Elementary school was quite a regimented process when I was a child. To enter, we gathered outside the building in a double line and marched inside to the beat of a student experimenting with a rugged Sousa march on the upright piano in the hall, making more noise than music. Fifth and sixth grade rooms were on the upper floor, and the old wooden stairs creaked and groaned to the mass advance as we climbed them in unison to pass through the circular center hall above to those rooms. In the center of the circle hall a light with a green shade, which provided the only illumination, hung over a table piled with books. Around the circumference dark doors opened to the surrounding rooms.
The year I remember most my classroom was to the left of the stairs, and I generally entered it with dread and distaste. My teacher was very strict about how much we worked and, with never enough to keep me busy, I endured the days as they paced by with sullen steps. The incident I am about to describe occurred one day when I had finished my work and was filling the time tearing designs from folded paper. I became absorbed in observing what infinite variations I could get even though the designs were always symmetrical and forgot to conceal my action from the teacher.
A shadow warned me, and I looked up to find her leering down at my busy hands. How could I have been so careless? I dropped the paper, drew back to the far edge of my seat, and watched in terror for the gathering storm.
"Why aren't you working on your arithmetic?' she demanded.
"I've finished," I gulped, and grabbed for my paper to show her.
"Come with me," she commanded.
I rose and followed her as she left the room. Was she taking me to the principal? Or was she going to beat me herself out there in the cavern of the grim hall?
Outside the classroom door, she grasped my arm firmly and led me to the table. Did I have tears in my eyes as I looked up to see what she would do to me? It didn't matter if I did; the light was so dim she couldn't have seen.
"Here." she said, "are encyclopedia. Whenever you finish your work, you may come out here and read." Then, dropping my arm as abruptly as she had interrupted my paper-tearing task, she turned and swished back to the classroom she had deserted for my benefit.
Weak with relief, I sank in the nearest chair, mopped my nose and my eyes with the back of my hand, and let relief take over. After it began to ebb, I started to look at the books. I soon forgot even how nice the teacher had been, becoming lost in the fascinating pages of those books.
I saw a picture of the Taj Mahal and wondered who had decided it was the most beautiful building in the world. I found pictures of snow flakes that looked like my paper designs and was disappointed to learn that some one else already knew about them. I read an article on snakes that said most of them were harmless and thought to myself, "Not at our house, they aren't harmless!" the last time Robert chased me with one I climbed up on the garage roof to get away and then I was scared to come down. If I had fallen off that roof, the snake would have been very harmful!
And so I wove my way through hours that would have otherwise been tedium - entranced, enchanted, and involved in the process of learning. The self-direction permitted was the key. I discovered that facts in books are also a part of my life. Although this insight has been frequently clouded by demands of others through my long years of school, the truth is still there, and when I have an opportunity to choose my own path, I wander down the lane of learning with the same absorption that child had in the dimly lighted center hall. The success I have had as a scholar has been closely related to my skill of applying knowledge to life situations. Did the stern teacher know what she was doing when she grasped my arm so firmly?