March, 2013

I took one look at my report card and knew I was in trouble; all A’s and one blank with teacher’s comment: “Diane simply talks too much.” Yes I was in trouble with a blank for conduct. I walked home slowly hoping somehow the blank would change by the time I got home. My mother met me at the front porch, and I handed it over.

“Diane, you didn’t get a grade in conduct? What? Diane simply talks too much?” Mama was not happy.

“I know…”
“This is unacceptable. You know your father is good friends with Ms. Keith.”

Yes, I knew that. Ms. Eula Keith was one of only two people that ever called my father “Tommy.” He thought the world of Ms. Keith and the feeling was mutual. That made it all the worse.

“I can tell you one thing young lady. Next quarter, you had better have a grade. This is your warning; you have one quarter to work on it. I hope I do not have to punish you,” Mama said and she was not fooling around, “but I will if I have too. Severely punish! You should be ashamed of yourself.”

I was ashamed and tried hard to please Ms. Keith.

But Ms. Keith was not hard to please. She was an elderly gentle woman and excellent teacher. I met her on the first day of second grade, in what folks in Tucker called the little white building. It was on Lavista Road next to the old Tucker High School. The little white building took care of the overflow of Tucker Elementary.

Ms. Keith’s sister, Ms. Hattie Pryor, taught a class right next door. Ms. Pryor looked to have been a blonde at one time. She wore her hair in braids that disappeared around her head in the back; she had a stiff smile. Ms. Keith looked to have been a brunette at some time and had a soft smile. They were both short on height.

And that is how Ms. Keith broke her arm; taking a tumble from a chair while reaching high to decorate our second grade classroom. Ms. Pryor made us all promise to knock on her door if Ms. Keith tried climbing up on a chair again. We all loved Ms. Keith and looked after her. We signed her cast and celebrated the removal of the cast with cookies and juice.

Time march on and second quarter came around. The week before the report cards came out I told Ms. Keith that I had to have a grade in conduct. My mother would not accept a blank grade. It had to be a letter grade. “If I get another blank I’ll get punished – severely.”

Ms. Keith looked deep in thought and said, “Very well Diane, if I must.”

I was thrilled thinking that I was much improved. And the big day came.

I scanned my report card quickly; all A’s and one F – F in conduct. I was shocked. I went straight away to Ms. Keith’s desk to talk to her. My heart pounded as I thought about the walk home down Morgan Road to Mama. Ms. Keith was busy with another student and as I stood there waiting my turn, I saw her ink pen. My mind was racing. I was under more pressure than a seven year old should ever be in. I made a snap decision – one that I would regret. I picked up her ink pen and made a straight line – making the F an A.

There. That will make Mama happy. But Helen Story was not happy, not at all. As she studied my report card she questioned me. “Well, I see you made all A’s this time. But, Diane, why did Ms. Keith make all round A’s and one square A?”

“I guess she wanted it to stand out,” I explained, “so you can see I made an A in conduct.”

Stand out, that was for sure. And within two minutes Mama had broken me and I confessed; after much sobbing Mama spoke.

“Diane, this is what is going to happen. Tomorrow morning I will walk to school with you,” explained Mama, all the while, I was thinking that was the last thing I ever wanted to happen. “And you will go to Ms. Keith and tell her what you did. I want you to tell her that you took her pen and changed your grade in conduct. I want you to tell her you did a dishonest thing. And then you will apologize. And when you get back home, I’ll spank you. Tonight I want you to think about what you have done. No TV.”

For real? All that? This was too much for a second grader. I did think about what I did and was truly ashamed and prayed the morning would not come. But it did. And Mama and I walked to the little white building. Mama stopped at the door and remained in the hall. I walked up to Ms. Keith. She gave me a warm smile and a pleasant “good morning.”

I burst into tears and handed my report card to her. I pointed at the Diane made A. All I could get out was, “I’m sorry.”

Ms. Keith looked at the report card and put it away quickly. She hugged me tight until I stopped crying. Noticing Mama at the door, Ms. Keith took me by the hand and we walked to Mama. As Ms. Keith spoke to Mama she made “there there” pats on my head and shoulders.

“Diane has done wrong and has made it right. Honestly needs to be rewarded, even if it comes late. She has whipped herself. Helen, please forgive her.”

Mama and Ms. Keith forgave me that day. I tried to repay them by being as quiet as possible in class.

I was certain that I would make an A in conduct the third quarter, but instead of getting better, I got worse. I could not stop talking. I was failing conduct again. I wondered what in the world would become of me.

And then my eyes started twitching and I cleared my throat in an unusual way.  My head jerked and the jerking descended my body. I dropped things and when I tried to take a step to walk, my legs wanted to run.

I was hospitalized and diagnosed with Sydenham Chorea, a physical symptom of rheumatic fever. I was placed on bed-rest. I finished the second and third grade at home in bed.

The only contact with Ms. Keith and my friends was through cards and letters. Ms. Keith always wrote: “To an A+ young lady.”

And there were many days when I found the confinement unbearable. I cried. Mama held me until I stopped crying, all the while giving me “there there” pats on my head and shoulders.

I thank the good Lord for our teacher, Ms. Keith.