The days of summer will never be the same. Much can be said about the loss of innocence, that you can’t go home again, but the plain truth is we get older and grow up. The all too brief time we have in our “childhood” of summers is a rare and special time, no matter whom we are or where we grow up. Each childhood is unique and can never be replicated in any fashion; no matter how a parent tries to give their children the magical summers that they had. It’s a parent thing, and it’s a child thing. Each child must be left to grow their own summers, and lives. It’s what makes us, who we are; Unique. It makes us as unique, as the summer of 1956 when I turned nine.
The heat was just coming on to the crops and the Cicadas were out in full raspy symphony. It probably wasn’t really over 90 degrees, but the rasping of those millions of hind legs combined with the crickets and other bug noises made it just seem hotter. It just gets down in a body’s soul and heats the innards so a body just has to swing out on a rope and drop to the coolness of a slow moving river below. The cold shock pierces your being to the bone and you know you’ll just die, but in the next heartbeat the heat is gone and it’s summertime at the swimming hole . . ..
“Clement Thompson, do you or do you not know the answer?” Mrs. Tyner repeated. “The whole class is waiting on you. Can you answer the question or do I need to call on someone else?”
If she would just stop talking so fast, I could get a word in to answer the question; if I knew the question. “I’m sorry ma’am; could you repeat the question, please?”
“Well, as long as you asked with a please, the question was how many times did Columbus sail to the new world?” The pointing stick, amongst other uses at her skilled hands, twitched and smacked to the time of the clock ticking away the end of the school year.
“I believe it was three, Miss Tyner. He died on the last . . .”
And the bell saved my life. Bedlam reined in the classrooms and in the hall. Not one child hovered in their seat. Not one hesitated to explode through the doors to freedom and the summer vacation. Not one, except me. I sat in my chair.
This was the chair that I had learned about other places in far off lands. Magical places like Paris, Baghdad, London, and Peking. This was where I had learned many things, but the stories about far away places had touched my soul. Mrs. Tyner had told us many stories about mysterious places and had also showed us pictures that she had taken with a camera. She had been to those places. And that simple fact had made them all the more important for me to remember.
I had read stories like Peter Pan, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and the great cities that they were from, but to have actually gone and taken pictures to bring back was something different. I had never met anyone like her, who had gone to foreign lands and come back to teach children. There were the men down at The Lunch Bucket who wore their Army medals from the old wars they had fought. But all they would do was talk to each other about what Hell was like and drink more coffee. They didn’t have any pictures to show or stories to interest young kids. They were . . . well . . . old.
I sat in my chair.
Mrs. Tyner didn’t know what to make of it, and I didn’t want it all to end. I was afraid that if I got up and walked out of the door, it would all just go away and I’d never have those stories and the pictures in my mind would just turn to gray mush and I would forget what Miss Tyner had told us. I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted those stories, and actually, I wanted more.
“Clement?” She whispered soft as a summer breeze. “Is something wrong?” There was true concern in her voice and the hesitant reaching out with her hand. She took a stuttered step into my isle of desks. Her off hand fluttered over the worn dark brown desks, feeling for the many children’s initials carved in the wood, indelible for eternity; Absently, as teachers do, checking for new missives of affection scribed by an errant jack knife and young budding hormones.
I didn’t know how to tell her of my paralyzing fear. How I wanted to run out the door and into summer; but also how I wanted her to tell me more about the rest of the world; a world that I had never heard about; things that were beyond Washington County.
Softly she sat sideways in the desk next to mine. I couldn’t look at her at that moment; I just gazed at the white chalk lines on the chipped green black board. The soft chalk haze of lessons studied and then erased like last weeks lunch. Not really forgotten, just a chalky haze smudged in ones memories.
I was very aware of her soft deep black eyes studying my mind, usually framed in her cats eye glasses, but now released and warm as summer honey. I tried to speak, but the dry of fear welded my tongue to my teeth. I’m sure that my eyes were as big as the dancing mans in a Saturday matinee. They always had a scared Negro with big eyes.
