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.