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Authors: Reba White Williams

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BOOK: Angels
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Ida talked to Dr. Mann, and he’s consulting the school nurse, and they’re putting together a list of children who’ve been injured or frightened by Ralph and his cronies. Dr. Mann blames himself for Coleman’s troubles; he said he should have done something about Ralph long ago. He’s writing to Miss Seaman, with copies to the parents of Ralph and the other two boys, and to the entire school board, telling them what’s happening at the school, and what he thinks should be done—which is to stop the bullying. Everything will be hand-delivered to her today or tomorrow. We have to act before that teachers’ meeting. We can’t let them expel Coleman. It would be ruinous on her record, and to my mind, she did nothing wrong. All she did was defend herself the only way she could.

Ida called Mr. Sherrill, too, and he’s furious. He’s getting in touch with the appropriate officials in Raleigh, and he plans to pay a call on Miss Seaman. He hopes to bring an expert on bullying with him—someone who’ll explain to Miss Seaman and the teachers what they should do about Ralph and his friends, and how ridiculous it is to blame Coleman for fighting off a much larger child who was abusing her. He said if she were grown and had repelled a would-be rapist, she’d be worshipped by the likes of Miss Seaman, and her picture would have been in all the papers. He agrees with the children: Coleman is a heroine.

Dinah

Hardly anybody went to school today, but most of us who stayed home had to work on school stuff—read books and such—not go to the river or anything. Aunt Polly gave us lessons, and they were much harder than school.

Miz O’Quinn called Miss Ida this afternoon, and Miss Ida told me and Coleman what she said. Miz O’Quinn told Miss Ida that Miss Seaman had a hissy fit about everybody stayin’ home, and callin’ in sick. She was goin’ to make every child bring in a doctor’s excuse, but Miz O’Quinn talked her out of it, explainin’ Dr. Mann would prob’ly write one that covers everybody in the school. She told Miss Seaman that Dr. Mann was mad about the bullyin’ and the way Miss Seaman’s treatin’ Coleman. That Dr. Mann and other folks want to know why she’s excusin’ the bully while punishin’ his victim. Miss Seaman hollered at Miz O’Quinn over it.

Then Miss Seaman started gettin’ all the mail: Freddy’s list of children Ralph has bullied sent in by Aunt Mary Louise, with a letter; the list from Dr. Mann and the nurse, and the letter he sent to everyone; and Mr. Sherrill’s letter, and a copy of Mr. Sherrill’s letter to the government people in Raleigh. I think other folks wrote, too. Miz O’Quinn said Miss Seaman, lookin’ like she’d been dragged through a knothole backward, closed the door to her office and didn’t come out till after school was over. She got a phone call from Mr. Sherrill, and the secretary who sits outside her office couldn’t help hearin’ he’s goin’ to see her Friday morning, and another man is goin’ with him.

Miss Ida, Aunt Polly, and Aunt Mary Louise decided that since today is a Friday, they’re declaring it a school holiday, and we don’t have to do schoolwork. Freddy is comin’ over to take Coleman on a bird walk, and they’re takin’ a picnic lunch. He said he’d have her back by one thirty, ‘cause he has to help his daddy this afternoon.

I’m glad he’s coming because Coleman’s real quiet, and I reckon she’s feelin’ bad. Miss Ida asked me what I’d most like to do, and I told her I’d like to cook. She said that was good, because she has a braised quail dinner to fix for a party in Wilmington, and Aunt Mary Louise and Mr. Sherrill and his friend are coming to supper tonight, so there’s a lot to do. She thinks we’ll be celebrating tonight, but if not, Mr. Sherrill says he can take care of the problem with the law, because what’s goin’ on at school is wrong. But Miss Ida hopes it won’t come to that. She says it’s better if we work it out among ourselves, instead of turning to the courts.

