When school tries to get in the way of reading

Pagina reading in class

I was a pretty smart kid in elementary school. I only needed to hear or read something once, and I would remember it. I was also very good at doing two things at once. These two things made me a nightmare for my teachers. I always got good grades, effortlessly, but my report cards always read the same remarks: “Loes talks too much” or “Loes distracts other children”.

These remarks were very true and also very justified. The pace of the lessons was often too slow for me, causing my attention to wander. That would either lead to me talking with my classmates or doing something that I wasn’t supposed to. Nothing bad, mind you, but I would write in the margins of my books, pass notes, draw, read,  …

Since it was a rather small school, both of my sisters went there too and my parents were active in the parent council, my teachers knew what to expect when I came into their class. They knew they were getting a smart and social kid, that was easily distracted. I also wasn’t subtle at all (I’m still not, by the way) so it was pretty obvious when I was doing something that I wasn’t supposed to.

Over those six years of elementary school, my six teachers had different ways of dealing with this. One teacher always told me to be quiet. He kept that up for a few months and eventually settled on leaving me be as long as I didn’t disturb other kids in the class. The next teacher did the same thing: she let me be for a few minutes, and then called on me to get my attention back to her teaching. The third teacher probably understood me the best and challenged me in class, giving me extra exercises that were actually useful (not just small variations on the exercises to occupy my time), allowing me to work ahead, giving me harder or longer tasks than other children, … In fourth grade, I had a teacher that combined the knowledge she gleaned from the teachers that came before: she would shush me at times, call back my attention at others and if the lessons allowed it and she had some handy, give me extra work. But she was also the first of my teachers that tried to trick me to show me why I needed to pay attention.

I don’t remember this of course, but ask my dad about my school years and this story is guaranteed to be among them. My teacher told it to my parents on parent night with a mix of frustration and amusement. It was during a French lesson that she noticed that I wasn’t paying attention. I’d been colouring in letters in my book for about 10 minutes and when I got bored with that, I started talking to my neighbour. Not being subtle or able to whisper at all, this conversation soon involved our neighbours in front and behind us as well. So my teacher knew that I hadn’t been paying attention for at least 15 minutes and decided to call me out. She called on me and asked me to repeat what she just said. To her astonishment, I was able to do provide an almost word for word summary of what she had been talking about. I went back to doodling, oblivious of the fact she’d been trying to embarrass me, as she smiled rather sheepishly and went on with the lesson.

My fifth-grade teacher went the way of her predecessors by letting me muddle on as long as I didn’t disturb any of the other children, who unlike me, couldn’t talk and follow the lesson at the same time. And then came my sixth-grade teacher. He was actually the favourite teacher of a lot of children, including me, because he liked to make jokes and his lessons were usually quite lighthearted and even fun. He really worked on creating a fun and relaxed atmosphere but could also be strict when needed, mostly by calling every class “the worst class ever, much worse than the year before.” This teacher tested whether I was paying attention or not regularly, like almost once a week. He didn’t just do it with me though, with everybody who was gazing out the window or seemed distracted any other way. And by this point, I was also aware of what he was doing. I usually was able to answer most of his questions, but the time I remember best was in January 2008.

So Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released on July 21st, 2007. That summer, I bought and read the English version because I couldn’t wait for the translation. It was the first big book I ever read in English completely so it took me a few days and a lot of thumbing through the dictionary. The Dutch translation came out in on the 17th of November later that year. I didn’t know that however and my parents gave it to me for Christmas. So that Christmas holiday, I had started rereading all the Harry Potter books. Because you can’t just read a sequel without rereading the previous books, especially if a lot of time passes between the two. I took the bus to school, so my book obviously came along to be read during that 15-minute trip. And because I really couldn’t wait to get started on the last book, I also read in school. On the playground, during lunch break, and eventually even during class.

Reading in class
or when you’re reading…

My teacher had noticed that my attention wasn’t on the maths he was talking about at the time, but he couldn’t figure out what I was doing. So he took a stroll around the class (which he did often, usually to scare children that weren’t paying attention or check up on them). He saw the Harry Potter book lying on my lap and quietly went back to the blackboard where he kept an eye on me for the next few minutes. As I was obviously engrossed in my book, he was sure I wasn’t paying attention to the lesson. He finished what he was talking about, wrote down a rather difficult exercise on the board and shouted my name. I looked up quite stunned and was then called to the blackboard to solve the math problem and explain how I did it. And to his frustration, I did just that. He then took away my book and didn’t give it back to me until the end of the day. He also called my parents to let them know and my father couldn’t stop laughing. Luckily, he was a good sport and didn’t hold it against me.

I’ve always loved reading! And I don’t let anything get in the way of my reading time, not school and certainly not teachers trying to outsmart me.