ROANOKE, VA. — I grew up in a small Ohio town, and every day after school I walked the 13 steps from my house to Grandma Macy's house next door. There I spent hours playing "I Spy" and checkers and learning how to write my name in cursive long before I could print it correctly - much to my teachers' chagrin.
A consummate worrier, Grandma wouldn't let me watch her old RCA black-and-white TV for more than 10 minutes because that's how long it took her to detect a mysterious fume emanating from the tubes inside - a sign, she said, that television was not only bad for your eyes, but it could very well burn down the house.
If it sounds like the picture-perfect childhood, it was. And it wasn't. Back at my own house, I had an absent father and a mom who labored herself into premature wrinkles and white hair by working in a factory and watching other people's kids. It's not that my home life was nonstop woe and gloom. It's just that frequently, when I wasn't shipped next door to Grandma's, I was plunked in front of the television set while other, more urgent matters - like how to pay the gas bill - took precedence.
I watched more TV at home than I'd care to admit, which may explain why I've forgotten entire courses' worth of information (Algebra II, for example) but I still remember which actor playing Darrin (Dick York or Dick Sargent) appeared on which episodes of "Bewitched."
For the past three years I've taught writing parttime at a local university, where I've noticed a common thread among some of the brightest students I've met: a distinct television-watching deficit.
One such student has studied everything from the environment to the fine arts, speaks four languages, knows how to live in the wilderness eating only wild roots and berries, and writes like a dream. She told me once: "I go into libraries, and I start crying because I realize I can't read everything in this lifetime." Her parents' house has no TV.
Another student grew up in rural Virginia, a stone's throw from the Appalachian Trail. She describes her parents as "alternative" people who lived off the land and didn't have running water. An only child, she read constantly and worked on art projects. Now a film and photography major, she's the top-ranking junior in her class.
One of my best graduate students, an adult student from nearby Radford, never ceases to find a new twist on a fellow student's essay or a book we're examining in class.
"When I was little, we were the only people I knew with a 13-inch black-and-white TV - and we never had cable," she says, adding that her parents could have donated the teeny set to the Smithsonian by the time they got rid of it. Viewing was limited to holiday specials such as "The Wizard of Oz," and historical events like Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon.
While I haven't researched the correlation between intellect and TV-viewing hours, I am convinced that there is one - so much so that a few weeks ago we performed the radical act of expelling our TV from the house.
Our six-year-old had been going through a particularly surly phase, and it struck my husband and me that most of the battles occurred during transition times - going to church, school, or tee-ball practice - times that required turning off the TV.
You can imagine his surprise the morning he came downstairs to find family photos arranged where the TV had been. He would have reported us to Social Services - if he knew how to use the phone.
I'm not saying we've removed all electronic devices from our house. The Game Boy, alas, is still around, as is the stack of computer-game CDs.
But last week, my son became so bored he actually let me read him a book - in the middle of the afternoon. I'd like to say we were reading "Life on the Mississippi," but I'm not sure it would have captured attention quite like "Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets."
A few days later, in another fit of boredom, he even ripped the cellophane off the old-fashioned checkers set he'd received for his birthday months before.
"We'll play the hard way," I told him, "the kind where if you have a jump, you have to take it."
It's the version my grandma taught me, of course, so many afternoons ago after the RCA's tubes had cooled down and the wonder of human connection - and possibility - began anew.
*Beth Macy teaches writing at Hollins University in Roanoke.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society