On that first day of school Mama wrapped her hand around mine as we walked together into the classroom at Cobb’s Creek Country School. I’d been so sheltered about our family’s past―not to mention the small-minded ways of Hadlee, Mississippi―that I was completely unprepared for what would come.
Mama leaned down and whispered, “No need to worry, Jason Lee. Everything’ll be fine, son.” I breathed in the familiar almond-cherry scent of her lotion. “Be brave like your daddy was,” she said. “He was a hero.”
Straightaway a lump caught in my throat. Those were the first words she’d spoken of him to me. Until then, I never even wondered about the man.
With that she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and moved toward the door. She turned back and smiled at me before leaving.
Despite my initial eagerness to attend school, when I looked around I felt alone and uneasy with the surroundings―the enormous room, the five rows of desks, the green chalkboard along the front wall, the rowdy voices, and the children’s faces, dirty and clean, black and white. They were unfamiliar faces, and as different from each other as the eggs collected from our chicken coop, except for the two boys leaning against the back wall. Their faces were the same, with wide foreheads and pointed chins. But one had a head of hair that looked like it’d never seen a comb, and the other’s hair was shaved to the scalp, exposing three round sores along the side of his head.
The one with hair burrowed his dirt-stained hands into his pockets and set his eyes on me. His piercing glare caused my mouth to go so dry I licked my lips, then turned toward the windows, pretending to study the white magnolia flowers bouncing on the branches of the trees that lined both lanes of County Road 38, the one thing I knew connected me to my home three miles away.
When I turned around, a colored boy wearing green sneakers pointed to a desk in the middle row.
He nodded. “Keep clear of the chair behind it.”
The boy pushed a noisy cart with uneven wheels through the aisles and placed one dog-eared school book on each desk. He was the blackest colored I’d ever seen, and for some reason I wanted to reach out and touch him.
“I’m Jason Lee,” I said.
His shoulders shot up. “Samson Johnson.”
I set myself down in the smooth seat and looked at the book on my desk, but couldn’t read the words stamped on the cover, and didn’t want to let on.
“Incomin,” someone yelled.
The children scurried to get to their seats and the room quieted down some. A sound similar to footsteps worked its way down the center aisle. Click-scrape-clack. Click-scrape-clack. A woman with a metal brace strapped to one leg limped her way past us to the big desk at the front of the room. She turned and smiled at us.
“Good morning, class. My name’s Miss Hopewell.” She set her papers on the desk, plucked a stick of chalk from the drawer, and printed something on the chalkboard. She turned back toward us and clasped her hands together. “I’ll be takin over for Miss Iola, teaching grades one through four. Poor lady had quite a fall over the summer and broke her hip.”
“Thank the Lord,” Samson Johnson said under his breath when he slipped into the desk to the right of mine.
Miss Hopewell pointed to the boys by the wall. “I see we have vacant chairs. You two, take your seats, please.” Her finger wiggled when she spoke to them.
The boys made their way to the empty desks behind Samson and me. I turned around to say “hey” to the one in back of me. He glared, same as before, and didn’t say “hey” back. Feeling self-conscious, I turned around and focused my attention on Miss Hopewell.
“I hail from the state of Indiana,” she said. “Some six hundred miles away.”
I didn’t have any idea how far away six hundred miles was but couldn’t imagine being any miles away from Mama and Uncle Mooks.
“I signed up for a volunteer program that serves rural communities like Hadlee,” she said, and went on about all the good the program does. Most of the kids weren’t interested in her until she stomped on the schoolroom floor with the shoe on her good leg and yelled, “Attention. Eyes forward, class. Since this is my first day, I’ll read your names from the roll call sheet. When you hear yours, stand up so I can see who you are.” She glanced down. “Winifred Abbott.”
The classroom exploded with laughter. It seemed Miss Hopewell and I were the only two who didn’t get the joke.
