I’m not an obsessive fan of the Tolkien books, but I’ve read them, liked Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series, and am looking forward to the Hobbit. I am concerned that it might be a victim of the Kill Bill phenomenon, where a director leaves in stuff he should have cut because the movie is supposedly “too long”, and especially skeptical that it merits the same number of releases as LOTR. But no matter, I’ll be seeing it.
I’m usually not much for nostalgia, but when I was looking up the details of the Hobbit movie, I began to think back on the first time I encountered that book. The story is kind of relevant to the standardized testing debate, of all things, so here it is after the break.
In elementary school, all of my teachers were women, and most of them were older’. The one I remember most was my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. H. She was probably 55 or 60 when she taught our class, but I’m not sure because, like most kids, I thought anything over 18 was ancient.
Mrs. H taught us the usual reading, writing and the rest, but I certainly don’t remember much of that. I do remember that she was kind and patient during those lessons, because one poor boy in our class had a terrible case of dyslexia and could barely read, and she was incredibly patient and protective of him when it came his turn to read out loud.
What I do remember well is the non-curricular things she did. One of those was starting our own banking system in the class, and it was elaborate. She issued scrip, we had weekly auctions for stuff we brought in from home, were able to buy and sell items (like candy) from each other during designated class times every day, and so on. In my memory it took a significant amount of class time, and occupied a great deal of our outside-of-class time, because we were planning and scheming for ways to amass little fortunes before the school year ended.
The other thing I remember was the Hobbit. One day she announced that we were going to have story time each day, and this was the first book. I’d never heard of it before, but before long it was the highlight of the day. Part of the reason was that she was a good reader–she did a great Gollum. Part of it was that this was the mid-70s, before the LOTR movies, Harry Potter and the Hunger Games had increased the level of sophistication of what’s considered children’s entertainment, so the Hobbit was far more complex and involving than the Disney fare we were used to.
Anyway, if there’s any point to this other than self-indulgent nostalgia, it’s that Mrs. H had, as far as I could tell, complete license to do whatever she wanted with at least 20% of the school day. If she decided to create a banking system, she ran off a couple hundred dollars on the mimeo machine and handed it out to us. If she wanted to read the Hobbit, she brought it in from home and started reading. We had something to look forward to every day, we had an incentive to pay attention (because we didn’t get the Hobbit or to do banking if we were screwing around), and we learned something from both of those activities, even if it didn’t show up in a standardized test.
It’s been more than 35 years since I first heard the Hobbit read out loud and I still remember the experience. To my fifth-grade ears, it was a bit magical. Maybe today’s fifth graders wouldn’t have the same experience because they’re so much more sophisticated, but we’ll never find that out, since they’re too busy drilling for standardized tests. I’m very skeptical of “good old days” reminiscing, but in this case, I think the days before every moment was spent focusing on performance on a test left more space for great teachers like Mrs. H, and I’m sorry for the kids who won’t have that experience.