MY FIRST BROKEN
HEART WAS AT COLLEGE HILL SCHOOL
By Kenneth Smith
She must have been about age 22 when she was my first love in 1953. She was also my first-grade teacher.
Miss Walls had a beautiful baby face like
Tuesday Weld, a long blonde pony-tail, a very feminine voice, big blue eyes, and ruby red lips. She had an ample bosom and her small waist was usually surrounded by a wide black belt. She often wore a full skirt with petticoats, a turned-up collar, white open-toed shoes, and what must have been a full undercoating of Avon’s Jungle Gardenia. Sometimes during playground duty she wore saddle oxfords and white bobby-socks.
Miss Walls even had beautiful toes with bright red nails. I had great difficulty paying attention to any instruction because I was fascinated with every detail of her. Today, I would be diagnosed as having an Attention Deficit Disorder. I was very attentive; I just had different standards for what warranted my attention. When Miss Walls was next to my desk, it wasn’t far from my eyes down to her perfect toes. Their rounded corners were such that they were shaped exactly like uniformly diminished Philco televisions I had seen in an ad in a big picture magazine. As Nat King Cole would sing on our Westinghouse radio just a few years later, Miss Walls was “Unforgettable.”
At age six my social experience only included about the last three years. By the time I began first grade at College Hill School in Texarkana, I had only a brief time to learn about the world outside my rural home. My little brain was mostly empty and my remote environment had afforded few opportunities for social interaction. We lived on a rural chicken farm with two big chicken houses in a little valley about three miles east of town off Tennessee Road. The old farm was in an area now known as Lakewood Estates and ours was the only house there.
My first social contacts beyond my family were occasional Saturday visits to Henry Hooks' grocery store on East Street, on College Hill. Then my social opportunities expanded when I was about age five. My family began attending a small country church about a mile and a half from home called the Tennessee Baptist Church. Among my few church acquaintances was my friend Nelson Johnson’s little brother, Richard. He was the first “Richard” I ever met.
At home, I had three brothers and no sisters. Their social environments were far more enriched than mine because they were in school nine of 12 months. The boys’ favorite pass-time at home was terrorizing their brothers, particularly the baby, and that was me. Their ages ranged from four to ten years older than me, so they were too old to be my playmates.
It is significant to the point of this story to know that my brothers regularly called me just about every insulting name that one can imagine little boys could learn from other little boys. Most of those names were derived from some part of the anatomy, especially the male anatomy. I didn’t know how bad the names were until I made the mistake of spewing a few of them when I was upset with my mother. Those names were really bad!
Before starting school, I had managed to learn a little bit about the forbidden world beyond the chicken farm by discretely observing my brothers. I slipped around and discovered that they kept magazines in the feed room in the middle of one of the chicken houses. I watched them through a hole in the tin wall as they looked at the magazines and giggled. Later, I played in the feed room while they were in school and while Mother busily fed and watered the baby chicks. The chicks had to be fed and watered by hand, so when Mother began her journey toward the far end of the chicken house, I had time to sneak a peek at the magazines.
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Being the smallest in my world, I instinctively acquired survival skills. I learned that information was an empowerment that afforded me a measure of defense and respect. In my world, the freedom to intimidate those who were smaller came with being bigger. But I learned that intimidation could be neutralized by information. So, by necessity I elevated information gathering into an art. When my brothers threatened me with bodily harm, I instinctively responded as I had seen them respond when threatened. I told them I had seen them with their magazines, and that I WOULD TELL!! Each of their expressions reminded me of the look on our milk cow’s face when she saw Dad and I on the new tractor. Suddenly, I was a force to be reckoned with.
How things changed! Thereafter when I felt the whim, a chosen brother would have to carry me on his back until I grew tired of it. At church, I shared my experience with some other little brothers. We learned that we all knew of some bad behavior by our older brothers. We evolved into a group of little detectives who gathered and shared information. We caught our brothers cussin’, smokin’, throwin’ rocks at boxcars, playin’ stretch with pocket knives, playin’ marbles for keeps (gambling), playin’ bust tops, puttin’ boards over chimney tops, shootin’ water pistols up girls’ dresses from under the church, etc. We excelled at being what was commonly known as tattletales.
Life became easier for us. We hoarded the best information so that our brothers lived in constant fear that we would reveal the good stuff. We would occasionally reveal minor offenses to our parents in order to maintain respect among the older brothers. Our brothers began avoiding us. The insults that occasionally fell from their mouths were immediately followed by pleading apologies. They avoided us so much that they never learned of our transgressions. I had learned a lot about forbidden conduct by spying on my brothers but, at the same time, forbidden conduct had a magnetic appeal to me.
Miss Walls was without a doubt the loveliest and best smelling creature I had seen in my brief little life. Of course there were some ladies at church who smelled pretty good, but their copious applications of Jungle Gardenia just couldn't overcome their outright plainness. Miss Walls on the other hand, looked every bit as good as her Jungle Gardenia smelled.
Church ladies just seemed uncommonly common, but at school I noticed right away that Miss Walls didn't look like any of the church women. For that matter, she didn’t look like any of the women I had seen at Henry Hooks' grocery store either. I observed that, except for clothing, she looked a lot like the naughty women I had seen in my brothers' magazines. She looked lovely and forbidden, and I was smitten. I loved her every move and I knew it just wasn’t possible for her to have a naughty bone in her body. My heart felt like it was pumping peanut butter when I saw her. I knew she was the girl I loved and wanted to marry!