A plump girl with eyebrows thick as a grown man’s stood up. A dingy underskirt poked out beneath her printed dress. She hitched her hands on her hips, the way an old lady does, and said, “My name’s Reba. Not nothin else―just Reba.”
Miss Hopewell studied the roll call sheet. “Is Reba your given name?”
“Yes, ma’am, I given it to myself.”
That time I laughed with the rest of them.
“Thank you, Reba. You may sit down.” Miss Hopewell scribbled something on her paper. “Culver Chubb?” She scanned the room.
“Here,” the boy behind me shouted loud as a bugle, straight into the back of my head. He didn’t stand.
“Thank you, Culver.” She looked at the boy behind Samson, the one with the sores on his head. “You must be Eugene Chubb.”
Eugene did stand. He pushed his jaw forward and shoved his desk smack into Samson’s back. “Here.”
Samson’s face crunched, but he didn’t turn around or say anything. Culver, the one behind me, launched a machine-gun laugh and smacked his desk with the book Samson had left there. Smacked it five times. My insides jumped with each smack.
I looked over to Samson. “You okay?”
“What’s it to you, niggalova?” Culver said and punched me in the back with his fist.
I twisted around. “What was that for?”
His mouth curled into a snarl. “Niggalova.”
Three or four of the kids in nearby seats laughed. I turned back to see if Miss Hopewell had witnessed the punch.
She was looking up at the light fixture. “Oh, Lord,” she said. “Lordy, Lord.” Her mouth puckered.
“Miss Hopewell?” I raised my arm to get her attention, to make sure she’d seen what happened. Even with my hand shooting skyward, she looked past me. “Miss Hopewell?”
“Put it down,” Samson said. When I looked over, he shook his head like he thought me a fool. “She ain’t gonna do nothin, so put it down, and leave it down.”
Earlier, in the car that morning, Mama had pointed out one particular magnolia within walking distance from the schoolyard. “See that one? The one surrounded by the big patch of itch grass?”
“Meet me there when school lets out. I want to show you somethin.”
After the final bell rang I wasn’t more than five feet out the door, headed to my meeting place with Mama, when the Chubb boys sandwiched me. They came from behind and put their arms around my shoulders like we were pals, one skinny Chubb on each side of me, squeezing tight. They walked me toward the swings. Halfway there Eugene stabbed his bony knuckles into my stomach. No one had ever hit me so hard before. Stunned, I couldn’t believe the pain and I gasped, not sure another breath would come. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Culver swung his foot in front of my leg and shoved me. My hands scraped along the ground. Then my chin hit.
The boys ran off, laughing.
While making my way to Mama’s magnolia, willing the tears not to come, I picked bloody bits of gravel from my palms. My eagerness to go to school had vanished, and my head throbbed with questions, like how to figure when to say something and when to keep quiet. Who it’s okay to talk to and who it’s not. And how it is you learn these things. I knew for certain they weren’t things Miss Hopewell would be teaching us.
When I got to the tree I looked up the trunk. In the smooth grey bark I caught sight of a heart with initials inside it. I heard footsteps behind me and my chest felt heavy again. Thoughts of what more those two kids might do to me with no one else around flooded my head. Even so, I worked up the nerve to turn and face them.
The girl named Reba ran toward me. “I saw what they did to you,” she said, winded. “They got a mean streak.”
I stuck my hands in my pants pockets even though they burned like crazy. “They didn’t hurt me.”
Reba picked at a wart on the back of her hand and talked soft. “All their kin’s that way.”
I wondered why she ran so far to tell me about the Chubbs, but before I got the question out she was headed back the way she’d come. The skirt of her dress bounced with each step. She turned around and walked backwards. “And stay clear of the Johnson boys, too. My folks say it ain’t right to mix with coloreds.”
Not too long after Reba ran off, Mama pulled up. She got out of the car and studied the initials scratched in the tree. A surge of recognition hit me. They were the initials JLR + CK. My daddy’s initials, same as mine, and Mama’s too, before they married.
