'Fine,' Miss Crocker beamed, then proudly threw back the tarpaulin.
Sitting so close to the desk, I could see that the covers of the books, a motley red, were badly worn and that the gray edges of
the pages had been marred by pencils, crayons, and ink. My anticipation at having my own book ebbed to a sinking
disappointment. But Miss Crocker continued to beam as she called each fourth grader to her desk and, recording a number in
her roll book, handed him or her a book.
As I returned from my trip to her desk, I noticed the first graders anxiously watching the disappearing pile. Miss Crocker
must have noticed them too, for as I sat down she said, 'Don't worry, little ones, there are plenty of readers for you too. See
there on Miss Davis's desk.' Wide eyes turned to the covered teacher's platform directly in front of them and an audible sigh
of relief swelled in the room.
I glanced across at Little Man, his face lit in eager excitement. I knew that he could not see the soiled covers or the marred
pages from where he sat, and even though his penchant for cleanliness was often annoying, I did not like to think of his
disappointment when he saw the books as they really were. But there was nothing that I could do about it, so I opened my
book to its center and began browsing through the spotted pages. Girls with blond braids and boys with blue eyes stared up at
me. I found a story about a boy and his dog lost in a cave and began reading while Miss Crocker's voice droned on
Suddenly I grew conscious of a break in that monotonous tone and I looked up. Miss Crocker was sitting at Miss Davis's desk
with the first-grade books stacked before her, staring fiercely down at Little Man, who was pushing a book back upon the
'What's that you said, Clayton Chester Logan !' she asked. The room became gravely silent. Everyone knew that Little Man
was in big trouble for no one, but no one, ever called Little Man 'Clayton Chester' unless she or he meant serious business.
Little Man knew this too. His lips parted slightly as he took his hands from the book. He quivered, but he did not take his
eyes from Miss Crocker.'I –I said may I have another book please, ma'am,' he squeaked. 'That one's dirty.'
'Dirty !' Miss Crocker echoed, appalled by such temerity. She stood up, gazing down upon Little Man like a bony giant, but
Little Man raised his head and continued to look into her eyes. 'Dirty! And just who do you think you are, Clayton Chester!
Here the county is giving us these wonderful books during these hard times and you're going to stand there and tell me that
the book's too dirty! Now you take that book or get nothing at all I'
Little Man lowered his eyes and said nothing as he stared at the book, For several moments he stood there, his face barely
visible above the desk, then he turned and looked at the few remaining books and, seeming to realize that they were as badly
soiled as the one Miss Crocker had given him. he looked across the room at me. I nodded and Little Man, glancing up again
at Miss Crocker, slid the book from the edge of the desk, and with his back straight and his head up returned to his seat.
Miss Crocker sat down again. 'Some people around here seem to be giving themselves airs. I’ll tolerate no more of that.' she
scowled. 'Sharon Lake, come get your book.
I watched Little Man as he scooted into his seat beside two other little boys. He sat for a while with a stony face looking out
the window; then, evidently accepting the fact that the book in front of him was the best that he could expect, he turned and
opened it. Rut as he stared at the book's inside cover, his face clouded, changing from sulky acceptance to puzzlement. His
brews furrowed. Then his eyes grew wide, and suddenly he sucked in his breath and sprang from his chair like a wounded
animal, hinging the book onto the floor and stomping madly upon it.
Miss Crocker rushed to Little Man and grabbed him up in powerful hands. She shook him vigorously, then set him on the
floor again, 'Now, just what's gotten into you, Clayton Chester!' But Little Man said nothing. He just stood staring down at
the open book, shivering with indignant anger. 'Pick it up,' she ordered. 'No !' defied Little Man. 'No! I'll give you ten seconds
to pick up that book, boy. or I'm going to get my switch.' Little Man bit his lower lip, and I knew that he was not going to
pick up the book. Rapidly, I turned to the inside cover of my own book and saw immediately what had made Little Man so
furious. Stamped on the inside cover was a chart which read:
The blank lines continued down to line 20 and I knew that they had all been reserved for black students. A knot of anger
swelled in my throat and held there. But as Miss Crocker directed Little Man to bend over the 'whipping chair. 1 put aside my
anger and jumped up.
'Miz Crocker. don't, please !' I cried. Miss Crocker's dark eyes warned me not to say another word. 'I know why he done it !'
'You want part of this switch, Cassie !'
'No'm,' I said hastily. 'I just wanna tell you how come Little Man done what he done.'
'Sit down!' she ordered as I hurried toward her with the open book in my hand,
Holding the book up to her. I said. 'See, Miz Crocker, see what it says. They give us these ole books when they didn't
want'em no more.
