She stood over me, watching as I read my history book in silence. The sleeves of her sweater were rolled up to her forearms as they always were and a Certs mint was placed strategically in the center of her tongue. I never saw Mrs. Davis without a Certs mint in her mouth and she was vigorously sucking on it while she tried to size me up. She looked at me intently as though she were trying to read my mind. Then she pointed her skinny finger at me and said, “You despise me, don’t you?” She looked at me over her reading glasses, her graying hair stiff with pomade, her finger trembling with anger. “You resent me-e-e-e-e!” she said it matter-of-factly. I stared at her, never taking my eyes away from her; I never once opened my mouth to reply.
We went through this ritual almost every day. I’d be sitting fifth seat down, third row over from the door and look up from my work and see her glaring at me and from out of nowhere, “Why are you staring at me?”, she’d ask. She would then slowly raise her massive body up from her desk and make her way to me and stand directly in the front of my desk , leaning forward. When she opened her mouth I could see the Certs mint sitting in the center of her tongue and again she’d utter those five words, “You hate me, don’t you?” Finally, I got up the nerve to reply, “No Mrs. Davis”. I didn’t know what else I could say.
“Don’t be impudent with me young man! You despise me and you know it. Why do you resent me so?”, again I sat there staring back at her. It may have been some type of miscommunication or maybe it was the fact that up until that year, I’d only known one teacher, Mr. Berry, from Remington Grade School. All I know is when I entered 5th grade we were all transferred to the brand new Southeastern Elementary School in Calverton, VA. Even though this new school was all Black like Remington Grade School was, I was still not adjusting well and Mrs. Davis wasn’t helping with the transition. I liked Southeastern, it was huge by Remington Grade School standards, and they had the First through the Seventh grades, with several grades being so large that there were two classrooms per grade.
Unfortunately, fifth grade was overcrowded too and some kids were being moved to Mrs. Scott’s fourth grade classroom until more space could be made available for all the students. I will give you one guess as to who was the first student chosen to move to Mrs. Scott’s classroom, that’s right, ME! It didn’t take Mrs. Davis long to decide who should be moved and my name was the first one called. We only stayed there for about 2 weeks, then the fifth grade was given a larger room to accommodate all the students and we moved back in with our classmates, but during those two weeks, we all did fourth grade level work. Right now though, I was back in the cross hairs of my nemesis, Mrs. Davis. “I’m going to call your parents and find out why you despise me so”. I just sat there staring at her as she went on another tangent. Finally, when she did call my mother, Mom came down to the school to talk with her. My mother made up some excuse related to my not being able to adjust to people I didn’t know, or that it took more time for me to become comfortable around strangers. But once she’d spoken to my mother and accepted whatever it was she was told, we started getting along a little better. We had no more confrontations about how I felt about her and that was fine with me.
We had only been in school for a couple of months when on November 22, 1963, Mr. Reevis, the school principal, came on the PA system and made an announcement: “I would like to inform you that at approximately 1:20 pm our time, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by an unknown gunman in Dallas, Texas”. We always kept our classroom doors open and immediately we heard screams and cries of disbelief from the other classrooms. Mrs. Davis began sobbing uncontrollably and ran from the room. We sat quietly, upset, but not fully understanding what was going on or what the implications were. By 2 p.m. the school buses had pulled up outside and we were sent home early for the day. The president was killed on a Friday, on Saturday I stayed in and watched TV all day long. And back then there was no such thing as a 10 second delay on TV programs when networks broadcast live TV, so as I watched continuous news about the President’s assassination and the assailant, Lee Harvey Oswald, it was all live and in living black and white. I was there in front of the television set when they covered Oswald being transferred from the jail after being interrogated for hours and it was live as I watched Jack Ruby walk up to him in the underground passageway and shot him point blank. I saw it as it happened and ran to the kitchen and told my mother what had just occurred. That’s the first and only time I’ve seen someone killed right before my eyes. The whole country came to a halt when Kennedy died and although I was only eleven years old, I knew that things would never be the same again.
