Vernell Mullins and Jessie Hollins cornered me as I headed out of the schoolhouse after school one terrible day, cutting me off from the troop exiting the building. Backing me against me against the wall, they bent over and got right in my face. “We’re gonna pull your pants down and look at your tile.” (They pronounced it tile, but I know now they had to have meant tail) I was terrorized. They must have been at least sixteen. To have been singled out by them for such a horrific and shameful threat changed my life. It had never occurred to me before that I had any such thing to fear from them or anyone else. We were so modest at our house that we didn’t even refer to our private parts or answer from the outhouse. Thankfully, they had accosted me in a public place. I could hear their vicious laughter as I fled. My shame overwhelmed me. I obsessed over it but would have never told Mama, feeling I had somehow deserved it. I was quiet the rest of the day at home, dreading another such attack tomorrow.
The next day and every day thereafter, I gave them a wide berth, taking care never to get caught alone anywhere. I felt like prey, about to be run down any time. Coming in from school one afternoon, I got a biscuit and glass of milk as always, along with Mama’s usual admonition to change out of my school clothes and hang up my dress before I went out to play. Mama was having coffee with Miz Reagan when I came back through. “Oh did you hear the terrible news?” asked Miz Reagan. “Vernell Mullins died today. Her kidneys just shut down and she died! They thought she just had the flu……a young person like her. Isn’t that just the saddest thing?”
I was ecstatic! After the fear I’d been living with the past couple of weeks, news of Vernell’s death was a blessed relief. Then and there, I started praying for Jessie’s death, watching her hopefully for signs of developing illness over the next few days. Even eighty years later, knowing Vernell’s death was not a judgment from God, in one little six-year-old corner of my heart, I can still remember the macabre joy with which I received the news.