Miz Maddie’s School for Fine Young Ladies

By Linda Barbosa

I got a secret in my head that don’t nobody know ‘bout but me and Miz Ella. She the one who put it there, and she scared as me about it creepin’ out. It could mean a whuppin’ for me, and Lord knows what for Miz Ella. Only other peoples what know are my rock ladies, but they ain’t tellin’ no tales.

The trouble happened by accident around Christmas time. Missus say the Charleston winter too cold for Miz Ella’s health, so we was to play with her pretty white dolls upstairs. I didn’t mind keepin’ warm for once, and playin’ with them dolls made me happy as a possum with a sweet potato. They was six of ‘em, with smooth, satin dresses of pinks, blues and greens. Some had straight, shiny yellow hair like Miz Ella herself, and others had dark curls. For sure, none of ‘em had nappy scruff comin’ out they heads like me.

I was allowed to play with Miz Ella ‘cause my mamma cooked in the Missus’ kitchen. Matter of fact, the Missus was the one who come up with the idea. She was not like the mamma I had. My mamma kept me close, but the Missus didn’t cotton to spendin’ time with her young-uns. She had help for that, and we was it. My playin’ with Miz Ella kept both of us girls from gettin’ underfoot, and we didn’t mind. We was already fixin’ to be friends.

What Miz Ella liked to play most was school. She was the teacher, and she taught those fancy dolls the ABC’s and 123’s. I stayed quiet and did whatever Miz Ella told me.

Pick up Daisy, she would say, pointing her chubby finger toward the doll in blue. Fix her skirt and turn her this way. Make Suzanna stand up now. Here, let’s pretend she’s reading this book.

I tried not to show how excited I got when I laid my hands on somethin’ so fine as those dolls. If Miz Ella wasn’t watchin’, I would run my fingers over the soft, buttery fabric. Once Miz Ella let me fix Daisy’s hair, but not for long. Here, Maddie, she say real nice, let me do it. You probably don’t know how to comb white folks’ hair because yours is so… different.

Playin’ school with Miz Ella was fun, and thanks to her pretend teachin’, I figured out the letters and the sounds they made. I never made no show of it, but one day, the learnin’ just leaked out of my own careless head. Maddie, Miz Ella had said to me, It’s time to read to the class. Bring me Aesop’s Fables will you? Without thinkin’ I reached up and grabbed that book right off the shelf.

Save me, Baby Jesus. That was way too fast! I tried to act confused and put it back, but it was too late. Miz Ella’s eyes bugged outta her head like two boiled eggs.

How did you get that book so quickly? Maddie, can you… did you read that? My face burned like a fever. I didn’t want Miz Ella to be cross with me and her squinty-eyed look told me I best watch out.

I knew it by the color, I lied. I nearly said a swear to back it up, but Jesus don’t love a liar, so I bit my lip until I tasted blood. Miz Ella watched me close after that ‘cause instead of school we only played tea parties.

The thing about learnin’ is that once it gets a hankerin’ to start, it ain’t gonna stop. It gnaws at you like an empty belly, beggin’ for more. The bone-chillin’ winter gave way to the sweat and misery of summer. I was sick to death of pretend tea parties but I didn’t have no say in the matter.

Miz Ella still read stories to her dolls but she didn’t let me see the words no more. One of my favorite stories was The Crow and the Pitcher. Poor old crow was dyin’ of thirst when he come upon a pitcher. But they was only a drop of water in the bottom and he couldn’t reach it. Then he got an idea. He put one pebble after another into that pitcher ‘til the water rose up where he could get it, and he saved his own life.

Just like that crow, I had a thirst for learnin’ and it was makin’ me cranky. Why was it fine and dandy to teach a fancy doll whose head all full of cotton, but not a real girl made by God? Mamma taught me right from wrong, but she never say why readin’ was a sin. It didn’t make no sense. How else could the preacher read the Bible? He just as black as the rest of us. Mamma would know, but I would have to step careful with her.

Sunday after church, we sat on the front porch swattin’ mosquitoes and shellin’ peas from our little garden patch. Mamma sang and rocked in her old creaky chair like she ain’t got a care in the world. The day so heated up, the field crickets makin’ a ruckus just to create a breeze.

Mamma, it hot as the devil’s kitchen today, I whined. By the time we get done shellin’ these peas, they be halfway cooked.

You got that right, child, Mamma chuckled.

I was workin’ up the gumption to ask my question, but Mamma beat me to it. You awful quiet today, she say. Somethin’ weighin’ heavy on your mind? I reached for another handful of pods.

