EDGEFIELD, S.C. - It was a sound Carolyn Rudd expected every day after school - the front door slamming because Megan was frustrated with kindergarten.
"I'll never be able to read," she'd say. Then whale tears would roll down her eyes.
But one Monday in January, Megan announced quietly that she was home from W.E. Parker Elementary School. Then she plopped her books on the kitchen table and began to read. She read so well that this time, Mrs. Rudd cried whale tears.
"It was amazing," Mrs. Rudd said. "I can't explain it."
Megan and her mother say "Mama Phonics" and her 26 children did it. They were permanent fixtures in Linda Smith's first-grade class. Later, when she began teaching kindergarten, she took the Phonics family into her classroom. They've stayed there with her for three years now.
Each Monday without fail, Mother Phonics, dressed in a purple checkered dress and bonnet, sits in front of the class, a new consonant child trailing behind her.
But Mother Phonics and her children aren't real people. They're puppets created by Mrs. Smith and Beverly McGee, a home economics teacher at Strom Thurmond High School, as a reading tool for elementary school pupils.
At the beginning of the year, the majority of the kindergartners at Megan's school scored poorly on the district's readiness test. Many could barely recognize their ABCs, much less know what sounds they made. Out of 45 questions on the district's test, some youngsters didn't get any answers right.
Megan knew what some letters were, but the sounds behind them confused her. It seemed for a while that she would never grasp phonics at all.
"Now I'm reading third-grade books and sounding out words I've never seen before," she said.
By the end of the year, Megan was one of several students who'd brought dismal scores up to perfect.
She foregoes recess to read, she helps her mom navigate through traffic by reading road signs, and she unpacks groceries just to read ingredients on the back of cans.
That kind of progress is not unusual for children who've learned to read with Mother Phonics in Mrs. Smith's classes.
Some even teach older relatives to read, and others have the highest reading scores on national and state achievement tests.
This summer, Mrs. Smith and Mrs. McGee will leave tiny Edgefield County - population 19,050 - to take Mother Phonics on a tour of the Southeast. They will teach other elementary educators how to use puppets to boost reading skills and test scores. They've even got a collegiate reference: Augusta State University is teaching their method to education majors. And South Carolina Educational TV has based a program on Mother Phonics.
Letters like the one Mrs. Smith received last year from a single parent helped convince the two teachers to go national.
The letter read:
"Tonight, like every night, Mindi and I sat to read. It was very exciting to listen as she skimmed through the words she recognized and as she sounded out the ones she didn't quite know. To tell the truth, it brought tears to my eyes, realizing my daughter was growing up so fast. She is reading in kindergarten, something my generation did not do until first grade."
Such accomplishments mean even more in a poor district like Edgefield, which can't afford some innovative programs. Fourteen percent of adults in Edgefield County have less than a ninth-grade education. An additional 23 percent never graduated from high school. And more than half the student population qualifies for free or reduced lunch, which means their home situations are not conducive to learning.
Mother Phonics was created because of another kind of situation that makes learning difficult. Mrs. Smith developed it to help her dyslexic son learn to read.
"I really think God gave me the ability to teach, especially to teach reading," she said. "If a child can learn to read, everything else just falls into place"
Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895 or firstname.lastname@example.org.