When Coleman came back from her walk, Miss Ida told her to go wash up and put on the apron Aunt Polly made for her; she had chores for her to do. While Coleman was upstairs, Miss Ida put me to makin’ a big pot of Brunswick stew, and corn sticks, and lemon icebox pie for our company supper, while she finished up the party food. When Coleman came back in the kitchen, Miss Ida told her she should help me; we can do the whole supper by ourselves. I’m happy ‘cause I hardly ever get to fix a meal by myself, and when I have, it’s only been breakfast. Coleman’s tickled pink. I’m glad to see her looking better, and I’m sure Miss Ida thought of our cooking to get Coleman’s mind off school.

While we were cooking, Coleman told me she’d eaten some corn bread at a church supper in New Orleans, and it had been sweet, like cake. I couldn’t believe it, and I said so, but Miss Ida explained that was Yankee corn bread: they put sugar in it.

“Why do they do that?” Coleman asked. “I thought it was awful. It might have been all right if it was a cupcake and had frostin’ on it. But it didn’t taste good with pot roast and gravy.”

“I don’t know how it got started, but if you ever go north, that’s the only kind you’ll find,” Miss Ida said. “They put sugar in coleslaw, too. I don’t care for it myself, but some people prefer it.”

We put together the Brunswick stew first, so it could cook all afternoon, blendin’ the flavors. It has lots of ingredients, but some of ‘em are canned—like the tomatoes—and with both of us working on it, it didn’t take long. Then we put together the dry ingredients for the corn sticks and set them aside. We’ll mix in the rest later and bake ‘em right before we sit down so they’ll be hot. I was gettin’ out everything for the lemon pie when Miss Ida told me to let Coleman make it by herself. Coleman looked worried.

Miss Ida smiled at her. “The first dish we teach little girls to make is lemon icebox pie, and Dinah will show you how. But you’ll make it all by yourself.”

Coleman shook her head, still frowning. “I don’t know if I can, Miss Ida. I never cooked anything. I don’t want to ruin the pie, ‘specially with company comin’.”

Miss Ida laughed. “I know, honey. But at the end of this day, you’ll be able to say you can cook.”

I showed her how to break up the vanilla wafers and use the rollin’ pin to make the crumbs. Then melt the butter, and when it’s cool enough, mix it in the crumbs, and press the buttery crumbs in the pie pan to make a crust. She did a real nice job. Then I showed her how to make the filling, and finally the meringue. I tell you, that child learns fast, and when she took the pie out of the oven and saw how pretty it looked with the meringue browned just right, she smiled like the sun comin’ out.

Polly

Mr. Sherrill and Dr. Ian Fraser—he’s a professor at Duke, who wrote a book about how to treat bullies called
Schools Without Fear—
brought us up to date on the school situation while we had a glass of tea on the porch before supper. Dr. Fraser and Mr. Sherrill met with Miss Seaman this morning, and Mr. Sherrill gave her a letter from the school board telling her to cooperate with him, and to listen to what Dr. Fraser had to say. Dr. Fraser told Miss Seaman all schools should have a bullying policy. He gave her a list of basic rules that they should put in place immediately—an emergency policy, he called it. Dr. Fraser gave us a copy.

This is what it says:

1) After the first episode of bullying, the school should warn the bully’s parents in writing about what’s happening and give them a chance to discipline their child.
2) If the bullying doesn’t stop, the school should call the bully’s parents to school for a meeting and explain what will happen next if the bully’s behavior doesn’t change.
3) If the behavior still doesn’t change, the school should use detention to punish the bully, keeping him in at recess or after school.
4) After the next episode, the school should exclude the bully from certain areas within the school—like the cafeteria, or the gym, or the playground—wherever bullying is known to take place.
5) After the next time, the bully should be suspended from school for a fixed term—a week, for example.
6) If the bullying still continues, the bully should be expelled.

I agree with every word. If our school had those policies, Ralph’s bad behavior would have stopped long ago.

