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Authors: Reba White Williams

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BOOK: Angels
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Miss Ida was the first to speak. “Can you read, honey?”

Coleman looked surprised. “Yes, ma’am,” she said. She didn’t say “‘Course I can!” but that was the voice she used.

“What can you read?” I asked.

“I can read the Bible,” she said, proud as a catbird with a nest full of eggs.

“You haven’t just memorized some verses?” Aunt Polly said.

Coleman’s cheeks flushed, and I interrupted, which I’m not s’posed to do, but I thought it was worth it if we could avoid a fuss.

“Can you say your ABCs, Coleman?” I asked.

She frowned at me. “‘Course I can,” she said and rattled ‘em off. Before I could bring up her numbers, she started countin’ out loud. Miss Ida held up her hand to stop her at fifty.

“All right, honey, but I don’t know—”

I interrupted again, knowing I was asking for trouble ‘cause Miss Ida and Aunt Polly have strict rules about interruptin’ grown-ups. “Miss Ida, there are children at our school who’ve skipped grades. They take tests. One of the Atkins boys skipped third grade last year. If Coleman passes the test, she can come with me to second grade, I know she can. Coleman, if you don’t pass, will you go where they put you without fussin’?”

“I do so promise,” she said, holding her right hand up. My stars, where did that child pick that up? I was mighty glad she agreed. I don’t know what we’d do if she didn’t. But I’m pretty sure she’ll do fine on the test, and that she’ll be in the second grade come September.

Miss Ida made some phone calls, and they fixed it for Coleman to take the test at school with Miz O’Quinn, the second-grade teacher, overseeing it. Coleman and Aunt Polly walked over to school the very next morning. They weren’t gone long, and when they came back, Coleman was cheerful as a wren.

“Piece of cake,” she said and winked. She heard that in a movie, and that’s where she learned winking, too, only she’s not very good at it; her face scrunches up when she tries to wink. I nearly laughed, but Aunt Polly looked worried. I heard her tell Miss Ida that Coleman rushed through it too fast; she thinks maybe Coleman didn’t know many answers. But if Coleman said it was easy, it
was
easy.

The next day, Miss Seaman, the principal of our school, came to see Miss Ida about Coleman. I don’t know Miss Seaman much (she came new last year when I was in first grade, and she never talked to me). I reckon she doesn’t talk to kids ‘cept when they’re in trouble. She’s youngish and right pretty with black curly hair, but folks say she wears too much makeup, too much perfume, and too-short skirts. She’s from New Jersey, and they say she doesn’t know how North Carolina schoolteachers dress—Yankees just don’t know our ways, they say. Miss Ida tells me not to heed that kind of talk and make up my own mind about people. She doesn’t like “they-says.”

Miss Ida received her in the sittin’ room, and Coleman and I lay low in our room and listened.

“Coleman’s test results indicate she is capable of fourth-grade work, so she won’t have any trouble with second-grade studies. But she’s very small for her age, and we don’t know anything about her social skills. What do you think, Mrs. Greene? Can she handle relationships with her peers? What do you know about her background and her life before she came here? Should we let her go into the second grade?”

Miss Seaman sounded uppity, using words like “social skills” and “peers” and such. She sounded like she was talkin’ down to Miss Ida. Coleman put her hands over her mouth to keep from laughing out loud. In a way, it
was
funny. Miss Seaman should know better than to speak to Miss Ida like that. What people say is right: Miss Seaman doesn’t know our ways and our manners.

“Coleman is my granddaughter, and the only surviving descendant of the Fairgroves, the family that lived next door to Four Oaks. When she was a baby, she was separated from her family and her family’s friends. But she’s back among her own now. I think you can leave her ‘social skills’ to her family. As for her ‘peers,’ the Byrd children like her, and she seems to get along well with the other neighborhood children, and she’ll have Dinah. My sister and I have decided to let her go ahead,” she said, smilin’ real sweet.

