“Just think of a kangaroo!” the big-as-a-room-full-of-pillows woman chortled. “Then you will remember my name; it rhymes with kangaroo: Mrs. Ducroix!”
I was enthralled with my third grade teacher from the instant I spotted her—all 250 pounds of her—my imagination was ignited and captured by the kangaroo imagery.
After school, as I colored at the dining room table and my mom bustled about in the adjacent kitchen, my daily routine included a verbal litany of Mrs. Ducroix’s virtues.
“She smells like lemons. Even though lemons are sour she smells sweet.”
“I wonder how she affords to wear Avon every day,” my practical and frugal mother remarked.
“She wears a dress, stockings, shiny black shoes, and jewelry to school every day,” I reported.
“Cin Cin, those ‘shiny shoes’ are called ‘patent leather’ and of course she wears stockings every day. She’s a lady; when a lady leaves the house she has to put on stockings,” she replied.
With this proclamation, my mom rushed out the back door with a laundry basket full of freshly washed wet clothes to hang on the line in the backyard. I resumed coloring periwinkle Eeyores and pink Piglets, relieved that she didn’t insist I go outside with her to “get some sunshine.”
In third grade, I was compelled by the desire to comply with authority and to “be good.” I wanted nothing more than to make my mother happy.
Unlike my kindergarten, first, and second grade teachers, Mrs. Ducroix had not taught any other McGilvrey children. She was my teacher—not my sister’s, not my brother’s—never had been and never would be—she belonged to me. I lived four blocks from Gardiner Elementary School and, for the first time in my primary grade years, walked by myself to school. My sister, Linda, and my brother, Eddie, now rode a bus to junior high. She was six and he four years my senior.
In late September of 1968, the Boeing 747 rolled out; it was a momentous occasion for my dad and he insisted that, “Momma save the paper! That’s a little bit of history right there.” Just as momentous for me was the proclamation that my third grade class would be visiting the library every Wednesday to check out two books. Previously, our library visits had been hit and miss so I was thrilled to hear that Wednesdays were now officially library
days. I was so excited that I had trouble falling asleep on Tuesday nights. Mom said, “It’s absolutely ridiculous for a little girl to not be able to fall asleep. Lay still. Close your eyes. Say the rosary. Be thankful that you have a school to go to.”
The next day, the librarian directed my classmates and me to a shelf containing books by Beverly Cleary and H.A. Rey. I was ready to move beyond Beezus and Curious George. I wanted to read different books but I did not want to break any rules. I could almost finish an “available for third grade checkout book” before my peers finished making their second book selection. I wanted to go to the teacher’s shelf. Those books looked thick. Those books looked juicy. Those books looked like sweet escape.
I snatched up Beezus and Ramona (for the fourth time) and strolled over to the teacher’s shelf. To Kill a Mockingbird winked at me. I snatched it up, opened my sanctioned book, and placed the forbidden tome inside. Safely back in the third grade area, I sat down by myself at a table to wait until Mrs. Ducroix instructed us to line up. I began to labor my way through Harper Lee’s masterpiece. I stumbled on the second sentence:
“When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury.”
“Assuaged” was not in my vocabulary; I pressed on. I was intrigued with Jem, Scout, and their siblinghood. When Dill enters the Maycomb scene, I am locked, loaded, and ready to meet Atticus and Calpurnia! The weight of Mrs. Rhymes-with-Kangaroo’s puffy, pink palm on my shoulder abruptly squashed my literary euphoria.
“Cynthia,” she asks me, “what are you reading?”
Physically incapacitated by fear to respond verbally, I clutch both books to my quivering chest. My mind sprints to a hellish scenario wherein Mrs. Ducroix calls my mom to tell her that I broke a rule. I see my mom’s disappointed face and hot shame pierces me.
Mrs. Ducroix placed Beezus and Ramona in her left upturned palm. To Kill a Mockingbird went right. Looking like a massive Egyptian dancer, she lowered Beezus and Ramona to waist level. “This is too easy of a read for you, isn’t it?” she asked me. I nodded, stupidly.