In the six grade I could officially have been labeled a “Teacher’s Pet”. Mr. Clarke was my sixth grade teacher and as far as he was concerned, I could do no wrong. His trust in me was even baffling to me. He thought that I and Henry “Sonny” Jefferson walked on water. Mr. Clarke had a strict disciplinary code and when you stepped out of line, punishment usually came swiftly. Either a pluck on the back of the head or a crack on the knuckles with his foot long rule. For some reason, Mr. Clarke and the second grade teacher, Mrs. H. did not much like each other and whenever the opportunity arose, one would be trying to get the other fired. Such was the case when Mrs. H. asked Mr. Clarke for a ride home one evening after school and “accidentally” opened his glove compartment to discover a pint of liquor stowed there. The next day, she went to Mr. Reevis and reported that he was going back and forth to his car to get a nip during school hours. Mr. Clarke was able to clear himself of the charges when he showed Mr. Reevis that the label on the liquor bottle had never been broken. Mr. Clarke devoted much of our class time explaining the entire scenario to us and how Mrs. H. was always out to get him. Finding out that Mrs. H. had it in for him was rough enough on the old man, but learning that I wasn’t perfect nearly killed him. One day some boys were in the restroom whistling, we often sang Temptations songs and did the Doo-Wop imitations, but whistling was strictly against Mr. Clarke’s code of conduct. Normally, in situations such as this, I would be nearby watching but did not take part in the shenanigans that the other boys were up to, but this time I joined in and whistled along with them. But just as Mr. C. walked in, I turned and went into a stall and when he came in and surprised the boys, I was nowhere to be seen. He grabbed the two boys by their ears and escorted them back to class. Once recess was over, he called them up to his desk to mete out their punishment. The teacher told them that they would have to receive the standard corporal punishment, getting their knuckles cracked, when, in unison, they exclaimed “but, Mr. Clarke, Stanley was in the restroom whistling too.” Poor old Mr. Clarke gapped open his mouth, put his hand to his chest and turned to me in astonishment; “Stanley is that true?” the man had tears in his eyes “Were you in Boy’s Room whistling with them?” I sat there looking innocent and honest and said, “Yes Sir. I did it too”. Actually hearing me say it was almost more than he could stand, a tear welled up in his eye and he said, “I hate to do this, but I’ve got to punish you too, you know that don’t you. I wish I didn’t have to do it”. I said that I understood his predicament and walked up front to his desk and took my medicine like a real trooper, you would have been proud of me. I lost some footing with the teacher, but gained some respect from my fellow classmates, because up until then, they weren’t so sure which side I was on, but now they knew.
My grandmother always allowed us to do whatever we wanted when we went up the hill to see her. We would go up to visit them several times a week and we often took advantage of the fact that she’d let us have whatever we asked for, no matter what it was. We’d go in her china cabinet and pull out fine china, lamps, pottery, it didn’t matter, if we said “Grandma, can I have this?” she’d say, “Sure honey, you go ahead and take it”. Ten minutes after getting home we’d be back with our bounty because our mother would make us take it right back. One day, I was up rummaging around in a dresser drawer at gramma’s house and came across an old wallet. It had obviously seen its best days. But I noticed that there was a circular impression protruding from the outside layer that had been made due to time honored wear and tear, I opened the wallet and inside I found a plastic packet. This time, though, neither did I ask my grandmother if I could have it, nor did I show it to my mother once I got back home, I just took it with me. I had no idea what it was, but I immediately decided to keep it and that I’d take it to school and ask Eugene Ballenger what he thought it was. The next day when I went to school it was raining, and on rainy days there seemed to be less excitement and kids were more subdued. We couldn’t go out for recess, so when recess time came, the only thing we could do was mill around in the hallways and mingle with the other classes. Since the older kids had their recess separately from the younger students, only the fifth, sixth and seventh grades were out and about in the hallways. I was just coming out of the restroom when I saw Eugene standing across the hall talking to several girls. Since he was a year ahead of me in school, I would only see him during recess. I decided that this would be a good time to ask him about the packet I had in my pocket.
Since it was raining out, the corridor was packed with kids. Girls lined the walls across from the restrooms and some guys were standing in groups, shadow boxing, some standing around singing the latest Temptations or Righteous Brothers song and others, like Eugene, could always be found entertaining a group of girls. I came out of the boy’s restroom, saw Eugene across the hall and then stuck my hand in my pocket and pulled out the little square packet that I had found. I raised it up above my head and yelled out to Eugene, “Hey Eugene, do you know what this is?!” I stood there grinning, proud that I had gotten everyone’s attention. When they all turned their heads to see what I had the whole place went in to hysterics. Girls started screaming, some held their hands over their eyes and others even slumped to the floor in a feigned fainting spell, while other girls collapsed right into the arms of whoever was standing next to them, the whole school was in an uproar and to make matters worse, we were standing right outside the main office. Boys gawked, pointed and laughed, Eugene stood there momentarily stunned, then dashed toward me and just pushed me backwards into the Boy’s restroom and continued pushing me until I was backed up against the wall. He grabbed me by my collar and yelled at the top of his lungs, “What the hell are you doing? Don’t you know what that is???” I said, “No that’s what I was asking you”, he was up in my face, “It’s a rubber you idiot! Give me that!” He took it away from me and explained what it was that I had brought to school with me that day, then said, “I’ll go out and calm everybody down”. I followed Eugene to the door and he went out and announced that the object was actually his and he had no idea how I had gotten hold of it, but that it was, in fact, his. No one questioned that, he already had a reputation as being experienced for his age, so this was no surprise to anyone and calm returned to the hallways. I came out looking embarrassed, mostly because I, obviously, was the only person in the entire school who did not know what I was holding. As I look back on this incident, I have often wondered how every girl in the hall that day seemed to know what it was. They not only recognized it, but knew how they were supposed to react to seeing it in a public setting. I can’t really pin down who the actual owner was, I had several bachelor uncles could have left that old worn out wallet lying around. But, I’ll never forget the looks on those girls’ faces when I took that thing out of my pocket. Deep down, I must have had some idea what it really was and what type of reaction it would evoke, otherwise, why I would have made such a production of displaying the thing in a manner that was sure to evoke such a reaction. Oh well, I guess we’ll never know’
The next year brought new adventures. We were in the seventh grade, top dogs, “we ran the school”, but only for a moment. There was no middle school back then. You graduated from being coddled babies to becoming young adults in just one summer. Going from the top of the heap to the pit of despair, stepping into high school.
S. P. Brown
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