Southern Legitimacy Statement: I grew up in the Kentucky countryside. When we were kids, my brother and I ran across some poems by James Whitcomb Riley in an old discarded literature book. That book got knocked about in our house, but would turn up from time to time and we’d read the poems. I guess we liked him so much ’cause he sounded like us.
Justice for Charlie
Miss Bessie was our substitute that day ‘cause our teacher was out sick. If Miss Connie’d been there things wouldn’t’ve gone the way they did, ‘cause she’d know Charlie. She’d know he didn’t have a winter coat, didn’t have a quarter for lunch money, and probably didn’t get enough to eat at home. She would’ve had some sympathy for him, understood about the paper. But Miss Bessie was there that day and she seemed a little short on tender feelings. Maybe it was on account of she had a hard life, one that had driven the sympathy right out of her. Her husband was a drunk. It wasn’t pleasant, living with a drunk, ‘specially in this God-fearing country. If you were part of their family, you were tarred and feathered with the shame of it, too.
All of us children were poor, but some were poorer still, like Charlie. He was one of the “drop-in” students that we got from time to time. They would come to school for a few months and then the family would pick up and move. Occasionally they’d come back and go for a month or two more. Kids like that couldn’t’ve got much of an education.
Anyway, this is what happened. That afternoon we were having a spelling test. Miss Bessie told us to write our name at the top of our paper, then she began to call out the words. From my seat towards the back of the room I saw Charlie take a raggedy old sheet from his desk. A big part of one corner had been ripped off and it looked like it’d been stepped on, ‘cause the dirty imprint of a shoe was right there on it. He wrote the words, but then he must’ve had second thoughts, ‘cause he fiddled in his desk and came up with a piece that wasn’t quite so ratty-looking. Charlie began to copy the words he’d already written. That’s when Miss Bessie noticed him. She came by his desk and snatched up both papers, the one with the words written and the one that he was copying. He tried to explain how he’d decided part ways through the test to use a different sheet, but Miss Bessie wasn’t having it. She called him out as a cheat in front of all of us, and I just sat there. I’d seen the whole thing, but I never said a word. The moment passed, and it was too late.
All that was bad enough, but it wasn’t the end of it. Someone had left a 50-cent piece on the teacher’s desk to pay for lunches. For some reason she didn’t put it away. The class was all but ready to line up for recess when Miss Bessie discovered the coin was missing. We children got real quiet. She just stood up in front of the room, looking down at us in a sorrowful way. Then she told us an awful story about somebody who’d started out taking little things and, then, years later, ended up hanged. She began to walk slowly up and down the aisles. That must’ve made Charlie nervous, ‘cause he tried to hide the money in his desk, and Miss Bessie caught him by his shirt collar and hauled him up out of his seat, calling loudly that he was the one. He was in full disgrace now. A cheat and a thief. She took him to the principal’s office, sending the rest of us to the playground with Mrs. King’s class. When we came inside again, Charlie was asleep. It wasn’t long till time to go home, and we all tried to be good, so as not to aggravate Miss Bessie anymore.
In time, Charlie moved on, though he came back to our school a time or two over the years. I didn’t really pay much attention, but once in a while it comes back to me how I should’ve helped him that day. Maybe if I’d taken up for him, he would’ve thought better about stealing the money. A little justice goes a long way. But I can’t have that moment back to stand up for poor Charlie, and it doesn’t help at all to say I’m sorry to the memory of a boy.