She regarded me impatiently, but did not look at the book. 'Now how could he know what it says! He can't read.'
'Yes'm, he can. He been reading since he was four. He can't read all them big words, but he can read them columns. See
what's in the last row. Please look, Miz Crocker.
This time Miss Crocker did look, but her face did not change. Then, holding up her head, she gazed unblinkingly down at me.
'S-see what they called us,' I said, afraid she had not seen.
'That's what you are.' she said coldly. 'Now go sit down.
I shook my head, realizing now that Miss Crocker did not even know what I was talking about, She had looked at the page
and had understood nothing,
'I said sit down. Cassie !'
I started slowly toward my desk, but as the hickory stick sliced the tense air. I turned back around. 'Miz Crocker,' I said, 'I
don't want my book neither.
The switch landed hard upon Little Man's upturned bottom. Miss Crocker looked questioningly at me as I reached up to her
desk and placed the book upon it. Then she swung the switch five more times and, discovering that Little Man had no
intention of crying, ordered him up.
'All right, Cassie,' she sighed, turning to me, 'come on and get yours.'
By the end of the school day I had decided that I would tell Mama everything before Miss Crocker had a chance to do so.
From nine years of trial and error, I had learned that punishment was always less severe when I poured out the whole truth to
Mama on my own before she had heard anything from anyone else. I knew that Miss Crocker had not spoken to Mama during
the lunch period, for she had spent the whole hour in the classroom preparing for the afternoon session.
As soon as class was dismissed I sped from the room, weaving a path through throngs of students happy to be free. But before
I could reach the seventh-grade-class building. I had the misfortune to collide with Mary Lou's father. Mr. Wellever looked
down on me with surprise that I would actually bump into him, then proceeded to lecture me on the virtues of watching where
one was going. Meanwhile Miss Crocker briskly crossed the lawn to Mama's class building. By the time I escaped Mr.
Wellever, she had already disappeared into the darkness of the hallway,
Mama's classroom was in the back, I crept silently along the quiet hall and peeped cautiously into the open doorway, Mama,
pushing a strand of her long, crinkly hair back into the chignon at the base of her slender neck, was seated at her desk
watching Miss Crocker thrust a book before her, 'Just look at that. Mary,' Miss Crocker said, thumping the book twice with
her forefinger. 'A perfectly good book ruined. Look at that broken binding and those foot marks all over it.'
Mama did not speak as she studied the book. 'And here's the one Cassie wouldn't take.' she said, placing a second book on
Mama's desk with an outraged slam. 'At least she didn't have a tantrum and stomp all over hers. I tell you, Mary. I just don't
know what got into those children today. I always knew Cassie was rather high-strung, but Little Man! He's always such a
perfect little gentle- man.'
Mama glanced at the book I had rejected and opened the front cover so that the offensive pages of both books faced her. 'You
say Cassie said it was because of this front page that she and Little Man didn't want the books !' Mama asked quietly.
'Yes, ain't that something!' Miss Crocker said, forgetting her teacher-training-school diction in her indignation. 'The very
idea! That's on all the books, and why they got so upset about it I'll never know.'
'You punish them!' asked Mama, glancing up at Miss Crocker.
'Well, I certainly did ! Whipped both of them good with my hickory stick. Wouldn't you have!' When Mama did not reply,
she added defensively, 'I had a perfect right to.'
'Of course you did. Daisy.' Mama said, turning back to the books again. 'They disobeyed you.' But her tone was so quiet and
noncommittal that I knew Miss Crocker was not satisfied with her reaction.
'Well, I thought you would've wanted to know, Mary, in case you wanted to give them a piece of your mind also.'
Mama smiled up at Miss Crocker and said rather absently, ‘Yes, of course, Daisy. Thank you.' Then she opened her desk
drawer and pulled out some paper, a pair of scissors. and a small brown bottle.
Miss Crocker, dismayed by Mama's seeming unconcern for the seriousness of the matter, thrust her shoulders back and began
moving away from the desk. ‘You understand that if they don't have those books to study from, I’ll have to fail them in both
reading and composition, since i plan to base all my lessons around -' She stopped abruptly and stared in amazement at
Mama. ‘Mary, what in the world are you doing!'
Mama did not answer. She had trimmed the paper to the size of the books and was now dipping a gray-looking glue from the
brown bottle onto the inside cover of one of the books. Then she took the paper and placed it over the glue.
'Mary Logan, do you know what you're doing! That book belongs to the county. If somebody from the superintendent's office
ever comes down here and sees that book, you'll be in real trouble.'
