed her fingers around one’s biceps and squeezed, and mashed, and spiked them like stiletto heels decimating testicles.  This metaphor is not as over-the-top as it seems.  When little boys want to “make a muscle,” they flex their biceps muscle.  The biceps is the prime muscle of Popeye, the muscle that is exposed in a T shirt, the muscle most emblematic of masculinity, and for little boys, who are not yet using their testicles in any meaningful ways, their skinny, struggling musculature is their manhood.

Now although Mrs. Brown did not seriously undermine the integrity of my muscles (although she did cause me tremendous bodily pain), she was quite adept at interfering with my ability to read.  Before I encountered her, reading was not a problem; it was a joy.  I learned how to read very easily, and after one learns to read all one needs is a book to augment one’s reading ability.  And so by reading books, cartoons, cereal boxes, and any fragments of paper that came my way, I became more and more proficient in reading.

Then Mrs. Brown saw fit to make the peaceful web of words that I was coming to love a disordered stew of sentences that I could not comprehend; of phrases that no longer glided into one another but now awkwardly stuck-out, their separating commas no longer identifying them but only underscoring their irrelevancy;  and of syllables that instead of forming words made only irksome, ugly little noises, each noise independent of all other noises, alone and autistic.   She unraveled the lettered tapestry of language with something new, splashy, bright and big. This new thing was a teaching tool.  It was all the rage.  It was very big.  All the loud language teachers loved it.

It was called “SRA.”  I don’t know what SRA stood for, but those letters gave me such queasiness that I might as well have been a criminal hearing the initials FBI and IRS.

The letters sounded as sleek, decisive, and authoritative as CBS, NBC and ABC.   Indeed, everything about SRA seemed sleek and authoritative.  First, there was all the paraphernalia of the SRA program.  There were shiny booklets, and shiny cards and big shiny boxes containing the shiny boxes and cards.   And everything was done-up in shiny colors.

The colors were not placed together.  They were as segregated as Alabama in 1935.  There were brown booklets, where the English language was rendered in a uniform brown; red booklets, where the reading assignments all screamed with the letter red; gold pamphlets, for an alphabet of precious metals; and, in sum, there were about twenty different colors each with its own self- contained universe of two or three paragraph short stories, multiple choice questions, and assorted reading drills and quizzes.

It worked like this:  At the outset of the program, everyone was given a reading test. (This was the only thing that wasn’t colored.)  Then, on the basis of that reading test, the students were grouped into four colored groups.  The students who received the lowest scores were placed in the lowly brown group.   The next group was red, the greens beat the reds, and the greens were topped by the tans. There were about sixteen groups above this group of four, and, over time, we were all supposed to work our way up the SRA ladder and busily work for promotions to finer and more upstanding colors.

Now of course no one told us that brown was the least desirable color, that tan was better than brown, or that silver – or it may have been azure, or scarlet or some other beautiful sounding color – was at the apex of our color apartheid.  But we all knew it.  We all knew brown was the slowest group.

We all knew that the brown group was by far the slowest and least desirable group because they did not have the heart to call it the slowest group.  They simply called it the brown group.  In other words, because it was so definitely, indisputably inferior it could not be labeled what it was but had to be given a euphemism.  But of course we children can always spot a euphemism and we know that they are only used when things are really bad.

Brown was so obviously bad and inferior because it was the color of black people.  Everyone knew that.  Oh, of course we were beginning to hear a lot about civil rights, and the idea that we should be nice to Negro people, but of course one is only told, in a solemn, morose way, that one must be nice to people when it’s clear that people don’t want to treat them with respect because treating them with disrespect is what most people do.  In other words, hearing a teacher say that you should be nice to blacks was like hearing a teacher say you ought to be nice to sissies.  And everyone knew that no normal person would be nice to sissies.

Now my best friend, Ernie, was black.  I did not merely play with him in and around the school.  In fact, to many people in the school, it seemed as if I practically lived with him.  I spent a lot of time with him, and his family, because my Mother worked, was single, needed someone to take care of me during the day, and relied on his family to look after me.  His Father was the superintendent of the apartment house in which my Mother and I lived, and it was all very convenient – we lived on the fifth floor of the building and Ernie and his family lived in the basement.

