I've learned that people will forget what you said,
people will forget what you did,
but people will never forget how you made them feel.
The first day of the school year in fourth grade, I walked from the north end of Whitehurst Elementary to the south end toward my new homeroom with some trepidation. The south end of the school building was where big kids went. I was finally getting big. Fourth grade. But I wasn't feeling big. My homeroom teacher was Cora Maye Wild and I had heard both good and bad things about her. I was sort of feeling afraid of what might come next.
My first grade teacher at Whitehurst was Minnie Anderson, second grade was Ruby Dell Hobbs and third grade was Leona King. I had liked them all okay but this new teacher Mrs. Wild worried me. How wild was she? I had heard kids talk about how mean she could be if she didn't like you. I doubted I was too wild for her, being a meek, mild-mannered student with no ambitions of becoming a problem for anyone. I didn't even want to be class clown like my friend Ricky Williams was because he was about as good at being class clown as one could be. His sense of humor was so well developed and genuine, competing with him would have been foolish. These were the sort of things I suppose I was pondering as I cautiously proceeded down the hall to the south end of the school building, my anxieties steadily mounting.
I found Mrs. Wild's classroom and was about to go in and sit down before the bell rang when a teacher sitting on a stool nearby asked me a pointed question.
"Can't you walk straight?"
I had never seen her before so on top of being a stranger, her question seemed strange to me as well. Can't I walk straight? I didn't think I was weaving around like some drunk. In fact, I was sure I wasn't.
"Huh?" I responded.
"Can't you walk straight?" she repeated and pointed at my feet.
I looked at my feet then up at her then back down at the floor and walked in as straight a line as I could, feeling like I was being subjected to a sobriety test or something.
She laughed loud and long and I began feeling bad about what was happening. I didn't get what she was wanting from me and she wasn't forthcoming with any details to clue me in on whatever joke she was having with me. I began to feel the urge to cry for some strange reason but before I could, Ricky's brother Jimmy appeared beside me and started talking to me, drawing my attention away from the teacher giving me a hard time about my walking style.
Jimmy was two years older than me and I didn't really know him well at all, having only seen him with his brothers and occasionally in the school hallway, in the lunchroom or out on the blacktopped playground. We had never talked with each other. Now here he was, an older boy taking time to talk with me. The urge to cry vanished as he asked me how I liked being in fourth grade, what I thought of Mrs. Wild, was I enjoying the first day of school, etc.
I eagerly responded to his non-threatening line of questioning and he put his hand on my shoulder and led me away from the teacher who was so worried about the way I walked. I glanced back toward her and saw she was still laughing. Jimmy said "Never mind her."
Years later, after Jimmy and his friends had disappeared without a trace in the fall of 1970, it dawned on me what that teacher had been getting at and how Jimmy had rescued me from having a horrible start to the first day of school that year. She had been laughing at my duck-footed gait which was, and has always been, very pronounced. I had tried for a while as a youth to correct it by forcing the toes of my feet closer together when walking but it actually hurt to do that so I gave it up. I figured my parents would put me in braces if they felt like it was a big problem, just like they had put me under a surgeon's knife, twice, to straighten up my walleyes. That hadn't entirely remedied my strabismus but it had helped. Braces might straighten my feet into socially acceptable alignment. But that day, Jimmy's caring empathy had kicked into high gear when he saw that teacher riding me and any thoughts about my duckfootedness were totally banished from my mind.
I finally shared this rescue story with Jimmy's youngest brother Gary a few years before authorities found Jimmy's car submerged in Foss Lake. Gary had shared with me that Jimmy had been known to frequently help younger kids navigate trickier steps in life he had already walked. When Gary told me that I marveled at the level of empathy Jimmy had at eleven years old. And as I came to know him and his entire family a little more each year until his disappearance, I came to love them all as much as I hoped they loved me.
Guitars & Cars~
The Williams brothers loved guitars and cars. As soon as they were old enough to get their hands on a guitar, they all learned to play. And as soon as they were old enough to buy a car of their own, they did and began learning everything about working on them and fixing them up. A car was freedom. A cool looking car was a status symbol. So they were always working on their cars to make them run and look good. At 16, Jimmy was the first boy in the family to get a nice looking car, a bright-blue 1969 Camaro with a white vinyl top. Very cool.