She was telling us the class rules, and every single one of us was at attention. After all, she had attention as being the “strict” teacher and her tall stature, tightly wound red hair, and impeccable wardrobe reinforced that. Every once in a while, though, I’d sneak a glance at the back of the room at the giant target, which took up the entire bulletin board with its eight multi-colored rings and brown bull’s-eye that read “Mystery Sneaker.” I had no idea what “Mystery Sneaker” meant, but I knew that it was probably important to Mrs. Hickman, who was still talking but now looking straight at me. I sat up, looked right at her and allowed her to continue.
It was my first day of first grade and I was scared out of my mind.
Now, when I was five years old, I really didn’t know what “strict” meant, let alone that a “strict” teacher could be a good teacher. I just knew that “strict” equaled “mean” and that meant bad. Such information concerning Mrs. Hickman was gleaned from conversations with older kids who had been through first grade at Lincoln Avenue Elementary and spoke from experience—but also spoke knowing that we had no b.s. filter and it was fun to scare younger kids, even though some of the stories were true. We found out right away that if your desk was too messy, for instance, she would put a sign that said “Lincoln Avenue Garbage Dump” above it. And on the bulletin board behind her desk was the paddle.
Brown and stamped with “RAH,” the paddle looked like something she had gotten from a sorority and was single-handedly the source of every rumor about Mrs. Hickman. Students who never had her and never would know about the paddle and the more you heard about it, the worse it became. It didn’t merely hang on the wall. Oh no. The word on the Lincoln Avenue playground and the homes of Sayville elementary school students was that if you got out of line in any way, you got hit.
Now, I know there are people who did receive beatings at the hands of teachers, administrators, or nuns at some time or another. But by the time I got to school in 1983, I am sure that if Mrs. Hickman had hauled off and beaten the crap out of me because I didn’t clean my desk, tenure or no tenure, she would have gotten into serious trouble. In fact, there was one time you did get a paddling and that was on your birthday, and even then it was a light tap or two (though I’m sure that you couldn’t get away with that today). But when you sat in the classroom and looked at her desk, there it was, hanging, taunting you, telling you that she meant business.
And she did, although she didn’t need a paddle on the wall to show us. She marked up our work with a red pen and expected nothing less than what she knew were our best efforts. I remember one night sitting at the top of the stairs crying because I had colored in the exercise in my phonics book using a green Whitman crayon and had colored it so thickly that it prompted her to write, “Messy! You can do better!” Maybe I was being hard on myself or had a need for approval from authority figures, but this feeling that I had let her down was a sign that she was effective.
But as we discovered, she was effective because despite the pressure of high expectations and perceived fear of the paddle, she wanted us to love being in her class. I’m sure that’s why she turned learning to read into a game. Because when you’re six you may have a natural curiosity but you don’t have the natural love of learning that makes you purposely want to delve into existential philosophy or debate the merits of socialism in regards to public policy. No, you are still getting the shakes from naptime withdrawal and you’re still struggling with making a lowercase n not look like a lowercase h. So, with our education at such a base level, she knew that she not only had the challenge of teaching us how to read but the opportunity to make us want to read and love words and love reading and that is why the very first thing you noticed when you walked into the classroom wasn’t her paddle, but the giant target.
Soon after that first day, Mrs. Hickman explained the target and how it tied into our reading books called The Ginn Reading Program. During the first week of school, Mrs. Hickman handed each student a copy of Animal Crackers and announced that we would be reading all of that first book before moving on to the next, which would be another brightly colored book called One Potato Two whose stories were slightly harder than the one we were holding. Eventually, we would make our way through other books, each of them helping to raise our reading levels, which is how the program was designed ever since Theodore Clymer thought of it back in the 1960s.
According to his New York Times obituary, Clymer was the pioneer of what’s become a given in the American public school system—the reading book. He challenged then-contemporary notions of reading at the elementary level and added a heavy emphasis on phonics before eventually developing what was called the “Reading 360 Program,” where stories were grouped into collections based on how they fit into a reading level and how they informed his phonics and vocabulary focus. The way that teachers used the books obviously varied, but most of my teachers chose to divide the class into reading groups based on how well we read. I don’t remember if Mrs. Hickman did this, but she did her best to make sure we were at least comfortable with reading, if not loving it. I have to give Ginn credit for this, too, because they made the books very accessible to kids because they had bright colors and serif fonts that were word art in themselves. For instance, Across the Fence had the word “Across” jumping over “the fence” and the title of Inside My Hat looked like it was wearing a hat. Those editions of the books, which were published in 1981, are definitely of their era, and seeing any one of them puts me in the hallways of Lincoln Avenue Elementary School nearly thirty years ago, where I dutifully carried my metal Dukes of Hazzard lunchbox to Mrs. Hickman’s class and hung my Mighty Mac winter coat on a hook behind the big target bulletin board.
