The children are gone now. The school is empty. Only the echo of their laughter remains hanging in the air, in contrast to a duet of warbling redbirds and mooing cows outside my window. I, too, will be abandoning the school in a few hours, leaving behind the scene of demolition that will commence in the next few days. With ravenous bites, machines will devour this last one-room schoolhouse in Indiana, and the children will be bussed to separate, more advantaged schools. In a few months, in a few years, grass and wild flowers will cover the spot—an appropriate memorial. No one will know or remember.
As I sit at my brown, scarred desk, I scribble down memories while they still pulsate freshly in my mind. Eyes shut tightly, tears squeezing between the lids, I try to sort out the meaning of a barrage of images that converge upon me, images of broken-down hovels, wild flowers, and freckled faces.
I see a barefoot boy, fishing pole slung carelessly across his shoulder. Jeddy! I can still see Jeddy’s ruddy face the day I visited him at the creek, an aftermath of that horrible incident at school. I joined him sauntering down Schufflecreek Road on his way to catch some fish, the only thing he could really do well. The scene of earth and fish, which hung in an offensive aura about him, made me wince.
“I giss ya wonder why I don’t wear no shoes. Well, mah shoes is missin’,” he said, plopping down at the creek. I looked down at the ten brown toes. “An’ I don’t care. Pa says shoes is fer horses, anyways.” He tossed his shaggy head, flipping the cowlick that sprouted rebelliously from his crown while his shirt, stripped of buttons, hung open to his waist.
That was the first time I had felt compassion for Jeddy, as he sat there on the stream’s edge making excuses for his bare feet. He was the bottom of the social order and was referred to as “Stinky” and “Fishy” by his peers, although they too came from what was described as the “illiterate hill country.”
The school was more rustic than the children. I can recall the first time I stared at this one-room stone building where I was to teach 23 children, grades one through six. Inside, a dusty curtain was strung across the center, a sad apology for the lack of rooms. My eyes passed from the ancient stack of tattered books propped randomly in the corner against a splintery baseball bat to a water-stained piece of tape that was glued to a crack in the window and that ended abruptly at a small hole. A bewildered moth fluttered through the opening, retracing the passage of a small stone thrown by a child on some bygone day.
The children had been my greatest fear. When I had opened the door that first day, they gushed in as though I had removed an obstruction in a pipe, a flood of scabrous, shoving urchins. Freckle-faced Chris sat camouflaged behind a sheep-dog head of hair and spoke out from a sea of nameless faces. “Hey, teacher, yer skirt’s unzipped.” Amid muffled laughs, I replied, “Thank you,” and glared at him. Then he threw a final harpoon. “An’ if I ain’t quiet, she’ll prob’ly zip mah mouth shut!” The muffled chuckles exploded into guffaws.
As I stalked down the aisles, glowering at each child in an effort to gain control, Jeddy seized this moment to introduce himself by discreetly slipping a brown foot into the aisle. He caught my ankle and sent me to my knees. I silently prayed for last-minute ingenuity to save me from sinking entirely.
Striding to the front, I said, “Who would have suspected that a five-year-old could have such extremely large feet!” Assessing this large ten-year-old in such mistaken terms destroyed his moment of greatness. I felt proud as the children again broke into gales of laughter.
After that they always supported me with laughter. “Jeddy, please pick up Kenny’s books and replace his pencils.” He shifted his weight in defiance to one side while his hands hung suspended by two thumbs hooked in the corner of each side pocket. “Jeddy! Do it at once!”
He flipped his cowlick and grunted, “Shut up an’ lee me alone!”
“Jeddy! If you continue to act this way, I’ll have to ask you to leave. Animal behavior belongs in a barn.” The children roared.
He did leave later in the month, a consequence of that untimely scene. I had half expected a phone call from the school trustee or Jeddy’s father, but that call never came; and as the weeks slipped by, I gradually realized that no one cared what happened inside Creekhollow School. I felt alone.
