by CLARA LAIDLAW
HIYA, Miss Conway. Nice mornin’,” called a friendly, piping voice one morning, the Wednesday of my first week of teaching in Michewasca.
I looked up from my lesson plans, and there, beaming at me through a crack in the door, was a little round face — the face of a cherub out of a Renaissance painting, only bronze-black.
I said, “Good morning, fellow. How are you?”
“O.K., Miss Conway!” he chanted mischievously, and then disappeared like Alice’s Cheshire cat, leaving his grin behind him quite tangibly.
“Now who’s that happy little pickaninny?” I asked myself.
That night as I was leaving the building, the heavy outer door began opening before me, apparently of its own volition. I glanced down, and there was my black cherub grinning, his little shoulders braced against the big door.
“’Night, Miss Conway,” he chirped.
“Thank you,” I said, patting his kinky black head as he ducked and giggled, “but how do you know my name?”
“Me?” he asked, chuckling. “Oh! Me! Why, I know ever’body, and I just go ever’place,” and he added, as if it explained everything, “I’m Benjie Bailey.”
He let the big door fall shut behind us and came loping along at my side.
“Well, Benjie Bailey,” I said, looking down at him, “it looks as though we are going to be friends.”
“Sure does, Miss Conway,” he said, and then, suddenly shy, he ran away.
I looked after the little fellow, warmed and cheered by his friendliness, and after that I mentioned Benjie several times to the few people I knew. From their various replies, I pieced together a pleasant picture of the isolated Negro family, Bcnjie’s people, unassuming, honest, God-fearing folk, who had won and kept the respect and affection of these Northern people, and were accepted apparently without reservation as citizens and neighbors and friends.
It was a good and heart-warming picture my white friends made me see. Yet, except for what I saw of him from time to time around school, I knew no more at first hand of Benjie Bailey or of his background than I had known that first day, until one night in early January.
Fresh snow had fallen that day, and the town looked new-created, veiled in white velvet. I thoroughly enjoyed myself that night after dinner. I doubt that there was a back street in Michewasca on which I did not set foot. The stars came out and the moon, and the new whiteness shone with a thousand thousand jewels; and still I tramped, oblivious to the cold — indeed to everything but my delight in the snow.
That is, I kept on until suddenly I became conscious that I was lost. I circled several blocks, feeling as if I had been transported bodily into a st range town. My eyes, stung by the sharp night wind, filled with tears, and the tears froze on my lashes. I began to feel very cold. Just then I heard a voice call, “Hiya, Miss Conway. Where you going?”
I turned and there was Benjie halfway down the block, his round little face in its encircling snowhelmet beaming darkly in the bright moonlight. He waved one mittened hand. The other was occupied in pulling a sled.
“Going?” I said, trying unsuccessfully to keep my teeth from chattering. “I’m trying to go home. I seem to be lost.”
“Hob! No, ma’am. You ain’t lost,” he said and then shouted with laughter. “You’re just round the corner from the Soo lane depot.”
“Am I?” I said helplessly, holding my cold, kidgloved hands to my colder ears. “Where’s that?”
“Why, that’s just across from my grampa’s shop,” Benjie said with the air of locating us beyond the shadow of any doubt. “You just come with me, Miss Conway,” he counseled. “I’ll take care of you. Sure is cold,” he added, clapping his mittened hands together and stamping.
We rounded the corner, bending against the piercing north wind, and Benjie galloped briskly ahead through the snow toward the one lighted shop on the dark street, his sled careening recklessly after him. I followed more gingerly, for my feet felt half-frozen. As I passed, I peered in through the frosted plate-glass to the lighted shopwindow with its clean white curtains at the back, its display of sugar-coated cookies, crisp brown fried cakes, and one immense devil’s-food cake with lusciouslooking boiled frosting coated with a thin film of dark chocolate. “Eatery and Bakery,” said the legend on the window.
Benjie threw open the door, making the little bell above it tinkle. “Come on in, Miss Conway,” he called proudly, holding the door for me.