But the other students in the school had no idea that I lived way above him.  They saw Ernie and I coming out of the same, beat-up car, a battered, boxy jalopy about a dozen years old, that lumbered up the street with all the agility and speed of a tortoise and was, quite fittingly, colored brown. And they saw me with his Mother, a big fat Aunt Jemima of a women whose arms, when she walked, always grazed her ample love handles; his Father, a worn and torn working man, with a couple of disfigured fingers from an accident in a factory or from a cotton gin, whose clothes seemed to bear the indelible stains of several decades of automobile grease, house paint, and all sorts of industrial carcinogens on the market; and his Sister, well on her way to becoming a big fat woman, who always held up her knee socks with rubber bands and staunchly reminded you that she was for Robert Kennedy because he “done a lot to help colored people.”  For all I knew, my fellow students might have surmised that I lived with them all the time and that they had stolen me from my real white family as a pack of wolves would have stolen a human baby.

After the Johnsons and I had arrived at school, and had exited from the car, I would quickly try to separate from them, and I would also try to linger, on the street, before going into school.

I would linger in the street to air myself out and remove all the black people smells that may have accosted my person.  After I was reasonably scented and freshened, certainly not as wholesome and chipper as Theodore Cleaver on “Leave it To Beaver” or Dennis on “Dennis the Menace” but still quite definitely white, I tried, with all the courage of George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door, to walk into the school and assert and prove my whiteness.

It was not an easy thing to do.  I not only lived with blacks but also lived, as mentioned before, in an apartment house. Most of my fellow students lived in single family homes, with lawns, backyards and real plastic swimming pools, and most of them, with a couple of touch-ups, would have been sufficiently adorable to have their own family situation comedies.  (The theme song to the “Patty Duke Show” alluded to Brooklyn Heights so I felt quite certain that situation comedies were being shot in my home town, Brooklyn, New York and that the networks might soon select a student in my school for his very own family situation comedy replete with an adorable Mother, so unlike my own, who never worked; a Father; one or two comical siblings; and an incessantly affectionate dog with poop as sweet as chocolate.)

Of course, next to students as bright and gleeful as a bunch of boy scouts and girl scouts picking red, white and blue flowers for Fourth of July decorations, I, was, in my Jewishness, relative poverty, Fatherlessness, and suspicious interactions with blacks in a dirty, old car, more than a tad colored.  The SRA, color-coded and confederate to the core, would find me out.

And so when the SRA was introduced, and we were given our opening test which would determine what color would be our destiny, I was terrified that the test would “find me out” and mark me as a black boy.  I simply freaked-out on the test, and I scored poorly.

I was relegated to the brown group, a sheepish bunch of morose students who picked up their brown reading assignments with all the vim of field hands picking up sacks to be crammed with the cotton crop. The next students, the reds, had the gaudy,  loud  confidence of   a  Marinara sauce served in the Pizzeria.  The Greens, who lorded it over the Reds, were as stuck up as Rockefeller and Morgan sitting  atop a heap of greenbacks.  The tans, who stood at the zenith of the class, were as Imperial as a bunch of Englishmen – and everyone knew that the English, with their perfect accents, were the smartest people and had the highest reading scores – all dressed up in Khaki for a Safari, which might take them to Africa where they would make fun of the Brown people.

I became increasingly submerged in brown society.  While I was given short stories with rural and agricultural subjects – which only made it harder for me to read because I knew nothing of farms or the country, and the only animals that I could identify were dogs and cats, roaches and rats —  I was certain that my superiors, in more lofty colors, were reading elegant stories about life, perhaps on Park Avenue where Eva Gabor, from the TV show “Green Acres,” had made her presence known in the most exclusive salons.