“Is that you and him?”
“He was eighteen when I met him.” She smiled. “A far cry from anyone I’d ever met before. Bold, brash, and full of life.”
It was odd to hear her speak of him. I couldn’t even think of a question to ask about him.
She touched my scraped-up chin. “What happened here?”
“You sure?” She fixed her eyes on me. “And your hands?”
“Come on, son. Time to go.”
The minute I closed the car door and settled in she said, “Tell me everythin ’bout your day, Jason Lee.”
I made no mention of what happened with the Chubbs. Instead, I told her about the boy named Samson who gave me a book and showed me where to sit. And how Reba said it ain’t right to mix with him because he’s colored.
She pulled onto the road. “So, someone named Reba told you it ain’t right?”
“It’s a tough thing to do in these parts, but you be friends with anyone you want, Jason Lee. Don’t let nobody tell you different, you hear?” Her tone sounded like a scolding.
“Your daddy got himself forty-seven stitches across the back of his shoulder. And they threw him in jail to boot, just so you and boys like Samson could be friends.”
The air inside the car turned hot as a furnace.
“My d-daddy went to jail?” I stuttered, not knowing if I felt shame, excitement, or something else. The only thing I knew about him was he fought in Vietnam and died there, but I didn’t have any idea where that was.
J.L. Rainey died the autumn after I was born, in 1968. He never even set eyes on me, his only offspring, who carries his looks, and more.
“Yes siree, he went to jail. Nineteen sixty-five. Selma.” She said it proud, which didn’t make sense.
“But this morning you said he was a hero.”
“Heroes can get put in jail? That ain’t right.”
“Sometimes it’s the only way you can get heard.”
“How come you never told me about him goin to jail? How come you never told me nothin?”
“Thought you were too young. Besides, the jail’s not the point. And, I’m tellin you now.” She took a deep breath. “Your daddy wasn’t a perfect man by any means, and sometimes he was downright frustratin, but strong willed people can’t help but do what’s right in their hearts.”
“He demonstrated alongside the coloreds for equal rights.”
I nodded like I understood.
“It was a time when such behavior was frowned on around these parts. And, truth be told, still is by some. Back then, tempers were on high alert and you never knew what to expect. Participatin in the movement was a dangerous thing to do. Lord knows I didn’t want him to get involved, but that wasn’t his way.”
“So, Mama, I got a question. Is someone whose friends with coloreds a niggalova?”
“Oh, my, Jason Lee.” She looked at me and gave a huge smile. “Someone called you that on your first day of school?”
She laughed. “I guess the apple don’t fall too far. They called your daddy that same thing, all the time. My, my.” She laughed some more. “Despite what I just said, that mindset isn’t so accepted as it used to be. Attitudes are beginnin to change slow but sure. Time’s provin he was the one thinkin straight, after all.” She nodded a few times. “We’ll put some salve on those hands when we get home.”
With that, our conversation was over and, as it turned out, most any other mention of him for quite a few years to come.
I thought about the proud look on her face when she said my daddy was a hero, and my mind swirled with thoughts of the likes of Superman and Captain America being thrown in jail. Then I thought about the word, niggalova, and decided it didn’t seem so bad.
During recess the next day I stayed in the classroom, pretending to read a book, to keep clear of the Chubbs. In due time, Miss Hopewell shooed me outside to get some fresh air. Like hounds on a rabbit, Culver and Eugene found me, got hold of my arm, bent it behind my back, and wouldn’t let go until I yelled out.
The following day they hit me on the side of my head so hard my ears rang. The day after that they pulled on my underpants until they were so far out of my jeans it took a great deal of maneuvering to get them back where they belonged.
The Chubbs didn’t show up for class on Friday, but I still cowered in the doorway and ducked behind bushes, expecting a surprise attack anytime.
I couldn’t let Mama in on any of this after it dawned on me that she needed me to be brave like my daddy had been, and I wasn’t.