Understood Betsy  by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

What Grade Is Betsy?

Part 1 of 2

After the singing the teacher gave Elizabeth Ann a pile of schoolbooks, some paper, some pencils, and a pen, and told her to set her desk in order. There were more initials carved inside, another big H. P. with a little A. P. under it. What a lot of children must have sat there, thought the little girl as she arranged her books and papers. As she shut down the lid the teacher finished giving some instructions to three or four little ones and said, "Betsy and Ralph and Ellen, bring your reading books up here."

Betsy sighed, took out her third-grade reader, and went with the other two up to the battered old bench near the teacher's desk. She knew all about reading lessons and she hated them, although she loved to read. But reading lessons . . . ! You sat with your book open at some reading that you could do with your eyes shut, it was so easy, and you waited and waited and waited while your classmates slowly stumbled along, reading aloud a sentence or two apiece, until your turn came to stand up and read your sentence or two, which by that time sounded just like nonsense because you'd read it over and over so many times to yourself before your chance came. And often you didn't even have a chance to do that, because the teacher didn't have time to get around to you at all, and you closed your book and put it back in your desk without having opened your mouth. Reading was one thing Elizabeth Ann had learned to do very well indeed, but she had learned it all by herself at home from much reading to herself. Aunt Frances had kept her well supplied with children's books from the nearest public library. She often read three a week—very different, that, from a sentence or two once or twice a week.

When she sat down on the battered old bench she almost laughed aloud, it seemed so funny to be in a class of only three. There had been forty in her grade in the big brick building. She sat in the middle, the little girl whom the teacher had called Ellen on one side, and Ralph on the other. Ellen was very pretty, with fair hair smoothly braided in two little pig-tails, sweet, blue eyes, and a clean blue-and-white gingham dress. Ralph had very black eyes, dark hair, a big bruise on his forehead, a cut on his chin, and a tear in the knee of his short trousers. He was much bigger than Ellen, and Elizabeth Ann thought he looked rather fierce. She decided that she would be afraid of him, and would not like him at all.

"Page thirty-two," said the teacher. "Ralph first."

Ralph stood up and began to read. It sounded very familiar to Elizabeth Ann, for he did not read at all well. What was not familiar was that the teacher did not stop him after the first sentence. He read on and on till he had read a page, the teacher only helping him with the hardest words.

"Now Betsy," said the teacher.

Elizabeth Ann stood up, read the first sentence, and paused, like a caged lion pausing when he comes to the end of his cage.

"Go on," said the teacher.

Elizabeth Ann read the next sentence and stopped again, automatically.

"Go on,"  said the teacher, looking at her sharply.

The next time the little girl paused the teacher laughed out good-naturedly. "What is the matter with you, Betsy?" she said. "Go on till I tell you to stop."

So Elizabeth Ann, very much surprised but very much interested, read on, sentence after sentence, till she forgot they were sentences and just thought of what they meant. She read a whole page and then another page, and that was the end of the selection. She had never read aloud so much in her life. She was aware that everybody in the room had stopped working to listen to her. She felt very proud and less afraid than she had ever thought she could be in a schoolroom. When she finished, "You read very well!" said the teacher. "Is this very easy for you?"

"Oh, yes!"  said Elizabeth Ann.

"I guess, then, that you'd better not stay in this class," said the teacher. She took a book out of her desk. "See if you can read that."

Elizabeth Ann began in her usual school-reading style, very slow and monotonous, but this didn't seem like a "reader" at all. It was poetry, full of hard words that were fun to try to pronounce, and it was all about an old woman who would hang out an American flag, even though the town was full of rebel soldiers. She read faster and faster, getting more and more excited, till she broke out with "Halt!" in such a loud, spirited voice that the sound of it startled her and made her stop, fearing that she would be laughed at. But nobody laughed. They were all listening, very eagerly, even the little ones, with their eyes turned toward her.

"You might as well go on and let us see how it came out," said the teacher, and Betsy finished triumphantly.