I don’t think Miss Seaman knew it, but Miss Ida was putting her in her place. Miss Ida wouldn’t have liked the “should
we
let her do this.” If Coleman passed the test, and if her family says she can, she can skip a grade. Miss Seaman doesn’t have a vote. Miss Ida’s never rude, but she was sayin’ real polite-like, “Mind your own beeswax.”

Coleman and I grinned at each other like chessy cats: we were going to be in the second grade together. I try not to ask Coleman too many questions—she doesn’t like to talk about New Orleans—but I couldn’t help asking how she knew so much. She could do fourth-grade work? Goodness gracious, that child
is
smart.

“After Miss Jenny left, the woman Daddy was with put me in daycare at the Methodist Church near where we lived, but that was mostly to get me out of her way, and about all they did there was babysit. Miz Kahama, a lady workin’ there, saw me lookin’ at books, and she got me in an Early Head Start program for babies and children up to three years old. She didn’t ask Daddy or his lady friend—she knew nobody cared what I did, as long as they didn’t have to pay. She was my second guardian angel—Miss Jenny was my first.” She looked at me with a question on her face when she said that; she knows I’m not real comfortable with angel talk. “Go on,” I said.

“At Early Head Start, they read us stories, and they had lots of books, and alphabet and number blocks. I taught myself to read, and count, askin’ questions when I needed to. They fed us, too. That was a blessin’—nobody did much about food at our house after Miss Jenny left. Seemed like I was hungry all the time. I ate breakfast and lunch there.”

She saw I looked shocked, and smiled. “Don’t you go feelin’ sorry for me. I
loved
Early Head Start, and I learned a lot. Miz Shah—she ran it—gave me a card with her name and address and telephone number on it, and a big safety pin. She told me to pin the card inside my clothes, and if I ever needed to, call her collect for help. She was my third guardian angel. So when I got to New Orleans, I called her. When I told her where I was livin’, she sent a Miz Lopes to see me. Miz Lopes was the New Orleans Methodist preacher’s wife—he preached at a church not far from where I was stayin’ with that Gloria. She was my fourth guardian angel.”

Hearing this was like reading a storybook. I couldn’t wait to hear what happened next. “And then what?” I asked.

“Well, I loved Miz Lopes, but I didn’t tell her much about my life, because I was afraid she’d feel like she had to put me in an orphanage or foster care, and I didn’t want that. I was plannin’ on joining my own family, as soon as I could, and I thought it might be harder to get away if I was adopted or in an orphanage. I let her think that Gloria was my stepmother. Miz Lopes talked to that Gloria and told her the Methodists were watchin’ over me. That Gloria didn’t like hearin’ it, but there was nothin’ she could do, so most of the time she kind of pretended I wasn’t there. But she still talked about sellin’ me, and some mighty bad people came to the house, so I lay low when I could.

“Well, Miz Lopes got me in real Head Start, which was for bigger children, and she took me to the lib’ry, and got me a lib’ry card, and talked to the lib’ry’n about me. And I went to all the Methodist programs for children, storytellin’ and Bible school and such, and to the lib’ry when they were readin’ stories out loud. You can learn a lot that way. Between the Methodist Church and Head Start, I got fed, too. That’s how it was.”

Coleman said “That’s how it was” like “The end” when you finish a story. I knew I wouldn’t learn any more today, but I’d learned a lot: Coleman had four guardian angels before she was five years old. I knew now what she meant by those angels lookin’ like anybody. I reckon they were just real good folk, not
real
angels. Anyway, the Lord was surely watchin’ over Coleman, and sendin’ Christians her way.

Polly

I’m making new dark cotton dresses for school for Coleman and Dinah—what people used to call transitional clothes, to wear when your summer dresses are looking tired and washed out, but it’s too hot for wool, or even corduroy. The girls will wear their summer play dresses to school while the weather stays warm, but I wanted them to have something special for the first day of school, and to wear when it’s a little cooler. And I do love to see a plaid dress on a little girl. Olivia must have liked plaids, too; she left a lot of plaid fabric, both cotton and wool, and several of them were the tartans our ancestors wore. I made Dinah’s dress with the Montgomery tartan, which has a lot of blue in it to bring out her eyes; Coleman’s is the MacLeod tartan, which has a lot of green in it. Both dresses have white Peter Pan collars with rickrack around the edges. Coleman is helping me, and I continue to marvel at how good she is with her hands.