In answer to the tinkling of the bell, a very old Negro man came through a curtained doorway, walking with stiff energy, his frail back a little bent.
“This is my grampa,” said Benjie, looking as if he’d burst with pride. “Grampa, this is that, one I told you about — Miss Conway.”
“Evening, ma’am,” the old man said courteously.
“Miss Conway’s come to get warmed up ‘fore I show her how to get home,” Benjie explained importantly, hauling a big chair over to the rosywindowed old coal-stove for me.
“What you need, ma’am,” said the old man, a coaxing note in his cracked voice, “is a n-nice hot cup of tea. Benjie, go tell your gramma.”
Benjie ran into the back room and was back almost before he had left.
“Gramma says that tea’ll be here in just two shakes of a lamb’s tail,” he reported.
The tea came, a steaming cupful, borne by an old Negro woman, who peered curiously at me over the cup, her silver-rimmed glasses resting halfway to the end of her short nose.
I drank the tea, and after a while, when I had stopped shivering, I began to pay more attention to the spotless shop and to Benjie’s folks. There was a tenderness between the old Negro couple and the little boy, a mutual pride that was good to see.
As we were leaving, Benjie eager to show me the way home, I drew out my purse to pay for the tea, but Benjie’s grandmother waved it away.
“You was our Benjie’s company,” she said firmly, wrinkling her nose to hold the glasses in place so that she could look up into my face. “It wouldn’t be nice for you to pay.”
On the way home Benjie’s chatter stilled a moment. “I wish,” he said at last, his little face very serious, “I wish you knew my mom, too,” and he added, looking up at me coaxingly, “My mom is awful nice.”
“I’m sure she is, Benjie,” I said, patting his shoulder.
WHEN I went again to the shop of Benjie’s folks, it was with the hope that I should meet Mary Bailey there. Benjie, dressed for outdoors, met me at the shop door.
“Mom!” he yelled, not taking time to greet me but snatching his snow-helmet off his cropped black head hurriedly, “Mom, come quick. Miss Conway’s here.”
As his mother entered and Benjie was mumbling a beaming introduction, impatient boy-voices were calling him. He ignored them, watching his mother proudly, scuffing one overshoed foot against the base of the counter in embarrassed but rapturous pleasure. The impatient voices grew louder, and Benjie lifted one black eyebrow in their direction.
“Guess I got to go,” he said reluctantly. “Don’t you leave, Miss Conway, till I come back. Got to build a snow fort.”
He dashed out, and a moment later we could see him outside the window, in company with four rosycheeked white youngsters.
I turned back then to Benjie’s mother. There was a fine-drawn beauty about Mary Bailey s thin, black face, a. depth in her clear eyes that I felt I had known would be there. When she smiled after the boy, her expressive, friendly eyes lighted up like Benjie’s and two fine lines on either side of her mouth deepened. Those sharp lines in her young face made me pause and wonder.
From outdoors a joyous shout came to our ears, and we both smiled, recognizing Benjie’s laughter.
“He’s the happiest child I’ve ever known,” I said, impulsively.
I was unprepared for the naked seriousness of her deep eyes when she looked at me.
“I think he is,” she said at last earnestly, her voice sounding like a prayer. “Oh, he is. I pray he’ll always be as happy.”
Her words hung in the air for a long moment after they had been spoken. The things she didn’t say spoke in the silence eloquently, as only unspoken words can speak, and for the first time in my life I realized in more than an intellectual way the struggle of the worthy, the sensitive black woman or man for a full and happy life in the shadow of the dangling sword of prejudice.
The moment passed and she smiled again as her son and his friends, snow-covered, burst in to invite us to view the world’s finest snow fort. I went away soon after, though Benjie’s wet, mittened hand clung to mine, holding me back from going.
On the way home and often thereafter, I kept thinking of the picture, the pretty, comfortable picture my white friends had painted for me — that picture of the little Negro family living in amity and respect with their white neighbors; that picture that should everywhere be real, but was not always so. How fine, I thought, if only here in this quiet town the human spirit could come into its own — that here men and women could be judged as people and not as either white or black.
