I lived the first 19+ years of my life on a small family farm tucked among the rolling hills of northwest Tennessee. And for the first 6 years of my life, my social circle extended very little beyond my immediate family, my grandparents, and my aunt, uncle, and cousins on the adjacent farms. What a beautiful little world in which to begin life's journey!
Then, at age 6, it was time for me to go to school. (This was before the days of kindergarten and preschool, when parents and teachers and school systems and life were much more sane.) To put it mildly, first grade was a tremendous adjustment. In a single day, the boundaries of my comfortable world expanded exponentially. The playground at recess might as well have been New York City - I don't think I had ever seen so many people gathered in one place before, and they were almost all first-graders! Same-age peers, classrooms filled with soldiered rows of desks, teeter-totters and stomach-churning merry-go-rounds, lunchrooms, long hallways paved with glistening linoleum....so many new things to see and process.
Like most children back in those days, I was raised to respect adults, to mind my manners, to obey authority. My teacher, Mrs. Maggie Vaughan, stood god-like at the front of our classroom every day. She loved her students and we loved her. Her smile of approval was a rich reward for hard labor at math facts and spelling lists, and a frown or stern word from her felt like purgatory. I was an awed student, very eager to please, and worked diligently to always stand in the sunshine of Mrs. Vaughan's smile. But then, there was the toe...
Growing up on a little farm in rural Obion County, I had not been exposed to many people of different races - everyone in my family was pretty much white or pink or tan. (Of course, this is all different now. As I sit here typing, a Chinese boy and a black boy are ripping through the house around me with a bevy of pink and cream kids, carrying out some elaborate GI Joe campaign.) Anyway, being suddenly among so many brown and black children at school, I was fascinated by the amazing variety of people.
Everyday after lunch in the cafeteria, my firstgrade class filed back to our room for rest time. Each student had a small foam pad, which we laid on the floor between our desks. Then, we all pulled off our shoes, plopped down, and either napped or didn't - we just had to be quiet for 30 minutes, I think to give Mrs. Vaughan a mid-day break from the stress of being mother to so many children. The rules were simple: Stay on your mat. No talking, whispering, or giggling. If you broke the rules, Mrs. Vaughan would write your name on the chalkboard, and you would have to miss recess.
One warm day in late spring, we were all flopped in the floor, twiddling our hair or picking our noses or whatever it was we did for the interminable 30 minutes.
I turned my head and looked between the silver metal legs of the desk beside me. It was Ike. Ike was one of those incredibly fascinating brown people - dark skin and black curly hair, a smile full of tiny teeth that flashed like lightning.
"Hey! Look at my toe!" he whispered. Ike had discovered a hole in one of his socks and managed to wiggle his big toe through the opening. I stared at his wiggling, chocolate toe in amazement - it was absolutely beautiful. I twiddled my hair, stared silently at his toe, and wished I had a hole in my sock so that we could compare digits. Then Ike affected a deep, grown-up voice, "Look at my big, black toe!"
I smiled and giggled, then snorted to suppress more giggles. That beautiful toe triggered a fountain of uncontrollable mirth.
That was the only time I got my name written on the chalkboard in Mrs. Vaughan's first-grade class. And missing recess wasn't so bad after all - it turned out to be some special one-on-one time with my favorite teacher in the world. Now, 40 years later, I still think the consequences were a small price to pay for the wonder of seeing that wonderful, beautiful toe.
3 weeks ago