Now, I always said she liked me because I was the ugliest kid in the class. The other kids used to say, "Why does Miss Grace like that ugly girl?" But it didn't bother me. First of all, I was just happy to be in school in the first place. See, unlike the way things are for kids today, when I was growing up kids were either in school or they were working in the fields. So we were all thrilled to be in that schoolhouse. There was never any question of "cutting class" like kids do today. If a kid was absent from school, it was because his parents needed him to be at work in the fields. That happened to all of us around harvesting time, and we were always sorry to leave our lessons.
I was doubly sorry to leave Miss Grace. For the first time, in addition to having someone at home who loved me--that's my mother, I was always special to my mother--I now had someone out in the world who loved me too. I often thought about how I came to play Miss Grace's role in the lives of my students. And when I got frustrated or upset with my students, I thought of Miss Grace, and that gave me peace.
For Miss Grace and I had a special relationship. She even asked me if I would like to spend the night with her every now and then. I must have been around ten years old then. Of course I said yes, and whenever she wanted to have me over, she would write a note for me to take home to my mother. And the next day when I went to school, I took a little brown paper bag with an extra set of clothes in it, so that I could stay over with Miss Grace.
Those were some of the best evenings of my life. After school was out, Miss Grace and I would walk back to her little rooms in the boardinghouse. It was only a few blocks from the school, not the six miles I had to walk from my house, and we would just talk and laugh all the way. She was always carrying a huge stack of books, and she gave me a stack of papers to carry. We would walk down the streets just laughing, and all the men would stop to look at her. I'm sure they were wondering, "Now what is that beautiful lady doing with that ugly child?" But I didn't care, and Miss Grace probably didn't even notice.
Whatever I told her I wanted for supper, I would get it. We cooked the food together, and then after supper I would help her grade the papers from that day's class. If I didn't know the answers myself, she never scolded me for grading wrong. She would just say little things like, "Well, think about it, Oral, count it out to yourself. Is that really the answer you want to say is right?"
And then, when it was time for bed, I got my own bed in my own room. I never had anything like that at home! So you can understand how I just felt like the most special person on earth around Miss Grace. Those nights always flew by. I was always sad to wake up in the morning.
When I did go back home, I would be on a high from everything Miss Grace had done and said. She was all I could talk about. It must have offended my mother in some sense, to see her child--this child who loved her more than anything--come in and go on and on about this other woman. It's a sign of my mother's respect for teachers that she never said anything about it.
I have put Miss Grace up there with my mother in terms of what she meant to me as a child growing up in the South. She was a true role model, and not just because she was so gracious and sweet. She taught me more than any other teacher I've had. I don't even remember the names of my other schoolteachers, but I've been trying to look up Miss Grace for years. I heard she married a mean man who beat her, and I hope that's not the case. If so, it speaks to his weakness rather than hers.
Miss Grace showed me that education can take you places, even if you're a woman. There were two facts about her that were fascinating to me--she came from somewhere else, and she had gone to college. The fact that she had left her hometown meant that maybe I could get out of my hometown, too.
Excerpted from The Promise by Oral Lee Brown with Caille Millner Copyright © 2005 by Oral Lee Brown. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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