The old folks died that next winter, just two days apart. Benjie came into my homeroom the week after the funeral and stood quietly listening while I told him how sorry I was. He kept looking up at my face, his eyes fixed on mine unblinkingly, while the tears rolled unheeded down his round cheeks.
“My grampa would of been glad that you and everybody came,” he said at last seriously, controlling the tremor of his lips, “and my gramma would of liked all the flowers.”
He stood for a moment, remembering. Then he asked tremulously, “People liked my grampa and gramma, didn’t they?”
“Yes,” I said. “They were good people, Benjie.”
It seemed as simple as that.
I WATCHED Benjie come up through junior high and into senior high, and he was still Benjie — cherub grin, puppv-dog friendliness, round bronze-black little-boy face.
When he entered my English class in his senior year, we had long been friends. He was an excellent student, besides being named All Upper Peninsula quarterback, too, in his junior year.
Everyone, teachers and students alike, loved Benjie, so no one was much surprised when the senior class, with magnificent unanimity, elected him class president. Yet Benjie in his senior year was still a little boy in many ways, for all his six-foot height and his sixteen years.
“Golly, Miss Conway,” he said, returning the third book he had attempted to read for a book report, “haven’t you got something without any of that slushy love-stuff in it? Gosh, a fellow isn’t interested in reading that stuff all the time — none of the fellows I know are.”
I looked up at him, suspecting irony, but Benjie was quite serious and honest-eyed about it.
We went down to the library together and began looking through the stacks for a book for Benjie.
“ Have you ever read this? ” I asked him, reaching up to the top shelf and handing him a copy of Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery.
“No, ma’am,” he said, taking it and opening it curiously. “What’s it about?”
“It’s about one of the greatest men of your race who ever lived, Benjie,” I said, wondering just what his attitude toward his ancestry was.
He looked up, his wide eyes sparkling, his round black nose shining. “Sounds good,” he said, “but he’d have to go some to be greater than my grampa. You remember my grampa, Miss Conway?”
“Of course I do, Benjie,” I said. “He was a fine old man.”
“Sure,” he said, dismissing my praise as too obvious to matter. “My gramma, too. They wore pretty nice folks. Did you know my grampa left me money so I could go to college?”
“Why, Benjie,” I said, surprised, “that’s fine. Why didn’t you tell me before? Have you been taking the right courses so that you can enter?”
“I guess so,” he said unconcernedly. “My grampa left me a letter, too — did I tell you? He said in it he never had any chance to get an education himself so he wanted me to go to college. ‘ And you be sure and finish, Benjie,’ he said. ‘No matter what, you finish. Don’t you ever start anything and not go through with it. And be a good boy, Benjie.’ Golly, he was swell, Miss Conway.”
“Indeed he was,” I agreed. “Well, Benjie, now I know your grandfather would have liked you to read this book. Better take it.”
“Would he have, honestly, Miss Conway?” he asked seriously, his candid eyes searching my face.
“Honestly,” I nodded.
So Benjie Bailey took Up from Slavery home to read. He came tearing into my homeroom the next Monday afternoon on his way to football practice.
“Can I make an oral report fifth period tomorrow, Miss Conway, please?” he panted, standing on one leg half inside the door to indicate his haste.
“Yes, you may,” I said.
“Oh, sure. May I?” he corrected himself, grinning at me.
I assented, and he dashed out, his courteous “Thanks” floating through the door to me after he himself was out of sight.
The Benjie who came in my free period the next day was outwardly calm and deliberate, but one look into his eyes told me he was consumed with an inner, controlled excitement.
“Miss Conway,” he said explosively.
I smiled, looking up from my desk and motioning for him to pull up a chair. He seemed not to see my gesture but continued to walk back and forth in front of the tables.
“Miss Conway,” he repeated, “I want to say — to say ‘Thanks.’”
