Mary Potter Kenyon

When Head Start was first launched 50 years ago, the idea of providing comprehensive health, nutrition and education services to children living in poverty was a revolutionary one.

I have the dubious honor of having participated in the free comprehensive preschool program that was designed to break the cycle of poverty. Yes, I have the certificate signed by Lady Bird Johnson and Sargent Shriver to prove it: I was one of the attendees of the Dubuque federally-funded Head Start program that was launched as an eight-week summer program in 1965. I say dubious, because my participation indicates two things: I’m evidently over the age of 50, and I was poor.

It could be suggested that I represent a Head Start success story because I’ve graduated from college and have obtained gainful employment. But the program was intended for children who would be going into kindergarten that fall, and my parent’s subsequent move from the Dubuque area meant I skipped kindergarten altogether, spending an additional year at home.

I learned to read and write during that year, before beginning first grade at a parochial school in Earlville a year after that Head Start experience. My sister Sharon inadvertently taught me to decipher the written word by repeatedly reading a Dick and Jane reader out loud to me. I heard the stories so many times that I memorized the entire book, eventually figuring out for myself the mystery of stringing letters together to make certain sounds.

My first week at school, a nun snatched away the book I’d been concealing underneath my desk, informing me “I couldn’t read yet.” When I assured her that I could, she snapped back that I’d learned to read the “wrong way.” Wrong or not, I was already an avid reader, bored by the repetitive phonics lessons and prone to sneaking books off the shelf to devour instead of properly listening to the teacher.

You see, my parents didn’t fit the stereotype of poverty. Despite the reality that we owned very few of our own, weekly visits to the library meant books spilled from end tables and piles by our beds. Library cards were a rite of passage in our family. I learned to write my name early because the only way to obtain the coveted commodity of my own library card was to capably print both a first and last name.

I will never forget the days of diligent practice that preceded a sibling taking me to the library for my first card. Five years old, I froze in panic, unable to even recall my last name, much less print it out on the card. The kindly librarian patiently walked me through the task, and I’ve loved libraries and librarians ever since.

How much of my love of reading and writing stems from those eight weeks in a Head Start program? I am sure my parents had high hopes for the free preschool program for their seventh child. Each day when my father picked me up or an older sibling walked me home, I was greeted by the question “What did you do today?”

The answer was always the same. I replied with a litany of the foods I’d eaten. Used to a diet of homegrown vegetables, eggs and meat from the chickens my parents raised and butchered and the government surplus staples of split peas, red Jell-O and corned beef, I was evidently so enamored by the canned peaches and fruit cocktail served that the alphabet charts, tempera paint and wooden balance beams at the Head Start classroom failed to impress me.

Not used to sleeping during the day, I also staunchly resisted closing my eyes during naptime, confused as to why other children drifted off so easily. Instead, I’d stealthily steal glances at my fellow poverty-stricken cohorts, sometimes catching the eye of another sleep rebel.

Some things never change: When I visited the Manchester One Head Start classroom last week they were having quiet time for naps. And I still like canned peaches.

— Mary Potter-Kenyon is a staff writer for the Manchester Press, Dyersville Commercial and Cascade Pioneer. She can be contacted at mary.potterkenyon@wcinet.com.