But what really stunned me were her test results. She must be very intelligent to do so well, and to do it so fast. I honestly thought she was going to fail that test; she was so quick to finish. It’s a blessing that she’s smart. She’ll need to be, and so will Dinah, because they’ll have to get scholarships for college. I worry about how we’ll educate them, but then I remember not to fuss and to have faith in the Lord.

That Miss Seaman is an officious busybody, but she was right when she said Coleman wouldn’t have trouble with the schoolwork. She’s been reading to me from Dinah’s books, and books for even older children, some from the library, and some that were mine or Ida’s. She knows a few books almost by heart, but even if she never saw the story before, she hardly ever stumbles over a word. I can’t imagine how the child managed to learn so much, given the way she lived.

We’ve stopped asking her who taught her to read and count; she just smiles and says she “picked up readin’ and ‘rithmetic ‘long the way.” She doesn’t like to talk about her time with that Gloria. I suppose that’s just as well. Even the little I know about the woman makes me want to skin her alive. I pray to be a better person and not to judge others, but about that Gloria, I’m not making much progress.

I’m worried because there are bullies at the school, and Coleman is so small. The worst boy in town is Ralph Roberts, only child of the Seed & Feed store owner. He’s ten, and in the fifth grade—their school is kindergarten through fifth, so he’s in the top class—and big for his age. He takes out all his meanness on the smaller children. He has two chums, as slowwitted and hateful as he is—one of them is that wretched Clara Hatley’s nephew—but Ralph is the ringleader. They’re the scourge of the playground. None of their parents seem to care what they do.

When Dinah started school, those young louts picked on her. Ida and I decided there was no point in complaining to Ralph’s parents: they don’t know the meaning of the word discipline, and Ralph is spoiled rotten. Mary Louise said when they’d bullied Byrd children, she sent Thomas, her huge football-playing great-nephew—he was in high school then—to have a chat with the bullies, and Thomas made a return visit on Dinah’s behalf. Maybe they won’t bother Coleman because of what happened with Dinah.

SEPTEMBER
Polly

The girls wanted to walk to school by themselves, and although I’d have loved to walk with them, it’s only three blocks, and I had to let them go. My heart was sad, watching them walk away. I’ll miss having them in and out of the house all day. I held a miserable Peter by his despised leash to keep him from following Coleman. We went back in the house, and he dragged himself into the kitchen like a very old dog and plopped down on a rug Ida keeps there for him. When he can’t be with Coleman, he likes to stay in the kitchen watching Ida, hoping she’ll drop something and he can clean it up. I think she enjoys his company, too, although she never says so. I know she’ll miss having Dinah in the kitchen with her. This is the third year Dinah’s gone to school, and every year her school days get longer. I went up to the sewing room and watched the girls from the upstairs window until they were out of sight.

The first day of school is a Friday, and only a half day, and the children come home for lunch, so I let the girls wear their new dresses. They looked adorable. I’ve told them to hold hands crossing the road, and they do, although when I think of Coleman running around New Orleans by herself when she was such a baby, it seems silly. Oh well, it’s never too late to be careful. I pray every day for their safety. Sometimes I dream that Gloria comes back and tries to steal Coleman again.

They came home with their arms full of their new books, happy as larks and full of praise for their teacher, that nice Mrs. O’Quinn who oversaw Coleman’s test. As soon as they’d changed into play clothes, we sat down to chicken salad, hot rolls, and dried peach pie to celebrate the first day of school.

While we were eating lunch, Coleman announced she planned to read all her new school books this afternoon; she thought she could finish them before supper. But Ida shook her head and said they should go outside and work in the garden for an hour, and after that, didn’t they want to go swimming? They wouldn’t be able to swim when the weather turned cold. They did, and by suppertime, they were exhausted.

