My first-grade classroom was covered in brightly colored posters and large sheets of ruled paper, each line filled with poetry about dinosaurs, or Halloween, or pet hamsters. My teacher would copy the rhymes and rhythms out of teacher’s manuals and anthologies, and would pin them up in her crisp, clean handwriting for all twenty-two of us to read out loud while sitting Indian style in a semi-circle at her feet. On that checkered tile floor, we recited each perfectly phrased line about the sounds dinosaurs made when they danced and tricks to remembering how to spell M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i.
And thus began my love affair with words.
I began to be the one that chanted the loudest. Who volunteered to read aloud to the rest of my classmates. Who started to memorize stanzas without even realizing it. The one who wanted to add a new poem handout to her booklet every day, so that it would continue to grow until the binder clasps holding it together would burst.
And my teacher certainly noticed. One day, she handed me a book: A Pizza The Size of The Sun. We had read the title poem in class, from one of the large sheets of reamed paper, but she told me, “I think you’ll enjoy the others, too.”
I couldn’t wait patiently while my mother talked to my teacher at dismissal that day, about the book that had been gifted and how I would enjoy it. Cradling it in my arms, eyes darting between their two faces, all I wanted to do was run the two blocks to our house and dive into it. I wanted to bound up the stairs and into my pastel pink bedroom and slide onto my violet bedspread and open the cover, which would reveal to me the characters of Miss Misinformation and Gladiola Gloppe. I wanted to ignore the basic addition worksheets tucked into the folders in my backpack and the assignments about telling time so that I could run my fingers over the illustrated pages that housed a poem written backwards and a poem that never ends.
Within a week, I reported to my teacher that I had finished the collection of poems. I told her Jack Prelutsky was my new favorite author (next to Dr. Seuss, because–let’s face it–who else could possibly rhyme like that all the time?). I told her that I wanted to write books just like him.
The next week, she took me to the computer lab. Sitting down in front of a egg-shaped purple Macintosh, she said that I was going to make my own book. She helped me align each letter of the alphabet, in both upper and lower cases, on separate sheets in Microsoft Word and printed them all out. She stated that it obviously couldn’t be finished until it was illustrated and handed me a pencil. After chewing on the eraser for a few minutes, an idea popped into my head. “Animals,” I said. “Everyone loves animals.” And so the A page housed anteaters, and B showed bears. C had two cats, D had two dogs, and E had a carefully drawn elephant. I went down the line, giving every letter its own animal–I had to go back to I, and after realizing I couldn’t draw an iguana, my older brother came up with impala, which he then also had to help me draw.
My teacher and I leafed through the book together one day after school. Then she turned back to her computer, and found the same font that I had typed each of the alphabet letters in. “Sara’s ABC Guide” swirled across her screen, and soon enough, the page shot out of the printer. The papers were shuffled together, pushed into alignment, and stapled down the left hand side. She told me to autograph the first page in the cursive I had learned in class.
I went on to write many other “books” in first grade with the help of that same teacher, but “Sara’s ABC Guide” is still tucked away in my room, in a folder with first grade artworks and that big green booklet full of poem handouts.
The one thing we forgot in that first book was a dedication page. So when I write my first novel, it will simply say, “To Ms. Cascaden, who enhanced my love for the ABC’s.”