Read Across America

Read Across America




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Jeff Bakkensen


As a child, I was a bit of a nerd, and when I was in fourth grade, my homeroom took part in a program called “Read Across America”.  “Read Across America” was a nationwide contest in which students competed to see how many books they could read in a single month, charting their progress on a map of the continental United States.  For each book you read, you could color in one state.  Color your way across the country and you could turn back the other way.  The winner was the student who had crossed the map of the United States east to west and west to east the most number of times.  Simple enough.

Well, not only was I a bit of a nerd, but I was extremely competitive, too.  Think Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood – I wanted no one else to succeed.  I raised my hand for every question.  I interrupted my classmates when I thought they were wrong, which, being fourth graders, they often were.  I made what I thought were “in” scholarly jokes between myself and the teacher, which invariably ended in awkward silence.  I was an intellectual bully, and I was very lonely, as bullies often are, and I couldn’t figure out why my classmates didn’t like me.  And like a cliché of a neurotic, I came to the conclusion that they must not have thought I was very smart.  I certainly wasn’t going to outrun anyone on the soccer field, or on the Presidential fitness exam.  I wasn’t going to beat anyone up or kiss anyone’s older sister.  But there was one thing I was good at, and I was going to show them all just how good I was.  I was going to win the “Read Across America” challenge.

I had all the advantages.  I was an excellent reader – for a fourth grader – and in preparation for the contest, I’d picked out about a dozen of the shortest books from the grade three section of the student library.  Cheap, sure, but it’s harder to win if you don’t get dirty.  I’d also mapped out the shortest routes across the country, in terms of number of contiguous states I’d have to cross.  I could go east to west (North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, California) in seven states, and on the way back, I could go west to east (Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Virginia) in eight.  I have never in my life been so supremely confident.  There was no way anyone was going to beat me.

Also in my homeroom was a girl named Rachel McManus, whose mother had taught us all the year before.  Rachel was quiet and friendly and always tried to mediate arguments, and I hated her.  I hated her because everyone seemed to like her without her trying, and I hated her because I felt like she’d gotten special treatment from her mother and from all the other teachers, who were also her mother’s friends, in the form of being picked first to pass out papers or lead the line to lunch.  I hated her with the irrational fire with which traditional weavers must have greeted the sewing machine, or stage coach drivers, the steam engine.  Her mere existence threw mine into question.

By the second week of the “Read Across America” contest, at which point I’d already reached Oklahoma and was a few pages away from New Mexico, Rachel McManus was in Pennsylvania, having started in New Jersey.  Fourth graders, contest or no, being generally unenthusiastic readers, no one else had finished more than one book; they were all still stuck on the eastern seaboard.

When Rachel McManus finished her third book, she opted to fill in West Virginia.  If you can picture a map of the United States, you know what a major strategic blunder this is.  So, apparently, did Mrs. Li, our teacher.  In the morning, Rachel filled in West Virginia.  In the afternoon, she filled in Ohio.  I called bullshit.

 “Mrs. Li,” I asked as we were transitioning from multiplication to grammar lessons.  “I noticed that Rachel added two states today, and she told me that she only finished one book.  How could that be?”

At first, Mrs. Li ignored me.

I asked again, loud enough for the rest of the class to hear.  Mrs. Li said that that was something she and I might discuss after the lesson was over.  But I wanted an answer right away.

“It’s not fair,” I said, looking to my classmates.  “Why can’t we all have one state extra?”

There were murmurs of assent from dark corners of the classroom.  Emboldened, I pushed my point.  I could practically hear the thoughts racing through my classmates’ heads – What’s this?  Bakkensen going up against the teacher?  I’d never had the classroom behind me before.  It was exhilarating, dizzying.  I felt myself swell with importance.

I probably said something dignified about the need for rules in an orderly society, and how contempt for these rules signifies the first crack in the paper-thin wall separating us from the animals.

But Mrs. Li wasn’t having any of it.

“Jeff,” she said.  “I really wish that you’d drop this.  We’re losing time out of our grammar lesson.”

