This story is released earlier, because it was timely told in this month of January.
Who Will Tell the Story?
The task fell to me …
Since age four I wanted to go to school. On an August day in 1939, at age five years 3 months, I ran away from home and followed my sister and brother to their school house. Within minutes I was dispatched to the first-grade classroom and introduced to Mrs. Fannie Lomax, (Miss Fannie).
Miss Fannie invited me to take a seat. I was standing near a little girl who sat alone in a seat built for two. She said to me, “Sit here with me, and be quiet.” I sat and obeyed. It was intended to be a seat for ‘holding action’ until my older siblings could take me home; the teachers being fearful that I couldn’t negotiate my return safely over a busy street, a busy U. S. highway, and two railroad tracks.
When Miss Fannie allowed the children to talk and prepare themselves for the next lesson, the girl turned to me and said, “I know your first name is James. What’s your last name?” I answered, “My name is James Edward Alexander. You can call me James Edward. What’s yours?” “My name is Gloria Jean Cain. Its ok for you to call me Gloria Jean.” Gloria Jean Cain and I took long looks at each other. She then gave me a piece of paper and a pencil and ordered me, “You write what I write – if you can.”
Shortly thereafter Miss Fannie took a pointer and directed it to the alphabet atop the blackboard. She touched the A, and the children responded, “A, Miss Fannie.” Gloria Jean wrote the A. I wrote the A. I heard, “B, Miss Fannie.” I matched Gloria Jean’s letter. When I heard, “C, Miss Fannie,” Miss Fannie also heard – S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z. She looked at me with a smile and acknowledged to the class that I knew the alphabet. I just couldn’t restrain myself and I blurted out, “Z, Y, X, W, V, U – C, B, A.” At the age of four my sister, Odessa, taught me the alphabet, ‘front and back,’ and even how to make some two and three letter words – yes, no, mom, dad, me, you. Gloria Jean also seemed impressed.
Before the school day was over, Miss Fannie had gained permission for me to attend the first grade. The next day I brought my own paper and pencils. I also arrived a little earlier than Gloria Jean, and sat in ‘our’ seat on the right. She arrived and told me with a certain emphasis that the right seat was hers and the left seat was mine. I moved to her left.
Per Gloria Jean’s instructions, as we listened to Miss Fannie, I wrote on my paper what Gloria Jean wrote. Soon, even at that stage of social awareness, I noticed that Gloria Jean and at least four or five other students were smarter than the rest of us. I was right. Some of them, including her, were part of a ‘magnet group’ who would be promoted to second grade in January. So, it made sense to Miss Fannie, and me, that what was on my paper was what was on Gloria Jean’s paper, therefore; I might as well go with her to second grade.
It was a very good Christmas.
On the first day of second grade Gloria Jean picked our seat. She didn’t have to remind me of my place, but she repeated, “Be quiet and write what I write.” It was a formula that seemed to be working well. I didn’t tell her that Odessa also tutored me every night. At the end of the school year we were promoted to the third grade – a few days before my sixth birthday.
When I entered the assigned fourth grade classroom, I saw my life ending. The teacher was Miss Hattie I. Forest. She had taught five of my first cousins, who were now adults, and my brother and sister. They all applauded her teaching skills, but she was also quick with the paddle. Furthermore, Gloria Jean was assigned to Section B, Miss Bell’s classroom. As was the custom in those days, if you wanted to be excused to go to the toilet (outside, cold and unheated, with three seats), you raised one finger for a short visit; two fingers for a longer excuse. I raised two fingers, and when Miss Hattie said go, I went directly upstairs to Miss Bell’s room and sat with Gloria Jean. When the teacher called the roll she said, “James, you’re not assigned to this classroom.” I responded, “Miss Bell, ‘they’ told me to come here.” If she had asked me who ‘they’ were, the direction of my life would have changed, because my only response would have been for me to raise two fingers.
Gloria Jean and I became smarter together. One day as we sat in fifth grade she told me she thought I was smarter than she was. According to her assessment, my papers and other assignments were cleaner and correct. Hooray for Odessa.
Finally, on the day we walked into the classroom for our final year of high school, we just naturally took our seats, just as it had been since the first grade. We also looked at each other for a long time, recognizing that the string we laced on that August day so long ago had grown to a thread, and now to a rope that bound us like none other. Over the years and through multiple school reunions our affinity for each other never waned. We always felt special to each other, even in a crowd.
As we became seniors we often talked and asked each other, which person would tell our story. I asked that she be gentle and clean up my reputation. She commanded, “You know the story, just don’t you mess it up.”
On Saturday, January 8, 2018, I kissed Gloria Jean’s casket and told the funeral congregation our story, fully conscious, not to mess it up.