Mama laughed and picked up the other book. 'In the first place no one cares enough to come down here, and in the second
place if anyone should come, maybe he could see all the things we need - current books for all of our subjects, not just
somebody's old throwaways, desks, paper, black- boards, erasers, maps, chalk ...' Her voice trailed off as she glued the second
'Biting the hand that feeds you. That's what you're doing, Mary Logan, biting the hand that feeds you.'
Again, Mama laughed. 'If that's the case. Daisy, T don't think I need that little bit of food.' With the second book finished, she
stared at a small pile of seventh-grade books on her desk.
'Well, I just think you're spoiling those children, Mary. They've got to learn how things are sometime.'
'Maybe so,' said Mama, ‘but that doesn't mean they have to accept them ... and maybe we don't either.'
Miss Crocker gazed suspiciously at Mama. Although Mama had been a teacher at Great Faith for fourteen years, ever since
she had graduated from the Crandon Teacher Training School at nineteen, she was still considered by many of the other
teachers as a disrupting maverick. Her ideas were always a bit too radical and her statements a bit too pointed. The fact that
she had not grown up in Spokane County but in the Delta made her even more suspect, and the more traditional. thinkers like
Miss Crocker were wary of her. ‘Well, if anyone ever does come from the county and sees Cassie's and Little Man's books
messed up like that,' she said, ‘I certainly won't accept the responsibility for them.
'It will be easy enough for anyone to see whose responsibility it is, Daisy, by opening any seventh-grade book. Because
tomorrow I'm going to "mess them up" too.
Miss Crocker, finding nothing else to say, turned imperiously and headed for the door. I dashed across the hall and awaited
her exit, then crept back.
Mama remained at her desk, sitting very still. For a long time she did not move. When she did, she picked up one of the
seventh-grade books and began to glue again. I wanted to go and help her, but something warned me that now was not the
time to make my presence known, and I left.
I would wait until the evening to talk to her; there was no rush now. She understood.
'Cassie, you better watch yourself, girl,' Big Ma cautioned, putting one rough, large hand against my back to make sure I
didn't fall.
I looked down at my grandmother from midway up one of the wooden poles Papa had set out to mark the length of the cotton
field. Big Ma was Papa's mother, and like him she was tall and strongly built. Her clear, smooth skin was the color of a pecan
shell. 'Ah, Big Ma, I ain't gonna fall.' I scoffed, then climbed onto the next strong spike and reached for a fibrous puff at the
top of a tall cotton stalk.
'You she' better not fall, girl,' grumbled Big Ma. 'Sometimes I wish we had more low cotton like down 'round Vicksburg. I
don't like y'all children climbin' them things.' She looked around, her hand on her hip. Christopher-John and Little Man
farther down the field balanced skillfully on lower spikes of their own poles plucking the last of the cot- ton, but Stacey, too
heavy now to climb the poles, was forced to remain on the ground. Big Ma eyed us all again, then with a burlap bag slung
across her right shoulder and dangling at the left side of her waist she moved down the row toward Mama. ‘Mary, child. I
think with what we picked today we oughta have ourselves another bale.'
Mama was stooped over a low cotton branch. She stuffed one last puff into her bag and straightened. She was tawny- colored,
thin and sinewy, with delicate features in a strong- jawed face, and though almost as tall as Big Ma, she seemed somewhat
dwarfed beside her. 'I expect you're right, Mama,' she said. ‘Come Monday, we'd better haul it up to the Granger place and
have it ginned. Then we can - Cassie, what's the matter !'
I didn't answer Mama. I had moved to the very top of my pole and could now see above the field to the road where two
figures, one much taller than the other, were walking briskly. As the men rounded a curve in the road, they became more
distinct. There was in the easy fluid gait of the shorter man a familiarity that made me gasp. I squinted, shadowing my eyes
from the sun, then slipped like lightning down the pole.
'It's Papa!'
'David!' Mama questioned unbelievingly as Christopher- John and Little Man descended eagerly and dashed after Stacey and
me toward the barbed-wire fence.
'Don't y'all go through that fence!' Big Ma called after us. But we pretended not to hear. We held the second and third rows of
the prickly wire wide for each other to climb through: then all four of us sped down the road toward Papa.
When Papa saw us, he began running swiftly, easily, like the wind. Little Man, the first to reach him, was swept lightly
upward in Papa's strong hands as Christopher-John, Stacey, and I crowded around.
'Papa, what you doing home!' asked Little Man.
Putting Little Man down, Papa said, ‘Just had to come home and see 'bout my babies.' He hugged and kissed each of us, then
stood back. ‘Just look at y'all,' he said proudly. 'Ain't y'all something! Can't hardly call y'all babies no more.' He turned. 'Mr.