He paused then and did pull a chair over and sit down. “For recommending that book,” he added, in explanation. “ Miss Conway, that book’s changed my whole outlook on life.”
“Has it, Benjie?” I said, straightening the row of books on my desk and wondering why I didn’t feel like smiling at his bombast.
“Yes, it has,” he said, positively. “I was just a fool kid before. Now I know what I want to do in life.” He looked at me, beaming confidently. “I’m going to be a lawyer, Miss Conway, a good one, and work to make conditions better for my people. I’m proud to belong to a race that has had men in it like this man.”
He touched the book, not taking his eyes off mine. I nodded, smiling at his enthusiasm.
“Listen,” he commanded excitedly, raising one pale-nailed finger in admonition. “Listen to this. It’s on page 281—I memorized the page, anyhow.” He began leafing through the book. “Here it is.” He bent over the book earnestly, one black finger tracing the lines. “ ‘ When a Negro girl learns to cook, to wash dishes, to sew, to write a book, or a Negro boy learns to groom horses, or to grow sweet potatoes, or to produce butter, or to build a house, or to be able to practise medicine, as well or better than someone else, they will be rewarded regardless of race or colour.’”
There must have been the shadow of doubt in my face when he finished reading and looked up, for he said urgently, “You believe that, too, don’t you, Miss Conway? Don’t you?”
I hesitated for a second, and he went on, almost stammering in his earnestness. “I guess you’re thinking most of those things Mr. Washington says we can do are — are — sort of common things.”
I shook my head slightly, for that had not been my thought, but he didn’t notice.
“Well, I thought so too, at first, but it’s all one piece with what he says all through about being proud of working, of having something you can do good — I mean, well. See, here he says again—” Benjie indicated another passage in the book and read: “‘I think that the whole future of my race hinges on the question as to whether or not it can make itself of such indispensable value that the people in the town and the stale where we reside will feel that our presence is necessary to the happiness and well-being of the community.’”
He looked up and his eyes suddenly brightened with tears. “That was my grampa,” he said simply.
“Yes,” I said, “that was your grandpa, Benjie. And that can be you, too, if you get to be that ‘good lawyer’ you said you were going to be. How well prepared are you to go to college?”
From then on, the “book report” consisted mostly of checking on Benjie’s desires and qualifications to follow in the footsteps of Booker T. Washington, of an analysis of schools and universities which would contribute most to Benjie’s future training, and of a discussion of just how much Benjie’s high school courses, past and present, had contributed toward preparing him for his college career.
When I questioned him about speech training, Benjie looked rather sheepish. “I sort of sidestepped that, Miss Conway,” he admitted, looking ashamed. “I’m just practically petrified when I have to talk out loud.”
“ If you’re going to be a lawyer, don’t you think you’ll need it?” I asked.
“I suppose so,” he said reluctantly, “but here it’s most November. Isn’t it too late to change? Gosh, and I can’t drop any of my other subjects. I need them all, too.”
“You could go out for oration,” I suggested. “You’re good at writing themes, and I’ll help you with the technique of speaking even if you’re not in speech class. That is, if you want me to help you.”
“Do I?” he said earnestly. “Golly, Miss Conway, would you really?”
“You get a subject and start writing, and I’ll be here to help when you strike a snag.”
“Gosh, thanks. Thanks. ‘Bye.”
He dashed out of the classroom, only to thrust his round black face in again a moment later with a gesture which made me think of the happy little pickaninny of six years before.
“Gee, Miss Conway, I forgot. Was that book report O.K.?”
“It was ‘O.K.,’” I said, smiling.
BENJIE’S oration, “The Coming War and the American Negro,” — it was 1940, — won first place in our district of the Upper Peninsula. Benjie brought home the University of Michigan banner for first honors in oratory, and we had a big ceremony the next day in assembly, with Benjie presenting the banner to the school. He was still “ petrified to talk out loud,” for he shifted nervously back and forth from foot to foot when they got him up there in the front of the assembly-room stage. I wondered a bit anxiously if the blue and gold felt of the banner would withstand the punishment Benjie’s nervous fingers were giving it.