Later on, Mr. Sherrill and Dr. Fraser attended the teachers’ meeting, and Dr. Fraser gave a talk, telling them about the harm bullies caused and what should be done to prevent bullying. After Dr. Fraser spoke, the teachers voted to adopt the policy on bullying, and to let Ralph’s and the other boys’ parents know about the policy. Because the bullying had gone on so long, Dr. Fraser recommended a counselor to give a training program at the school, and to help establish a long-term program to prevent bullying. He told them the program will take a while to implement, but it will change peoples’ attitudes (like forgetting “boys will be boys”!). They voted to do that, too.

Coleman is to go back to school on Monday, and notes to the parents of the three boys who bullied her were delivered this afternoon. The notes explain the new policy and ask that the boys apologize to Coleman as soon as they return to school.

We all sighed with relief and sat down to eat the delicious meal the girls had prepared. It was truly time for a celebration and a special thanks to the Lord. I wonder how this will affect Miss Seaman. Will she change her ways? Or leave?

Dinah

We went back to school today, and we wore our new plaid dresses so we’d remember to hold our heads up high, ‘cause we haven’t done anything wrong. Aunt Polly says some people may still blame Coleman for all that’s happened, but we should ignore them. At recess and lunchtime, teachers stayed at the playground with us, watchin’ to make sure everybody behaved. They’re going to take turns on playground duty from now on. Junior and Billy Joe apologized to Coleman and are acting better. Ralph’s not in school, and Billy Joe says he’s not comin’ back. The Roberts have put him in that private academy about ten miles out in the country. I think it got started a long time ago because of integration; but then everybody got over that, and I b’lieve it’s now for children with problems. I don’t think Miz Roberts was ready for the bullying policy, or havin’ people tell her she had to make Ralph behave, or to give up the idea that “boys will be boys.”

On the way home from school, I asked Coleman how she felt about everything that happened. She looked real serious.

“I’m not proud of bitin’, and I’m sorry if I caused you and Aunt Polly and Miss Ida any worry or shame. But that boy is wicked, and when he picked me up, he scared me for a little bit. When I’m scared, I get mad, and I just struck out to make him let me go,” she said. “I still don’t know ‘zackly what else I should have done. I know you’re s’posed to turn the other cheek, but I didn’t even think of that. And if I had, what would he have done? And how would it have all turned out?”

She was quiet for a few seconds, and then, “I talked to Freddy about it, and he said I should ask God for help with gettin’ mad at folks, and I’m doin’ that. But I’m glad Ralph’s gone, and I’m thankful the school’s got rules about bullyin’, and I’m thankful for all our friends that made everything come out right, and that I didn’t get thrown out of school. It was a bad story, and me gettin’ mad is wrong, and I reckon bitin’ is wrong, but it had a happy endin’.”

Coleman’s right—it was a story with a bad beginning, but the beginning was bullying at the school and nobody doin’ anything about it, ‘cept Aunt Mary Louise and Tommy the Tank. It was goin’ on a long time before Coleman came to Slocumb Corners. Her part was the middle of the story, and she made the happy ending come about. Seems like to me if there’s an angel involved here, it’s Coleman Greene. Maybe she needs help with her temper, but her heart is good. (I’d have bitten him, too, if I’d thought of it. Forgive me, Lord.)

OCTOBER
Polly

October is one of my favorite months. The weather is beautiful—not much hotter than the mid-seventies, not much colder than the mid-fifties, and little rain. The children have settled into the school year, and the schools, churches, and civic organizations arrange lots of activities for them this time of year. Most of the events have to do with Halloween, which is important in our town, although it’s changed a lot since I was a child.

We’ve never had a serious Halloween incident in Slocumb County, but we’ve had a lot of mischief—toilet paper in trees, soap on windows, graffiti, air let out of tires, and petty theft (underwear stolen from lines, and that sort of thing)—and, of course, we’re aware of terrible events elsewhere. We decided to take steps to protect the children and established a curfew, limiting the hours of trick-or-treating and allowing only children twelve and under with adult chaperones to trick-or-treat. The parents of older children arranged parties at home.