Morrison, what you think 'bout these children of mine !'
In our excitement, we had taken no notice of the other man standing quietly at the side of the road. But now, gazing upward at
the most formidable-looking being we had ever encountered, we huddled closer to Papa. The man was a human tree in height,
towering high above Papa's six feet two inches. The long trunk of his massive body bulged with muscles, and his skin, of the
deepest ebony, was partially scarred upon his face and neck, as if by fire. Deep lifelines were cut into his face and his hair
was splotched with gray, but his eyes were clear and penetrating. I glanced at the boys and it was obvious to me that they
were wondering the same thing as I: Where had such a being come from !
'Children,' said Papa, ‘meet Mr. L.T. Morrison. Each of us whispered a faint hello to the giant, then the six of us started up the
road toward home. Before we reached the house, Mama and Big Ma met us. When Papa saw Mama, his square, highcheekboned face opened to a wide smile and, lifting Mama with spirited gusto, he swung her around twice before setting her
down and kissing her.
'David. is something the matter !' she asked.
Papa laughed. 'Something gotta be wrong, woman, for me to come see 'bout you !'
'You got my letter?'
He nodded, then hugged and kissed Big Ma before introducing them both to Mr. Morrison.
When we reached the house we climbed the long, sloping lawn to the porch and went into Mama and Papa's room, which also
served as the living area. Mama offered Mr. Morrison Grandpa Logan's chair, a cushioned oak rocker skillfully crafted by
Grandpa himself; but Mr. Morrison did not sit down immediately. Instead, he stood gazing at the room.
It was a warm, comfortable room of doors and wood and pictures. From it a person could reach the front or the side porch, the
kitchen, and the two other bedrooms. Its walls were made of smooth oak, and on them hung gigantic photographs of Grandpa
and Big Ma. Papa and Uncle Hammer when they were boys, Papa's two eldest brothers, who were now dead, and pictures of
Mama's family. The furniture, a mixture of Logan-crafted walnut and oak, included a walnut bed whose ornate headboard
rose halfway up the wall toward the high ceiling, a grand chiffonier with a floor- length mirror, a large rolltop desk which had
once been Grandpa's but now belonged to Mama, and the four oak chairs, two of them rockers, which Grandpa had made for
Big Ma as a wedding present.
Mr. Morrison nodded when he had t'aken it all in, as if he approved, then sat across from Papa in front of the unlit fireplace.
The boys and I pulled up straight-backed chairs near Papa as Big Ma asked, ‘How long you gonna be home, son !'
Papa looked across at her. Till Sunday evening,' he said quietly.
'Sunday!' Mama exclaimed. ‘Why, today's already Saturday,
'I know, baby,' Papa said, taking her hand, ‘but I gotta get that night train out of Vicksburg so I can get back to work by
Monday morning.
Christopher-John, Little Man, and I groaned loudly, and Papa turned to us. ‘Papa, can't you stay no longer than that! Last time
you come home, you stayed a week,' I said.
Papa gently pulled one of my pigtails. ‘Sorry, Cassie girl, but I stay any longer, I might lose my job.
'But, Papa –
'Listen, all of y'all,' he said, looking from me to the boys to Mama and Big Ma, 'I come home special so I could bring Mr.
Morrison. He's gonna stay with us awhile.'
If Mama and Big Ma were surprised by Papa's words. they did not show it, but the boys and I looked with wide eyes at each
other, then at the giant.
'Mr. Morrison lost his job on the railroad a while back.' Papa continued. 'and he ain't been able to find anything else. When I
asked him if he wanted to come work here as a hired hand, he said he would. I told him we couldn't afford much - food and
shelter and a few dollars in cash when I come home in the winter.'
Mama turned to Mr. Morrison, studied him for a moment, and said, 'Welcome to our home, Mr. Morrison.'
'Miz Logan.' said Mr. Morrison in a deep, quiet voice like the roll of low thunder. ‘I think you oughta know I got fired off my
job. Got in a fight with some men ... beat'em up pretty bad.'
Mama stared into Mr. Morrison's deep eyes.' Whose fault was it !'
Mr. Morrison stared back. 'I'd say theirs.
'Did the other men get fired !'
'No. ma'am,' answered Mr. Morrison. 'They was white.' Mama nodded and stood. 'Thank you for telling me. Mr. Morrison.
You're lucky no worse happened and we're glad to have you here .,.especially now.' Then she turned and went into the
kitchen with Big Ma to prepare supper, leaving the boys and me to wonder about her last words.
'Stacey, what you think!' I asked as we milked the cows in the evening. ‘How come Papa come home and brung Mr.