Their first day in the second grade was a good one, but the good days didn’t last. On an ordinary Wednesday, a day that started just like every other day, the bullies struck.

Dinah

We have had a to-do, and how it will all come out, I do not know. What happened was this: Ralph and his awful friends, Junior Willis and Billy Joe Hatley, began pesterin’ Coleman as soon as she started school. They chased her and tried to pull her hair. They called her “Butter Ball” because of the color of her hair, and she’s plumped up some since she came to live with us—she’s even got dimples now—and “Midget” because she’s so short. She said, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me,” and laughed, and ran away—she runs real fast. When they saw they’d never catch her, they got mad, and I heard ‘em say they’d fix her good. And then she saw ‘em throwin’ rocks at a poor ol’ stray dog, and she turned red and yelled at them. She called ‘em dirty rats, and she sounded like a banshee and looked like a witch. They ran off, scared to death. (I don’t blame ‘em—I’d of run off, too, if I’d been them.) Since then, they’ve hated Coleman—I reckon they’re ashamed ‘cause she scared ‘em. I’ve been watchin’ over her the best I can, afraid they’ll hurt her.

I was watchin’ at recess the day they set a trap for her, but I didn’t figure out what was happening till it was too late. Ralph hid in some bushes, and the other two chased her right to him. She was runnin’ fast and laughin’ because she knew they couldn’t catch her, when Ralph reached out from behind the bushes and grabbed the back of her dress with his big fat fingers. She tried to get away, but he pulled her to him, and put his hands around her waist, and held her up in the air, and yelled, “Whoopee! I’m gonna scalp this yeller-haired paleface!” Then he slung her over his shoulder with her head hangin’ down behind his back and walked off, carrying her like she was a sack of potatoes. He headed for the woods in back of the school, while his disgustin’ friends circled ‘round them playing Indian, goin’ “Wah, wah, wah” the way silly boys do. (If I’d had a gun or a bow and arrow, I swear I’d ‘a shot ‘em. But I didn’t even have a rock to throw. Please Lord, forgive me for my sinful thoughts, but they are bad boys.)

I ran after ‘em, and so did Freddy and some of the others, and we all yelled for help, but Billy Joe and Junior and Ralph were makin’ such a racket I doubt if anyone inside the school house could hear us. I stutter when I’m scared, and I heard myself callin’ “H-h-help! H-h-he’ll h-hurt h-her—” but I could barely get the words out. I saw children runnin’ in the school door to find a teacher, but I was afraid Ralph would do somethin’ awful to her before anybody came.

All of a sudden, Ralph screamed like he’d been stung by a bee and dropped Coleman. She picked herself up and ran toward me, while Junior and Billy Joe stood there with their mouths hangin’ open. I couldn’t see what happened, but I grabbed her hand, and we ran inside. When she could get her breath, she told me: she bit him!

“I couldn’t figure out what to do, and my face was right against his back,” she said. “I wasn’t goin’ to let that nasty boy carry me off in the woods.”

I couldn’t help it; I cheered. When Freddy and the others who’d followed us in heard what she’d done, they yelled “Hooray!” and “Good for Coleman!” and “Whoopee!” and “She’s a jolly good fella!” The teachers finally came runnin’, and one of ‘em brought Ralph in crying and took him to the school nurse.

All the children at school think Coleman is a heroine, like Maria in
The Sound of Music
,
which we just watched on the TV, but Miss Seaman doesn’t think so. Rotten Ralph Roberts was havin’ such a fit, Miss Seaman called his mama to come get him, and Miz Roberts took Ralph to see Dr. Mann, and then home to bed.