And so I trudged through stories which had characters with names like Buck  — which to a New Yorker, where no one is named Buck, seemed like the name of a well-meaning mental defective who was born to be amongst the brownest of the browns – who invariably had to correct some mishap, which I could never quite visualize, in a bicycle or a well or some other mechanical device and would then celebrate the repair of the wayward machinery with a meal that was steaming, bountiful and served by a momentously fat farm Mama and was, no doubt, laden with the lard and fat and grease which clung to every utensil in the Johnson’s kitchen.    As I read these drippy accounts of hardy working boys in torn overalls, I felt myself, more and more, sinking into a sort of rural morass, saw myself in torn jeans indifferently whittling wood with a vacant expression, and felt my reading speed slow and slow until it inched along, with far too many prolonged stops at commas and fancy phrases, like the Johnson’s ancient, ugly car which stalled at stop signs and was passed by all the newer, brighter cars of happy colors.

I was, I was sure, becoming dumb.  I was certain that I would not be able to become Bar Mitzvahed because, at this rate, I was sure that I would lose the ability to read Hebrew.  I even began to feel too stupid to be Irish Catholic, given the exemplary verbal fluidity they demonstrated in the course of explaining, in a rapid-fire and authoritative manner, the different types of venal and mortal sins, the preciousness of holy communion,  and the loveliness of Mary and Baby Jesus.   I was slipping so far beneath my proper Jewish berth that I even began to feel  inferior  to the Italian Catholics, as when a bunch of Italian girls chastised me for eating pizza with my hands which they all knew, with the tastefulness of opulent Italians who adorned their homes with pink flamingos and imitation Versailles furniture, was supposed to be eaten with a fork.

Soon the only food fit for me would be the barbaric countrified concoctions – possum stew and gofer and other such things — cooked by Granny in “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

So I slid deeper and deeper into mental mediocrity, dazzled and derided by the brilliant and lapidary colors of the SRA rainbow, haunted by colors that I had never even heard of but which sounded as beautiful as the fountains of colored water at my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah reception, and mesmerized by colors as thirst-quenching as the prettiest Orange Soda, as refreshing on a hot day as a sea of aquamarine, and as haughty and regal as the plushest, lushest violet.  (When I heard the term “ultra violet light,” I knew it had something to do with the fierce, pure sensuality of purple that shined at you like the most beautiful Christmas lights imaginable.  Purple and violet were just very ultra colors.  So of course Andy Warhol had to name one of his models ultra violet.)

But I was a far cry from the world of ultra violet.  Instead of walking on runways, I was walked on.  I was the good, stupid brown earth.  A filthy mire of decomposing worms and ants and dog shit strewn about with rocks and gravel and rodents and sewer mains. I was the black boy of the solar system, and all the stars and suns glared at me in the angry night sky.  The constellations were like the rich lady bracelets that my Mother could not afford, taunting me with their wealth, irradiating cosmic contempt.

Encountering the manic wrath of celestial bodies was of course a rather heady experience, and the tipsy tumult it engendered prompted me to explain, to my child psychiatrist, how I felt humiliated by going to school with black people.

I told my doctor that although I was “all for” black people, I simply did not want anyone to think that I had anything to do with them, as they were members of a lowly caste.  I shuddered at what my classmates might think.

My doctor, as usual, was quick to the rescue with practical, potent advise which could rectify the problem.  He explained that it was all very simple.  I need only  imagine and pretend that  the Johnsons were a servant family who were obligated to cater to my whims.

Dr Biegelsen explained that some of the finest and most fashionable people spent a lot of time with Negro people because they were surrounded by Negro servants.  My doctor told me that servants were very common on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and he suggested that I might watch “Gone With the Wind,” due to appear on television soon, which was a story about a wonderfully rich white girl who spent a whole lot of time with a black maid.

And so, as usual, with all the decisiveness of a lobotomy or a course of some dynamite electro shock therapy, the doctor solved my problem. I started calling Ernie Johnson’s Mother “Mammie,” and I started calling my friend Ernie “Jethro” after the name of the oafish country boy in “The Beverly Hillbillies.”  I walked into school as white and as snotty as Tipi Hedrin in “The Birds.”  I was as confident as a confederate cop in “The Andy Griffith Show.” Sometimes I called my desk Tara. I was whiter than the Aryan snow of the Austrian Alps.  And then I felt free to read.


Copyright, David Gottfried, 2003


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