Funny Baby Sally

In 1961, at age 19, I began teaching first grade in western North Dakota. My students consisted of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara children, descendants of the native tribes who’d lived there for centuries, with equal numbers of ranch kids and those whose dads worked the oil fields.

Only fourteen years earlier I had been a first grader myself and had learned to read through the adventures of Dick and Jane, that classic duo of pre-primer fame. Imagine my delight when I opened the supply closet of my classroom and found my old friends, still ready to thrill first graders with the first sentence they would read: “Oh, look.”

I paged through the books. There was Mother, precursor to June Cleaver, in her spiffy shirtwaist dress and classy pumps, welcoming Father home from his nameless job that required a suit, hat and briefcase. Baby Sally, Spot and Puff joined Dick and Jane, all of them ready for action.

But a few weeks after school started my expectations of fun and laughter turned to disappointment, when it was obvious that my students didn’t share my enthusiasm for the stories. Circled around me, they dutifully called out words that they had learned from the flashcard drill, but rarely did any of them smile, and no one ever laughed.

Culturally appropriate material remained an undiscovered educational concept. Life in first-grade reading books was white and middle-class. Close, but not an exact match for my childhood. My dad was a mechanic in grease stained clothes and had never owned a brief case in his life. My mom pumped gas, wearing jeans and a kerchief tied around her head to keep her hair down in the North Dakota wind.  Her one pair of high-heeled shoes stayed in the closet until it was time for church. But I never questioned the differences.

My blissful ignorance remained untouched as I became a young adult, and unencumbered by any sense of responsibility to the diversity of my classroom, I blazed ahead. I had hope that the reading circle malaise would lift, when we reached the funniest story in the book. In this one, titled, “Look and See,” Baby Sally, that curly-haired mischief-maker, gets into Mother’s face powder with hilarious results.

The next morning at reading group, smiling broadly in anticipation, I asked the motivating question suggested in the teacher’s manual: “Have any of you ever done something that you shouldn’t have?” This question produced solemn faces and uneasy squirming.

“I mean,” I said, still beaming, “Maybe getting into something of your mother’s?”

Donna Lone Wolf furrowed her brow and narrowed her eyes. Jeffrey Johnson looked guilty, but still no one answered.

The motivation period wasn’t going well, but I plunged forward never losing my grin in spite of my stiff jaw.

“Today Baby Sally is going to do something funny. Let’s see what she does.”

The four-page story began with Sally on tiptoes opening Mother’s face powder, followed by Spot and Puff watching Sally whiten Tim’s furry face. I began to chuckle. On page four Dick entered to observe the commotion. The pets and Tim on the dresser with powdered faces and the upside-down powder box on the floor had left me just short of hysterical.

Other than reading the words aloud, the class remained silent. Suddenly, a ray of hope appeared. I noticed a smile coming to Holly’s lips, and her eyes sparkled. Bless you, little rancher’s daughter, I thought to myself.

My smile grew bigger than ever. “Holly, do you have something to say?”

She nodded excitedly and announced to the class: “Your front teeth look just like my horse’s teeth!”

I shut my mouth and licked my dry teeth. And then—everybody laughed.  It was funnier than Baby Sally.

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Lucy BellLucy Bell is a retired teacher and writing consultant. She is a certified Native Plant Master and Interpretive Guide at Cheyenne Mountain State Park. She founded Friends of Emerson in Colorado Springs, now in its thirteenth year.