Every Monday morning, the fourth grade teacher began class with the same questions, beginning with the girl who sat at the desk nearest the door and continuing with every other student: “Did you go to Sunday school and church yesterday?” and if the answer was “Yes, ma’am” then, “What did you study in Sunday school” and “What was the subject of the preacher’s sermon?” If the answer was “No, ma’am” the teacher asked, “Why didn’t you go to Sunday school and church yesterday?” Answers almost always were, “My mother was sick,” or “My daddy was sick.”
For three of us, though, the answer every Monday was “No, ma’am.” We three, all boys, sat in the same area of the classroom, at the back and near the windows, farthest from the teacher and last to answer. And every Monday we waited while other kids received praise from the teacher or admonition when a sermon subject wasn’t remembered or a Sunday school topic. We waited to say “No, ma’am,” and we waited to hear the teacher ask why we hadn’t gone to Sunday school and church the day before and we gave the same answers week after week – “I don’t know” or “I just didn’t.”
One Monday one of the other boys said, “My daddy said we don’t have to go to church.” The teacher was a bit ruffled by that response. She said, “Everybody should go to Sunday school and church.” That Monday, too, I gave the answer my mother gave when I told her of the Monday morning questioning: “I don’t have any church clothes.” That stopped the teacher for a moment. “Oh,” she said, and then she went to the last boy.
Later that week, Thursday, when I got to class, the teacher said to me, “Tell your older sister you won’t ride the bus home. I’m taking you somewhere after school.” I did not ask where she was taking me or why; I just said, “Yes, ma’am.”
After school, well after school when all the buses were gone and there were only teachers in the building, my teacher said, “Come with me,” and she and I went to the parking lot and got in her two-year-old Buick and drove the two miles to Naples. She drove to a house and as she parked, explained: “You know Joe Smith. He is two years older than you, but you are about his size. His mother said she has dress slacks and shirts Joe no longer wears. We will find some that fit you.” I said, “Yes, ma’am.”
I wish I could explain the sense of embarrassment, of guilt, and the fear I had going into a stranger’s house, hearing a strange woman talk about how pleased she was to be able to help someone in need; how embarrassed I was when taken to someone else’s bedroom, where three or four pairs of slacks and belts and white shirts and bow ties and long ties were laid out on a bed and I was told to put on a specific pair of slacks and shirt and to let the women know when I was dressed. I got undressed and then did as I was told, three times or four times, and the two women made comments to each other on how each pair of slacks fit and each shirt, and they discussed which tie would go best with each pair of slacks. In the end, my teacher selected a pair of slacks and a shirt and tie and belt and put everything in a paper sack. I mumbled, “Thank you” to Mrs. Smith. My teacher and I got into her car and she took me to another house and I did the same thing another three times or four times. Again, the teacher selected the used clothes I would get. Again, I mumbled “Thank you,” and then the teacher took me home, several miles southwest of town, in the country, where there were, under normal circumstances, places to hide, but not on that day. The teacher took me home and I said, “Thank you” and got out of the car and carried my used clothes into the house, where I told my mother why I was so late getting home.
Supper was quiet that night. Daddy got home not long after I did. He and Momma had time to talk. Near the end of supper, Daddy said to Momma, “On Saturday take the kids and get them some church clothes.” I understood. He would not have me wear somebody else’s clothes, somebody’s cast-off clothes.
My parents could not afford to pay all at one time for clothes for five kids. I guess Momma charged the clothes and paid out over a few months.
On Sunday, Momma took us kids to the Baptist Church in Omaha. On Monday, when it was my turn to answer “Did you go to Sunday school and church yesterday?” I answered, “Yes, ma’am.” The teacher was very pleased.