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How Yertle the Turtle Helped a Head Start Teacher


When I think of Dr. Seuss, I think of a time and a place and a boy named Ricky.

It is a frost-bitten afternoon in mid-February, 1975, in a small town at the tip of Appalachia. Through the classroom window snow is dusting the playground, which hasn't seen a tricycle for five months.

It's one o'clock, Quiet Time, and lots of the 18 children entrusted to our care have collapsed on their cots, their bellies full of tomato soup, grilled cheese sandwiches and milk.

Patty is snoring softly as I reach down to remove her thick glasses and set them on the windowsill. Jamie is dreaming; there's just enough light to detect the rapid eye movement under his lids.

Over in a corner lies Ricky, flopping and flipping, seemingly incapable of a nap on this (or any other) winter's day. He whips his thin blanket over to his cohort in mischief, D.J., and D.J. fashions it into a headdress. Their suppressed giggles erupt into gasps of laughter and I am dispatched by the thoroughly unamused Head Start director to, once again, separate Ricky and D.J. from their deep-slumbering classmates and deliver them to the reading room.

First, I carry D.J., a 4-year-old motion machine, who wriggles and yelps for aid. "Put me down, dammit!" he says, before I deposit him on the brown snuggle rug. I place a picture book about trucks in his hands and look squarely into his blue-gray eyes. My mouth soundlessly forms the word "read." D.J. indignantly shakes his head from side-to-side.

I lift Ricky from the floor and carry him like King Kong carried Fay Wray. I smell pee, as often happens when one gets within sniffing distance of Ricky. His pants are not wet, and I wonder when the last time he had a change of corduroys and underpants. I'd take his clothes home with me to wash, but what would he wear home? And, worse, how would I accomplish this without embarrassing him and his mother? Your first responsibility as a Head Start teacher is to preserve the dignity of the child and family. We'll just have to air him out in the playground come spring.

We join D.J. in the reading corner and I ask Ricky to choose a book from the shelf and come sit with me in the rocking chair. We are on a "Yertle the Turtle" binge; it is today's selection as it was yesterday's. We have covered it together so many afternoons it is committed to memory, and Ricky brags to his friends that he can "read" it. I provide the first line of rhyme, Ricky the second, as we "read" responsively. D.J. listens, but pretends to be engaged in truck lore and legend.

In Ricky, I see what it means to know something "by heart." This book of whimsy resides within this little boy, in the place where all things are possible.

Dr. Seuss, thank you. Your fanciful words and pictures have given rise to the imagination of two restless boys, who would sooner eat stewed prunes than nap.

We didn't have much to offer the children who came to us each frigid morning, except for such things as a hot breakfast and lunch, a new toothbrush twice a year, unlimited tissues to dry their tears and relentlessly runny noses. We freely dispensed goodbye hugs as they boarded the bus home. And there were books, books and more books.

Sixteen years later, I wonder where the journey has taken my students, and whether their primitive fire for reading, ignited by Seussian rhyme of turtles and elephants and cats in hats, burns on.

I wonder, too, if Dr. Seuss, who left behind a legacy of 48 books when he died last week, fully realized in his lifetime how appreciated he was not just by parents but by teachers, the women and men are expected to perform daily miracles with squirmy kids.

But most of all I wonder if, on a snowy day this winter, a grown man named Ricky will read "Yertle the Turtle" to an eager child.

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