“Well, kids — and teachers,” he said, grinning in embarrassment, “I don’t know how it happened, but here it is.”
He thrust out the banner toward them. The students clapped enthusiastically.
“ Don’t you kids clap for me,” Benjie said earnestly, after he had motioned for them to stop. “ It was all Miss Conway, She said, ‘Benjie, that piece of wall there over the door would look awfully nice draped with a blue and gold banner for oratory.5 So I went and got it for her.”
The students almost brought down the roof, and nothing would do but I must go up on the stage, too, and shake hands with Benjie. After I had stepped down again, they called for Benjie to make a speech
“Gosh, I can’t, kids,” he said candidly. “Unless I have Miss Conway help me practice a lot, I can’t say a thing. I guess I’m just a Svengali.”
I laughed to myself, remembering that Benjie, when he had reported on, of all books, Trilby, had insisted upon calling the hypnotist Trilby and the heroine Svengali. Error is strong and will prevail, in spite of English teachers.
Even his success in public speaking didn’t seem to lose Benjie any friends, which is an unusual thing. Every once in a while I had to listen to a panegyric on the good qualities of Benjie Bailey from boys and girls alike, as when Teresa Malone began to sing his praises one day after school.
Teresa was a pretty little sophomore, with an Irish charm and wit, a saucy blue eye, and crisp black curls. Now she leaned dreamily over the front desk and gazed out of the window, her profile to me. Her elbows were planted on the desk-top and her round little posterior was outlined against her silk jersey skirt.
“Miss Conway, I think Benjie Bailey is the nicest boy in Michewasca,” she said, quite irrelevantly. We had just been talking about Silas Marner’s finding Eppie in “de tole hole.”
“So?” I said, smiling. “And what did Silas do to Eppie, then?”
Teresa wriggled her fiat little tummy along the desk-top and then pushed herself upright on her palms.
“ I feel so sorry for him, though,” she said, looking at me earnestly. “He’s so — so sort of all alone. I wish everyone would be twice as nice to him because he’s so alone.”
“Alone!” I said, laughing. “Why, Benjie’s never alone.”
“But yes, he is, Miss Conway,” she insisted seriously. “Oh, he’s got loads of school friends, and everybody likes him, and he’s president of his class and everything — but he’s alone just the same.”
She was standing very straight now, clasping her hands tightly together in her earnestness.
“Because he’s — different? ” I said. “Yes, I suppose you’re right, Teresa. I’ve never thought of Benjie’s being exactly lonely, though — Benjie, of all people.”
I watched him sometimes after that, wondering if he himself realized what Teresa’s sensitive spirit had divined of the isolation of his position. I had grown so used to seeing that one black face among the crowd of white faces that I felt something of a shock in really seeing the difference now with eyes made freshly aware. He was, indeed, alone in an undeniable sense, though I could not believe that he himself was conscious of that loneliness. Surrounded by “school friends,” as Teresa had called them, he did not seem aware that full friendship went beyond what he had, beyond what he could ever have here among an alien people, however friendly they might be.
I felt a little stab of fear for the time that must inevitably come when Benjie would awaken into full consciousness of his isolation.
IT WAS late May. The days of Benjie’s senior year were drawing to a close and Commencement week was approaching. But first came the Senior Ball. Benjie, with characteristic thoughtfulness, had appointed himself chairman of the decorating committee, since he was unwilling to ask anyone else to work harder than he did himself.
The afternoon of the ball, I went down to the gym to see how matters were progressing. Benjie, his face shiny and warm, beamed at my praises.
“Hope everything looks as nice tonight with the lights and things,” he said, turning to survey the rose and white ropes of crepe paper strung in intricate designs about the gym. “I’m bringing my mom just to see how pretty it looks. I told her and she said it sounded just like fairyland.”
He grinned, a little shamefaced, but proud in spite of himself.
