Caddie Woodlawn, 32 years later

March 13, 2011

When I was nine and in fourth grade, I lied to my teacher.

For some students, this would not have been a memorable occurrence.  Students lie for a variety of reasons, and to some extent I think it’s part of development.  They want to see where the boundaries are.  Luckily, most students are poor liars, so we teachers can react with skepticism and perhaps some mild scolding, and we all move on.

I am actually a terrible liar and always have been, and because of this (and a moral sense that prevented me from wanting to) I didn’t lie often.  My fourth-grade lie looms large in my memory because it was a rather big one and because I got away with it.

We were assigned Carol Ryrie Brink’s Caddie Woodlawn.  Each of us had a spiral notebook, and for each chapter there were vocabulary words and questions to be answered.  I loved to read, and as many of my students who are avid readers do, I read ahead.  I finished the book pretty quickly, actually, and discovered something:  I didn’t like the book.  At the time, I felt that Caddie was abnormally cheerful and energetic and enthusiastic (unlike my cherished Laura Ingalls, who could be a grump sometimes).  Without thinking carefully about my actions and the consequences, I stopped doing the assigned work.

It’s hard to remember why I did this.  My vague recollection is that because I didn’t like the book, I shouldn’t have to do the work.  That’s a terrible argument and one I encounter occasionally in my students.  (My stock response to a student’s complaint that they don’t like something I expect them to do is, “I didn’t ask you if you liked it.  I asked you to do it.”)  This was not an early form of conscientious objecting, or of offering a different plan for how I could show the teacher I’d read and understood the book.  It was just a decision not to do the work because the book was dumb.

Of course, eventually we were expected to hand in the notebooks.  Our teacher said on a Friday afternoon, “Please leave your notebooks on my desk.”  And I didn’t, of course.  On Monday, the teacher took me aside and said, “I don’t have your notebook,” to which I replied with fake astonishment, “But I put it on your desk!”  I then offered to redo it (perhaps feeling guilty about not having done it in the first place), but she smiled and said no, and that perhaps it had fallen off her desk and into the garbage can.

And that was the end of it.  I never made up the work and I never told her that I lied.

I was aware that this was a rare occasion and that I would not make a habit of it.  To be honest, I didn’t enjoy reading the next book, either (a version of Robin Hood, which our teacher presented with no historical context and which struck me as dull), but I knew I couldn’t skip the work again.  (Instead, every written piece I wrote extolled the virtues of the Sheriff of Nottingham over Robin Hood.)  I also knew that the main reason I had gotten away with it with Caddie Woodlawn was because I was, up until that point, an excellent student.

While this lie has not affected my life as a whole, I have often mused about my own stupid and unethical act.  Oddly enough, what this has boiled down to most recently was a constant nagging wonder if the book was REALLY as bad as I had thought back then.  I had to find out.

This afternoon I read Caddie Woodlawn for the first time since fourth grade.  And to be honest, it wasn’t a bad book.  As a teacher, I can see having, say, third graders at our school read it.  The Indians talk in the stereotypical Indian way, which is irritating, but with some class discussion about that you can use that as a learning experience.  Caddie’s father makes friends with the Indians, as does Caddie.  She’s a kind and thoughtful girl.  Caddie is a tomboy for most of the book, an experiment of her father’s, and she recoils at the thought of being “ladylike.”  Close to the end, however, she decides that she needs to grow up and learn some things about being a woman.  The book has a forward in which the author indicates that Caddie is her grandmother;  I liked finding out how the real Caddie enjoyed her life.  I don’t remember if that forward was in the version I read or not, but I have no recollection of real-life information about Caddie at all.

I didn’t think Caddie was a particularly complex character.  Aside from her decision in the last two chapters of the book to accept becoming a woman, the book was a series of anecdotes about frontier life in Wisconsin.  As a fourth grader who had already bonded with Laura Ingalls and was moving into Madeleine L’Engle and Ray Bradbury, it would have seemed like a dull read.  I enjoyed twisty tales, where you didn’t know what was going to happen until it happened.  This book ambles along and not much really happens.  It’s pleasant enough, then it’s over and you move on to something you enjoy more actively.

No one enjoys doing work focused on something they don’t like.  In my teaching career, I’ve occasionally had to teach about subjects I didn’t care for.  It was much harder than throwing myself into a topic I loved.  But the “real world” requires such things sometimes.  I can see that part of my job as a teacher is to teach students that messy truth;  that in the course of human events, we sometimes have to do things we don’t want to.  Caddie didn’t want to learn tasks she’d need to know as a woman in that time period, but realized she had to learn them anyway and it might not even be as bad as she’d thought.  See, I learned something from Caddie Woodlawn after all, 32 years later.


One Response to “Caddie Woodlawn, 32 years later”

  1. […] Caddie Woodlawn, 32 years later […]

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