I’ma Learnin’

written in 2007

My hands slid over the small book in my hands. They wanted me to teach their kids, but I didn’t know how to read. I wish I could because I wanted to learn more. My brain thrived on knowledge, craving each and every word. They wouldn’t let me, my family. I said to the maiden that I didn’t know how to read so they said that they would find something close to it for me. We slept in the cottage near the main house. All my family did. There is about thirty maybe forty total. We all live in small cottages that fit four people. The bathroom and showers were in a little bit of a larger cottage that was in the center of them all.

They told me one day that I had to do my share. So when I went out, they called me back to the main house. Something was different. I didn’t like being in this family as I did back home. There it was quiet and everyone worked for themselves, not for others. The maiden said that their children needed to be taken to school for learning. So every day I would wake up at seven in the morning and head up to the main house. The children were ready to go and were finishing up breakfast, the chef gave me porridge and I quickly swallowed it up.

The maiden said that I was to walk them to and from the schoolhouse, which was about a mile each way. The walk was difficult for the little ones; they needed a break every fifty paces. We arrived just as the large bell overhead rang. They scrambled inside and I sat by a tree near the open window. I could hear the teacher talking to the kids about what was school. After an hour of dragging on, she finally started on the alphabet. They said the ABC’s and she made them write it down. I peeked over the edge of the windowsill and watched her write down an A. In the dirt before me I used a stick to copy the stroke of the A. It looked weird to me.

I followed along until the bell rang for lunch. I quickly scratched out the letters and threw the stick in the nearby bush. Kids ran out of the building and sat on little benches near the sunny patch of grass. The older ones around my age stepped out of the building and chatted with each other. I spotted a very tall blonde boy who looked very sad and he sat by himself on a bench. I was tempted to go sit by him, but I knew that I would get in trouble and something might happen. I sat back by the tree and looked at the sky; the clouds gently sliding across the blue canvas.

A noise caught my attention and I looked back down. The boy crouched down in front of me. He looked at me strangely then looked around.

“Why are you here?” he whispered while making sure no one could hear him.

“Ima here to drop off da maiden’s little ones,” I whispered back. He looked nervous and stood back up. He looked back over his shoulder and saw some of the older kids coming over his way.

“Hey James, what are you doing?” One of the other boys asked as he walked and dragged the tall blonde boy away. He saw me and stopped. “What are you doing here slave?”

I looked at him and put my head down, not looking at him or any others. He bent before me and yanked my head up.

“I asked you a question. Why are you here?” I looked away as far as possible with my eyes. He stood up and hauled me up off the ground. My head dropped back down to the ground. I felt a hand go across my face. He had backslapped me. My face stung as if it were hit by thousands of bees. I didn’t show a tear or any emotion.

“Paul, stop this. There is no need for you to hit her.” The blonde boy, James, had stood up for her. She wanted to know why. No one would help her except her family. I glanced up at him and he shot a very angry look at the other boy. “Just leave her alone.”

He walked away and pushed the other boy in front of him. The boys that had also come along with Paul had looked at me strangely. They continued to walk behind James, pushing him forward, quietly whispering back and forth. That was the day that someone had looked at me as an equal and not a slave. I was happy and confused. Why had he done that?

Every day I came back and sat in the same place. No one bothered me and I had learned my alphabet along with the little ones, though no one knew. One day I had missed a few letters. James had looked at me and then at the floor where they were. I followed his gaze and wiped them away quickly with my hand. He smiled and nodded.

One day he passed by and gave me a notebook and a small wooden stick. It had some sort of a tip at the end. When the lessons started I used the small stick to write on these lined papers. It was like magic. I could keep everything I learned in here. When the end of school bell rang, all of the children fled out of the building. I had created a sling that I made out of old shirts. It tied underneath my shirt and I could stuff in the notebook and small stick. The maiden’s children came outside and ran to me. They wanted to get home so they could show ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ what they did.

That boy, James, passed by and slipped another small wooden stick into my hands. It was sharpened and new. I smiled and keep walking, stuffing it in the back part of my sling. He laughed at me and I turned around. He smiled and waved ‘goodbye’. That was the last I saw him. Later that night I had been smuggled from my cottage by a tall blonde man who said that they were going to help me free. I gathered my notebook and small wooden sticks in my sling. The man looked at me oddly and ushered me out of the cottage. I passed through many houses over many days. The people were kind to me and taught me the rest of schooling at night. I was free at last, and the boy, James will stay in my memory forever.

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