But Jeddy was more alone than I. In his absence I learned from the children that he was the third child of five who lived secluded at the creek bottom with their father. Their mother had died four years before while giving birth to a sixth child in that small ramshackle house with no running water or indoor bathroom facilities. Because the family refused assistance, neighbors ignored them.
I was not ignoring Jeddy the day of the fight. I had become determined to teach him to read in hopes that this would change his low self-image. Or was it to show what a good teacher I was? Little matter. I had drilled him for long, tedious hours unsuccessfully. Sending the others out to recess, I sat with Jeddy at the blackboard, pointing to some words, my nose twitching at the strong odor of fish. He lounged there, feet extended, with two brown thumbs hung from a hole in the center of his T-shirt, only an occasional smirk darkening the corner of his mouth. My arms stiffened as I gripped the sides of my chair. “Can you read it, Jeddy?” My voice grew louder at his silence. “Can you read it, Jeddy?” I leaned forward almost shouting, “Jeddy! Can you read it?”
A small crowd of children collected at the door picked up the chant: “Can you read it, Jeddy? Can you read it, Jeddy? Fishy can’t read nothin’!” The fire of revenge burned in Jeddy’s eyes. Like a cat he pounced swiftly on the nearest enemy, knocked him to the ground, and sank his claws and teeth into the small boy’s arm. Kenny screamed in pain while I pulled and threatened uselessly to get Jeddy to release his victim.
Realizing I had lost total control, I felt my legs would collapse as I searched about the room, dry-mouthed and perspiring, for some form of deliverance. I saw it leaning in the corner—the baseball bat. I walloped a bruising blow across Jeddy’s bottom, which sent him sprawling over the floor. Staggering to his feet, arm bent across his face in self-defense, Jeddy stared piercingly at me through dark, squinted eyes, lips curled back in a snarl, and then bolted for the door, disappearing into the trees.
The alcohol must have burned Kenny’s wound, but he looked up with a thankful smile. “Jeddy runned away,” Aritha said, as she twisted a tangled strand of hair around her finger.
“Yes, Aritha, thank you.” Looking out the door I asked, “Does he live far from here?”
“No, Mrs. Allen. He just lives down that there holler.” I saw new respect in the eyes of the children, who sat quietly in their seats, but I bit my lip and shivered in the cool breeze.
Jeddy’s seat was empty the next day. And the next. It would remain so until the dust piled high enough to etch his name with a finger upon the desk. An unnatural tension permeated the air and lasted late into the next week, when it exploded in my face with an argument at home plate.
Chris shouted at the catcher and stamped his foot in disagreement. Then he grabbed the bat, brandishing it about his head, and clobbered it squarely across the catcher’s shoulder. The children cheered, for they had learned well. I looked with horror on the scene, which appeared to be an imitation of me. Time and space whirled around. “Don’t bite him, Jeddy! Oh, please, let go!” Again I felt the frustration, the weight of the baseball bat hanging heavily in my hand.
I clasped my hand to my throat as a chilling thought crept stealthily into my mind. Children! What have I done? Poor Jeddy! It was I who provoked it all. What can I do? I have to find him.
My car lurched over bumps as I wound my way down dusty roads, past patches of gold and vermilion blazing brightly under the light of the autumn sun, until I found him. And in those few moments we sat together at the stream, I heard myself confess that I was sorry. Hesitantly I asked him to please come back. He stared down in the dirt, alone and silent, a straggly, stray animal. I arose in quiet reluctance to return to my car, gazing over my shoulder in expectation. But he didn’t come.
The days dragged as I waited out my sentence in anxious anticipation of his return. I chewed my nails short while I envisioned terrible things. He had run away; he had drowned himself in the river. It was less dramatic than that.
He reappeared three weeks later, and, to my surprise, his two brown, dirty feet were hidden by a new pair of shoes. Shoes he had purchased himself from a catch of 78 fish sold at ten cents each. Mentally I calculated how many fish he would have caught each day and how many endless hours of walking over the hills from house to house.