The eight rings of the target plus the bull’s-eye were each colored after the color of the cover of whatever reading book they represented. Animal Crackers, with its blue-trimmed cover, was the blue outside ring and the target worked its way through One Potato Two, Little Dog Laughed, Fish and Not Fish, Inside My Hat, Birds Fly Bears Don’t, Across the Fence, Glad to Meet You, and Give Me a Clue until it ended up with that brown bull’s-eye and Mystery Sneaker, boldly penned in her perfect handwriting. The twenty arrows on the bull’s-eye had each of our names on them and the idea was that each time you were able to read the vocabulary associated with the book, you moved up a level. So, if you could read all of the words on the Animal Crackers list, your arrow was taken off the target, one of the feathers was colored blue, and it was put back up on the target at One Potato Two. You kept going until you finished reading all of the words for Mystery Sneaker.
This would become the most important thing in my short academic career. As Mrs. Hickman explained the assignment, I almost immediately wanted to go all the way. To me, it wasn’t about learning words; this was like Chutes & Ladders or Candy Land or Cootie. I wanted to collect all the pieces and come out a winner. And I know I wasn’t alone at first because when Mrs. Hickman would pass out those dittoes with their columns of words—printed using a mimeograph with the kind of purple ink that smelled like academic heaven (and from which you’d get some sort of contact high)—we would set to reading the words over and over and would find our way to her desk to read them. Some of us walked away disappointed and went to study the words over while others triumphantly watched our arrows march toward the center. I personally blew through most of the first-grade level stuff by Christmas, which made me one of the faster kids in the class and Mystery Sneaker a possibility.
Then, things kind of slowed. Most of the class either hit a wall or lost interest because I think that Mrs. Hickman even got a little tired of the whole operation because as we got to the higher levels of the target, she seemed to be indulging me more than actually being proud that I could read that well, listening to me read words aloud even though she could have been doing things way more constructive, such as grading papers. As the levels got higher they got a little tougher for me too—I barely made it through Across the Fence on the first pass and it took me two tries to move from the bright green Glad to Meet You ring to the pink of Give Me a Clue.
That is, unfortunately, where I would stop. It was not without trying, however. I had my sheet with purple ditto ink and read and practiced the words as much as I could, even when it was playtime and my friends were on the rug in the back of the room with their blocks and puzzles. When I was finally ready, I approached Mrs. Hickman for my reading session and began going through the columns of words on the page. I got about halfway down the first column and began to hesitate because the sun was shining right on her desk and in my eyes. She noticed my hesitation and asked, “Would you like to try again some other time?” For some reason I didn’t have the wherewithal to tell her that I was fine and just needed to get the sun out of my eyes and walked away from her desk. We never got around to another session and my arrow stayed on pink for the rest of the year.
I never actually read Mystery Sneaker. As I went through the rest of elementary school, I found myself put in the “accelerated” reading group in every class. That meant that when everyone else was reading Mystery Sneaker or Barefoot Island, I was reading Ten Times Round or Ride the Sunrise. By the time I was in the fifth and sixth grade, the reading books were secondary to the books I was checking out of the library, anyway, and I can’t remember if I read very much of Green Salad Seasons in the fifth grade before heading to sixth grade and Ms. Frei’s class, where we used Point, a book with a unicorn on the cover that was not part of the Ginn program but was considered the highest of the high as far as reading books was concerned (the highest in the Ginn Program was Chains of Light, which I am not sure was used in sixth grade classes at Lincoln Avenue). Besides, my attention was directed elsewhere to the novels I’d started reading and I didn’t remember much about those last few reading books. But I remembered her, and as I found out years later, she remembered me.
When I was a junior in high school, I was accepted into the People to People Student Ambassador Program and was slated to go on a trip to Western Europe that summer, if I could raise part of the program’s tuition. I did some self-promotion: speaking to the local Kiwanis Club and getting written up in the Suffolk County News. Because of that article, I received a few checks, mostly from relatives and family friends, but one of them, for $25 was from Mrs. Hickman. I was surprised that she had remembered me after all that time, and I made sure to send her a thank-you note as well as mention her in a letter I wrote to the paper’s editor thanking all of those who helped me. Now that I am a teacher and a parent myself, I understand the impact that one educator can have and am even more grateful. After all, Mrs. Hickman and her bulletin board got my love of reading going and the best way I can ever thank her for that is to say that it never stopped.