Mrs. Li knew me well, and knew how much I hated to miss out on schoolwork.  Her comment stung.  But not as much as the feeling that a grave injustice was occurring, that rules were being ignored, and not as much, furthermore, as my creeping suspicion that not only had Mrs. Li allowed Rachel to fill in two states for one book, but that she had actually suggested that she do so.  And this, the feeling of betrayal by an adult whom I respected and who I needed to enforce the rules that kept the class going on schedule and kept me from getting hit or tripped on the playground or any number of other places where Wayne Murphy and Eugene Giroux might find me alone before or after class, along with the pressure of leading my first radical charge against the authorities, it was too much.  I felt a tear begin to gather at the corner of my eye.  And then, as I tried to explain again why it wasn’t fair that Rachel McManus should be allowed to fill in two states when she’d only read one book, I felt the tear detach and drop slowly down my cheek, another gathering to take its place.  And suddenly I was crying, sobbing, and throughout the entire class, which just a moment before had been solidly behind me, there was an audible gasp.  I could feel the support of two dozen nine and ten year olds, turn to disgust.  I’d had my chance, my moment of celebrity, and I’d cried it away.  I buried my head in my hands and waited for the bell to ring.

The class emptied for lunch, save for Rachel, who was apologizing profusely and promising to not color in a state for the next book that she read, and me, and Mrs. Li.  Mrs. Li asked Rachel to leave.

Then she sat down at the desk next to mine.  You always knew things were getting serious when an adult sat down next to you.

She asked me why I thought that Rachel had got to fill in an extra state and I said essentially what I’d said before, that it was because Rachel’s mom was a third grade teacher and one of Mrs. Li’s friends.  Mrs. Li shook her head.

She delivered one of those famous speeches that every kid hears once in a while and every teacher gives more often than they’d like to about how reading is very easy for some people and very difficult for others, and that some people, from time to time, need a little extra help and understanding.  I said that I knew that, but that there was still a difference between helping someone and helping someone cheat.  Mrs. Li listened and nodded, and said that adding a state for a classmate was not the same as taking a state away from me, and there was no way that Rachel or anyone else in the class was going to catch up with me.  I didn’t need to be afraid of my classmates having a little success every now and then.  Eventually, I stopped crying, and agreed to go down to lunch, ready to really face the music.  I knew it was going to be a long day; no fourth grader cried and got away with it.

Of course there was one seat open at the lunch bench, and of course it was next to Rachel McManus.  I don’t know if this was the cold hand of karma or, more likely, if she, perhaps the most considerate fourth grader in Bancroft Elementary’s long history, had left a spot open specifically for me.  I sat, shamefaced, and apologized, and she apologized, and everyone else felt too awkward about the whole thing to say anything to either of us.  Silently, I thanked them.

I have no idea where Rachel is now.  She and I lost touch when we went off to different high schools, and we never got to be really close friends, anyway.  It wasn’t, incidentally, until I got home that afternoon and relayed the entire event to my mother, who was a special education teacher at another school, that I understood just what an idiot I’d been.  There was, of course, a reason Rachel was asked to pass out papers and lead the line, and it had nothing to do with the fact that her mother had been our teacher.  I simply hadn’t known any better.

A week and a half later, I stood in front of the class and received the first place prize in our “Read Across America” contest.  I’d read fourteen books, nearly one every other day, and one short of crossing our great nation twice.  It was, until the GeograBee the next fall, my proudest moment.

The “Read Across America” ribbon is currently sitting on a bureau in my parents’ house, right next to my spirit award from basketball camp and my certificate of participation in the all-town band, and various other essentially meaningless awards.  I also have a paper doll that Mrs. Li brought me back from a trip to China, she and I having eventually resolved our differences in pedagogical theory.

What puzzles me most, as I look back, is what didn’t happen.  I didn’t get in trouble, but then again, I was at that point probably more worthy of pity than punishment.  I didn’t get made fun of, or mocked, or laughed at for crying in front of my classmates.  It amazes me, because I got made fun of for just about everything else.  Maybe it had finally become too easy.  Maybe they were embarrassed for me.  Maybe Rachel got to them first.  But I’d like to think that Mrs. Li or some other interested adult took them aside sometime when I was out of the class, and reminded them that we all have our strengths and weaknesses, and that there are some people who, from time to time, need a little extra support and understanding.  It’s a lesson I try to remind myself of as often as possible.