Maybe it’s time to pause a moment to talk about Washington Irving and me. I cannot really remember when I’d not heard of him. One of my earliest memories—going to see the thirty-four-minute Disney cartoon of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” at the Trail Drive-In, Enid, Oklahoma. The film was released in 1949; I would turn five in November that year.
The cartoon scared the hell out of me.
Although a lot of it was funny, there was a terrifying scene when Ichabod rides home from the party and meets the Horseman, alone in the woods, a Horseman armed with a huge sword, a Horseman mounted on a bulky black steed that looked as if it had ridden out of Hell to scare little boys sitting in Oklahoma cars. Mission accomplished.
Later on in my boyhood (when was it? can’t remember) I learned about Rip Van Winkle, which wasn’t all that frightening—even the notion of going to sleep and waking up twenty years later was actually kind of exciting to a boy (I’d be done with school!). Not so exciting now, when, twenty years hence, it’s very likely I’d wake up dead.
Early in my public school teaching career (which, recall, commenced in the fall of 1966), I discovered in a little reader I had to use (Doorways to Discovery) a radio-play version of “Legend.” I had my seventh graders read it aloud—and, in some years, we actually performed it over the school’s PA system. A couple of times the faculty did it for the kids around Halloween. The students seemed to like it (hey, beats homework!), and I learned a vocabulary word—salubrious—which Ichabod utters when he enters the party near the end: Ah, Mynheer Van Tassel, (Nasally) this is indeed a salubrious occasion! (For those of you too cowardly to admit that you don’t know salubrious, it means “promoting health; healthful.”)
Still later, I taught the full story to my eighth graders (as well as “Rip Van Winkle”)—though it took a bit of help. Those stories, originally published in 1820 in Irving’s collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., are full of words my students didn’t know—and allusions to unfamiliar things, as well.
Still later, when I taught college-prep juniors at Western Reserve Academy, I gave them a little “reading guide” to the stories, a guide on which I defined for them words like inveterate, cognomen, supernumerary, ferule, chopfallen, and numerous others. And, of course, I showed them the Disney film that had terrified me.