“Is there something you want to talk to me about, Clement?”
I nodded my head. I couldn’t trust my mouth to open it.
“Has someone been bullying you?”
I shook my head. There usually was, but I didn’t want her to think I couldn’t take care of my self.
“Is it about school?”
I shook my head and finally trusted myself to look at her.
“Is it something personal?”
I shook my head. Her face was soft and kind. It glowed with a soft light that I had never noticed before. But, I don’t think I had been still and this close to her before.
Her hair was crinkly like my momma’s but mostly grey. Today, instead of long down around her shoulders, it was still pulled back in a loose low bun. Most days she would wind it up in a no-nonsense tight bun with sticks in it, but by the end of the days, she would sometimes let it down. I liked it when she would; it made her friendlier. She sat quietly with her fingers laced together over the corner of the desk, her skin; lighter then the dark of the desk but still a coffee in the cream as his father said. Old scratches or cuts had keloid into a freckling of small ridges about her hands and arms; one, had manifested along her right cheek. I remember thinking once that if I had put my hand under her hand; it would be a shadow to hers.
Somewhere deep in me, a chord was struck that made it OK to talk to her; a leaping forward into the realm of “past student”. The universe came into balance and I was released to ask anything of this woman. It was as if a pass had been handed me of total impunity from judgment.
“It’s those stories?” I ventured
“Which stories, Clement?”
“The ones you told us about going to all of those places in those other countries.”
“What about them?” Her face darkened with curiosity.
“Were they all true? Did you really go there, or were those just teacher stories?”
Her eyes examined my soul. She plumbed the depth of my need to know the truth. Her fingers wrung about on each other as she weighed her answer.
“Yes, they were all true.” A burden seemed to settle down within her. “My father was a Professor at a Negro College. Each summer we would travel to another foreign country and learn about their culture. We would hear their stories, eat their food, and live with a family to live like they did. My father knew that I would never get that chance again, or learn those things in school. He was a very special man.”
“What happened to him?”
“He was killed on his way to school one morning, by a bunch of angry men.”
It was a story that I had grown up with. You can’t say your sorry and make it better, it doesn’t work. It is a story that can only be shared with an understanding of silence. It is as if a sharing of spirits, instead of words.
Finally, I slowly rose to leave. I didn’t want to but I had a sense that I had just stepped over a line and over stayed my welcome. “Thank you for the stories, Mrs Tyner. I don’t think I’ll ever forget them.”
“You’re very welcome, Clement; I’ve enjoyed having you in my class this year.”
The door swung out and the summer heat felt the same as when my brother would score a direct hit with his feather pillow. I remember walking out into the sun and thinking that summer was here; but it would never be the same again. And, I had no idea how true that would become over the years.
In my hotel room, casually cast over the chair is my well beaten photojournalist vest. There is several thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment in my bags. The soft sided “go” bag is lying on the bed where I pitched it as I rushed in to shower off 9,000 miles and five days of travel up out of the darkest meanest hell hole of Africa where people are killing each other for no other reason than the wrong tribe. My editor is scratching his head and wondering if my mind is clear or whether I have been on the road to long covering too much hatred, evil, despair and waste.
I promised him a thousand words, but no pictures. I promised him that it would be the best piece he would ever wrench from my heart or soul, but wasn’t about the evil that men visit in the name of some esoteric justification. I promised him that he would have a piece that justified my coming home. I promised him, that it would, somehow, help to heal all that I had written about, all that I had seen and taken pictures that he had published. I promised him that I could be no other place in the world at this time, which would be more important to the world.
So, as fall begins to tip the trees in crimson and gold, the summer once again draws closed and I stand beside a grave, with the tears that I have owed for 32 years, as the greatest person in the world is slowly lowered into her final resting place.