Then a Bible study group in Raleigh researched all the holidays for their true meanings, and a newspaper published an article about their findings on Halloween. For Christians, Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, was traditionally the vigil before All Saints’ Day (All Hallows’ Day or Hallowmas) and a very holy night. But in pagan times, Halloween was associated with the damned and hell and the devil and everything evil, and over the years everything got all mixed up. That’s why all the fearful symbols—ghosts, witches, goblins, skeletons, bats, Dracula, black cats, Frankenstein, monsters, vampires, devils—are used as Halloween decorations and costumes. Even the poor jack-o-lantern was pagan. I’d always thought of “Jack” as a smiling, jokey fellow, but in folklore, Jack is associated with the devil and the dead. The Irish made jack-o-lanterns to ward off evil spirits and especially Stingy Jack, a poor creature who couldn’t get into either heaven or hell and wandered the world scaring folk.

The symbols are intended to frighten the devil and bad spirits away, and the scary costumes to trick the evil spirits into believing that the wearer is also bad; they wouldn’t bother their fellow evil-doers. (Imagine a toddler dressed up like a witch, looking about as frightening as a kitten, tricking evil spirits into believing she is one of
them.
What nonsense!)

Because of its associations with death, hell, the devil, and the occult, some churches don’t approve of Halloween. Then, too, small children can find Halloween frightening. When Dinah was little, she was terrified of ghosts and haunted houses, and she still has nightmares about them. (I believe she’s still afraid of ghosts, despite all we can do to persuade her that they don’t exist.) Many families can’t afford expensive costumes, or decorations, or candy to hand out to trick-or-treaters. So we decided to try to make Halloween nonscary fun for all children, take the strain off family budgets, and if not making the evening holy, at least making it part of a community program we can be proud of.

The churches and the civic organizations decided to devote Halloween to Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF—the United Nations Children’s Fund—without any tricks, of course. UNICEF is a wonderful program—US children have raised millions for needy youngsters all over the world through UNICEF. The children carry official orange boxes for the money they collect; our children collect only money for UNICEF, no candy. They don’t need all that sugar, and no matter what measures we take, there’s always the possibility that a child will get a “treat” that makes him or her sick, or worse. (Now that we know peanuts are deadly to some people, we have to look out for accidental harm to a child—as well as the vicious acts by monsters.) And of course, buying all that candy is far costlier than most people think. I read that in the USA, people spend billions a year for Halloween candy. Think of the good that could be done with all that money!

We settled the candy issue by putting up posters revealing how much it cost and explaining what a fraction of that money can do. For example, a million dollars will immunize more than fifty-eight thousand children for life, against diphtheria, measles, polio, tetanus, TB, and whooping cough. Since children can’t imagine millions or billions of dollars, we pick a smaller number that children can focus on and understand, like sixty dollars to pay for a school in a bag, with basic schoolroom supplies for forty students and their teachers.

The local merchants, who might have been unhappy about missing out on candy sales, make it up by selling families everything they need for parties given at home—mostly early-evening cookouts for the older children, who’re not allowed to trick-or-treat. They sell as many hamburgers, hot dogs, potato chips and such at Halloween as they do in midsummer, but our town doesn’t confine itself to just the usual cookout foods. The merchants have come up with all kinds of suggestions for interesting and unusual recipes.

Ida has her hands full cooking for Halloween parties, especially now that Dinah’s in school most of the day, so she turned to Mary Louise for help. Mary Louise found two Byrd teenagers, Molly and Elaine, to assist Ida in the kitchen after school and on Saturday mornings from October 15th to November 1st—they might work those same hours right through New Year’s Day, depending on their school schedules and what Ida’s business is like. But for now, all any of them can think about is Halloween. Dinah and Coleman love having the “big girls” around, and Ida couldn’t handle the orders without them. Both girls plan to major in home economics, and they learn a lot working with Ida. And they make money for Christmas presents.

