"'Who will help me knead the bread?' said the Little Red Hen.
'Not I,' said the Cow.
'Not I,' said the Duck.
'Not I,' said the Frog."
I yawned and turned the page, although I already knew what came next; "'Then I will knead it all by myself,' said the Little Red Hen."
"Knead" was a funny word. The "k" didn't say anything; you pronounced it "need". As in, "I need some new books." But I couldn't have any; I was being punished.
I had stolen four dollars from Mom's purse and walked down to the company store when I was supposed to be playing in the back yard. There was a book in the window, a big one; "Mother Goose Stories and Poems". I had seen it when I went with Mom to get canned milk and stuff. The price was on the cover - only one dollar! But Mom wouldn't buy it for me.
The man at the store had wanted to know why I was there by myself, but I had my answer ready. It was Mom's birthday, I told him. I looked around and found a flowery cup and saucer, under three dollars. "That," I said. "Mom will like that." He took it off the shelf and wrapped it for me. I counted out the three dollars, then looked at my change.
"I still have a dollar," I said. "Can I have that book, too?"
I shouldn't have given the cup to Mom on her birthday. As soon as she unwrapped it, she frowned. "Where did you get the money for this?" she asked. No thanks, no smiles, just questions and more questions until I had to confess.
I got the belt for that. Worse, I had to take the cup and the book back to the store and tell the man I lied. And I didn't have time to read more than a few of the stories in the book!
It was a good thing, as Mom and Dad said, that my birthday was in the summer. I could go to school as soon as I was six, and not have to wait until next year like the kids who had their birthdays after Christmas. There would be books to read at school. But until then, I would have to make do with what I had. I wouldn't even get a book for my birthday.
So I read "The Little Red Hen" again. And "The Sky is Falling!" with Chicken Little and all the farmyard creatures. And the oatmeal box, even the French part. And sometimes my Bible, the one with the pictures in it; Moses in the Bulrushes, Daniel in the Lion's Den, Jesus Knocking at the Door. It was hard to read, though, almost as hard as French. The stories made more sense the way they told them in Sunday School.
September came, finally. School. Two rooms, one for grades one to three, one for the big kids. My room had small desks, all lined up in rows, and a blackboard with the letters of the alphabet printed at the top. At the side, under the window, there was a two-shelf bookcase, half-full of books. When I looked closer, I saw that most of them were the same one, over and over; "Dick and Jane". But there were a few different ones. I wanted to start reading them right away.
There were rules. The teacher spent most of the first morning telling us about them. We had to sit quietly in our desks. No talking. No whispering. No looking around. No getting up from the desks without permission from the teacher. No reading, except at lunch hour. Except for the textbooks, of course, but only when we were told to. "Dick and Jane" was one of the textbooks, and we got to take it home, so I read it all the first week. The teacher moved me up to Grade Two.
At lunch hour, the other kids ate quickly and ran out to play. I sat alone in the warmth and the quiet, reading. I didn't mind not being out in the rain with the others; I was never any good at their games, anyway. I got tired too easily. Playing tag, I was always "it", and never managed to tag anybody until they got bored and waited for me. Reading was better.
All the books on the shelf were easy; baby books. There was even another copy of "The Little Red Hen". I read the rest over a few lunches, then the Grade Three textbook. The arithmetic books had story problems; I read those, too, when the teacher wasn't looking. We weren't supposed to read ahead, she said. Another rule.
That was it. There was nothing more to read. And I had to read the textbook along with my grade, with the book open to the right page, following along as the other kids struggled to read in their turn. "Dick and Jane are go-ing to the farm. They are go-ing to vi-sit Gra-nd-father and Grand-mother."
Outside our windows, the sunshine faded. It was going to rain again; the seagulls were flying high, soaring along almost without moving their wings. I wondered what it felt like to be up there in the wind and the quiet.
"Susie! Stop daydreaming! Pay attention!"
I looked back at my book. The girl in front of me was stumbling over an easy word. Jane was feeding the chickens. Always chickens!
At the end of the blackboard behind the teacher's desk, there was a connecting door from our classroom to the next. It was usually closed. One morning our teacher ran out of chalk and went next door to borrow some. She left the door open -- "Don't talk, children. I will hear you." -- and I had a good view of the window wall. There were two bookcases, crammed full of books!
I was careful not to let my attention wander for the rest of the morning; I didn't want the teacher mad at me. At lunch time, I stood quietly by her desk until she gave me permission to speak. "Miss Hansen, may I go next door and borrow a book to read?" I remembered to say "please", too.
I expected a bored "Okay", plus a few more rules to remember. I got two; I was not allowed in the next room. And I was not allowed to read those books; they were for Grade Four and up.
Wishing doesn't make things happen. You have to act if you want results; so they told me. But I did nothing to get at those books, I swear it. I did sit staring at that shut door as if my eyes could burn a hole through it, as if I could really see those forbidden books just beyond. What magical stories did they hold? What singing poems? What new riddles? I got in trouble for daydreaming again; I didn't care.
One Saturday morning just after the first frost, a man came running up our hill, shouting for Dad. The school was on fire! Behind him, smoke billowed up, a darker grey than the drizzly sky.
Everyone went to help; our family from the top of the hill, mill-workers and their wives from the river road, men down from the bunkhouses on the mountain-side. Someone got the fire hose unrolled and hooked it up. They took it around the back, where the chimney was. In front, men were bringing the desks and tables to the school door; women piled them higgledy-piggledy in the yard. We kids hung around, as close as we dared, getting yelled at when we got underfoot.
Someone came out of the school carrying a pile of books and dumped them on a handy table. More books followed, armloads of books, whole boxes of books! When the school was empty, everyone went around back where the fire was. I could hear it crackling back there, but I ignored it and went over to investigate the stacks of books. I found one that looked interesting, grabbed a chair and sat down to read, my back to the empty school.
It was a story about a mouse who couldn't run as fast as the other mice. He was always last in every race. He was always late to dinner. The other mice called him "Cow's Tail". In the end, of course, he proved to be smarter than the others, and they were sorry they had laughed at him.
The fire was getting bigger. The roof of the school caved in. I chose another book. And another.
Everyone came back to move the desks farther away from the building. They shooed me away; I grabbed another book and sat on a rock across the road, reading.
The school burned down. The teacher left town. We held classes after that in the church, with Mom as the teacher. I got to read anything I wanted.
Wishing didn't make it so. I swear it. It just happened.
© Susannah Anderson, 2004