After that, Miz Roberts came back to school and talked to Miss Seaman and the nurse and some of the teachers. Freddy heard her tell Miz O’Quinn that Coleman bit Ralph so hard she broke his skin right through his T-shirt; her tooth marks were on his back for all the world to see. She said they could prove Coleman bit him, but that’s silly. Coleman said she did, and we all believe her; why would Miz Roberts talk about provin’ it? Billy Joe says they’re goin’ to have a teachers’ meetin’ about Coleman, and he’s tellin’ people they’ll kick her out of school. Why would they do that? It was Rotten Ralph who did wrong.

Coleman and I got sent home at lunchtime. We were sittin’ under the trees with our friends eatin’ our sandwiches, when Miss Seaman told us to go home. She didn’t say it very nice, and she didn’t even let us finish our lunch. So we picked up our books and our lunchboxes and left. We told Aunt Polly and Miss Ida what happened, but they didn’t say much. They called Aunt Mary Louise, and she came over with Freddy’s mother, and they sat on the porch and talked a long time. We couldn’t hear a word, but they don’t act like they’re mad at Coleman.

Both Miz Roberts and Miss Seaman called Miss Ida, and they’re comin’ to see her—not together, but one at a time. Aunt Mary Louise says she’ll be at those meetin’s; she told Miss Ida this bullyin’ is everybody’s business.

When Miz Roberts came, I answered the door and took her into the livin’ room. I never saw her up close before. She looks like Petunia Pig, but with a sour expression instead of a smile. (I declare, what with Miss Hatley looking like a duck and Miz Roberts like a pig, this town is like Ol’ MacDonald’s Farm!) Miz Roberts seemed real surprised to see Aunt Mary Louise sittin’ in there with Aunt Polly and Miss Ida.

I ran up to our room, where Coleman was already listenin’ by the chimney. They got through the “How are you?”s real fast, and Miz Roberts started complainin’ about Coleman, sayin’ how “uncivilized” she is—I wish I could have seen Miss Ida’s and Aunt Polly’s faces when she said that—and about her poor boy’s “wound.” She told how she took him to the doctor. Miss Ida was ready for that.

“Yes, I spoke to Dr. Mann and told him I’d pay Ralph’s bill, but he said there won’t be a bill. Ralph’s injury wasn’t serious. He said he gave him an antibiotic ointment, and there’s no danger of infection if Ralph keeps his back clean and uses the ointment. He added that he thought Coleman could have been seriously hurt, given their relative sizes, if she hadn’t defended herself.”

“But biting! That’s disgusting, and Ralphie was just playing—”

Miss Ida called Coleman just like she had when Miss Hatley came, and Coleman ran downstairs, callin’, “Yes, ma’am, I’m comin’!” I tiptoed down behind her and put my eyes to the crack in the door.

“Mrs. Roberts, this is my granddaughter, Coleman Greene. Coleman will be six in December. As you see, she’s not a large child. How old is Ralph? Ten, didn’t you say, Mary Louise?”

Aunt Mary Louise smiled sweet as cotton candy. “Yes, he’s ten, but he’s the biggest boy in the fifth grade, much bigger than our Freddy. I’d guess he weighs more than twice as much as Coleman. He looks like a seventh grader, doesn’t he, Mrs. Roberts?”

“Well, yes, he does, but
biting
—”

Aunt Polly spoke up. “How would you advise a child Coleman’s size to defend herself against a boy as big as Ralph? She could carry mace—like they do in New York to protect themselves against muggers—but you might not like him getting a dose of mace in his face.”

“Ralph’s hardly a mugger, Miss Slocumb,” Miz Roberts said, nasty-like. I could only see her back, but I pictured that piggy face all red and puffy.

“No, he’s not a mugger; he’s a terrible bully, which in my view is worse,” Aunt Mary Louise said. “A mugger might steal because he’s hungry, but Ralph torments children for fun. I had to send Thomas to talk to Ralph about his bullying two years ago, and I’d have done it again this fall, but Thomas is at Carolina playing football and can’t get away.”

It seemed like they’d forgotten Coleman was still in the room, and she told me later she was bein’ quiet as a mouse, so they wouldn’t notice her and send her out. She said Miz Roberts looked scared when Aunt Mary Louise mentioned Thomas. I’m not s’prised—they call him Tommy the Tank at Carolina. But he’s sweet as banana puddin’ with us children.

