I had the best third-grade teacher ever. Seriously. If you had Mrs. Marlo as your third-grade teacher at Maplewood Elementary in Sylvania, Ohio, then you can make the same claim. If you didn’t then you can’t, and sorry, but that’s all there is to it.
Mom didn’t know it was picture day when she let me wear my Batman sweatshirt to school.
Mrs. Marlo taught for only about 20 years, so your window of opportunity to have her as your third-grade teacher was not large. Those 20 years were awhile back, too, before the Apollo space program. Trolls and Ratfinks roamed the land, and the best toy cars were from Matchbox, because Hot Wheels hadn’t been invented yet. If you got a quarter for allowance, you could buy a comic book at the local drug store and with what you had left over you could fill a little paper bag with jawbreakers and licorice whips and Pixie Stix for a penny apiece. Get Smart and Batman were the coolest TV shows, along with The Avengers (but with two super-suave spies, Steed and Mrs. Peel, not superheroes like Iron Man and the Hulk).
Mrs. Marlo was using technology in her classroom long before there were Kindles and tablets and even clunky desktop PCs. She had an Amazing Reading Machine. You fed it a keypunch card with a magnetic strip along the bottom and it would read a sentence to you in MISTER Marlo’s voice (Mr. Marlo was Mrs. Marlo’s husband, a teacher at the high school). Your assignment was to write down the sentence as you heard it, and run the card through as few times as possible to get it right.
There was a film-strip projector that showed words on a big screen on the wall. Placed in front of the projector was a little stand with a camera-like shutter in it that blocked the projector’s beam. The stand had a lever on the side, and when you pulled the lever down, the shutter opened and let the beam through, then closed again, flashing the word on the screen. You had to watch very carefully to see the word and write it down because the word appeared for less than half a second. One of the students always got to work the shutter. It was fun!
The school janitorial staff never touched Mrs. Marlo’s classroom. Instead, two students were “hired” each week to stay in from afternoon recess every day to sweep and dust and tidy up and empty the trash. At the end of the week, they each got a Tootsie Roll Pop for their wages.
Mrs. Marlo didn’t use the boring old standard texts. For Spelling, we chose our own words. Every week, each student contributed a word that would appear on the test at the end of the week. I can still hear some of the other kids groaning when I offered “Tyrannosaurus Rex” and “transmogrify” and “trinitrotoluene” (I must’ve loved words that begin with T). For reading, Mrs. Marlo eschewed Dick and Jane and instead took the whole class to the local library where we could pick out any book we wanted to read that week. For the test, we just had to write a short report on the book, sharing what we read and explaining why we liked or didn’t like it.
And that’s probably one of the most influential things in my entire life.
Rather than learning that reading is boring and repetitive and completely lacking in stimulus for the imagination (“See Spot run. Run, Spot, run.”), I learned that reading is an adventure, that it can make your heart pump or your eyes flood or your stomach knot up in laughter.
In Sid Fleischman’s books, I followed the fantastic adventures of Chancy and the Grand Rascal and Mr. Mysterious & Company. I got kidnapped along with Oliver and taken aboard the pirate ship, Bloody Hand, in The Ghost in the Noonday Sun.
As I read Hurry Home, Candy, by Meindert DeJong, about a little stray dog, I put my head down on the desk and covered my face and cried and cried, silently wracking and hoping no one would notice.
I bawled again when Zachary Ball’s hunting dog, Bristle Face, went out after that sneaky, rotten, lousy fox and ran all night and ended up in a cut and bloody heap in the woods, sure to die.