The Little Orange Book

“Oh the places you will go!” said Dr Seuss. For me, books are a way of discovering new places. A way of meeting new and interesting people. A way of learning how to grow and change. Books can change us, but the path can be an uphill climb. Or not.

It did not start well for me. In first grade I was uprooted from a school I loved and moved to Southport Elementary. My dad’s dream of starting an engineering business with a friend vanished when his partner unexpectedly had a heart attack. Suddenly, Dad needed a paycheck. While his transition to an engineering job in Indianapolis went well, my transition was a bit bumpy.

At nearly six-feet-tall, Mrs. Walker, my new first grade teacher, intimidated me. Every strand of her blond hair was pulled into a tight bun. She tediously scratched her directions on the board. As Billy Schrader used to say, “She has a stare that can knock you flat.”

One day after reading groups, in front of the entire class, Mrs. Walker asked me, to read aloud from the yellow reader. I felt like she had spit nails at me. My face turned red, and I covered it with my hands to shield myself from the slings and arrows of her words–as well as the stares of my new peers. I could not move. I could not even open my mouth.

Immediately, Mrs. Walker explained she was moving me from one reading group to another.  She used names like, “You are moving from the red bird group to the blue birds.” While I was only six, I knew I was being demoted from the high reading group to a lower group—and all of my new classmates were staring at me with pity. Even Billy Schrader, the class bully.

To this day I can call up the shame of how that moment felt. At six, I was painfully shy, and I had no understanding of how to stand up for myself and explain that I could read every darn word (all 15 of them) in the yellow reader. But I was scared. I told no one. I harbored the pain of my shyness and a fear of reading or speaking in front of others for a long time.

Then I met my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Vawter.  She wore a ring through her nose. Billie Shrader called her “the bull” until he realized you don’t mess with Mrs. Vawter. It took a couple of weeks and several parent conferences, but the woman got Billy Schrader under control. In the end I think Billy liked her. No one had ever made him behave.

And no one read like Mrs. Vawter. After lunch she often read to us from the little orange biography books about the lives of Abe Lincoln or Betsy Ross. She pretended to be the characters, even the animals. When she would clomp across the room like a horse, we shrieked our approval.  I started checking out a little orange biography each night and reading it. On the day I turned in the book on Helen Keller, Mrs. Vawter announced to the class I was a “voracious reader.” Of course, no one knew what that meant, so she laughed and then asked me to share the story of Helen Keller.

For a moment I stood there frozen in my shyness. Now, I loved that little orange book, and Mrs. Vawter knew I did. It took a long hard moment, but somehow I broke past my wall of silence and began to tell that story like I had been born to tell it. With passion. I told about how illness at a young age had stripped Helen Keller of her sight and her hearing, and how Annie Sullivan came into her life and helped her learn words and how to communicate. I talked the longest I had ever talked in any class.  I spoke with the fire of inspiration, for I loved this story.

When I was done, I realized my classmates were staring at me in disbelief, and Billy Shrader announced, “Wow, she speaks!” There was laughter, and it is my first memory of my classmates smiling at me. It felt good.

Mrs. Vawter ushered me into books and stories that inspired me. She helped me to find and share my voice. The story of Helen Keller struggling to understand and communicate with others was an important one for me. Being painfully shy allowed me to relate with her communication struggle, and as I watched her overcome obstacles, I wanted to be like her and overcome my own struggles.  I am grateful for the inner courage she helped me find.