Story 02: Education of a Dropout

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Story 02 Introduction

Written by Mike Spock

I started Second Grade at Fieldston, commuting an hour each way from the Upper East Side to the suburban edge of the Bronx, in Riverdale. It was a sympathetic place with a reassuring emphasis on crafts, projects, cooperation, play and alternative routes to learning and success. Every year had a theme: Indians in Second, New York Colonial period in Third Grade, Medieval Times in Fifth, Westward Expansion in the Sixth. Everything was derived from the theme. In Third Grade we visited Dutch colonial sites throughout the city. We used tallow and ashes to make soap. We gathered bayberries, extracted their wax and dipped fragrant candles. There were woods to explore and hide in. Workshops were to learn skills. There were multiplication tables to memorize. There were weekly ethical problems that were put before us and discussed. Each class, in addition to its organizing theme, was responsible for a key function of the school community: the newspaper, the store, the bank. Fieldston, one of the schools that was part of the Ethical Culture Society's school system founded by Felix Adler, was a learning community that engaged everyone, that taught everyone, that welcomed everyone, that challenged everyone.

But Fieldston didn't seem able to help me figure out how to read. I was separated out regularly for one-on-one sessions with a special teacher. She had a moustache. We went over and over painfully obvious exercises. The tasks became simpler, more boring, and ultimately, just as baffling and humiliating as last year's Sailor Sam. "P" was indistinguishable from "b" or "q" or "d." The special teacher constructed three-letter words illustrated by stick figures: "boy," "cat," "run." The exercises were crafted into personal books just for me. When everyone in the class had to read a passage from a real book during Visiting Fathers' Day, I had to pick my way through my homemade three-letter reader. For the first time I really felt incompetent.

Outside school I managed by deflection and substitution. I listed to the radio, particularly the fifteen-minute afternoon kids' serials, and when I was sick, the daytime soaps. (Before antibiotics and immunology we were sick a lot, and the recovery was long.) Nights, past bedtime, I sweated under the covers as I tried not to be caught listening to "I Love a Mystery," "The Shadow," "Dr. IQ," "The Lux Radio Theater." Comic books, aside from the telegraphic Nancy and Sluggo and the wordless Little King, were beyond me. I went to movies a lot: Saturday-afternoon-long double features, complete with a newsreel, coming attractions, cartoon and this week's serial. And just hanging out day dreaming, riding the subways, wandering museums, looking in store windows, discovering unfamiliar places. The street life observed from our apartment windows included traveling knife sharpeners, organ grinders, "cashpayed" old clothes collectors, chain-driven package delivery and coal trucks, with clever compartmentalized beds that rationed out their tipped up loads through troughs set up across the sidewalk to shoot the oily coal into our basements.

My father—Ben as I was encouraged to call him—was struggling to make a living from his pediatric practice, launched during the Great Depression. He seemed to be on call or on the phone all the time. There were calls waiting to be returned when he got home, late, for dinner. He seemed tired and distracted. But my morning baths, while he shaved, were unhurried and companionable. I found I could hold my breath under water and he timed me. We practiced my multiplication tables. We discussed the mysteries of the world and life. Military parades excited both of us—especially the impossibly uniform West Point cadets.

I have no real idea how I finally began to decode words. Trying to reconstruct those painful years, I think I began to read store signs: the words were illustrated with products displayed in the windows. But who knows whether the drills, or maturation, or something else allowed me to break through. By the Fifth Grade, as near as I can figure out, I had grasped the rudiments of reading. I still avoided writing with all my energy and self-preserving instincts, but from that point I could get along.

Next: New York: Fieldston School