“Be sure to bring your mother over to see me tonight, Benjie,” I said. “It’s been years since I’ve talked with her.”
“Gosh, thanks, Miss Conway,” he said. “I sure will.”
Under the rosy lights, the gym that night was like a child’s dream of fairyland. There was a sleepy quality about it, made up of the dim lights, the rather overpowering beat of the not too good local orchestra, the monotonous swishing of dancing feet on the waxed floor, the weaving in and out of multicolored formals on the slim little bodies of schoolgirls on whom anklets and knee-length dresses were the expected things, so that they all seemed to be masquerading as grown-up young ladies.
Neil Allen, the science teacher, and I danced for a while and then went to sit down near the door. Neil mopped his forehead and departed in search of “something to cool us off.” While he was gone, Benjie and Mary Bailey appeared in the gym door.
Mary was in a street dress. There was a whispered conference, during which Mary started to withdraw shyly and Benjie caught her impulsively by the sleeve. I rose and went over to them.
“She won’t come in,” Benjie said, “because she hasn’t got on a long dress.”
I pointed out several of the older ladies on the side lines who were not wearing formals, and finally persuaded Mary Bailey to come in and sit down.
Benjie stood behind us, pointing out to his mother the details of the decorations, beaming proudly at our praise of his handiwork. In the rosy gloom the dancing couples floated by obliviously, each in its little world of pleasant motion and engrossing sound. Benjie watched them in obvious pleasure, his eyes dancing in elation as if the dancers were themselves a part of his design. His feet moved in time to the music.
“There’s Arne and Teresa,” he said, and we watched the couple dance toward us, the boy blond and tall, Teresa small and darkly pretty in her bright blue formal.
Just opposite us, she turned her head and saw Benjie. Quite unaffectedly she grinned and waved a friendly hand. She said something to Arne, because he too looked over at Benjie, smiled, and made an approving gesture that took in the whole scene.
Mary Bailey saw and understood what came next before I did. I was looking at her and saw her face stiffen and her eyes shine with a wild fear.
“Benjie,” she said. “Don’t! Oh, don’t!”
The music flowed over her voice and obliterated it, but the sound of it made me look up. Benjie was moving among the dancers, his black face shining with friendliness. He was tapping Arne’s shoulder and saying something to Arne and Teresa. The whole scene seemed frozen, though the music went on and on. Arne, Teresa, Benjie, all stood still as statues, like the still photograph coming suddenly after the motion picture ceases to move.
Around them several other couples stopped and seemed frozen too, in the rosy dimness. Arne said something then, for his lips moved, soundlessly it seemed. His arm went out in the half-light, and Benjie stumbled back against two other boys standing behind him. Arne caught at Teresa quickly, and they danced away, Teresa’s face white and frightened-looking as her eyes followed Benjie and the two boys who were walking one on each side of him, seeming to expostulate with him as he hurried through the dancing crowd and out the gym door.
It had all happened so quickly that few saw or knew that anything had taken place. Mary Bailey’s mouth quivered, and she raised an unsteady hand to it in a vague, lost way. After a second she rose, motioned for me not to follow her, and started toward the door. The two boys who had walked with Benjie met her coming in. They stood aside courteously to let her pass, a queer noncommittal hardness making their faces like masks.
That was all.
Only Benjie didn’t come back to school the next week, nor the week after that. Our seniors don’t take final examinations, so Benjie could still graduate — that is, if he would come back.
IT WAS the afternoon before Commencement that I went up the street leading to the little shop, Mary Bailey started when, answering the tinkling bell, she saw me standing by the counter. For a moment. she hesitated and then motioned toward the inner room.
“He’s — in there,” she whispered.
Benjie was sitting in front of the window staring out, a book held in his hands almost as if he were caressing it. He must have thought I was his mother coming in, for he didn’t turn or speak. For a moment I stood looking down at him, at his good black face shining with cleanness and honesty.
