The Dictionary

(Page 1977 from the dictionary.  Note I have used the slug drawing for this as it is the state mollusk.)

When I was in fourth grade in 1953-54, I had this very mean teacher. I had moved to Redmond Elementary School in January 1954.  I was eight years old and a year younger than my classmates. The teacher wanted me to be in third grade, not fourth. At the end of the year she told my mother she was keeping me back to redo fourth grade.  Mom negotiated and if I went to summer school, my teacher would pass me to fifth.

I didn’t care for this teacher at all but I imagine she probably had good points.  She was old, grey of hair and skin, skinny, squint-eyed and all the other fourth grade classes used to feel sorry for us in her class.  I don’t think I ever saw her smile. Later I found out she was a single lady taking care of a single sister with the latter stages of MS.  I guess her lot in life was difficult. Maybe this was why she never smiled and was gruff with us in class.  Since I was beginning to show a reading problem, may have been the reason she felt that I should be held back, taking the same year over.  I don’t remember getting any extra help with reading, however, and we were not divided into groups according to our reading skills.

I do remember her punishing students, myself included, for not keeping up in class.  Off to the coat closet.  Yes, we had an enclosed closet that spanned the back of the room where we put our coats, boots, lunches and other things we dragged to school for safe keeping during the class day.  I don’t know how isolating us from the studies helped us catch up. She was also generous with the use of the ruler applied to various parts of our bodies when we misbehaved.  Thankfully, it was never applied to me.  She retired two years later.

She always was harping on my not keeping up, though I don’t remember her helping me to get ahead.  I was just lost amongst a lot of new kids.  My dad had a full time job in town and commuted, something that no other parents did.  The rest of the students came from stump farms that raised a few dairy cattle or from small, low income cottages in town, working at the local ice cream factory, helping on larger farms, keeping small shops in town, though many were unemployed. Maybe she thought I had a more privileged life than my contemporaries.

At the end of summer school, which finished the end of July, the room needed to be put in ship shape for the coming year.  Old unclaimed school papers hauled out to the trash, all the desks cleaned out and washed, all the miscellaneous stuff that was taped to the windows removed and all the seasonal stuff, put up for the approaching summer from last spring’s classes, dumped or stored.  I guess the remedial students in summer school also were the grunt workers too (read janitorial help).

At one point, the teacher told me to take the dictionary out to the trash, they were getting new ones for the new school year.  The dictionary!  This thing was a thing of beauty.  Worn to the point that you could barely recognize the once gold-leafed title on the spine and front. The tobacco brown cover now was missing its shine and was worn through to the cloth.  The spine was still intact, amazingly, considering its size and having been used for eons by careless fourth graders.

Its size–I just weighed it–is fifteen pounds. It is nine by five by twelve inches.  I think we forget about dictionaries these days as we have them online when we use word processing and when we are reading electronic books online.  We don’t look up words anymore; we just point the digital pointer at them and are given the proper spelling and an abbreviated definition in seconds.  If we don’t know how to spell the word, several suggestions are given.

This behemoth book was not a pocket dictionary or even one that was held in your lap.  It was located on a special stand in the classroom so it wouldn’t be manhandled (kidhandled) too injudiciously.

The copyright date is 1926.  Maybe the school district felt it was time for us to have access to more modern words.  Today a dictionary is obsolete in about five years.  By then this one was twenty-eight years old.

Some of the wonderful things about it were the lovely engravings throughout.  Lots of engravings with several on every page.  It also had extensive etymological explanations taking up several inches at the bottom of each page.  It didn’t define words using the same word.

I remember finding, in fourth grade, that the word reach had twenty-seven definitions.  It gives variations and synonyms of the words.  It has a pronouncing biographical dictionary as one appendix. The pronouncing gazetteer, the population of the cities in the US with more than 5000 people, elements of pronunciation of foreign names, and pages and pages of illustrations of botanical, zoological, and mechanical objects are in the back as appendices.

That was why I was so surprised later.  This was truly a wondrous tome.  I couldn’t see taking it out and dumping it in the trash.  I asked if I could take it home.  Knowing the teacher didn’t like me, I didn’t hold out for much hope of a positive answer.  Her response was “How are you going to get it home?” Wow! I hadn’t thought about that but was so excited I could hardly believe she was going to be that nice to me.  It was July and summer school was a half day so we could be home for lunch.  The bus stop was three-quarters of a mile from my house.  Maybe she let me take it knowing the punishment it would give just getting it home.

School was OUT for the year.  It was in the 90s outside.  I trudged to the bus with my treasure.  I was tired when I got there and it was only a few steps from the building to the bus.  I got off the bus at my stop with the scorching sun shining down on my head.  The heat was rising in waves from the ground.  Now the trek.

Down a long ditch, one quarter mile down the railroad tracks, and the remainder down a dusty, dirt track to our farm.  Needless to say I stopped a number of times to rest and set down my load.  I was small for my age.  I probably would have to rest these days too, carrying a fifteen pound book in my arms.  I arrived home red-faced and late for lunch.  My mother saw the obvious reason for my lateness and my red, sweaty appearance.  I did have a BIG smile on my face though.

That dictionary always had a special place in my room.  I used it often and it went to college with me along with a new, more up-to-date version.  It is still with me and I use it only occasionally having succumbed to auto correct and online dictionaries as a more convenient and quicker way to get the right answer.

I still treasure it, though it is pretty battered.  I have tried to smooth out some of the convoluted pages in the front and back, but they refuse to stay flat. Who would have thought that one of my worst memories of a teacher would be associated with my having and keeping such a treasure.