I adored Miss Billie, my beautiful first grade teacher and hungered for her approval. I strived for perfect work, admiring every thread she wore, her floral scent, her ladylike jewelryI, and her kind, modest manner. Heaven could have granted me no greater wish than to grow up and be just like Miss Billie. And above all this, Miss Billie was fair and gentle. One day after lunch Jimmy Wilson shocked us all by “sassing” Miss Billie, earning me the privilege of serving as message bearer to Mr. Kinnebrew. I proudly carried a note discreetly concealed beneath red and white checked napkin covering the lunch basket Miss Kinnebrew packed for them daily. I almost felt like a member of the family, being on such intimate terms. I knocked shyly, intimidated by the powerful man. He opened the door just a crack, took the basket, and returned it to me moments later, without a word, to my great relief. I returned the basket to Miss Billie, got her smiling nod in return, and scurried back to my seat. She, Jimmy, and the covered basket exited the room. The entire class gave the door just time enough swing closed before rushing to claim prime viewing spots at the large crack afforded by a missing panel, the faster, more aggressive kids and the lucky ones in the back rows getting the best views. Despite our enthusiasm to see the show, we restrained ourselves sufficiently not to push the door open and fall out into the hall in harm’s way. After a quick lecture on manners and respect, Miss Billie had Jimmy bend over and grasp his knees. She pulled Mr. Kinnebrew’s belt from the dainty basket, doubled it and gave him three stinging licks across his backside. He was clearly impressed with the lovely lady’s powerful swing. As Jimmy rubbed his bottom, Miss Billie tucked the belt beneath the napkin, took Jimmy by the arm, and led him back to the classroom, just ahead of the thunderous sound of the class returning its seats, which she somehow failed to notice. No mention was made of how Mr. Kinnebrew was to keep his pants up the rest of the day, since neither the basket nor the incident was referred again, but Jimmy was respectful the rest of the year. I think he’d seen a new side of Sweet Miss Billie. It was an altogether edifying and satisfying experience for the rest of us, especially me, a member of the family.
“Getting a whipping” was usually reserved for predictable misbehaviors, like cussing, dirty talk, and fighting, though there was no shame in a boy’s taking his “whipping” if he “had” to fight. Girls rarely got whippings, peer pressure sufficing. News of a “whipping” raced home where every kid had been assured, “If you get a whipping at school, you’ll get another one when you get home!”
Getting a note sent home was a secondary form of torture. Not long after Jimmy’s whipping, Miss Billie called me to her desk near the end of school and gave me a note. “Give this to your mother when you get home, please.” I was devastated. I’d have preferred taking a snake from her pretty white hand. What had I done? I dragged my feet as I walked back several miles to my desk, all the kids staring at me. Jimmy Wilson stuck out his tongue and pulled the corners of his eyes. Sara Nell waggled her head and whispered “Nyah, nyah!” Bernice’s eyes were huge and she tried to smile but I knew they were all thinking, “What did she do?”
I was thinking the same thing as I slid the note in my math book and put my head on my desk? Had she found out I really didn’t have to go to the toilet this morning when I stayed out so long this morning reading what the big girls had written on the wall? Did she find out I’d read ahead in my reader? Did she know I really didn’t have orange juice for breakfast like I’d put on my poster for health? I was just trying to get a good grade. I didn’t mean to cheat. I was sick, ashamed. I was only in first grade and already in trouble. What had I done? What would Mama and Daddy say? What would the neighbors think? I knew already the news would be flying all over the neighborhood. I could never come back to school. The only other little girl who’d ever gotten a note was Sarah Nell when she showed Jimmy Wilson her panties at recess!
I dragged myself sadly out of my desk when the bell finally rang, dawdling as I gathered my books and papers. I was the last to leave the classroom, but today I didn’t linger near Miss Billie hoping to be invited to help erase the boards or straighten the desks. As I started out the door, she waved gaily and reminded me heartlessly, “Don’t forget to give your Mother my note!”
Helping Daddy after school was usually my favorite part of the day as I told him of all the wonderful things that happened and all I’d learned. I drooped home and lay my head on table instead of flying to the stove and looking for a leftover biscuit like usual.
“Get a biscuit and take off your good dress and hang it up so you can wear it tomorrow,” Mama said, like it was any normal day, not the end of the world. “Now don’t mess up that dress. It takes a long time to iron. You can have some milk after you change.”
“I’m not hungry.” At this, Mama whirled around, knowing something was terribly wrong. “What’s the matter? Did something happen at school?”
I dragged the note out of my book. “I got a note.”
It took her hours to read it. Her face broke into as broad a smile as I’ve ever seen. “Well, Kathleen! Well, isn’t the nicest thing I ever heard? Miss Billie wants you to go play with her little girl, Sylvia Faun. I’m so proud of you!”
I was so relieved, it took me a while to take in the invitation. Miss Billie invited me to her house to play with her little girl? Me? The shyest girl in school? I didn’t have a permanent wave or dresses from the Sears and Roebuck Catalog. My daddy wasn’t the preacher. Why did she ask me when she could have any little girl
I could hardly sleep that night. The next morning when I got to school, instead of going to class as usual, Miss Billie walked me across the road to the house where Sylvia Faun was waiting with the lady who cared for her. Sylvia, a sweet, blonde four-year-old was delighted to have a friend for the day. I couldn’t have been more delighted to be that friend, enthusiastically playing at whatever she wanted, enjoying all the games as much as she did. She had a wealth of toys, all of which enchanted me, from doll house to tea sets, but the best was her tricycle. I must have been a sight, peddling that tricycle, my bony knees high above the handbars, Sylvia, clinging on behind. Long before I was ready, the day ended and Miss Billie came to fetch me back to my world.