A Childhood Escape: My Third Grade Teacher and “The Chronicles of Narnia”

By EJ.Culley

I find it difficult to remember–or conjecture–just when I first encountered fantasy fiction. I like to think that it was something I needed, something I desperately sought after, without quite understanding that I needed it or even that there even was something to need. I like to believe that even at my earliest age I had a bit of “sehnsucht.” Sehnsucht is a German word meant to convey intense yearning after a lost or nonexistent ideal or parallel existence. Something like this has been used as a Christian idea (often attributed to C.S. Lewis) that, if there is no such thing as “heaven” (however one might choose to define such a concept), then a majority of people should not yearn for one as if it does exist. The argument propounds that every human desire has some complement–a thirsty person will be satisfied with a drink of water, a hungry person with food, a lusty person with sex. So it follows reason that a desire for heaven must in kind be met by heaven. This argument is additionally supported by the proposition that humanity would not feel any sense of “wrongness” or injustice in the state or organization of the existing world if there wasn’t in fact some way that it actually was supposed to be. In other words, a fish in water shouldn’t feel “wet.”

In like reasoning, it may be supposed that those yearning for fantasy worlds must have that desire met by no less than the possibility of a “real” fantasy world. Of course, we will leave aside the consideration that, once fantasy becomes “real,” then, well, it no longer is fantasy then, is it. We also will willfully blind ourselves, for now, to the overwhelming beauty and wondrous nature of all that truly is. Why the world cannot “be enough” (becoming less true for me personally as I get older) is a supreme mystery. But so it is, evidenced by the ennui of many first-world citizens in their modern lives.

As I said, I like to imagine that I felt this sehnsucht at an early age. My parents say that, when I was very young, I used to do little more than sit in a corner and cry. I guess I was old enough to speak, for when they asked me what was wrong, I wouldn’t–or couldn’t–articulate what it was. I simply was sad. They took me to a child psychologist who told them that I was lonely; if I had a friend or a sibling with whom to play, the therapist said, I would be better. My first sister was born soon thereafter; I am told I got better, so that must have been the problem.

Still, I like to believe that it wasn’t so easy for me to forget “faerie,” the land I late had come from, even though there was little to remind me of it in the new world in which I found myself. This feeling was borne out through most of my young life. My prevalent mood of those years I would characterize as withdrawn, introspective, sometimes sullen.

To bring up Lewis again, my mother is one of those people who profoundly lacks the “speculative fiction gene.” She simply can’t comprehend the genre. Fantasy and science fiction are not “real” so that kind of storytelling can’t possibly be of any use. She will understand the argument that not any kind of fiction is “real,” strictly speaking, but it is clear that she responds better to mimesis rather than to speculation. My father is a mechanical engineer, but as a product of the ’60s and a listener of Pink Floyd and Neil Young and The Doors, he is a bit of a philosopher, so there are some similarities between his view and that of a science fiction enthusiast. But neither of my parents might be described as fantasists (I remember well a time I reached through to my engineering father when I asked him, through a science-fictional lens, to imagine a world without oil and what such an exercise might mean as a thought experiment for our world today), though they knew one in high school–a close friend who tried to introduce them to Dune and The Lord of the Rings and tragically died young in those iconic, counter-cultural times.

Dike, Iowa (photo by Bill Whittaker)

So I’m trying to trace just when I developed this taste for fantasia–or found it, in what used to be (in the 70s, 80s, and 90s at least) a sad world of predominate pragmatism. I remember being a young fan of the Incredible Hulk TV show, though that would have been expected of a male child of my age at the time. Of course I liked Star Wars. The happiest memory of my life is being old enough to remember doing something on the kitchen floor in the house I was growing up within in Dike, Iowa, and my mother, who was infinitely taller than I was, looking down at me from her great height, and smiling, and saying that she had something special for me. She immediately thereafter demonstrated both her infinite height and her god-like beneficence by being able to reach on top of the refrigerator and remove from its top surface a cardboard backing and a plastic bubble wrap covering a Yoda action figure. She handed it down to delighted me. Shortly following this episode is one of my worst memories, of dropping Hoth Han’s (I think it was–Star Wars collectors feel free to correct me) tiny plastic blaster pistol down the ventilation grate of the furnace. My young imagination pictured that infinitesimal plastic toy melting away in the flames of the furnace in the basement, which probably isn’t even possible.

