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Learning to Read
in Greeley, Nebraska in the '40s

by Bill Metcalfe


            Directly because of my Catholic education, I learned how to read at an early age.

            I was brought up wild, a single child of a solitary mother, in a very, very small farming town in the middle of Nebraska. Within most of a morning, a stray youth could walk between any two of the town’s official limits. This trip usually would include a quick stop in the business district for a soft drink and a rest.

            If the cattle that surrounded this town ever learned how to fight, how to revenge their slaughter for our appetites, we would be so greatly outnumbered that our houses, our two schools, our two churches and all the green grass between would be theirs. My small bed would hold a calf.

            In spite of my  last name, I am not siding with the cows. (Ha ha! Good one, Bill.)

            Because of a dread disease called “hooky”, I missed at least one-third of each of my first three years of education. I would set out in the right direction, but there was always a diversion. A sunny day. A friendly dog in desperate need of a petting. A whole block crammed with gigantic farm equipment awaiting the next season. Eventually, my feet would revolve and I would find myself heading home on a familiar route.

            On the next day, when I returned to class, my teacher, a frail Catholic nun of over sixty years of age, would clumsily pick up the twelve inch wooden ruler from her desk and walk towards the door which lead into the corridor. Just before she left the room, she would turn about to motion with her free fingers for me to follow. And I did. Slowly. Eventually, we would walk, as old friends, side by side to the familiar destination.

            As soon as we entered the library, my teacher would sit in what must have the been the missing librarian’s chair. It was so hefty the nun could hardly move it. All of the other chairs were made for bottoms my size.

            Then she would beckon for me to join her. For the first couple of weeks, I would briskly do so, but after that I slowed down quite a bit. For when I reached her chair, she would decree that I was to lie on her lap so that my head dangled close to the floor, but my rear was positionally stable in her lap. Then she would apply the ruler to it, over and over. As the nun lacked a strong right arm and as I wore a pair of heavy Levis, I didn’t feel any pain. A foraging fly caught between my rear and the cascading blows of the ruler would have flown away with a only a minor headache.

            At the time, I did not know this, but eventually I learned that the step up in punishment would mean a solitary walk to the Principal's office. Hung on the wall behind her desk was the paddle for either a large rowboat or some dangerous sport we had never heard of. While the Principal addressed us about our shortcomings, we anticipated the lecture to end with the paddle addressed to our ends. It would be weeks, we feared, before we would be able to sit reasonably comfortable in our class seat, if we could sit at all. At home we would stand for supper.

            Fortunately, the Principal played an effective bluff. No bottoms were harmed in her office.

            Not having anything to do until my teacher finished administering the punishment, I looked about this room, equal in size to our classroom, but devoid of students and of desks. There were a small number of tables with child-sized chairs, but nothing to indicate that food would be served or even allowed. On the walls were framed portraits of adults. Some were duplicates of those in our classroom. All had one curious feature that made them different from most portraits I ever saw. Around the head of each was a golden disc that was often partially covered by the person’s hair. Directly below these portraits were bookshelves stuffed with books in a multitude of different colors and sizes. A person my size, who was into climbing, could easily put his hand on the top of these shelves and pull themselves up for a closer look of these people. Strangely, all of their first names were “Saint”.

            After one of these disciplinary sessions, I learned that I was being punished in the school library.  My erstwhile tormentor explained the purpose of the library in more detail than I cared about. I could, all by myself, check out books to take them home to read. School books were more than enough for me though.

            It just happened that several days later, from my position on the punishment lap, I could clearly see the two-inch spine of a book. There were also the magic words, LAD, A DOG. I had a dog. Could this be a book for us? My teacher used her good hand to check it out for me. After school, it joined my school books for my walk home.

            When I reluctantly had to return the book, another teacher informed me that LAD was just one of the many books on that shelf about dogs by Albert Payson Terhune. And beside his books, there were books by other equally gifted writers on dogs. There was an entire shelf, plus another half, of novels featuring dogs as the main characters. Four legged heroes! A great discovery.

            While I waddled through other grades, I continued reading Terhune’s books several times before moving on to Tolstoy. (Just kidding about Tolstoy. No dogs in there.) I did move on to other books though. Some I understood; other I didn’t, but I kept on and on and on. Eventually, these older cousins of those first books caught my eyes and mind. Now that I am decades free of the teacher’s stroke, many of them are now standing quietly in the five crowded book shelves in my house.

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