Mamma, why Preacher James allowed to read the Bible if readin’ be a sin? Preacher James a free man, she say, as if that explain everything. But why can’t slaves read and write, Mamma? If God give us a mind to, why the white folks keep us dumb as mules?

Mamma give me a warnin’ look like I done crossed a line. She look back to her peas and stay so quiet I think she gonna ignore my question. I felt the prickly heat rise up in my belly like I was fixin’ for trouble. I stomped my foot on the step and got up right in front of her, all full of sass and disrespect.

Why, Mamma? I asked louder. Ain’t you got no answer neither?

Now I done it. She gonna knock me into next week. But she don’t look mad at all. Her eyes got that soft, far-away look like she gonna tell a story. Mamma set down her bowl and pulled me onto her lap. I was a tangle of arms and legs, tight and angry, but she wrapped her arms around me and rocked back and forth like I was some fevered little baby.

Readin’ and writin’ be even worse sins for a slave, she finally said, because they prideful. They mean you think you’s gonna be somethin’ when you and Jesus both know you ain’t.

Mamma didn’t say nothin’ more after that. I went back to my peas while she just stared ahead at the dirt road. Maybe, I think, she watchin’ the ghosts of her own childish dreams join hands and walk away. I knew not to talk back to Mamma when she actin’ so peculiar, so I left her to herself.

But I was hoppin’ mad at Jesus. I knew it was a sin to be prideful, but I didn’t want no one, not even Jesus, tellin’ me what I was gonna be. Sinful or not, I needed those letters like the crops needed rain. If Jesus don’t want me to read, he shoulda thought of that before he give me a hunger for it.

Mamma say I’m stubborn and I guess she got that right. Just like that crow, I plunked in one pebble after another to get that drop of water. Little by little does the trick, Mr. Aesop say. I hunted for learnin’ every place I went. I begged Mamma to let me help out in the kitchen. Sometimes, I got to take the trash out to the burnin’ pit. All the smelly stuff went into the slop pail under the sink, but the trash sometimes had treasures. Soon as I got near the pit, I sneaked a look. If they was a scrap of paper with words, I tucked it into my shoe and ran to hide it in my tin box under the oak tree.

Way out back, behind the horse stable, the oak tree was past the reach of the nosy eyeballs up in the big house. The shade of that tree was the only natural gift the Good Lord give us, and it’s a wonder the white folks didn’t find somehow to snatch it away. Slave children played there when they could, and Sundays after church, we gathered there to sing and share our stories. Mamma always said if that tree could talk, it would tell stories on us all.

I was thankful it couldn’t tell on me, ‘cause when no one else was around, I had my own pretend school there. Miz Maddie’s School for Fine Young Ladies, I called it. I didn’t have no fancy dolls, but I had one thing Miz Ella didn’t have – ‘magination! Too much for my own good, Mamma said. I picked up three of the biggest rocks I could carry and lined them up on a little patch of grass. Then I gave my rock ladies they names. The yellow one was Emily. She was the prettiest. The red was Beatrice – the smartest. The plain one, Ruth, was slow, but she tried extra hard.

I plopped myself down and folded my skinny legs under me like a newborn colt. It was hard to be lady-like in an outgrown hand-me-down flour sack dress. Mamma say I like a cornstalk, shootin’ up fast but so skinny I have to stand up twice to make a shadow.

Like Miz Ella, I began my school with a song. Mine was about Baby Jesus in the manger. Mamma sometimes sang it when she makin’ bread for the Missus. I closed my eyes and sang it soft and sweet, just like Mamma done. I could picture her rockin’ back and forth, her big, dark hands covered in flour, pressin’ the dough into the board, foldin’ it over, turnin’ it ‘round, and leanin’ gently into it again. Mamma kneaded that dough like she was powderin' the behind of the Baby Jesus hisself.

Singin’ that song now made me hungry for the smell of fresh bread and my belly let out a growl.

Now class, I say, we fixin’ to learn our ABC’s. But first come the most important lesson of all. I leaned in close to whisper. You kin never tell nobody about your learnin’. Not your mamma nor even your best friend. If the Master or Missus finds out, it could wind you up in a world of trouble. It ain’t that hard for trouble to find you, neither. Mamma say trouble always come to the same peoples ‘cause it already know the way to they doorstep.

