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School reading: Mary Cappello on 'See Spot Run'

November 11, 2010 |  7:30 am

Inspired by an exhibit in Philadelphia's Mütter Museum of pins, teeth, toys and more, Mary Cappello's next book is "Swallow: Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration and the Curious Doctor Who Extracted Them." The book, which comes out in December, is a thoughtful take on what the act of swallowing non-edible objects means, as well as how, excatly they got in -- and out -- of people's bodies. Cappello, whose book "Awkward" was an L.A. Times bestseller, answered our questions about school reading via email.

Jacket Copy: What was the most interesting book you were assigned in school?

Mary Cappello: The most interesting book I was assigned in school was one I remember to have been titled “See Spot Run,” though this may not have been its title at all. I think it was part of the Dick and Jane series, but I cannot be sure of that either. The book, as I remember it, was about a red ball.

That it was the most interesting book ever assigned to me I have no doubt: I know this because it was the first book I ever read, and the most interesting book in the career of any school girl or boy is the one from which we first learned how to read.

The book’s red ball, my red ball, was like Helen Keller’s water pump and well. I swear I remember the first experience I had of letters-as-things on the page matching up with my voicing of them, but the red ball at the center of the book was as important if not more important than those letters. Certainly, the red ball was more than an “illustration” of the letters. Reading “See Spot Run,” all that I read was this red ball. And a lock of hair (a ringlet or flip) and the pie crust ripple of an ankle sock. The quotation marks around the ball (to indicate speed) mimicked other marks on the page -- those, for example, that braced the words “Woof, woof.” I also have a vivid memory of hyphens. Either some of the words were sounded out or someone had occasion to spell Spot’s name at some point in the book so the letters each got a space of their own separated by a solid plank. The hyphens were just as mesmerizing to me as the letters.

“See Spot Run” is thus and was therefore an exceedingly interesting book to me, and I think if you asked anyone to try to remember their own first scene of reading it would work like a crank on a wellspring of memory, and there’s no telling by way of that first (most interesting) book, where they would presently land.

JC: What grade were you in, and what was the name of your school?

MC: I was in first grade at Blessed Virgin Mary grade school in Darby, Pennsylvania, a working-class town on the outskirts of Philadelphia, founded by Quakers (but by 1967, we were being taught by nuns) and that featured the oldest continuing lending library in the country, the Darby Library. I’d made many a trek there with my mother long before first grade.

JC: Did you read the book?

MC: This is a difficult question to answer. I do believe that I lolled inside of it and thrilled to it. I read it, yes, but it’s possible that one can only say one has read a book after rather than in the process of learning to read. I think I did something with it that I’ve never done with another book since, even though I continuously try to. It’s as though all reading since then has been an ongoing process of being tethered to and released from the red ball.

The book seemed mostly to be about a red ball and white space. The ball was the thing that moved between all of the figures in the book, that held them all together and suspended them in mid-air. It was a very interesting ball. I think I learned from the book something about coalescence, and about bodies at play. It definitely would not have been a good book to be read from before going to sleep. It was too stimulating for that. But then, I’ve never been one to use reading as a soporific.

What stood out about the book was the way the letters in it blotted and formed and bled -- as though they were soaked into the page, and how LARGE they were, and how, as I read them, they became small as the tip of my 6-year-old finger even though I don’t remember using my finger to read with. Mostly I recall holding onto the two sides of the book like the sides of a boat I was afraid of falling out of, and bending forward.

The book also stood out because the red ball at its center was entirely unlike the “bouncing ball” that bopped atop letters and words and that was used to teach children how to sing. The red ball that was at the center of my first scene of reading was entirely useless; mute even; simply red.

JC: Did you have to take a test on it? Do you remember what grade you got?

MC: There must have been an oral test; I must have been asked to read aloud. How, otherwise, is a teacher to know if one is “reading”? Probably it is the case that most of us don’t read quietly until we’ve learned literally to vocalize the words on the page. This will perhaps seem perverse, but, since I still have all of my report cards and I know where in my house they are stowed, we can put the matter of memory to one side and turn to the “facts.” It appears that, at the time I was reading “See Spot Run,” I received a grade of “80,” and by the end of the school year, I had arrived at a grade of “90.” What astonishes me on revisiting my first-grade report card now is the fact that there is no grade at all reported for “writing” under “English.” This proves a cardinal rule that my university students, and trillions of MFA students across the country, don’t seem to want to know: that one needs to learn to read before one can learn to write. I’m also struck by my instructor’s perfect penmanship (it’s a tad horrifying — what paces she must have put herself through to achieve such uniformity of measure and line), and by all of the zeros at the bottom of the page that indicate I had not missed one day of school out of 187 days. For this, the teacher congratulated me. (The fact that I devote a chapter of Swallow to the case of a boy who swallowed his Perfect Attendance Pin has nothing to do with this.)

JC: Which teacher assigned it? Did she assign lots of good (or bad) reading?

MC: The teacher was named Sister Miriam Dennis. She was burdened by the onus of having followed a beloved kindergarten teacher (named Charlotte Leach) who had doted on me. Is it possible that Mrs. Leach had a real fountain in the garden outside of her house, around which frolicked bunny rabbits? Of course she did. Getting back to the sternly whimpled Sister, the only other books I remember her assigning were among the least interesting books I’ve ever read, namely, the Catholic Catechism which featured questions that were entirely beyond the ken of teacher and student alike, though the teacher pretended they made the utmost sense. “Who made the world?” Sister would read. “God made the world,” we’d repeat, pretending to read. Of course the person who had illustrated “See Spot Run” had made the world, and invited me to make it with him. This I knew, this I understood, and I bent toward the red ball in an attitude of benediction.

JC: If you were teaching a similar class today, what book would you assign your students?

MC: In this country, we seem especially concerned with finding the formula that will make our children into geniuses or with certifying their development. If only we introduce them to “x” at a very young age, they will become “y”! To be honest, I’m as guilty of thinking in these ways as the next person, and I’ve often wondered if children might be better served reading Shakespeare in first grade rather than “See Spot Run.” But what your questionnaire has enabled me to revisit is the memory of a scene of reading, a space and time and condition of possibility of reading. There is something polymorphously sensate about a first real reading experience, and I don’t know if that depends so much on a particular book as it does on the encouragement of an opportunity to enter a space of uninterrupted quietude and wonder. If I were teaching a similar class today, I’d bring students into a room filled with books and let them find the one that called to them. Their choice would be equivalent to their own mysterious relationship to the world. I’d also encourage them to make their own books. And I’d want for them to learn, and to learn how to spell and to write not just their own, but their classmates' first and last names. Because that’s the other great memory I have from first grade: the day I asked the girl sitting next to me what her name was. Her answer, “June,” followed by a last name that sounded much more difficult than mine was to spell: “A-c-q-u-a-r-o-l-a.” The company we kept in the knowledge of each other’s names made the trial that was first grade easier.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Mary Cappello's first grade report card. Credit: Mary Cappello.