Remembering Charlotte’s Web, the Girl I Was, the Mom I Am, and the Teacher I Loved

by Denise Schipani

Charlotte's Web illustrations by Garth Williams

Six or seven years ago, my family and I were road-tripping from our home in New York to my brother’s in Washington, DC, a trip we take about twice a year. These days, my teen boys spend car time absorbed by their own devices (both figurative and literal), but when they were small, I’d invested in a portable, two-screen DVD player that hung on the seat backs so both boys could watch movies (and my husband and I could listen to that instead of whining).

On the trip in question, we’d popped “Charlotte’s Web” into the player — the 1973 movie version of the classic tale of loyalty and friendship. In the driver’s seat, I couldn’t watch, but I was listening and quickly became absorbed. While my eyes stayed focused on the road ahead, my mind descended into a reverie as thick as the scents of the Arable farm.

Charlotte’s Web, the simple and enduring children’s novel by E.B. White, is celebrating its 65th anniversary this year. I wonder how many of us, having read it so many times their copies are in tatters, remember the first time they read or heard the story? Because I do: It was at the feet of my second-grade teacher, Miss Massaro.

But back to my road-trip tale. As timing would have it, we pulled into a rest stop somewhere in Maryland just as the movie had reached the crushing scene in which Wilbur the pig — saved from the farmer’s knife, confident and happy — realizes his dear friend is dying. The scene in which Charlotte, in her gentle but firm way, tells Wilbur goodbye.

“Are you crying?” my husband asked, surprised, as he saw me rummaging through the glove compartment for the Starbucks napkins I kept there. I was, but not because of Charlotte.

I was weepy because at that moment, after watching the film that far, my sons displayed no emotional reaction to the scene. I cried because they weren’t crying. I felt sad because I knew that one of my childhood wishes — the very specific reader-mom fantasy that someday I’d share my literary heroes and heroines with children of my own — may not come true.

I couldn’t quite explain it to my husband, and in any case the boys were about to dash unheeding into the parking lot, so I made some mumbling reply about being a silly sappy mom and killed the engine, cutting off Wilbur in mid moan. And I thought again about Miss Massaro.

It was her first year teaching. In a fairly strict Catholic grammar school in the early 1970s, she was a breath of youth — she was probably 23 years old — in a building staffed by nuns and lay teachers at least a decade or two her senior. And in a school that valued a system and a schedule (we went to the restrooms at pre-determined intervals, in lines ordered by gender and height), Miss Massaro made the announcement that she would read to us, each day. It wasn’t transgressive, exactly, but it wasn’t anything you could call typical for the time and place.

The time she wrested from each day for reading a chapter or two of Charlotte’s Web flew by. We talked about the story and asked questions. There has never been a time, in any subsequent reading of the book, that I could separate my enjoyment of the story from my first experience with it. I felt like Miss Massaro had been speaking to me, letting me in on the secret of a story well told: that it could be simple, but still enormously powerful. That great sadness lived alongside deep happiness, that hopefulness and the crushing of hopes sat side by side.

E.B. White’s story and Garth Williams’s drawings are so much older than I was then, and even Miss Massaro — doing some quick math in my head — has by now celebrated a handful more birthdays than Wilbur and Charlotte and Fern and Templeton and the rest.

And with the clarity of hindsight I see now that my tears that day in the car, listening to the near-final scene of the movie, were not for the boys who were actually mine just then. They were for 7-year-old me, and maybe for Miss Massaro, who I’ve tried and failed to find on the Internet. I sat in my car that day thinking of her, and of me cross-legged on the floor in her classroom, smoothing my green plaid uniform skirt over my knees and dreaming.