Bored And Bothered By Dick And Jane

The original artwork from the iconic Dick and Jane series that helped teach generations to read was auctioned off earlier this week. Baby boomers and others well-remember these elementary school primers – some wistfully and some, like our commentator Robert Chipkin, not so much.

See Dick sell
See Jane sell.
See Spot sell.

You get the idea, and you would especially get it if you were a first-grader in Mrs. Greeley’s class at Smith Street Elementary School, or just about anywhere in 1955, where legions of teachers stood in front of 6-foot-tall illustrated readers, while the class followed along in their own more pint-sized versions, mouthing the “Adventures of Dick and Jane,” later to be amended to “Fun with Dick and Jane.”

Not that there was much adventure or fun watching suburban kids move through their days robotically repeating to each other the kinds of mind-numbing commentary no real kid would ever say out loud. At least not over and over.

Imagine bounding over to your best friend Richard’s house, galloping up the front steps and, upon seeing him paint a chair, exclaim “Work Dick. Work. Work.” Then you talk Dick into putting down his paintbrush, because it is even more scintillating to watch Spot the dog jump! As in:

Come Spot.
Come and go.
Jump, jump.
Jump up, Spot.
jump up.

We were sentenced to sentences of three words over and over until our brains – most likely in self defense over being bored to death – somehow, miraculously, learned to read.

Of course, had they been real, Dick and Jane, who first appeared in the 1930s and haunted classrooms for decades, would now be bordering on senility, perhaps holding court in the day-room of a nursing home uttering, “See Dick run,” to a captive audience.

But they weren’t real. Only in memory do their images live on: one cow-licked, gapped-tooth boy and two freckle-faced blond girls, frozen forever like prehistoric fossils, now ready for sale at a live online auction.

The Dick and Jane illustrations may have passed the test of time, but their teaching methods thankfully have not. It took decades beyond my childhood for the first non-white character to grace the pages of the primers. Or for a family to include anyone besides a husband and wife.

Perhaps the kindest thing that can be said is that Sally, Dick and Jane harken back to a time when well-intentioned folk thought that teaching consisted of saying the same three words over and over, and that all students could achieve success at the exact same time in the exact same way.

Robert Chipkin lives and writes in Springfield.

You can read his full commentary from The Republican and MassLive.