Such vivid physical images of Herman remain in my mind that I think I would recognize him today, and I have often wished I could see Herman again. Yet I cannot remember any conversation I ever had with him—and he was part of my life for nine months.
You cannot say we ostracized him. We were afraid of him or perhaps in awe of his ways, which because they were not known to us, were a threat to our innocence. And he seemed not to want or need our friendship. We were together only because of a clerical fact of life that took seven hours a day for nine months to be fully executed.
It was the last day of school, and we were graduating from the sixth grade. School, for all intents and purposes, was over. We were just marking time till the closing assembly would propel us into three full months of vacation, and the air was positively humming with excitement.
We were growing up fast. No longer were we wide-eyed innocents surprised at everything happening around us. People and things were sorted, analyzed, and filed for future reference in minds with miles of empty corridors just waiting to be filled.
This is where Herman came in. To minds sorting, analyzing, and filing, Herman was a gold mine. He was different for a number of reasons.
First of all was the physical. Herman was not attractive, so we did not care to look any further. He had a large nose on a thin face, and his whole head just seemed too big for his body. Maybe it was his hair that created that impression. It was thick and bushy, and on Herman we never saw the naked ears of a brand new haircut sticking out in self-conscious embarrassment. It was never longer but never shorter.
He was thin and sinewy. He had a lean, hard body that was in many ways more mature than the other boys in our class. That was because Herman was “rough.” He had “rough” friends and did “rough” things. That was the major difference.
But his clothes were the real factor when it came to sorting Herman. He was among the first group to wear motorcycle boots and black leather jackets. At that particular time in our country’s culture, the only people who wore leather jackets were “hoods.” So we went no further in analyzing Herman. We could tell, after all, just by looking that Herman did not fit in our world. Not because we did not like him but because … well, he was just different, you know? He was all the things we did not know about and did not care about.
Then suddenly, after nine months, it was time to go into the auditorium for the final hurrah of our childhood.
I was in the choir, so I was allowed to go into the auditorium early and take my place in the chairs reserved for us down front. When facing the audience we were expected to sit silently without excess movement. And it was thus that I learned one of the more startling truths of my life.
I watched as the people walked purposefully into the big room, each of my friends in turn with their mothers. I beamed as my own mother came into the room and took a place where we could see each other comfortably. It seemed that fathers never came to things like that, and we knew perfectly well it was because they were at work and could not come.
There were many beaming faces that afternoon, not only on the children, but also on the parents. (It is always hard to tell who is the prouder in a situation like that.) There was something almost magical in having your mother at school. Maybe because she reaffirmed your individuality in a sea of faces. Or maybe just because she was your mother and you had so few chances to show her off. The mothers beamed because we were their children and that was reason enough.
I knew most of the mothers of my friends from visits to our classroom, or birthday parties, or simply seeing them shopping. But nobody knew Herman’s mother or even thought of him as having one.
But then, right there in front of my eyes, came Herman Teague with—and there could not possibly be any mistake about it—his mother.
The pride in Herman’s thin, large-nosed face was the first thing I noticed and is probably why I cannot erase him from my mind. Herman never showed emotion in class. He simply showed up and “learned” every day, just like he was supposed to. It was shocking to realize that he was a boy just as proud of his mother as the rest of us were of ours, and he was showing it just as we did.
Then I looked at her. She was a little gray-haired lady not much taller than her son. All of the other mothers were somewhere around 30 years old. Herman’s mother was more like 50. She was plump and had an open face that I automatically associated with kindness and sincerity.
My revelation came when I looked at her clothes; but then I cannot really say I looked first at her age, then her face, then her clothes, because she was a total experience taken in at one gulping moment of learning. I have saved the clothes till last to bring this moment as forcefully to your mind as it came to mine on that day 20 years ago.
She had on a plain cotton print dress that buttoned down the front, the kind worn by every grandmother worth her salt. And over it she wore a black leather jacket—identical to Herman’s!
I stared, probably as every child of that age stares, with my eyes bugged out and my mouth wide open.
There they were, right before me for the whole hour’s program, none of which I can remember at all. And for one hour the thought rang through my mind and bounced off every surface in my brain lest I should somehow not have noticed or perhaps taken it too lightly: Herman Teague had a mother.
If she had worn a sweater, or a shawl, or even no wrap at all, the moment would have passed without any meaning to me whatsoever. It was the combination of mother and black leather jacket that made all the difference in my analyzing. The meaning and images of mother in my mind were too real to be denied. After all, only hoods and people like that wore those jackets, didn’t they? How could that plump old lady with that open, kind, sincere face—that mother—be a hood? Seeing her in that black leather jacket brought to mind a whole flood of reasons why Herman was different that I had never considered before.
I had such a mixture of emotions in those moments that it has taken me years to finish the sorting, analyzing, and filing that began on that day.
A seed of wisdom and understanding sprouted in an instant, and since that moment I have not only been reluctant to judge people, but I have not been able to look upon any of God’s children casually or indifferently. They, too, have mothers.