Dick and Jane Have Their Day

On Thanksgiving we were in the car on the way to my mother’s house. It was the kind of day in the fall that I think of as a “Dick and Jane” kind of day—where the sun is shining and the air is crisp and cool.  Most of the leaves have fallen but some seem forever suspended just above the ground—as if on a page in a book.

I entered first grade at the American School in Germany where I’d lived since I was a baby.  My first grade teacher, Miss Matthews, was beautiful and kind. Not long after school started, it was time for my family to leave Europe and return to the United States.  Miss Matthews gave my parents our basal reader to read with me as we traveled. The book was called Fun With Dick and Jane.

I’d been read to all my life and now it was my turn to read to my father. The words were easy and I loved the stories about Dick and Jane and Baby Sally.  They lived where I was going: America. They called their mom and dad ‘Mother’ and  ‘Father.’  I learned those easy words, but I also learned to see beyond those words.  I learned to use my imagination to turn simple sentences into beautiful stories.  I knew the red wagon in the picture was the way to adventure and fun.

My father and I read about Dick and Jane and Baby Sally, as we traveled through the Alps on a train.   We ventured into their world from varnished deck chairs in the cold sunshine as we crossed the Atlantic on a ship.

One morning, just as the sun was peeking over the edge of the ocean, my parents took me out on the deck of the ship.  They wanted me to see the Statue of Liberty.  “You are home,” they said as she came into view.  I thought to myself, “This is where Dick and Jane live.”  I looked at the New York skyline and thought about their dad.  The story unfolded in Dick and Jane’s dialect: “Father must work and work.  Father works in a big building.  Father works in the city.”

We moved into a house in McLean, just outside Washington, D.C.   I was pretty sure that Dick and Jane lived in our new neighborhood and I tried to figure out which house was theirs.  I would see the red wagon in one yard, but then I’d see Puff, their cat, in another yard.  I was sure that Jane would be fun to play with.  She had a brother and a sister… just like me. And I wanted to meet her dog, Spot.  I imagined that I would stand beside her and call, “Run, Spot, run.  Oh, Jane, do you see Spot run?”

I looked for “Mother,” too.  In the book she was always standing on the front steps, in a crisp red dress, calling the children. I knew that if we could peek in the door behind Mother, we would see cutout patterns for Halloween costumes on the dining room table or half-written letters. If we looked into the kitchen we would see baby bottles lined up by the sink and a high chair with sticky plastic keys on the tray.  We’d smell pot roast in the oven.   There would be magazine scraps Jane had forgotten to pick up, and crayons that were too hard to get back in the box.  There would be records playing—a mix with skips and scratches:  Classical. Jazz. Broadway.

Dick and Jane taught me a lot.  I learned that real or not, characters in a book make life more real. I learned that learning to read isn’t just about the book you use.  It is about the experience.  And relationship.  And imagination.

My father would say he knew nothing about teaching reading when he taught me to read.  But the truth is no one knew much.  No one really knew why some kids could read and some couldn’t.  They were asking the question, but they weren’t finding the answer.  Research now tells us so much more than anyone knew back then.

Now we know that that deep reading is about sustained engagement with the text.  It is about connecting with characters and being able to picture their lives off the edge of the page. It is about wondering and asking questions.  It is about looking for what we read in real life. Dick and Jane sprang to life for me because I understood that books and stories were about connections and imagination. I learned that early because my parents read to us.  I was lucky.

On the way to Thanksgiving dinner my husband drove and I read aloud.  I read a New York Times op-ed piece by Thomas Friedman. He presents new research that reading aloud gives children, families, and nations an advantage.  My parents did their part: they filled our world with words and books.  And Miss Matthews did her part: she put a book in my hands that I was to read myself.

Trees stood beyond the stone wall that runs along the G.W. Parkway.   Most of the leaves had fallen, but some, just a few, seemed suspended in the air. The sun was shining and the air was crisp and cool.  All these years later, I still know it when I see it: a Dick and Jane kind of day.

About Annie Campbell

Annie Campbell is a National Board Certified third grade teacher and loves her work. She especially enjoys teaching children how to be enthusiastic readers, writers, and problem solvers. Every year, she hopes to inspire her students to be committed citizens who know they can make a difference in the world around them. When she is not teaching, Annie enjoys cooking for family and friends; she likes to lose herself in a good book; she loves discovering new ideas, restaurants, perfect picnic places, and movies with her husband, Ben.
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6 Responses to Dick and Jane Have Their Day

  1. Anne says:

    Annie, love this post. Dick and Jane and Sally painted such an idealized portrait of 1950s America. We all know that much of their world wasn’t applicable to our worlds, but it still gives me a happy feeling to see the illustrations from those books. I bought a book several years ago that is a coffee-table type commemorative book about Dick and Jane. I always imagined that feisty little Sally would grow up to embarrass her cookie-cutter family. I am certain that she now lives with her longtime same-sex partner and summers in Provincetown or Rehoboth Beach. And Mom still refers to the partner as Sally’s “friend.” 😉

  2. Cynde Liffick says:

    I loved Dick and Jane. I lived in a village in southwest Ohio and it opened up a whole different world for me.

  3. Debra Carlotti says:

    I loved reading this! It brought me back to a magical time. Thanks Annie! You are a beautiful writer!

  4. Kathryn Cumming says:

    I loved reading this, too. I had old, tattered hand-me-down Dick and Jane books. It was the 60’s and I loved Laugh In and all things hippie. I thought Dick and Jane were so uncool…because they were. But, there was something so comforting, so reassuring, about reading those books over and over again. Annie-I choked up at the part in your story when you saw the Statue of Liberty, as I choke up every single time I fly over or visit New York and see her. Great post. Thank you.

  5. Emily says:

    Annie, beautiful, thoughtful writing, as always. I teach college freshmen and high school seniors taking my class for college credit. I like to open the semester with a discussion of their reading lives and then we write a reading autobiography. This piece illustrates what I hope they will find in their own pasts. Thank you.

  6. Don Cowles says:

    Annie Campbell creates “Dick and Jane Days”!

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