Bud Herron: Clipped wings didn’t stop brave young reader

When my wife, Ann, was a second grader at Sellersburg Elementary School in the early 1950s, she was demoted from the “blue bird” reading group to the “black bird” reading group.

Being a black bird was an almost unprecedented drop in class status for her – skipping the stops at “red bird” and “yellow bird” and going straight to the bottom of the aviary classification system.

The blue birds were the children who could read about anything placed before them – from Dostoyevsky’s “War and Peace” to instructions for fixing the school’s heating system.

The red birds were the children who were able to read most of their textbooks with minimal prompting.

The yellow birds were the children who could slowly navigate short graphic stories featuring Dick, Jane, and their dog Spot, but had to pause before entering an unfamiliar restroom to say the word on the door.

The blackbirds had never heard of books that weren’t coloring until they entered first grade and the clusters of letters scattered across the pages meant nothing at all to them.

Ann’s fall from the bluebird elite list – displayed on the bulletin board next to the fire extinguisher just to the right of the American flag in front of the classroom – was not due to reading skills insufficient. She read well enough to one day be an honors student at Indiana University in Bloomington and hardworking enough to complete her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in a four-year span.

Ann’s problems were a need to socialize and an overwhelming desire to share her thoughts immediately with the teacher, the other students, the janitor, or the brown-haired fishnet women trying to pour limp green beans onto her plate.

In today’s world – where every student with learning difficulties is given a defining label – Ann would likely have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. At the time, the teacher said she talked too much and sometimes got up without permission.

She spent much of the first year standing in a corner reading instructions taped to the wall to evacuate the building in the event of a fire.

She entered second grade at the top of her reading group (probably after saying all those big words on the fire escape sheet). All of her grades were excellent except for the “U” for unsatisfactory in “behaviour” (school behavior code) at the bottom of her report card.

In second grade, Ann was thrilled to find that she had been named a “blue bird” reader. But alas, the glory did not last long. She was soon back to her old stand-in-the-corn ways – talking to friends during class, answering the teacher’s questions without raising her hand, and sharpening her pencils without permission.

Frustrated, the teacher decided drastic action was needed. The chosen punishment was to move Ann from her blue perch to the black bird reading group at the back of the birdcage.

Today, Ann still remembers that punishment fondly — not out of lingering humiliation at being demoted, but what her demotion must have said to all the other black birds. If being a black bird was a punishment, these kids were being punished every day – not for talking or sharpening pencils without permission, but just for being behind the rest of the class in reading.

Decades later, Ann would be a high school English teacher at Franklin Community High School and would be known for her success working with freshmen who had not mastered the eighth-grade ISTEP in English.

Chances are she also taught a bit of black bird in second grade, during her time deep in the reading group’s birdcage. At a minimum, everyone has probably learned how to get out of the building in the event of a fire.

Bud Herron is a retired newspaper editor and publisher who lives in Columbus. He was editor of The Republic from 1998 to 2007. Contact him at [email protected]

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