the true stories
I spent much of my boyhood in Baton Rouge. I attended elementary school there from half of Grade One to half of grade Six. The school was situated with a cane field on one side and a cow pasture on the other. The classrooms were ankle deep in sugarcane pulp. The students were from the full spectrum of society. Sons and daughters of old families with hyphenated names and those whose parents were farmers, ranchers and share-croppers.
My elder sister had taught me to read before Grade One and this set me up to be mighty bored by Grade Two. We had a German lady, a Mrs. K. as our teacher that year. She was a dairy farm gal and I can tell you that they don't make them like her any more. When we practiced reading aloud from Dick and Jane, the reading commenced with the teacher handing a little jewelry box to the first student.
Inside, on a bed of cotton, was a little man she had made of acorns sewn together. His name was Johnny Acorn and as long as Johnny was on your desk, you had the floor. Classrooms were comprised of about twenty children in those days but it was unbearable waiting for Johnny to get down to me. When the magic moment came and it was my turn to orate, my few appointed sentences were not enough to satisfy me.
My father, along with many of his associates, was fond of gambling. I got him to show me all the card games and the dice. I took the show on the road and conducted crap games in the boys-room at recess and poker games after school. I was good at it and within a few months, I had amassed a large pile of loot from my winnings. We played for everything from live crawdads, costume jewelry, candy, spiders, snakes and acorns. I started wearing a fake ruby and talking like a good fella.
One guy I had played craps with had lost heavily. In a bid to get something back he bet his most prized possession. It was a switch-blade knife made entirely from Popsicle sticks and rubber bands. He had learned to construct it from his older brother who had learned it from their cousin from Arkansas. It was spring-loaded and the blade shot out at the flick of a switch. It was easy to conceal and the blade could be re-sharpened on the sidewalk or replaced as needed. I won the knife. By weeks-end all the boys had made copies and packed them daily to school. I made several copies and painted them up.
I got some books on prestidigitation and card tricks to supplement my gambling skills and things got to the point where it wasn't any fun taking the winnings anymore. I wasn't getting very popular and this intensified my boredom. I tried being the prank-man for the class. I put a grass snake in Mrs. K.'s desk. She picked it up, stroked it and let it go out the window. I put water in the seat of her oaken chair and she deftly poured it out into a flower pot. One day while she was busy illustrating a point on the chalk-board with her back turned, I fired a finely crafted paper wad projectile at the tin overhead light shade.
It rang like a church bell. Mrs. K. stopped talking and turned around. Her face was serene but her eyes were like cat watching a hedgerow as she surveyed the class before her. When the giggling subsided, she spoke.
“Now, I imagine whoever did that wanted to get my attention. Well, now you have it, undivided. I am going to give the individual a chance to own up to it and if they don't have the gravel, I will have to keep the whole class after school for writing lines. Take a moment now and think about that.”
She sat in her chair and folded her hands like people do at the kitchen table when talking about the rent. My mind raced. I knew my fate if I confessed. I would be told to stand in the hall. Mr. B. walked the halls during classes and rounded up all those whom he found. They would be brought to his office, asked to confess and then to bend over the desk. He had a paddle that could have doubled as a cricket bat. It was spar-varnished and had been drilled with ¼ inch holes. This took care of wind resistance and also left little welts that remained for a day afterward.
A hand shot up in the row across from me. I didn't know the boy well but he sure knew me.
“Yes,” said Mrs. K.
“Ma'am, it was that Mike Hawes, right there!” The lad pointed an accusing finger at me with a courtroom flourish, a finger that used to be graced with a Decoder Ring, that is until he played craps with T-Bone Slim.
I blanched before I turned red. I was in deep shock. In my house, we had been taught by my Dad that there was nothing lower than a rat. Lower than a snake's belly in a wagon rut was a fink. I was embarrassed for that boy and I was worried for myself. Then another guy put his hand up.
“Look in his pocket, Ma'am. He's got a switch-blade in there.”
Mrs. K. rose and walked over to my desk. She held out her hand. I dug into my jeans and produced the shiv. She turned it over in her hands and pressed the switch. She smiled as enigmatically as Mona Lisa. After replacing the blade she asked me if I'd made it. I told her I copied how to make it but that I had made it with my own hands.
Another hand was flung skyward. It was another disgruntled gambler.
“Ma'am look in his desk. He's got decks and decks of poker cards in there.”
I handed the half dozen decks to Mrs. K.
“My word. Anyone else?” she queried.
“Look in his shirt pocket, Ma'am, that's where he keeps his dice,” said yet another boy.
Mrs. K. took the dice which I produced and after examining them put them in the pocket of her dress along with the other contraband. She surveyed the room and when satisfied that there were to be no more revelations, she asked me to join her outside the class. We walked slowly out the door and she closed it softly to the whispers and tittering that had started up.
“It appears that it is just not your day today, Michael.”
“No Ma'am. It sure ain't.”
“Son, listen to me carefully. Put on your ears. I have never in my life seen such a gaggle of tattle-tales. It was shameful! If they were mine, I'd fix those squeaky wheels. I want you to stay out here for ten minutes. Tell Mr. B. I said to leave you be and for him to talk to me after class. I know you are bored. Now, I tell you what I will do. You promise me not to pull any more monkey-shines and I promise I will take you once a week to the Baton Rouge Library. That little gal who sits in front of you, she'll be going along too. Do you understand?”
“Good. Does your Daddy play all those games?”
“Son, I want you to think about something. We can learn something from every single person in this world. Especially from our Daddies. We can learn from every book we read. But nobody is perfect, including the people who wrote the books we read. So before we start practicing something, we need to think about whether it's right or wrong. What have you learned about gambling?”
“If you win, everybody hates you and if you lose everybody laughs at you.”
"Do you think that's a right way to spend your time?”
“I see. I will keep these things in my desk until you leave this school. Now, make sure you look like you had your butt paddled when you come in to class, you hear?”
With this, she turned softly and went in to the class. She changed my life in those few moments and I reckon she knew it while she was doing it. I thought about everything she said and found in my heart that it was all true. I never gambled with cards or dice after that.
We learned how to churn milk into butter and to sing a couple of German folk songs during that year. Me and the little girl got to read any books we wanted to once a week at the big library. It was in the back seat of Mrs. K.'s car that me and my first love shared french fried potatoes and ketchup from a brand new restaurant chain called McDonald's.
When I was in Grade Six, on the last day before coming to Canada, Mrs. K. came to my class and handed me a brown paper bag and gave me a tight hug. I looked inside. It was all the paraphernalia she had confiscated four years prior. The items looked pathetic, childlike and alien to me and I tossed them into a trash can.
One time I got to thinking about Mrs. K. when I was in my late teens. I went to my extensive personal library. I packed up all the books I had stolen from all the libraries of all the schools I had ever attended. I wrote a note for each one and took all the boxes to the post office and mailed them back. It was the right thing to do.
Copyright © 2019 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.