Stacey shrugged. ‘Like he said, I guess.'
I thought on that a moment, 'Papa ain't never brung nobody here before.'
Stacey did not reply,
'You think .,,Stacey, you think it's cause of them burnings T.J. was talking 'bout !'
'Burnings!' piped Little Man, who had interrupted his feeding of the chickens to visit with Lady, our golden mare. 'What's
burnings gotta do with anything!'
'That happened way over by Smellings Creek,' said Stacey slowly, ignoring Little Man. 'Papa got no need to think ... His
voice trailed off and he stopped milking.
'Think what !' I asked.
'Nothin'.' he muttered, turning back to the cow.'Don't worry 'bout it.'
I glared at him. 'I ain't worrying. I just wanna know, that's all, and I betcha anything Mr. Morrison come here to do more'n
work. Sure wish I knew for sure.
Stacey made no reply, but Christopher-John, his pudgy hands filled with dried corn for the chickens and his lower lip
quivering, said,'I –I know what I wish. I wish P-Papa didn't never have to go 'way no more. I wish he could just stay ... and
At church the next morning, Mrs.. Silas Lanier leaned across me and whispered to Big Ma, 'John Henry Berry died last night.'
When the announcement was made to the congregation, the deacons prayed for the soul of John Henry Berry and the
recovery of his brother, Beacon, and his uncle, Mr. Samuel Berry. But after church, when some of the members stopped by
the house to visit, angry hopeless words were spoken.
The way I hears it,' said Mr. Lanier, ‘they been after John Henry ever since he come back from the war and settled on his
daddy's place up by Smellings Creek. Had a nice little place up there too, and was doing pretty well. Left a wife and six
Big Ma shook her head. ‘Just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The boys and I sat at our study table pretending not to listen, but listening still.
'Henrietta Toggins,' said Mrs. Lanier, 'you know, Clara Davis's sister that live up there in Strawberry! Well, she's kin to the
Berrys and she was with John Henry and Beacon when the trouble got started. They was gonna drop her off at home - you
know John Henry had him one of them old Model-T pickups - but they needed some gas so they stopped by that fillin' station
up there in Strawberry. They was waitin' there for they gas when some white men come up messin' with them - been drinkin',
you know. And Henrietta heard 'em say, "That's the nigger Sallie Ann said was flirtin with her." And when she heard that, she
said to John Henry, "Let's get on outa here." He wanted to wait for the gas, but she made him and Beacon get in that car, and
them men jus' watched them drive off and didn't mess with 'em right then.
'John Henry, he took her on home then headed back for his own place, but evidently them men caught up with him and
Beacon again and starts rammin' the back of they car - least that's what Beacon and John Henry told they aunt and uncle when
they seed 'em. John Henry knowed he was runnin' outa gas and he was 'fraid he couldn't make it to his own place, so he
stopped at his uncle's, But them men dragged him and Beacon both outa that house, and when old man Berry tried to stop it,
they lit him afire with them boys.'
'It's she' a shame, all right,' said T.J.'s father, a frail, sickly man with a hacking cough. 'These folks gettin' so bad in here.
Heard tell they lynched a boy a few days ago at Crosston.'
'And ain't a thing gonna be done 'bout it,' said Mr. Lanier. That's what's so terrible ! When Henrietta went to the sheriff and
told him what she'd seed, he called her a liar and sent her on home. Now I hear tells that some of them men that done it been
'round braggin' 'bout it, Sayin' they'd do it again if some uppity nigger get out of line.'
Mrs. Avery asked, 'Lord have mercy I' Papa sat very quietly while the Laniers and the Averys talked, studying them with
serious eyes. Finally, he took the pipe from his mouth and made a statement that seemed to the boys and me to be totally
disconnected with the conversation. 'In this family, we don't shop at the Wallace store.'
The room became silent. The boys and I stared at the adults wondering why, The Laniers and the Averys looked uneasily
about them and when the silence was broken, the subject had changed to the sermon of the day,
After the Laniers and the Averys had left. Papa called us to him. 'Your mama tells me that a lot of the older children been
going up to that Wallace store after school to dance and buy their bootleg liquor and smoke cigarettes. Now she said she's
already told y'all this, but I'm gonna tell y'all again, so listen good. We don't want y'all going to that place. Children going
there are gonna get themselves in a whole lot of trouble one day. There's drinking up there and I don't like it - and I don't like
them Wallaces either. If I ever find out y'all been up there, for any reason, I'm gonna wear y'all out. Y'all hear me !'
'Yessir, Papa.' piped Christopher-John readily. 'I ain't never going up there.
The rest of us agreed: Papa always meant what he said - and he swung a mean switch.