When I was young I went to St. Patrick’s Parochial School in Bedford, New York, where our teachers belonged to the Sisters of Charity. I’m sure they did something right; three different science fiction authors came out of St. Paddy’s: James Patrick Kelly (two years ahead of me, in my sister’s class), Elizabeth Hand (two years behind me, in my brother’s class), and me. But I’m not going to talk right now about things they did right: I’m going to talk about the SRA Reading Laboratory.
The SRA Reading Laboratory consists of boxes containing smaller boxes, each of those smaller boxes containing little four-fold cardboard things with stories on them, and study questions at the end. They’re in a rainbow selection of color-coded cards, one box of boxes of these cards per year. And here’s how the nuns used ’em:
Every year, the boys would be started in the bottom box, while the girls would be started half-way up the spectrum. The stories in the bottom box were as stupid as drool (not that the selections in the top color box were much better — I cheated and looked at them) but they took time to read, and it took time to answer the “study questions” and you couldn’t move to the next color ’til you’d done every friggin’ card in the color box you were in. So you fought your way through the colors, box by box, until… the end of the school year. And the next year, no matter how high you’d gotten in their rainbow of boxes, the boys were started in that grade’s bottom box, while the girls were started half-way up.
Among the study questions at the end of each card they always asked, “What new words did you learn?” I eventually started writing, for that question, every time, “When I learn a new word I’ll be certain to let you know.”
All of this took time. Working through stupid to boring to dull. It was like marching through quicksand. Soul quenching.
Mind you, I liked reading. I loved reading. Reading was what I did. Reading is still what I do every day. But, because I was a boy, every year, right to the bottom and try to work my way out.
So that was me and SRA. I came to dread Reading Time and hate answering the Study Questions. Perhaps this all helped when it came time to do the SAT and GRE (double 800s, thank you very much) but at the time it was soul-deadening.
As long as I’m complaining about elementary-level reading… in one of the grades we had this chart where we entered the books we’d read. So one day I put in “Poltergeists” (which I’d gotten from the adult floor of the White Plains Public Library (even though I was still in elementary school I’d gotten reading and borrowing privileges in the adult section)). This was a serious work, with footnotes and bibliography, several hundred pages long, discussing the history of poltergeists (known in every culture around the world, from antiquity to the present day) their possible causes, sources and analogs, correlations, quotes from noted authorities, graphs, all that good stuff. Even a chapter titled “Spurious Poltergeists.” I’d classify it as anthropology/psychology.
So anyway, I marked this down on the chart and identified it as Nonfiction. Sister asked, “What are ‘poltergeists’?” and I replied, “Noisy ghosts.”
“Ghosts,” she said, “are fiction,” and changed my designation from non-fiction to fiction.
That was the last time I put anything on that chart. I continued reading, of course, but I didn’t mark anything down. Meanwhile J**** T****** was putting down dozens of books; I doubt if any of hers were over ninety pages, and most of them around forty-five. But she got the gold star.
And that was me and reading in elementary school.