Molly and Elaine help Ida prepare goodies for the children’s parties—pumpkin cookies, pumpkin pie, and pumpkin cake; orange-frosted cupcakes and cookies; and candied apples. The adult parties are more demanding—pumpkin soup (Ida makes it three different ways); pumpkin and bean couscous; pumpkin corn bread; pumpkin and sage torte; a dark chocolate pie with candied orange peel; black-bottom pie with or without bourbon; and my favorite, a pumpkin chiffon pie with a gingersnap crust. They roast ducks and pork, and braise quail. They prepare shish kebab on skewers ready to grill, and for Oktoberfest, German sausage, hot potato salad, and sauerkraut.

When they’re not cooking for parties, they’re preparing food to sell at the produce stand. Just as Mary Louise forecast, sales are so good we plan to stay open through Christmas. She arranged for some of the young mothers to take turns sitting for each others’ children and running the stand. They get paid by the hour, and all of them are saving up for Christmas.

People around here like to eat, and eat well. (A visiting Byrd connection from Colorado told Mary Louise that Slocumb Corners was the only place she’d ever been where people started talking about what they’d have for lunch while they were still eating breakfast.) In my opinion, we think about food so much because we are still tied to the land and grow much of what we eat. In a country community like ours, each seasonal change means different foods. People in the city who eat fresh strawberries year-round may never know the taste of sun-warmed ripe strawberries, picked and eaten right out of the garden, or a perfect vine-ripened tomato eaten minutes after it’s picked. And, of course, when we aren’t growing or harvesting food, we’re freezing or preserving it.

These days, Halloween decorations are about autumn and the harvest, rather than about ghosts and the devil. A favorite decoration is a scarecrow, because the Downtown Business Association sponsors a contest for the best scarecrow, and nearly everybody in town participates. You never saw so many scarecrows on stoops and in yards and gardens. (If the crows are paying attention, they’ll move out of Slocumb County until we switch to Christmas decorations.) The produce stand sells autumn decorations, too—gourds, squash, pumpkins, pots of chrysanthemums—anything one of us believes will sell. Beach traffic has slowed down, but people from all over the county come to buy.

 

Dinah

In September, when the school library opens after bein’ closed all summer, the librarian puts on the bulletin board a list of books for every class and lists of characters to give us ideas for Halloween costumes. Coleman has never had a Halloween costume, and she says she wants to be Winnie the Pooh. I’m dressing as Pooh’s friend Kanga, with my favorite toy Roo, who’s gettin’ a makeover, in my pocket. (I think Coleman picked Pooh because she knew how much I wanted to be Kanga, because I love Roo so much. Coleman’s good like that.) We borrowed a Pooh book with colored pictures from the school library to help us plan the costumes. Coleman wants her costume to be a bear color, which she says is light brown. Aunt Polly suggested we use some of Aunt Olivia’s ol’ white cotton flannel sheets to make Pooh’s costume. They are faded yellow, but she says we can dye it ‘zackly the shade Coleman wants.

In the book, Kanga looks like a toy—bright red, with a white front and pouch, with a little red and white Roo sticking out of the pouch. We’re takin’ that picture as the model for my costume. We’ll bleach the same old sheets for Kanga and Roo’s chests and tummies, and an ol’ red flannel skirt of Aunt Olivia’s for their bodies. I can hardly wait!

It’s worth making a fuss over costumes, because we get to wear ‘em so many times. We can even wear ‘em one day at school—on October 31st if it falls on a school day, or the nearest school day to October 31st if it doesn’t. Aunt Polly told me a new costume at the store can cost as much as thirty dollars. A lot of people, including us, can’t afford that, but we’re lucky ‘cause Aunt Polly can make ‘em. And now with all that cloth from Aunt Olivia, we don’t have to worry about buyin’ anything for our costumes. Our costumes get worn over and over, ‘cause after Halloween, everybody turns in outgrown costumes to the thrift shop, and folks can buy used costumes real cheap. All my costumes have been bought and used again, especially a pumpkin outfit I wore when I was little. (I can’t remember it, but I’ve seen pictures. Aunt Polly says that pumpkin costume has been worn by half a dozen babies since me. She can recognize it because she embroidered “punkin” across the chest in dark green thread.)