There were inklings then that a profound taste for fantasy in me was on its way, but I don’t think I quite found it until after I had become a writer. I became a writer in second grade. My second grade teacher (I don’t remember her name, and it might be because what she shared with me was less important than what my third grade teacher shared with me), after winter break, read aloud a story her husband had written during hers and his shared winter vacation. Her husband had written an adventure story about a squirrel that her husband had seen sliding around on the ice of a frozen lake. There was something about the narrative–the presentism, perhaps; the careful details; the imagined adventure–that hit me in a way that no other story, really, till that time, had hit me before. I loved it so much that I became a writer. A book I would purchase many years later, Hallie and Whit Burnett’s The Fiction Writer’s Handbook, suggests that a person becomes a writer when he or she reads something and thinks, “I wish I had written that.” This happened to me in second grade. After hearing this story about a squirrel, I went home and wrote “Scat the Monkey’s Adventure”. Of course the hero was a monkey because, even at that age, I knew that it would be a little too imitative to feature a squirrel as my main character. Moreover, I remember that there was at least a rampaging robot in my story, which of course was not in the fairly true-to-life tale that my teacher had read. I handwrote my entire story, illustrated it, bound it (stapled) with two sheets of red construction paper and illustrated a cover and shared it with my family. Another interesting memory: my grandmother visited during that time, and of course I shared it with her. I remember watching her “read” it. Puzzled lines creased her brow. She looked up from the pages, now and then, at my mother, her daughter. My mother nodded carefully at her, her eyes conveying something I wouldn’t grasp till years later. Because “my first ever story” had been lovingly saved by my mother in a keepsake box, when I was older I realized that the story was virtually indecipherable. I didn’t know how to spell yet, so I just phonetically approximated nearly every word. My mother had been giving my grandmother a subtle cue to not give up the illusion, to not indicate that she couldn’t comprehend any of my story, to simply encourage me and to say that it was very good and that she enjoyed it. Because that’s what you do with very young children.

I believe that, even though at this time in my life I now was a writer, I still did not know that I was a fantasy writer specifically, even though I followed “Scat the Monkey’s Adventure” with “Clumsey [sic] the Elf and the Magic Potion” and then (trying my hand at “comedy”) “The Giant Belly-Button Attacks”. Despite these efforts, I fancied myself a mystery writer.

This might be because of my huge appreciation for Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer novels, one which notably is Tom Sawyer Detective, though I don’t remember being able to get through it even at that age — and the original Scooby-Doo, though I always was profoundly disappointed that the answer to every single case had to involve a natural explanation, some crass trick perpetrated by someone behind a mask or two. No, in some ways, because, perhaps, of social conditioning, I did not recognize that there was an escape, a different way of thinking or seeing. I had yet to be exposed to the “right kind of fantasy,” and this happened in third grade, when Ms. Hadden entered my life.

From “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”; True Williams (1839-1897)

Yes, I’m using her real name. I think if she’s out there somewhere and Googling herself she should know, almost thirty years later, the impact she had on this specific person. Ms. Hadden might be one of the most important people in my life because she read aloud to the class–and most importantly me–C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

I don’t think I need to go into the quality of that experience, about entering Narnia for the first time, about how after a couple of listening sessions in the classroom I went out into the world and got my own complete series of The Chronicles of Narnia — the white, originally-ordered slip-case box of them — about how I had read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe all on my own before Ms. Hadden had finished her reading in class, had read, in fact, all of the books. And then promptly read them again. I need not go on about what it was like to be in another world, to feel the cold of the snow on the other side of the wardrobe, to have lunch with the Beaver family, to take a ride in the White Witch’s sleigh, to eat Turkish Delight (I would need to Google again just what that is), and how warm and safe and protected I felt snuggling up to Aslan’s hide.

It could be that I was destined to find these books–or others, like Le Guin’s “Earthsea” or Lloyd Alexander’s “Prydain,” I found them all–even without Ms. Hadden’s tutelage. But Ms. Hadden gets the credit. She was the first to reveal the secret, the secret that there is something else, that there is more in the cosmos than this land of endless construction and deforestation, more than burning stars and arid planets and matter-smashing singularities, more than the human and the animal. There are elves, there are dwarves, there are satyrs. Well, there might be. And there might be even more.

Thank you, Ms. Hadden. You were my very best teacher.


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