And as the days grew cooler I gradually outgrew my defensive manner and began to show some positive feelings toward the children, first a warm smile, then a pat on the head. They looked up with hungry eyes.
One morning when I arrived the children spoke in anxious whispers, confiding that one of their classmates had died two years before. Hoping to gain greater confidence from them, I asked, “What would you like to do?” They replied in unison, as though already planned, “We wanna make a wreath and take it to his grave.”
We began to fashion a wreath from wild flowers, clothes hangers, and tissue paper. I smiled as I watched Chris clumsily try to wire his lilies into the wreath, and I observed, “Lilies grow wild where I come from, too.”
He pursed his lips and asked, “If thir wild, does that mean thir weeds?”
From some corner of my memory I heard distant voices:
“Eleanor, don’t keep picking the flowers; they’ll die.”
“But, Mommy, we can put them in a vase.”
“Sweetie, they’re just weeds. But if you like. They won’t live long though, you know; they need the earth.”
“Eleanor, will you read the scripture aloud, please?”
“Yes, Brother Richards. ‘Consider the lilies … Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed …’!”
“Mrs. Allen, watsa matter? Mrs. Allen?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. It was nothing.” I looked down into worried faces and responded. “No, Chris, your flowers aren’t weeds. Did you know that every wild flower is important to God?” Grateful smiles blossomed on their faces.
Aritha questioned, “Er dead people impor’ent ta God, too?”
“Yes, Aritha, everyone is important to him.”
“Then I’ll make a sign ta tell Joey so. He’d wanna know.”
As we ambled over the hills to the grave, we inhaled the mixed perfumes of farm and field, enhanced with the spice of lingering pumpkin patches. Chris gently placed the homemade wreath in awkward spelling Aritha had scrawled: “Evryone is emportent.”
I clutched my hand to my throat as inwardly I wanted to shout, “Can you read it, Jeddy? Can you read it, Jeddy? Oh, forgive me, Jeddy.” And as they sang “Old Lang Syne,” a brown rough hand slipped quietly between white fingers, only momentarily, but I felt it there. We stood several timeless minutes listening to the silence, broken only by the tinkling of cowbells, and then walked reluctantly back to school. I felt strangely comfortable.
And as the wind scattered the leaves and then blew the snow into white mounds, we got acquainted. I read to them, painting panoramas with vivid words that fell like raindrops upon thirsty minds. As the redbuds and dogwoods burst into bloom, the children brought me fresh wild flowers gathered at secret hiding places along the river bottoms and mushrooms found in clusters under the shade of green foliage at covered bridges. I smiled as the children’s personalities unfolded before me.
Time passed quickly, bringing the final day of school. A festive but nostalgic feeling hovered over our farewell party. At its conclusion Aritha walked to the front of the class and said, “Mrs. Allen, here’s a present from me,” and planted a kiss on my cheek. Before I knew what had happened I was surrounded by eager arms reaching up. I stepped back only for an instant and then, leaning forward, hugged and kissed each of them.
As the school bus approached and honked, they pounded their desks and shouted, “We won’t go home! We won’t go home!” But they did go. And they left behind piles of used paper, an abandoned school, and traces of wet kisses on my cheeks.
Then Jeddy, on a sudden impulse, charged back into the room with a tear in his eye, gave me one more hug, and ran off without a word. As I inhaled the fading aroma of fish, I remembered his life’s ambition and wondered if there were still a place in the world for fishermen. Discouraged, I realized I had not succeeded in teaching him to read, but I hoped at least he had learned—as I had learned—that “evryone is emportent.”
And now as I sit here alone in the wake of their laughter and shouts, the redbirds are silent as the last flicker of sunlight filters through the dust particles and shadows begin to collect about the school. I look down at the tear-stained notes and feel a sense of relief, for confusion is gone, and at last peace replaces it as I bite deeply into the ageless irony—ageless, but new to each person who samples it: in my struggle to teach the children, I learned a new reverence for life.