* One of my first teaching job out of college was
something else. More than thirty years later it's still talked about. I
took a job at a little country school in a rural North Florida county--you
know the type, about 30 miles beyond sunset--the kinda of place where the
school board member, with his third grade education, wanted to hire Perry
Mason to represent them. When the time change came each year, you set your
watch back one hour and one century. Good hearted folks mostly but trying
to work with that school board was kinda like trying to herd cats with
a stick while calling a square dance for hippos--you just can't do it.
Ah yes, but there was some good times, too. To this day, I can take credit
for really introducing a few country kids to the real joys of learning,
researching and clear thinking. One of them, let's not call his name, though
its David, is the Superintendent of Education down there now--doing a very
fine job, too.
* Let me tell you about Jace, that's short for James Charles. Jace had come in the middle of the previous school year from parts unknown, spawned by a family of peculiarities with personalities to match. To say his life was rough is a gross misrepresentation of brutal fact. His life was hell. His face was slightly miss-shapened from heavy forceps used at birth. A big crooked crease flowed at an angle right down his middle forehead. He had been a big youngun' born of a petit woman--petit nothing--she was downright skin and bones to look upon--a questionable pleasure I suffered once. Jace taught me alot about life's trials and tribulations in his own way. He was bright of mind but dim of eye. The other school kids never got around to knowing the boy, they were too busy making his life hell--calling him ugly, crease-face, split head and the like...those were the good terms. I don't dare mention the other epithets. Jace wasn't long for that school, you know.
* About a week after I got assigned an extra class, due to the untimely death of a drunken teacher; yes, some of those kids could drive you to drink. The principal brought Jace into to my room and loudly announced "I'm assigning this ugly varmint to your class; Miss Sands can't stand to look at'im!" That mean spirited principal stood right there in front of God, Jace and 31 rude students and shouted that directly into Jace's face as if he were deaf, too--which he tweren't. My heart sank a notch or two but Jace seemed to take it in stride. It was apparent that he'd faced all this before. The principal marched out of the room all a'whistling. Jace stood there silently a moment then timidly raised his hand. "Yes" I said. Jace asked "May I have a chair at the front of the class?" I walked to the back and brought up the one remaining dilapidated seat and put it in the front corner row and returned to the lesson. As class dismissed, I asked Jace to come by after school and get the lessons he'd missed. With a smile that would have lighted up Chicago, young Jace promptly answered "YES SIR!"
* Over the next few weeks, Jace was treated just like all the other regular students. He wasn't ever any trouble, always did his lessons, never volunteered but always answered correctly any question asked. The tormenting continued to grow in newer more vicious ways daily. The secretary of the school board had her daughter moved to another class--said it was bad enough having her daughter sit by a black in school but she wasn't going to have her stare at some unchristian work of the devil all day long to boot! Thank God for small favors--"it wasn't any loss to my class"--that daughter was a snooty spoiled brat with a brother to match. You know the kind, every small town has a set doncha know--why, you're probably sitting next to one now.
* Creator must have some weird ways when it comes to people. This body of mine was given a heart so full of pity I couldn't even kill the rattlesnake that bit me. Could never turn away a mange infested dog or fail to give a handout to a hungry hand. This kinda of heart is more of a burden than a blessing to me--it requires a lot of you. I treat my worst enemy with more respect than they usually give their own mothers. That's something this rural county could have profited to learn in those days.
* Jace wasn't long for school--let me explain. One day, a loud commotion outside the door attracted my attention, as it should have. A big 12th grader named Lawty had just knocked Jace down and was about to stomp his head with his over sized and somewhat dung encrusted shoes when I stepped out of the room.
"Hey teach" said Lionel, Lawty's permanently attached shadow, "this pervert was stealing from my locker!" Lawty stood with foot posed, dripping sneers like a spring rain storm.
I had long since figured out that Jace had a vision problem. His glasses were thick as coke bottles. You could start fires with those lenses!
"Hold on there you wise-ape" I said. "The boy's half blind and his locker is next to yours; probably just an honest mistake--come to think of it, you're the one whose been trashing Jace's lunch bag every day, aren't'cha...?"
"Whatcha gonna do 'bout it" grumbled Lawty. Students snickered, hollered and slapped their thighs in delight and disbelief. Lawty was the school hero, football captain, you know.
"Well, for one thing," I said, "I think I'll pay a call on your daddy tonight!"
* Lot a good that did--the old man was truly the king
of rednecks from what I could see--the epitome of awful; hell, if he were
to become ignorant, it would have been a vast improvement. To help out
a rural school without a winning streak, Lawty hadn't been graded too carefully
that first month by most faculty. Me? That's a another story altogether
and . . . well, Lawty didn't play football that Friday! Kinda touching
to see a grown senior cry when he well deserves it; Jace's treatment suddenly
improved a heap sight better, mightily better in fact!.
* A few days later, Jace came to school earlier than usual and handed me a little white paper sack like they used to put your purchases in at Woolworth's. "It's for you" he said. The sack was opened carefully--he was a normal boy and one never knew what serpent, bug or other critter would leap out of the bag. Instead, a right decent but inexpensive pair of red suspenders tumbled out. "I don't see things too well" Jace said "but I can see red okay. If you wear these, I'll always be able to find you--Mr. 'D' (that's what they called me back then). Sometimes, you're the only friend I got here and it sure gets lonely when I don't know where you are." The ping that was heard was one of my heart strings a'snapping in two. Good thing Jace could not see well; Suddenly I knew what that was like because my own eyes teared up all blurry--like a fountain. I gave that boy a hug right then and there. They'd probably get me for child abuse now.
* That afternoon, walking home, Jace missed his bearings and crossed the road at the wrong place. It was swift, thank God. A truck was moving at such a high speed that Jace was relieved of the miseries of a slow agonizing death--it was over instantly.
* None could understand why I wore those red suspenders everyday for the rest of my teaching career until I finally got so disgusted with the current state of some students AND THEIR PARENTS that I walked out of school one afternoon and never went back to teach in a public school again--all the pity, too, 'cause I was a right fine teacher if a judgment had to be called on the matter. Those red suspenders came to mean hope to me and friendship of a deep worth--most importantly, they meant trust. I just couldn't wear them too much any more lately. When I first came to Colquitt some years ago they were still a regular but faded part of my "always the worst dressed" apparel. I finally gave them to Charlotte Phillips for Swamp Gravy's wardrobe collection so that maybe some trust would wear off on others--everyone can always use more trust. If you look around carefully whenever you attend a performance of Swamp Gravy, you may see them. I truly hope so. Since the posting of this story, the "Red Suspenders" have been retrieved for personal reasons. One day, they will find a new home... perhaps one that is both worthy and permanent.