Back of the Class

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    Author’s note: In order to preserve the dignity of this fine family magazine, underlined words in this column are to be pronounced backwards. Thank you.

    If you have a child in elementary school, you probably have opportunities to read to his or her class. Dads, such opportunities are not for moms only, and I urge you to take advantage of them. Not only is it good for you to make periodic appearances at your child’s school, but you might even become a folk hero. I am serious. I know, because last year, I lived the impossible dream.

    DadStoryTimeIt began innocently enough. My son Sam was in third grade. At parent’s night, I signed up to be a lunchtime mystery reader. Mystery because the teacher never announced to the class in advance who the day’s reader was. One Wednesday, I was scheduled. Normally I would stop by Narnia, the most excellent children’s bookstore, and get myself outfitted with a surefire crowd favorite, but on this particular Wednesday I was jammed with meetings and couldn’t get by the store. No worries. I would just grab something from the classroom bookshelf.

    Before I continue, a word: If you have never read to third graders, it is not for the faint of heart. When it comes to stories, third graders do not suffer fools. They shout down boring readers with the fervor of British parliamentarians. I have seen lawyers, bankers, corporate CEOs reduced to husks because they underestimated their elementary-aged audience. You do not want to walk through that door with anything less than your “A” game.

    The book the teacher provided, by Roald Dahl, seemed innocent enough. The story of a young country vicar who, when he gets nervous, has the unfortunate habit of pronouncing backwards the most significant word of every sentence. Well, this sounded like it could be fun, with some clever verbal hijinx.

    Little did I know.

    Things started innocently enough, with the vicar, during his first homily imploring his flock to pray to God. Titters of laughter from my third-grade audience. Good, good. I was unlikely to be bound and trussed at the end of lunch. No pitchforks or torches.

    Suddenly, decorum went on strike.

    The vicar is asked by a group of little old ladies the best method for imbibing wine from the chalice. “You must sip,” the vicar tells them. Going on to instruct them not only to sip, but to sip gently.

    The titters of laughter had swelled, along with the eyeballs of my audience. The expressions on their faces ranged from “Did he just say what I thought he said?” to “Somebody’s gonna be in trouble!” (Sam’s expression, meanwhile, was one of mere puzzlement, and it wasn’t until afterwards that I found out he did not know what the word was. This shocked me, as he collects forbidden words like a numismatic collects coins.One of his main goals in life is to discover what “that Snakes on a Plane word is.”)

    I shot the teacher a quizzical look. She suddenly seemed much more interested in the papers on her desk than meeting my eyes. I plowed onward in the belief that it was just a single incident.

    It got worse. Or, better, if you were a third-grader.

    By the time the vicar was imploring his congregants to “please not park willy-nilly on the side of the road,” pandemonium reigned. Students were fist-pumping and shooting school-issue milk out of their noses. Sam scribbled furiously in his special vocabulary notebook. I was experiencing a third-grade emotion, as well: the sweaty fear of being summoned to the principal’s office.

    Roald Dahl remedies his vicar’s affliction by having him walk backwards, which causes him to stop pronouncing certain words backwards, and all ends happily.

    I was not so sure if I would be as fortunate. Would students go home and report that Mr. Moore had read subversive literature for lunch? Would I receive angry phone calls? Threatening emails? For God’s sake, detention?

    Third graders are too smart to rat out someone who has given them a fabulously forbidden gift. Instead, I became a kind of third-grade folk hero. Every time I saw one of my son’s classmates, they sidled up to me and said, “Mr. Moore, that was the best book anyone has ever read.” The next time I showed up as mystery reader, an impassioned whoop met me at the door. Rumor has it that a motion was introduced at the next student council meeting to rename the school in my honor. Never, in all my days as an actual student, had I enjoyed the kind of street cred I had for the rest of the school year.

    Alas, that year is gone, and another one is beginning. Whatever magic dust settled on me in third grade will be long gone in fourth. I will be just another dad looking lost and confused in the halls. But ah, the memories.

    So get in the mix, Dads! Read to your child’s class. You will probably survive the experience, and you might even get a bump in social status.

    Just don’t trust the teacher to pick your book.