We have lots of parties and such to go to, and we’ll wear our costumes to most of ‘em. Watkins Park, the state park nearest us, is running a hayride and an “owl howl,” with a guide to help spot the owls, and apple-bobbin’ and a cookout for under-twelves. One adult for every two children is the rule, and Aunt Mary Louise is organizing it for our school, so Miss Ida is lettin’ us go, and we get to wear our costumes.

On the other side of town at Hardin Plantation, they run programs teachin’ how folk lived before the Civil War. They’re doing a program on bringin’ in the harvest, and preservin’ and such. Miz O’Quinn is taking the second grade. She’s arranged the bus and grade mothers to go with us. (We can’t wear costumes to that.)

My very favorite is the Fall Festival at school, even more fun than trick-or-treat night. We can’t wear our Halloween costumes to that, because everybody wears special costumes by class ‘cause we’re all in a pageant. But that’s all right. Last year I was a bunny rabbit in the pageant and wore a mask with tall ears. I
love
that festival.

Polly

The Slocumb Corners Fall Festival is held from five thirty to ten thirty on the last Saturday night in October unless that’s October 31st—then it’s held on the 24th so as not to interfere with UNICEF night—in the gym at Coleman and Dinah’s school. The gym used to be big enough, but the festival is so popular, they’ve added an attached tent. All the churches, civic organizations, and local merchants participate, because every child in the school has a part in the pageant—and just about everyone in town has a relative attending the school. No one wants to miss seeing the children perform.

The pageant is devoted to North Carolina products and history. The kindergarten crowd—the five-year-olds—represent agriculture: each child wears a paper hat to show what she or he is (a tomato, a cotton ball, an ear of corn, a black-eyed pea) and every child carries a sign to make sure no one can possibly misread a costume. They draw lots for their roles, as do children in each of the other classes. The PTA designed the program to make it as fair as possible, and children can’t argue that they want to be a watermelon instead of a carrot, or that so-and-so is teacher’s pet because she’s the tomato. None of the small children has to say a word; they just march across the stage looking adorable.

The first graders are North Carolina animals, tame and wild, and wear masks: the wolf and the fox, and the cow and the horse and so on. The second-grade children are trees. We have a big lumber business and a lot of beautiful ornamental trees in North Carolina, so there are plenty of trees to go around. This year, Dinah is a maple tree and Coleman is a dogwood, and they wear plain brown smocks, and big headdresses, with branches and leaves, flowers, berries, nuts—whatever applies. The third graders are fish and sea creatures, and the fourth graders are settlers: English, Scotch Irish, African American, Chinese, Native American—North Carolina’s a real melting pot. The fifth grade carries the North Carolina flag and sings “Carolina in the Morning,” and “Carolina Moon,” and everybody joins in.

The pageant takes place on a temporary stage set up in the tent and is followed by two other staged events. Gullahs come up from coastal South Carolina every year to tell us one of their animal stories, accompanied by gestures and motions. The children know some of the stories—they were popularized by Joel Chandler Harris in the Uncle Remus tales. But they come alive when told by the Gullahs. (My favorite is the misadventures of a bird that decides not to go south for the winter. Every time a bird flies, the Gullahs wave their arms around like wings and say “whsshe.”) The next event is gospel music by a group from Mary Louise’s church, and most people know the songs well enough to sing along. The final event is an award by Mayor Rankin of the prize for the best scarecrow in town. (Last year Freddy Byrd won; his scarecrow was a six-foot-tall eagle. Freddy was sure the eagle would scare off nasty crows.)

About the time everyone is tired of sitting still, the pageant ends, and we all move into the the gym, which is set up with stalls and booths—a flea-market stall, a secondhand bookstall, a bake sale run by high school home-ec students, a lucky dip, a fortune teller, two pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey stands, loop throws, ball throws, and anything else anyone can think of that kids might enjoy, or adults will buy.

BOOK: Angels
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