I put my hand on his shoulder. “I want you to come back, Benjie,” I said softly. “I’ve brought your cap and gown. I want you to come back tonight.”
“Miss Conway!” he cried, jumping to his feet. “Miss Conway.”
He stopped as if something had choked up in him so that ho could scarcely speak.
“Come back?” he asked, his voice sounding strangled and thin.
“Yes, Benjie,” I said, sounding more calm and assured than I felt.
He stared at me a moment and then, turning sharply, he strode toward the window. When he spoke at last, his back was still toward me.
“I can’t. Not after—”
He stopped, and I waited. At last he turned and faced me, his eyes unnaturally wide and shining.
“Miss Conway, Arne Sjostrom — he said I had no right to ask Teresa to dance with me. He said because I was — I was black, I had no right.”
He stood looking at me for vindication, bright indignation blazing in his eyes.
“But I had, Miss Conway,” he said, positive urgency in his voice. “I had, hadn’t I? Just like anybody else?”
The moments ticked away in silence while his eyes held mine unwaveringly.
Slowly I shook my head.
He said queerly, “You mean — ?”
When I did not speak, he swallowed hard and went on, “You mean — Arne was right?”
“Why?” he said faintly, bewildered. “Why?”
Then louder, almost angrily, “But I don’t feel any different from other people. None of you ever made me feel — alone before.”
“Benjie.” My voice rang sharply in my own ears as I spoke, but I didn’t want him to go on, to say what would hurt us both later, remembering. “Sit down,” I added, motioning toward the chair.
With automatic obedience he drew the chair nearer me and sat down. His eyes, when he looked up at me, were clouded, but deep in them I felt some part of the old faith.
“Benjie,” I said, “you know I am fond of you.”
He nodded, swallowing again.
“You know I would not hurt you for the world?”
“You’ve always been awful good to me, Miss Conway,” he said with sincerity.
“I’m going to be honest with you, Benjie,” I said, fear crackling within me like electricity, for I felt my own lack of sufficient wisdom to see the problem straight and to make him see. “I’m going to be as honest with you as I know how to be.”
His eyes questioned me.
“Arne is right,” I said. “I can’t tell you why. I don’t even know why, but he’s right, Benjie.”
“But, Miss Conway,” he protested. “I’m just folks — I’ve always been just folks. Nobody ever — ever shut me out before. I never felt — different before.”
“But you are different, Benjie,” I said as gently as I could, my heart misgiving me for my conscious cruelty. “ In many ways there is a wall, a wall without a door, between you and your world — the people of this town — even your friends. The only way you can be free of that wall is to see it, accept it, and build your life over and around it. It’s — it’s like the Bible says, that he who loses his life shall find it.”
“I don’t understand,” he said, frowning.
“If you wnn’t see the wall,” I said, desperately trying to make him understand,“you dash yourself against it. You bruise yourself. But see it, accept it, and you can forget it.”
“How can I,” he asked, his voice edged with bitterness, “when I know now what you — what they all think of me?”
I watched him as he stood up, his bronze-black face hard, the little-boy roundness grown set and resentful.
“What is it the Constitution says?” he asked with bitter irony. “Something about there being no discrimination against anyone because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude?” He looked at me, but there seemed no trust in his eyes any more.
“Doesn’t that mean anything, Miss Conway? Did it ever mean anything, Miss Conway?”
“You ought to know, Benjie,” I said, a little sharply. “Has anyone ever— ?”
“No,” he said, looking at me, his eyes like black steel. “Nobody until now.”
The silence seemed to lengthen out around us, queerly empty yet disturbed in its lack of sound, like the echoing silence in the heart of a shell.
And then suddenly Benjie’s face changed, broke, and he was crying, standing there, his big hands hanging helplessly, the tears rolling down out of his open eyes as they had that other time when he had been a little boy and his grandparents had died.