I could tell Miss Walls liked me too. She would let me clean the chalk erasers with the crank brush. She also let me make our work papers on the purple gelatin Hectograph. I fantasized about how bad men like those I had heard on radio shows might burst right through those big tall brown school windows and try to steal our coats from the cloak room. They would terrify Miss Walls, but I would slam and lock the cloakroom door and trap them. Then Miss Walls would fall into my arms to be comforted, and we would share a tender kiss.
Reality was cruel however. The horrible day came when, in only a few short minutes, I became a villain Miss Walls hated. She broke my little heart.
It began as we sat in our circle of little chairs. I felt special because I was in the redbird group. We redbirds were the envy of the bluebirds and the blackbirds. To add to my excitement Miss Walls also sat with us in one of the little chairs!
For weeks, Miss Walls had shown us the little manila flash cards with the black letters on them. Even when she flashed the more difficult blended letters like gr, and ay and bl, I could say them faster than any other student. Without looking at the white-on-black letters of the alphabet that lined the top of our blackboard, I could make all the letters on my Big Chief tablet with my Crayon. My closest competition was Bubba Thomas. I felt pretty smart because I was faster than Bubba. I could tell he had somebody helping him at home.
I felt I would burst with excitement when Miss Walls gathered us into our little group and held up the little book that we were to learn to read. It had pictures of a little boy, a little girl, a dog, and a cat. There was a word by each of the pictures. Miss Walls had often praised me for knowing all my letters and blends, and now I was ready for even more praise by learning how to use the letters to read those words! Then quite abruptly, things turned bad. She pointed to a word by a picture of the little boy and asked, "If any of you know this word, please raise your hand?"
When Bubba Thomas' hand shot up like a bottle rocket on the fourth of July, my heart dropped like the Hammer at the Four States Fair. It was the same little heart that ached for just a whiff of Miss Walls. At times, she had leaned over my desk and the fragrance of Jungle Gardenia had fallen all around me in a blanket of bliss, and her sweet voice had softly whispered ... something ... about … something… on my desk. I loved her with all my little six-year-old heart.
I hated Bubba. In just a beat of my little heart, Bubba's response had reduced me to the second best redbird. Obviously very pleased at Bubba’s response, Miss Walls said, "Bubba, tell us what this word says." Bubba proudly and loudly replied, "IT SAYS DICK!" Then as suddenly as my heart had stopped, it started pounding again! I was overcome with such relief and convulsive humor that I fell out of my little chair into the floor, doubled up in laughter! I had never heard anything so clever and hilarious in all my three little years of social experience! Bubba had a sense of humor! Then I was truly traumatized.
Instead of disciplining Bubba, a demonic look came over Miss Walls’ face that I had never seen. In an authoritarian tone I had never heard, she jerked me to my feet and told me to go stand outside the door. I knew this command meant a paddling was coming, but why had she suddenly become evil? I had heard my brothers spout that naughty vulgarity in every conceivable form, and even though Bubba had shouted it, she was unfairly taking out her anger on me, WHO LOVED HER! I had only laughed!
On that little porch, I leaned against the huge white shiplap wall and sobbed the painful tears of heartbreak. When Miss Walls came out, she had the bat-a-ball paddle. She told me her stern voice to bend over, pulled my Wranglers tight with the middle belt loop, and wore out my little broken-hearted butt, with no explanation.
As time passed I finally accepted that, even though the word had been used to insult me, “Dick” was actually considered a proper name for a little boy among folks who were more worldly than me. I never knew what Dick or Jane's last name was in the little reading book, but to me it always seemed better for poor ol' Dick that his name didn't include any of the prefixes or suffixes that I endured with regularity. I never actually met anybody named Dick until I was in the Marine Corps.
I was slightly older by the time I forgave Miss Walls. As my little heart mended, I noticed a little girl in my class who looked like a miniature of her gorgeous mother who came to pick her up after school. She had long raven black curls, and big sensitive brown eyes and lashes like our jersey calf. Soon she was the second love of my life, but like most of the subjects of my affection thereafter, she didn’t know I existed.
Some of my classmates in Miss Walls’ first grade class were Ella Smith, Sue Stevens, Carlene Wilkins, Judy Russell, Wanda Steltz, Lynn White, Calvin Seward, Rodney Skelton, Howard Willis, Bubba (William) Thomas, Harry Suggs, Charles Smith and Twyla Smith. Others who might have been in my class were, Paula Wilburn and Wayne Robinson. Most of them continued in the Texarkana ISD, and we graduated in 1965.
As the years went by my social experience Broadened. I was exposed to Uncle Dudley and Jim LeFan on the radio. Mother usually had the B.L. (Benny) Woods Gospel Hour on KCMC radio when the school bus let me off in the afternoon. Earl Henshaw and his Henshaw Mattress Quartet frequently performed on the show. Benny would often describe how, “You just haven’t lived until you’ve stuck a dirty thumb in a hot bisquit, poured in some Johnny Fair Syrup from the Little Giant Mart, and took a big bite.” Still later, Les Eugene, Haskel Hayes, and Charles Pierce were the familiar faces on the black and white TV broadcasts from the Channel Six station on College Drive. I was blessed with these treasured experiences.
As I reflect on the event of my broken heart, the injustice of my punishment is more than offset by the comforting fact that, until my old brain is no longer of use to me I can close my eyes and smell that Jungle Gardenia, and hear that sweet whisper as if I were there now.