Trouble nearly got me found out on Mamma’s pie-bakin’ day. I was secretly readin’ tins and boxes in the Missus’ pantry when that vile woman snuck up behind me like a spider in the outhouse. I nearly jumped outta my knickers. What is the meaning of this, Caroline? she asked my mamma in that sharp, nasty tone of hers.

Sweet Jesus, have mercy! I had to think quick. The Missus might not figure I was readin’ but worse, if she thought I was stealin’ food that meant the whip for sure. That woman the meanest person God ever put breath in. She wouldn’t give a cleaned-off bone to a starvin’ dog. Mamma say the Missus squeeze a silver dollar so tight, Lady Liberty be hollerin’ for mercy.

Showin’ the Missus my best idjit smile, I tore off a label, and commenced to gnawin’ on the paper. It worked. The old woman grabbed her shawl and jumped two steps back. The ink was bitter on my tongue, but the victory tasted sweet as molasses.

Honestly, Caroline, the Missus say to my mamma, that child of yours is not right in the head. She shot me a pityin’ look over the rim of her eyeglasses and sucked her teeth in disgust. It will be a wonder if we can use her for field work next year.

Still playin’ the fool, I chewed that paper like it was a Christmas taffy. Yes’m, Mamma muttered, givin’ me the stink eye.

Missus wasn’t halfway down the hall before Mamma flew across the room and cuffed me ‘round the head. Go ahead, play like a billy goat! Think you’s funny?

I tried to wipe off my foolish grin, but I did think I was clever, and I didn’t want Mamma tellin’ me otherwise.

See how funny you feels when they trades you off for a real billy goat. Least then they’d have a dumb animal they could use!

I hung my head and slunk to the table where Mamma had her pies laid out for the oven. Sorry, Mamma, I mumbled, spitting out the paper. And I was. My face felt hot from the shame of makin’ myself and Mamma appear less than we was. If only I could explain why I acted so poorly. I wanted to make her proud, but I dared not give myself away. Mamma glanced at the doorway, then wiped flour onto her apron and sat down across from me. Lowering her voice she reached for both my hands.

Maddie, listen to me, girl. You think life a big joke? You think these folks gonna keep you ‘round here just ‘cause you my kin? Kin don’t mean nothin’ when your skin this color, child. You gots to prove yourself to be useful in some way so’s they wants to keep you ‘round. That be the only way you and me gonna stay together.

I could not look Mamma in the face. She was right of course. If the Missus figured me to be a halfwit, I’d be worthless to her. And white folks didn’t take kindly to a bad bargain. Sorry, Mamma, I repeated, but the words felt dry and harsh in my mouth. I hated that I made her ashamed of me. But mostly I hated disappointin’ Mamma on pie-bakin’ day. If I was a good help to her, she would make me a few little sweet rolls from the cut-off scraps of dough.

The delicious smells of apple and cinnamon drifted from the oven and curled around my nose to punish me. I knew from the way Mamma’s lips made that thin, straight line, I wouldn’t be gettin’ no sugary treats that day.

I told you that story, I said to my silent students, because it only take a moment of carelessness to get yourself caught. Then you gotta act the fool to get un-caught. It coulda turned out real bad if Mamma or the Missus found out my secret.

My legs was all prickly and heavy, so I stood up to take a good stretch. Emily, Beatrice and Ruth were very well-behaved. Unlike Miz Ella’s dolls, they didn’t need to be moved and fussed with. They sat patient as hungry dogs under a picnic table, waitin’ to be fed whatever come to them.

I picked up a stick to begin writin’ my letters when young Master Nathan, Miz Ella’s big brother, come snoopin’ around the corner of the stable. He was mean as Miz Ella was nice, and I been told to keep my distance. I took my writin’ stick and knocked on my three rocks like they was drums. He shook his head and kept on walkin’.

That boy don’t bother me one lick. Just ‘cause his skin all pasty and white, he ain’t the Holy Ghost. Let him think I’m dumb as a rock. Let the Missus think I’m a billy goat. It don’t matter. Jesus and me know what’s in my head, and I reckon Jesus don’t stay up nights worryin’ hisself about my ABC’s.

I knew my secret was powerful, and I knew why white folks was so scared of it. One day it would take me far away from this place. Peoples would wag they tongues and wonder, how did Maddie get a notion to leave here? And how did that ignorant girl make her way out there in the world?

Lookin’ around one more time to be sure I was alone, I dug up my little tin box, opened the latch and took out a small piece of paper. I sat up straight and lowered my voice.

Today, class, I began, we readin’ a real fine recipe for Southern peach cobbler.

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