"Well,"  said the teacher, "there's no sense in your reading along in the third reader. After this you'll recite out of the seventh reader with Frank and Harry and Stashie."

Elizabeth Ann could not believe her ears. To be "jumped" four grades in that casual way! It wasn't possible! She at once thought, however, of something that would prevent it entirely, and while Ellen was reading her page in a slow, careful little voice, Elizabeth Ann was feeling miserably that she must explain to the teacher why she couldn't read with the seventh-grade children. Oh, how she wished she could! When they stood up to go back to their seats she hesitated, hung her head, and looked very unhappy. "Did you want to say something to me?" asked the teacher, pausing with a bit of chalk in her hand.

The little girl went up to her desk and said, what she knew it was her duty to confess: "I can't be allowed to read in the seventh reader. I don't write a bit well, and I never get the mental number-work right. I couldn't do any thing with seventh-grade arithmetic!"

The teacher looked a little blank and said: "I didn't say anything about your number-work! I don't know  anything about it! You haven't recited yet." She turned away and began to write a list of words on the board. "Betsy, Ralph, and Ellen study their spelling," she said. "You little ones come up for your reading."

Two little boys and two little girls came forward as Elizabeth Ann began to con over the words on the board. At first she found she was listening to the little, chirping voices, as the children struggled with their reading, instead of studying "doubt, travel, cheese," and the other words in her lesson. But she put her hands over her ears, and her mind on her spelling. She wanted to make a good impression with that lesson. After a while, when she was sure she could spell them all correctly, she began to listen and look around her. She always "got" her spelling in less time than was allowed the class, and usually sat idle, looking out of the window until that study period was over. But now the moment she stopped staring at the board and moving her lips as she spelled to herself the teacher said, just as though she had been watching her every minute instead of conducting a class, "Betsy, have you learned your spelling?"

"Yes, ma'am, I think so," said Elizabeth Ann, wondering very much why she was asked.

"That's fine," said the teacher. "I wish you'd take little Molly over in that corner and help her with her reading. She's getting on so much better than the rest of the class that I hate to have her lose her time. Just hear her read the rest of her little story, will you, and don't help her unless she's really stuck."

Elizabeth Ann was startled by this request, which was unheard-of in her experience. She was very uncertain of herself as she sat down on a low chair in the corner of the schoolroom away from the desks, with the little child leaning on her knee. And yet she was not exactly afraid, either, because Molly was such a shy little roly-poly thing, with her crop of yellow curls, and her bright blue eyes very serious as she looked hard at the book and began: "Once there was a rat. It was a fat rat." No, it was impossible to be frightened of such a funny little girl, who peered so earnestly into the older child's face to make sure she was doing her lesson right.

Elizabeth Ann had never had anything to do with children younger than herself, and she felt very pleased and important to have anybody look up to her!  She put her arm around Molly's square, warm, fat little body and gave her a squeeze. Molly snuggled up closer, and the two children put their heads together over the printed page, Elizabeth Ann correcting Molly very gently indeed when she made a mistake, and waiting patiently when she hesitated. She had so fresh in her mind her own suffering from quick, nervous corrections that she took the greatest pleasure in speaking quietly and not interrupting the little girl more than was necessary. It was fun to teach, lots  of fun! She was surprised when the teacher said, "Well, Betsy, how did Molly do?"

"Oh, is the time up?" said Elizabeth Ann. "Why, she does beautifully, I think, for such a little thing."

"Do you suppose," said the teacher thoughtfully, just as though Betsy were a grown-up person, "do you suppose she could go into the second reader, with Eliza? There's no use keeping her in the first if she's ready to go on."

Elizabeth Ann's head whirled with this second light-handed juggling with the sacred distinction between the grades. In the big brick schoolhouse nobody ever  went into another grade except at the beginning of a new year, after you'd passed a lot of examinations. She had not known that anybody could do anything else. The idea that everybody took a year to a grade, no matter  what! was so fixed in her mind that she felt as though the teacher had said: "How would you like to stop being nine years old and be twelve instead? And don't you think Molly would better be eight instead of six?"