Sally, the younger sister of Peanuts’ Charlie Brown, did not perform well in school. She wrote reports the morning they were due. She failed multiple exams. As an overachieving child, I attributed her poor performance to laziness. But now that I’m an educator, I understand where she was coming from.
Sally had an abiding disdain for formal education. Her feelings are what I deal with every day, from so many students just like her in my 9th and 10th grade classrooms. They could be successful in school if they were given the opportunity.
Sally’s negative relationship with school started before she went to kindergarten. In two strips from August and September 1962, her brother introduces the concept of school and takes her there for the first time. She doesn’t react well.
Sally’s initial reaction is anxiety, probably because she’s never been to kindergarten before. When she returns that afternoon, she’s much more amenable to the idea of school.
Two things in this strip stand out to me now that I’m a teacher. The first is that Sally talks about her class using the word “we”—a good sign that her class is interactive and collaborative. Second, she’s completing tasks—singing songs, painting pictures, coloring with crayons—that suit different learning styles. Kids learn in different ways: working hands-on, listening to a recitation, or watching a visual model.
A classroom teacher, who must manage 20+ kids, doesn’t have the time or convenience to teach a lesson in different ways to different students. Instead, the teacher must cover different learning styles in one lesson: say the lesson aloud, model it on the board, and provide a visual aid or worksheet. In teacher parlance, this is called “differentiation.”
With proper differentiation, children will absorb the lesson in accordance to their needs. Happy kids are successful kids, and we see evidence of this positivity during Sally’s first year of formal school. She asks her big brother specific, detailed questions about her homework. She loves going to the library to read and take out books. She seems both driven and enthusiastic.
A year goes by, and Sally finishes kindergarten. In 1963—around the time she turns six—she enters the first grade. This remains her age and grade for the rest of Peanuts’ run. Something changes, and she doesn’t enjoy school anymore.
Both of these strips are from the same week of September 1963. Schulz doesn’t state directly why Sally’s attitude has changed, but we get some hints. The first strip shows that Sally is beginning to feel the pressure of expectation—of what the school want from her, rather than what she wants for herself. The second strip shows her standing beside her desk (most likely in a rigid row with other desks), reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I remember memorizing the Pledge rotely as a small child, syllable by syllable, not completely understanding what I was saying. Sally seems like she’s in the same boat; she even includes an “amen” at the end of her recitation. The one thing she does know is that the pledge is delivered with the cadence and dutifulness of a prayer.
The Pledge strip was likely inspired by the school prayer controversy at the time, an issue Schulz felt strongly about. In a Comics Journal interview with Gary Groth in 1997, Schulz discussed the subject when Groth asked him about the below strip, also from 1963: “I don’t believe in school prayer… I think it’s total nonsense.”
To my eyes, it seems that Schulz, a devout Christian in his younger years and a secular humanist in his later ones, is advocating for a classroom with an open expression of ideas, where nothing should be mandated, sacrosanct, or so taboo that it must be whispered in private.
Subsequent Sally strips also contain this theme. Peanuts derides dogmatic education—obedience to ambiguous instruction, strict memorization of random facts, a focus on process instead of concept—in favor of a Socratic method, which asks open-ended questions and allows the student to connect the lesson to themselves, other lessons, or the present culture.
Schulz frequently criticizes school assignments that either assume a student’s experience or have a “do it because I said to” ethos.
Sally is hyperbolizing, but what she says rings true, especially in today’s context of high-stakes testing. For example, a reading passage about farming techniques is inherently biased against city kids, many of whom only know about farms second-hand. As a teacher, I cannot assume what contextual knowledge my students possess. If I ask them to do something, I need to have either shown them or taught them to do it. I cannot assign an analytical essay for homework and then be mad if students struggle if I didn’t explicitly show them how to write it. This makes me a slower teacher, since I spend more time on tasks, but It also makes me a better one.
Sally seems aware of the responsibility teachers have when they present their lessons and grading policies. In one of my favorite Sally comics, Sally receives a “C” on her coat wire hanger sculpture and takes her teacher to task over it.
In his book My Life With Charlie Brown, Schulz has the following to say about the comic’s inspiration:
It all started when my oldest son, Monte, was in high school and was involved with an art class where the project was a coat-hanger sculpture. He was telling me about it one day while we were riding home in the car from school, and he said that he was going to transform a coat hanger into the figure of a baseball pitcher. It sounded like a good idea to me, and I was anxious to hear about the final results.
Several weeks went by before he mentioned it again, and this time he told me that the teacher had handed back the projects and he had received a C on his coat-hanger sculpture. I remember being quite disturbed by this, because I could not understand how a teacher was able to grade this kind of project. I thought about it as the months went by, and finally translated it into the Sunday page where Sally expresses her indignation over receiving the same grade for her piece of coat-hanger sculpture.
Schulz (and Sally) are absolutely correct. A teacher should always have a rubric, a task checklist, or some grading standard, especially when grading something as subjective as art. Of course, a rubric or checklist can lead to its own set of problems—one’s definition of “originality” can differ from another’s—but at least the parameters are known to everyone beforehand. Assigning a grade without any sort of positive or negative feedback isn’t useful.
School doesn’t always equate to failure for Sally. She finds her greatest academic success when delivering something orally, and she is consistently clever with wordplay, tossing off puns as pithy icebreakers.
She also has a flair for the theatrical and knows how to frame her topics for maximum suspense. She plays on audience members’ expectations, hooking them in before revealing her true purpose. Presentations are the only times Sally appears happy and confident in the classroom setting.
The most disappointing thing about all of these interactions is the nameless, faceless teacher’s responses. We can’t hear them, but we know they’re negative based on Sally’s body language. Never has the lack of identifiable adult characters in Peanuts felt so alienating. Sally’s class is a rigid no-fun zone. A better teacher would have found some way to harness Sally’s free-associative creativity into an activity where she could succeed.
One of Sally’s quirks, beginning in the ‘70s, is her tendency to talk to the school building. She has one-sided conversations with it, during which she confides her insecurities. I used to find this silly, but now, as a teacher, I find it sad. She has no one in the school who empathizes with or understands her, no one she trusts enough to go to with her academic struggles. A brick facade is a better confidant to Sally than any of the faculty.
Teachers—good teachers anyway—are more than just the subject matter they teach. It’s an old joke among teachers: “I don’t teach English. I teach students!” Every student could use a mentor who serves as an active, sympathetic listener.
One Peanuts comic, from October 24, 1974, reminds me of the kind of teacher I want to be.
For this teacher, being strict and punishing a student is paramount. It’s a terrible way to treat students. A teacher, even at the risk of letting a couple of disobedient students go free, should strive to give them the benefit of the doubt.
I’ve taught everywhere, from one of the top-ranked academic schools in New York to a transfer school for students who are behind on credits. No matter where I go, one thing remains the same: There will always be students who test and push the limits. It can be as small as talking during a lesson, as mundane as cheating on a test, or as serious as stealing from a room. But the trick to lasting in this difficult profession—the majority of teachers quit within three years—is to never lose your optimism, even when it’s tested. And that’s easier said than done.
My laptop was stolen from my classroom a couple of years ago. Two students distracted me by asking for academic help while another snuck it past me. There’s is no greater feeling of betrayal than having your own kindness used against you. But if I got bitter or defensive, or if I started closing myself off from my students, it would have hurt someone who didn’t deserve my suspicion.
I’ll always like Sally and all the students like her—free spirits with good intentions who aren’t believed when it matters, and who aren’t supported the way they should be. But I can be different. And if I get taken advantage of because I err on the side of student advocacy, then so be it. It’ll always be worth it.