Next, To Kill a Mockingbird hovered where her blue gray hair met her watermelon red forehead. Her cat eye frames with embedded rhinestones were askew on her bumpy nose and her eyeglass chain wobbled with her chins. “Cynthia, this book is a little too difficult for you, isn’t it?”
I nodded again. To my horror, a honking sob escaped from my well-lubricated nostrils. Completely ignoring my loss of emotional control, she slowly brought both books down to her enormous bosom until they were level with one another. “I have an idea,” she said, “let’s visit another shelf.”
Simultaneously delighted with Mrs. Ducroix’s undivided attention and fearful of losing my bladder, I dutifully followed my teacher to the sixth grade library bookshelf. THE SIXTH GRADE SHELF! She steadied herself with one hand and with the other, she tenderly picked up a copy of Little House on the Prairie. A powerful longing possessed me when I spotted the sunbonnets, the sunflowers, and the long cotton dresses on the book’s cover. I could not articulate it but I knew that something enormous was about to happen in my life.
Mrs. Ducroix looked at me through her blue tinted cat eye frames. She waited for me to meet her gaze. Her eyes were as sparkly as the rhinestones on her spectacles’ end pieces. I was still waiting for her inevitable, “I’m disappointed in you,” or “I’m surprised that you chose to break a school rule.” However, the reprimand never came.
Instead, she lovingly said, “You’ve outgrown Beezus and Ramona,” Mrs. Ducroix cooed at me, “and you will be ready but you’re not quite yet ready for To Kill a Mockingbird. This is one of my favorite books and I think it will be one of yours, too. From now on, when we come to the library on Wednesdays, I want you to get your books from this area. I will let the librarian know. And, I can’t wait to hear what you think about Ma, Pa, Laura, Mary, and Carrie.”
My mother is solely responsible for launching my love of reading. But, because she allowed me to break the every-book-shelf-has-a-grade-and-every-grade-has-a-book-shelf rule, Mrs. Ducroix catapulted my love of reading to a level of no return. Not only did she privately fit me with the perfect book, she publicly acknowledged my reading life with “Bertha Bookworm,” a construction paper creation displayed on the most prominent bulletin board in the third grade classroom. Each student had a bookworm fashioned from various colored construction paper circles. After completing a chapter book, I used an empty, clean, upside down, glass, Peter Pan peanut butter jar and traced a circle on to construction paper, wrote the book title and author on it and proudly gave it to Mrs. Ducroix on the next school day. The thrill of her popping the stapler open so that she could fasten it to the bulletin board was replaced by the thrill of her making tape bubbles to fasten circles to the classroom wall as my bookworm grew longer and longer.
Eventually, Mom let me trace and cut out an entire page of circles at one time because she knew I would read the books. When I commented that I did not want all of the bookworm to be the same color of circles, she fastened different colors of construction paper together with paper clips. The entire learning experience transformed me: visiting the sixth grade shelf, plowing my way through a series of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Madeleine L’ Engle creations, knowing that the clean Peter Pan jar was waiting next to the Aunt Jemima pancake mix, anticipating my mom’s pride when I reported that I had finished another book—“Goodness, Cin Cin, we’re going to have to go to the library twice a week just to keep you in reading materials!”— the mere choice of being able to use the jar or the lid to draw my circle was pure beauty to me!
Gardiner Elementary hosted kindergarten through sixth grades. Once I took in all of the sixth grade books, I was allowed to freely go to the teacher shelves where I did successfully check out and read To Kill a Mockingbird before May of my third grade year. I also discovered and read all available books about Amelia Earhart. When I asked my mom how to tell what books belonged to what grade she taught me how to navigate the Dewey Decimal system at the Wichita Public Library. Liberated by the removal of grade restrictions, I became adept at using the card catalog and realized that the Dewey Decimal system co-reigned with grade levels at the school library.
Since being in the third grade, I knew that my purpose was to teach. I vowed to try to do for my future students what Mrs. Ducroix did for me. She always let me know that she was happy to see me, she recognized and built on my strengths, she expected my best, believed in my abilities, and treasured me.