Sometimes there were fights at school, like the time when I was eight and had gotten into a fight with Cynthia Thomas. She had my cheek caught between her teeth, biting down hard. Fortunately, I knew better than to pull away. Meanwhile, as she was biting me, I was pinching her cheek as hard as I could. When I got home, Mama told me to go to the barn and find some chicken feces to rub on my face to prevent scarring and infection. So I had to go around the house with a bruised cheek and smelling like chicken poop for the rest of the day.
When I was twelve, I had an encounter with a boy named Nathan Talbot, who’d touched my breast while riding on the school bus. I slapped his hand away so hard that my hand flew into his wet mouth. Since there was nowhere to wash my hands, I had to endure the stench that his sour saliva left on my fingers for the rest of the day.
And of course as I got older, there were those girls who grew jealous at the unraveling of my beauty.
“You think you’re somethin’ on a stick,” a girl once said to me, to which I replied, “You must think it.”
Fights between children is one thing; fights between a child and her teacher is another. I had a teacher named Miss Harrison when I was in the fifth grade. She and my grandmother had prior history which caused them to not like one another. But being a child, I was never privy to the details. Still, I had a habit of repeating things that my grandmother would say about her.
One evening, Miss Harrison became the topic of conversation. I don’t recall what it was all about, but I do remember Mama saying, “I hope she don’t think I’m scared of her.” She was merely making a statement. I’m sure she had no idea that I would go back and tell Miss Harrison what she’d said.
“My grandma say ‘don’t you think she’s scared of you,’” I said one day in class.
“She don’t have to be scared of me,” Miss Harrison retorted. “I don’t want her to be scared of me.”
It all came to a head one afternoon during recess. Miss Harrison had assigned us children to play a game of dodge ball, but I remained a spectator, standing outside of the circle because Mama had already told me not to play. There were certain activities that she didn’t want me to take part in because I was a sickly child. She’d allow me to run around and play such games as jump rope and Tag, but she was against my participating in dodge ball. However, Miss Harrison had other plans.
“Get into the ring, Merlene,” she demanded.
“No, ma’am. My grandma told me not to play dodge ball.” Miss Harrison was a high-yellow woman, and I could see her boiling blood starting to color her face red as I defied her.
“I don’t care what she told you. You’re in my class and I said to get inside the ring.”
Reluctantly, I did as I was told. I knew that I was disobeying Mama, but I didn’t want to get into more trouble by disobeying the teacher, too. Miss Harrison then told Mary Pilliard, one of my close friends, to hit me with the ball. Mary hesitated, then lightly tossed the ball in my direction so that it barely skimmed me as I jumped out of the way. The ball then rolled to one of the other children.
“Hit her hard this time,” Miss Harrison said, barely able to contain her emotions.
I’d jump out of the way to avoid being hit, but I couldn’t dodge every ball. The hits kept getting harder until finally I stepped out of the circle altogether.
“Come on, y’all,” I said to Yvonne and Elaine as I proceeded to leave the schoolyard.
“If you leave, you’d better not come back,” I heard my teacher’s voice yell after me.
When I got home, I explained to Mama what had happened, and the next morning she walked me and my cousins back to school. As we approached the schoolhouse, I could see Miss Harrison standing on the top step, guiding the children into the building and holding a stick in her hand which she swung back and forth. I had never seen the stick before and was a bit confused as to why she had it now.
“They can’t come in,” she said before Mama could even say a word.
“My children are gettin’ inside that schoolhouse, Miss Harrison,” Mama said sternly. My grandmother was small in stature, but she had a mighty spirit that didn’t back down from anyone who did us wrong.
“Merlene left yesterday before she was dismissed,” Miss Harrison continued. “Those two can go in,” she said pointing to Yvonne and Elaine, “but Merlene can’t.”
“Alright,” my grandmother said as she turned and handed me her key. “Merlene, y’all go on back to the house. I’m goin’ to Swansea to talk to Mr. Perkins.” Mr. Perkins was head of the school council.
My cousins and I had barely taken a step before Miss Harrison had a sudden change of heart.
“They can go in.”
Being in Miss Harrison’s class after that was quite awkward. She barely said a word to me for an entire month. Back in those days when children were called upon to read a passage from a textbook, we’d go and stand in front of the classroom and read until the teacher told us that it was enough. When it was my turn to read, Miss Harrison refused to say anything or even look at me. So I’d pick up my book and walk to the front of the class and begin to read.
After one or two paragraphs, I would pause and wait to see if she wanted me to continue. But since she never gave me a signal one way or the other, I’d continue on to the next paragraph. Once I realized that she wasn’t going to tell me when to stop, I’d stop on my own and quietly take my seat. She would then continue with the rest of the lesson.
When Miss Harrison did start talking to me again, the one thing that I remember her saying was, “Merlene, I could do a lot to really hurt you. But I won’t because you’re a child.” And she left it at that.
I saw Miss Harrison again years later at a church gathering. I heard someone calling my name and I turned to see that it was her carrying a baby. This time, we stood eye to eye.
“See my baby?” she said proudly. “I got a little girl.”
“She’s pretty,” I said, wondering when my former teacher had acquired the ability to smile.
“Who do you think she looks like?” she then asked me. I wondered if this was a trick question. I had never seen her husband before, and the baby had no resemblance to her.
“She looks just like you,” I said. It must’ve been what she needed to hear because she couldn’t stop grinning. I never saw her again after that.