At a certain unknown time, Ms. Taldo announces that class is over and children should start getting their coats and backpacks together--the school buses will be here soon. The students scramble to gather their things, and the last act of the schoolday is putting their chairs back on top of their desks. This is a ritual that I have yet to discover the purpose of.
It is now that I get the opportunity I have been waiting for ever since I arrived. Laura tells me that I can read aloud to the children! I love reading aloud, and the little ones seemed so eager. I sat down in a comfortable yellow upholstered chair and am handed a lovely piece of literature, Junie B. Jones is a Beauty Shop Guy. I flip open the book to a little scrap of Kleenex which a boy informs me is where they left off yesterday. Clearing my throat, I dive right into the moment where the intrepid kindergartner Junie is trying to cover up the horrendous hairdo that she’s just given herself. Unaware and unprepared (I never read any of the Junie B. books), I come upon this section:
I quick picked (the hat) up and put it on my head.
And guess what?
It hided my sprigs!
“Hey, if I wear this to school, no one will even see my hair!” I said real relieved.
Only just then, I did a teeny frown.
What on earth is this?! I am not the world’s best grammarian, by far, but I am immediately appalled at the horrendous manner in which this book mangles the language I love! I quick picked up? Hided? Real relieved? Did a frown? In this one short section alone I was bombarded with numerous errors that would have made a modern teenager wince.
But this was a kid’s book. It was supposed to be for kindergartners. Apparently, there are some adults out there who think it’s alright to dumb things down for kids instead of trying to challenge them, instead of trying to give them something worth trying to understand! This is a completely foreign idea to me. The concept that you would put a book like this in the hands of a kindergartner and tacitly assure them that this sort of trash is really writing, is reprehensible.
I would like to insert a few words that the children’s author (and Newberry Award Winner) Madeleine L’Engle is quoted as saying:
“You have to write whichever book it is that wants to be written. And then, if it's going to be too difficult for grown-ups, you write it for children.”
L’Engle believed that it was criminal to dumb something down for someone just because they were young. Children through the ages have proved themselves to be as brilliant or even more brilliant than well-educated adults.
I’m not saying that Barbara Park (author of twenty-eight Junie B. Jones books) is responsible for the downfall of English grammar in recent generations, but I am giving these books as examples of how we Americans love to minimize our children’s potential. I have been watching these kids all day long, and I have seen some real talent in some of them. Others are far behind where they ‘should’ be. What if these children were exposed to challenging literature? What if they were asked to understand things much bigger and more complex than they could comprehend? What if it was demanded that they grow? Perhaps some of these children will always underperform because no one expects anything greater of them. Another L’Engle quote: “A book, too, can be a star, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.” How different would these children be if they read, or listened to, book that were like “living fires”?
But then there are those teachers and parents who are willing push children as far as they can go, who will train them, help them, really educate them and give them the tools they need to go beyond mediocrity. Laura might just be one of those teachers. I can see that she loves her pupils and wants to help them. The school system and the sheer size of her class may slow her progress, but as I watch her I am sure that these children are blessed to have a teacher like Ms. Taldo.
As I read Junie I try to substitute proper grammar as I go along, attempting to straighten out the catastrophic writing. I’m soon finished with the book (in which the little girl is rewarded for lying--we won’t even go into the moral implications of this) and, as a few kids are still clustered around my feet and begging for another story, I start in on a Mercer Mayer book about playing in the snow. It’s only a few sentences long, but I intersperse the narrative with conversation: asking the kids what they like to do in the snow, if they have any siblings they have snowball fights with, if their mothers give them hot chocolate when they get back inside after a cold afternoon of fun. They all reply at once with a little chorus of sticky grins and giggles.
I then give up the chair to a sweet little blonde who wants to read aloud to her peers. I’m so proud of her as she starts into The Berenstain Bears: Ready, Set, Go!. There’s nothing really deep here, but at least it seems to use proper grammar. The book actually serves as a lesson in comparatives like ‘good’, ‘better’, and ‘best’. I help the girl with a few tough words like ‘Olympics’, but otherwise just do a little cleaning up. I observe Laura sitting at a very low table shuffling paperwork and talking to what looks like a group of especially disobedient children.
Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion of the series,
Junie B. Jones is a Beauty Shop Guy
Text copyright© 2003 by Barbara Park.
Copyright© 2003 Random House Children’s Books