When Benjie Bailey marched into the big auditorium and up onto the raised platform, the last of the long line of graduates in their black caps and gowns, there was a sudden indrawing of breath and turning of heads in the audience. The story of what had happened at the ball had spread. Benjie’s face, stern and drawn, grew even more still at the sound of that involuntary sigh, but he mounted the steps steadily and took his place, baring his cropped, kinky head as the minister began the invocation.
There was a spattering of applause as each graduate came forward to receive his diploma. The clapping for the captain of the football team exceeded by only a little the hearty round of applause for the charming little valedictorian. The line moved along slowly. The audience grew a little tired of clapping, and the pattering of applause grew fainter.
“Benjie Bailey,” droned the principal.
Benjie stepped hastily forward, his robe ballooning out behind him. He removed his cap. I could see from my seat how a muscle in his black cheek twitched and pulled. There was a moment of complete stillness as the president of the board of education put the diploma in his hand while Benjie, bowing gravely, thanked him.
And then it came. With the same involuntary unity that had marked the sigh of surprise at his entrance, the audience and Benjie’s classmates all at once burst into a bedlam of applause. The ovations for the valedictorian and the football captain were mild in comparison with this. People stood up in the audience and clapped and stamped.
Through a film of tears I could see the strain and the stiffness leave Benjie’s face, and the fire of an almost unbelieving hope begin to blaze in his eyes. As he stumbled back to his seat, boys clapped him on the back and Arne Sjostrom rose to shake his hand.
I DON’T believe that Benjie, or any of us, quite understood from what depths and out of what emotions that ovation arose. Even now I’m not sure, but somehow I think Benjie got close to understanding it in the last letter I had from him.
He had been with his regiment in England for several months, and this letter was written from there only a few days before what was to be D Day. We haven’t heard much from him since. Still, no news is good news, we say.
Whether Benjie comes back or not, it seems to me significant — significant, and somehow imperative — for us to know that just before he went across — before all of them went — he was concerned about, not the days of danger immediately ahead, but what home was going to be like after it was all over.
Thanks for the copy of Up from Slavery you sent me. It’s great stuff, and means plenty to me. You know how much, I guess.
There’s one place especially, where Mr. Washington says, “The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing.”
That’s sense, Miss Conway. If you’ve got something honestly coming to you, folks are pretty fine about giving it without you having to ask. I’m the one that knows that for sure. I wish Mr. Washington was alive today to show us what to do. There wouldn’t be so much fool shouting for rights, and then thcre’d be more quiet honoring of folks that were worthy of honor. At least, that’s what he’d say, seems to me.
The English here are fine to us Negro soldiers. They treat us just like the folks back home in Michewasca treated me. Some of the boys couldn’t get used to it, but it seemed natural for me. Sure we’re all just people.
I’ve been thinking a lot of when I come back, and of the sort of life I want to make then. From what I can see so far. Miss Conway, the big real things, like kindness and neighborliness and — don’t laugh — beauty, haven’t anvthing to do with the sort of walls we talked about. I don’t seem to be able to say it the way I feel it, but, Miss Conway, I want a life that’s big, that’s up there so clear and high that walls look like the stone fences between the fields you see sometimes in England when you go up on a hill and look down.
Everything seems to flatten out, like my grandma’s patchwork quilt, and you can see the fences between the fields like the featherstitching my grandma used to do between the blocks. The fences are still there, the walls are still there, but when you’re high up you can see that they aren’t so much, compared to the whole thing. Over there are the big fields stretching out, and the walls are just thin lines between. Down low, those stone walls look awful broad and firm, but not when you’re up high.
I don’t mean the walls aren’t there, Miss Conway. I know they are, mine and the fields’, and I’m glad you made me see mine and made me grow that much in seeing.
But I want to live my life on the high places and see things, how they compare to each other right. I want such a life that I don’t need to say, “I have to do this because there’s a wall in front of me, because I’m black,” but “I do this because I’m Benjie Bailey, because I’m me.”
I don’t know if I can have that sort of a life. I don’t know. But when this thing is over and I come home again, wish me luck, Miss Conway, because I’m going to try.
Thanks for everything.
Your old student,