Pearl of Great Price
Back when I was a kid people didn’t talk about equality like they do today. The rich stuck with the rich and the poor stuck with the poor. If you had money you got all the breaks. And I was poor. But I had another handicap that the rest of the poor kids didn’t have. I was half black.
Funny how people never say half white. Like white is the color people are supposed to be and anything else is a mutation.
I don’t guess nobody even wants to hear about this stuff, but I like to talk about it. My mama always said that was one thing I wasn’t lacking in was words. I never seemed to be able to put them together right for the teachers though. They wanted it just so, and I figured if I could get my point across I was doing fine. My teachers always tried to get me to make everything match–the verbs and nouns and stuff. But I talked like my mama taught me. “They’s just two more months till your fourteenth birthday,” she said. My teacher would have said that was wrong, I know.
Two more months till I was fourteen and I could quit school. That was what I was longing for. Mama had quit when she was fourteen and she said that was enough education for anybody. I wasn’t learning nothing noways. They didn’t teach what I wanted to know. Even the history classes–and I love history–didn’t teach me nothing. All they wanted to talk about was what happened and when it happened and who done it. I wanted to know why. Anyways, I figured if that much education was good enough for my mama it was good enough for me.
Besides, it was hard being a mulatto. The other girls didn’t want to be around me. It was like they thought my blackness might rub off on them if they got too close. One day I was standing in line in front of two of them to go to the lunchroom and I heard one say, “Do you reckon her blood is black too?” She said it out loud. Like I wasn’t even there or was deaf or didn’t have enough sense to know what she was talking about. Or maybe she just didn’t care. I wanted to ask her if her blood was white. But you don’t say nothing.
It wasn’t just the kids. The teachers treated me different too. I was sitting in class that day when I was just two months shy of my fourteenth birthday and my belly started cramping. I went to the bathroom and saw that I was gonna have to go home. I just lived across the swinging bridge. I could have gone home and been back in ten minutes.
I walked back into the classroom and up to the teacher’s desk. “I need to go home ’cause I started,” I said. She didn’t look up from her desk.
“Started what?” she asked.
I didn’t know what else to say so I repeated myself.
She sighed and looked up at me and in a real loud voice said, “You started what, Ginny?”
The whole class stopped working and looked at me. Then some of the girls in the back started giggling and it finally dawned on the teacher what I was talking about.
She stood up and motioned for me to follow her out the door. When we got out in the hall she walked toward the girls’ bathroom and I followed her. She opened the door and said, “Go on in.” I thought maybe she was gonna give me something so I wouldn’t have to go home, but she told me to go on back to the back stall. The back stall didn’t have no door to it, so I just stood there waiting for her to do whatever it was she had in her mind to do.
“Okay, pull them down,” she said.
I said, “Ma’am?”
“I can’t just trust you to tell me the truth, Ginny. Any girl in my class could tell me that just to get to go home.”
“But I was gonna come back,” I defended myself.
“I need a reason if I let you go home,” she said.
I didn’t know what to do. I was scared and embarrassed and mad all at the same time. So I did what she told me to do. The toilet paper I had wadded up in there fell out and landed between my feet. I saw her looking at it and then she said, “Go on home.” My birthday come two months early that year.
About two years after that a white man come down from Ohio with my daddy. Daddy and Mama had got a divorce when I was younger, but he still come to see me sometimes. The man he brought with him–David was his name–was tall and good looking and I fell hard for him. He was a lot older than me. Mama said it was a good thing because I needed somebody to take care of me. And she said marrying a black man didn’t work out good for her, so maybe marrying a white man might be what I needed.
Me and David got along pretty good till after my little Katie was born, but then he started beating on me. I took it until I seen him smack Katie across the face when she was about three. That was it for me. I’ve been cleaning rooms in that motel down there ever since. It’s easy work and kinda like I’m my own boss.
My Katie’s seventeen now and fixing to go into her last year of high school. Done been accepted by that college up there on the hill. Smart as a whip. I know the Bible says you ain’t supposed to praise your own kin. “Let a stranger praise you,” it says. But she never makes nothing but “A’s” and sometimes she’ll get a “B” on a test but it ain’t often. She says she’s gonna be a teacher. Imagine that. My little Katie a teacher.
Katie’s so funny. She thinks I can do things like she does. She kept on me till I went down there to Pikeville and got my G.E.D. She talked about it like it was some kind of pearl of great price and I finally went and done it. I guess I learnt a little bit. Still talk the same way, but if I was writing I’d know how to spell and get the verbs and nouns to match. Katie says, “You’re smart, Mama. You could go to college with me next year. You could learn all about the history you love to read stories about.”
I just laugh when she talks like that. I mean, it makes me feel good when she says that kinda stuff, but they wouldn’t want nobody like me. And what would I study? What could I do with history? Katie says I could be a teacher too but, mercy, I ain’t got nothing like that in me. No, I couldn’t never muster up the nerve to try that.
But Katie she keeps going on about it like it could happen and, well, lately I’ve been pondering some on it. You know, if it’s good enough for my Katie.
from Appalachian Heritage magazine, spring 2002, p. 58