“Did that monster threaten my boy?” she gasped.

Aunt Mary Louise laughed. “No, Thomas doesn’t need to threaten anyone. He advised Ralph not to pick on little children, but it sounds like Ralph forgot Thomas’s advice. Maybe he needs a reminder?”

“Well, I never,” Miz Roberts said. “My boy gets
bitten
, and you defend this brat’s behavior—
biting
! And talk about sending a huge college boy to come scare him.”

Miss Ida stood up. Her cheeks were real pink. “Look at Coleman: she’s tiny. Your son picked her up, tossed her over his shoulder, and walked off with her. She couldn’t have bitten him in the back if he hadn’t been holding her, with her face against his back. Can’t you see she had no other way to defend herself?”

Miz Roberts stood, too. “Boys will be boys, and my Ralph was only playing. He wouldn’t hurt her. There was no need for
biting
. Goodness knows where she’s been and what she’s been up to. She might have given him a disease. She’s a savage. I don’t want that uncivilized brat in school with my boy.”

Now Aunt Mary Louise stood up tall—she looked like a giant. Her eyes were flashing, and when those gold eyes flash like that, she’s real scary. I tell you true, nobody but a crazy person would tangle with Aunt Mary Louise.

“Most of the folks living around here would prefer not to have Ralph in school with
our
children, but we’ve been too polite to say so. If you were ‘civilized’—or at least mannerly—you’d apologize for Ralph’s ‘savage’ behavior, the behavior that forced Coleman to defend herself. If you were a good citizen and a good mother, you’d have put a stop to Ralph’s bullying a long time ago,” she said. Her voice was soft, but scary like her eyes. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.

“Well, I never! We’ll see whose child has to leave school!” She stalked out and slammed the front door behind her.

I had to run to keep her from seein’ me, but even worried as I was about Coleman, I nearly laughed, ‘cause I was picturin’ her with a curly little pink tail pokin’ through the back of her tight black skirt.

Polly

After Mrs. Roberts left, she went directly to the school and tattled to Miss Seaman, who immediately called to cancel her appointment with Ida. Ida said Miss Seaman was officious and rude. She told Ida that she knew all about our conversation with Mrs. Roberts, so there was nothing to discuss. She understood our position and disagreed with it. She reminded Ida that she’d been concerned about Coleman’s social skills and hadn’t wanted her to skip grades—this was what came of ignoring the opinion of a professional. (Of course, Ralph would have attacked Coleman if she’d been in kindergarten, but never mind logic.) She’s arranged a teachers’ meeting later this week to decide what to do about Coleman and will let us know what they decide.

Miss Ida asked her about Ralph, and I can’t believe it, but they don’t plan to do
anything
about his behavior: “Boys will be boys,” Miss Seaman said, and he was “only playing” and didn’t hurt Coleman. She’s nothing but a parrot, echoing that boy’s fool of a mother. Then she announced that Coleman was suspended until a decision is made. Dinah is welcome to attend school. Ha! As if she would, or we would let her.

I think that tacky little Seaman snip is trying to get even because Ida wouldn’t discuss Coleman’s background or “peer groups” and the like with her, or agree to hold Coleman back on her say-so. Could she really believe that we would have a serious discussion about family matters with a nitwit like her? She and that odious Rita Roberts deserve each other. And I think that Hatley woman is mixed up in this, too—taking Billy Joe’s part along with Ralph’s. Well, she would, since he’s her brother’s child.

Naturally, Dinah isn’t going back till Coleman does, and Mary Louise alerted the Byrds, and they’re staying home, too—that’s about a third of the school. Freddy has been in class with Ralph ever since kindergarten, and he and his friends are making a list of all the children that horrible boy has bullied. Mary Louise and I are calling parents to let them know what’s happening at the school. I hold Miss Seaman responsible. It’s up to the principal to keep order and to make sure the children behave properly at recess.

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