The end of summer meant the start of school. Attending school was fun for me, but it also provided the only dark spot in my young life. The school was located on the main road through town, which was a state highway. To help make sure all of the kids could cross the street safely, some of the older kids acted as crossing guards. Because we lived a mile from town, my main mode of transportation was my bicycle, which I rode everywhere, including to school. I always parked it across the street at Mrs. Redd’s house. She was a nice older lady who looked out for all of us younger kids. The school did not have the funds to sponsor a kindergarten, so my first taste of formal education came in first grade. I was excited. First grade was such an exciting time for me. I was finally grown up enough to go to school with the big kids, and I was thrilled. During recess, all of us would mount a stick horse and ride down the halls of school like we were proud cowboys riding off into the sunset.
Each time my parents would go to school and ask the teacher how I was doing, she would say, “Dian is doing just fine.” I was happy and enjoying each moment of growing and experiencing. During the three months of summer between my first and second grade, I lived at our home at the Baker Ranger station. For a six-year-old girl like me, it was always like an “outdoor Disneyland.” We had everything a kid could dream of. There were horses to ride, cows to milk, chicken eggs to gather, 240 acres to explore, sand piles to play in, and tree houses to build. There was even an old sawmill nearby where we would take a running leap and tumble down in the piles of sawdust. On the days that we would go fishing with my dad, we went down to a nearby stream to dig for worms. There were endless possibilities for a kid to explore and create.
We had new spring lambs to feed with a pop bottle and rubber nipple that we bought at the general store. When I close my eyes and quickly turn the clock back, I can see the little lamb sucking on that little nipple. As she sucked, the milk would not only go in her mouth but would also foam up and flow down her cheeks. Life for me was filled to the brim with interesting activities from the time I woke up until the setting of the sun. I sank into bed each night exhausted. The days were filled with catching chipmunks, feeding chickens, picking fresh green peas from the garden, and climbing and playing in my treehouse. We even had our honey bees. We would go out and get honeycombs when we needed honey to go on Mother’s hot homemade whole wheat bread.
My mother would often say, “Dian, you need to read this summer so you don’t forget what you’ve learned in first grade.” I assured her I was learning far more in my little world than I could ever get from reading over and over “Run, Dick, run. See Jane run.” Most of the time I was successful in my quest to ward off the boring experience of reading. At that young age, little did I realize what a price I would pay for not keeping up with running Dick and running Jane.
For a child who had spent the first six years of her life free to run, play, and learn the ways of the world firsthand, the regimen of school was confining and hard to settle into. I didn’t have any problem with art; I was a natural. I learned math and science easily. Perhaps it was because my life at the ranger station had given me more education in science and mechanical ideas than any school could teach that eased my way in those subjects. But it hadn’t prepared me for the reading, writing, and spelling I faced in school, and that’s where my problems started. To me, the reading I was expected to do was dull and uninteresting. Who could ever get excited about Dick and Jane? I can’t believe “Run Dick, Run Jane, run, run, run” has ever been interesting to anyone.
I don’t know if it was the way some of the country school teachers presented the material, or if I was so used to running free that it was almost impossible for me to sit still long enough to grasp the concept. But it was the start of a long and ongoing battle I’ve had to fight my whole life. I never gave up and I can read, it just takes me longer to do it, and I still don’t have that much patience with it. And while I wasn’t able to become a master of words, I was able to excel at almost everything else and I liked school.
Deep inside my heart is the pain of my experiences in second grade. But like any wound that has had so many years to heal, I can now realize all the many lessons I have learned as a result of that horrible time in my life.
When I returned to the second grade I was tested— not for all the things I had learned and experienced that summer, which were vast, but only on how well I could read “See Dick run.” I asked myself—”Who cares if Dick can run anyway?” After my teacher tested me, she placed me in the bottom reading group, where I stayed for the next ten years. When I was placed in that reading group, I remember thinking, “Something must be wrong with me. I must be dumb.” In the first grade, I had always done well and was in the middle reading group. I didn’t tell anyone else.
One day, I tapped the boy in front of me and asked him if he could tell me how to spell “what.” He quickly turned around. “You don’t know how to spell that?” he said in a disgusted voice. “You are so dumb!” He couldn’t have stabbed me in the heart and had it hurt any worse. At that age when I was so hurt, the only way I could retaliate was in some physical way. So I reached up and took a handful of his hair and began to pull it at the very moment the teacher walked back through the door. She became very angry with me. I felt so ashamed and guilty. I hurt all over inside.
I now had acquired the label “dumb,” and it was like a sign flashing in my head. My self-esteem took another nosedive into the cellar.
One day while I was playing marbles with the boys on the school grounds, my teacher came over to me and said, “Dian, why are you playing marbles with the boys? Why don’t you go and jump rope with the girls?” I told her I only knew how to play marbles because that was what I did at home with my brothers. No one had ever told me that girls and boys each had their specific games. It seems like, back then, someone from the Dark Ages was still pounding the idea into her head that girls should do this, and boys should do that. It seemed as if there were a lot of adult voices going off.
All I can remember from that day is that my teacher took me by the shoulder and marched me over to play jump rope with the girls. I also recall how bad, once again, I felt inside. At that age, I began to feel dumb, and also that something was wrong with me. It was as if I had an invisible button installed that would go off when I was not perfect and a voice inside my head would shout—”You are dumb, and something is wrong with you.” There wasn’t anyone I felt sufficiently safe with to reveal how I felt so they could help me straighten out this sad and sick feeling.
I now felt that I was handicapped. It was the voice in my head that imprisoned me. For the rest of my life, I did everything I could to hide the fact that I could not read well and that I felt dumb. If I ever told an adult about my experiences, they would say, “Don’t feel that way.” I did not know then nor do I now know how to shift my feelings as automatically as that.