A Sputnik Education: Part 1

by Dick Edelstein

On 4 October 1957, in my mind’s eye, I was playing alone in the back yard when the radio in the breezeway broadcast a special news bulletin that changed my life. We had moved from Chicago to Minneapolis in 1951 and my parents had bought a recently built house on a dead-end street in a relatively cheap residential area out near the airport. The house was built in the modern suburban style that people called a ranch-style bungalow and its most interesting post-war feature was the breezeway, a screened-in patio attached to the house. The screens that kept flies and mosquitos at bay in warm weather were swapped for glass panels when the weather turned cold and we changed our window screens for storm widows.

The radio voice announced that the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite orbiting the earth. This turned out to be one of the most significant events in my life since it determined the course of my education. And that education determined the sort of person I was to become.

Changes quickly rippled through the educational system once our nation found out that it was behind in the space race with its cold war arch-enemy. The leaders of the Soviet Union knew their narrow lead was imperiled once they had awakened the sleeping giant, so they too launched an urgent campaign to train scientists and engineers of the future to fight a crucial ideological battle through space and weapons programs.

I was in the second grade at the time, unaware of the changes the future had in store. School was an imposition of the adult world that we countenanced with forbearance. Before, life had been idyllic. We had nothing to do but pass each day keeping ourselves amused. The semi-suburban area where I lived was rich with vacant lots, parks, swamps and wooded areas, and there were trash-can lined alleys in which to roam privately. What made schooling a still grimmer imposition was that I went to a Catholic school. Minneapolis had a great supply of these – one for each parish. They were free and Catholics were expected to send their children.

Not that I was aware of differences between public and Catholic schools since I had no way of comparing them. There was a public school just kiddy corner across the street from my own school and of course some of my friends went to school there. But we didn’t talk about school. When my family eventually moved to Seattle and I entered public school in the 6th grade, a better life began. But I will say more about that later.

Kindergarten was like a light introduction to schooling. We each brought a small blanket on which to take a nap. Subjects were rhythm sticks, tone blocks, singing and drawing. We also learned to write letters of the alphabet. In this subject I was about average. I could read my first name, Richard, and had been taught by my mother to write its initial capital letter R. The person most advanced in this skill was a girl named Donna, who could read and write her entire first name.  Today’s children are introduced to these skills at an earlier age in hopes that this will give them a head start in the important business of getting educated as a preparation for later advancement in life. I can only say that my modest early pre-school achievement did not seem to hold me back in any way. The following year in the first grade, when we began to learn the important skill of reading, I was right there at the top.

But things didn’t work out so well for other students. We had to read aloud in class every day. After a couple of months, something clicked in my mind and I could read the words with confidence, giving me time to focus on pronouncing them and declaiming the sentences with a lifelike intonation. It was a bit like riding a bicycle. But some students couldn’t master this trick and were eventually put in a separate reading group. That saved them the embarrassment of having the whole class witness their struggle when their turn came to read.

Educators understood that some students needed more help in this crucial skill and provisions were made to give them the special attention they needed. Unfortunately, the educators didn’t seem to know how to actually help these students. During the first few years of school, there was always a second reading group. In the third grade, when we moved and I went to a new school, there was a third group as well; the groups were called the bluebirds, the robins and the crows. I could see this was a bad situation. I wonder what the crows are doing today.