Learning to Read… in first grade at Pleasant Prairie Grammar School

I went to a one room schoolhouse in the wide-open spaces of the Sacramento Valley in post-World War II California. In 1947, when I started first grade, all 42 of us-from first graders through eighth graders were taught by Mrs. Millsap, a matronly lady in her early sixties who was driven daily to and from the school by a retired Mr. Millsap in their sporty 1936 Model A coupe. The rest of us arrived by foot, horseback, and even tractor. (see the memory on learning that my name was David, in this collection). That year, I was one of six students in first grade, along with four girls and one other boy, Denny. Denny was my comrade in games and adventures in the rice paddies that stretched out along the prairie between our houses. When Mrs. Millsap got around to the first graders {the second day of school), she handed each of us a copy of the first pre-primer (Skip Along, I think, was the name). It featured Alice and Jerry-a duo not unlike Dick and Jane. I listened in awe as Mrs. Millsap and two of my fellow first graders took turn s reading from the book. I was dumbfounded! I hadn’t, until that moment, realized that l couldn’t read. As the baby of a family of six children, I had been read to frequently (my mom, Lora, and my older sisters, Patty and Joyce, took turns), but I had never realized that other children my age could read.
The cruelest blow of all was that Denny was one of those two readers. Think of it—we had raced one another through rice paddies, and, all the while, he had been able to read! I arrived home that day in tears. My first question to my mother was, “How come Denny can read, and I can’t?”
“David,” she replied, “Don ‘t you worry. All of your brothers and sisters learned to read, and you will, too. Trust me, David. You just have to give it a little more time.”
I trusted my mother completely, so I gave it a little time. l did learn to read the little stories featuring Aljce, Jerry, Jip {their dog), and their friends and family. By November, I had started to outpace Denny. By the end of the school year, I was reading a library book or two (and even snuck books into my bed at night), while Denny was still struggling to decipher the tales of Alice and Jerry.
It wasn’t until some 20 years later, when I was a classroom teacher myself, that I finally figured out why Denny was ahead of me at the start. It was Denny’s second year in first grade! He had memorized the pre-primer stories word- by-word, sentence-by-sentence, story-by-story (he didn’t even have to look at the print!}. But after the three pre-primers, when words looked more alike and memory couldn’t carry the day, Denny got stuck, and he never did get through the primer or the first reader, even in that second year in first grade.
I have had an incellectually rich life as a result of the gift I got from Alice. Jerry, and Mrs. Millsap in first grade. I’ve been able to study how teachers can scaffold students in learning how to read, understand, and think about text. I wasn’t able to help Denny (although you shouldn’t feel too sorry for him—I heard he did rather well as a vegetable farmer), but the skills I got that year as a first grader laid the foundation for a life of research and writing. that has aimed to extend (pay forward) that gift of reading to all students.

A version of this memory is included in a collection by Scholastic about the value of reading in all of our lives:
Pearson, P. D. Pay it forward. In L. Bridges (Ed.), Open a world of possible (pp. 184-185). New York, NY:


Leave a Reply