It was the summer I turned eight years old, and I was about to embark on the most wondrous adventure of my entire life . . .
“Maizy, if I tol’ ya once, I dun tol’ ya a hundred times, ya ain’t got no bizness learnin’! If de Lord wanted ya ta read, He’d a made you white! Now, don’t you go a sneakin’ ‘round Miss Car’line’s schoolin’ no mor’!”
My mother’s words still echoing in my head, they hadn’t reached my heart. The next day after she left for the fields, I scurried to the Master’s chicken coop to gather the eggs, one of the many less strenuous jobs given to ailing field hands. I shuddered as I remembered those not-so-distant days of heat and flies and sweaty palms sticking to cotton polls when I had worked alongside mother, my brothers and sisters on this plantation. But I had begun weakening and fainting, sometimes three times a day, from the heat and Miz Dora rescued me to work in the kitchen helping Cook. After I was done in the kitchen, I had some free time before the late evening meal was prepared. I had a broken corncrib doll, Mattie, and I tucked her in my apron pocket for those afternoon excursions to my favorite play site at the river’s edge.
After a few weeks of this, I grew bored and began wandering around the plantation, when one day, I happened upon Miss Caroline and her visiting cousins. They were seated under a huge shade tree in a semi-circle with slates and books and papers strewn about while their teacher gave them lessons.
Ever curious, I crept closer and closer, keeping out of sight, as I listened to them recite their numbers and read stories aloud from their assortment of books. From then on, I joined them there, incognito, riveted to the fascinating stories. My mind was like a sponge, soaking in all that knowledge! On one occasion, a sudden thunderstorm frightened the group into the big house to the stuffy schoolroom. In their haste, one of their books was left behind.
I was mesmerized by the pictures I perused on the different pages of this volume, along with all those letters and words and sentences that created a story. My hands itched to have this as my very own treasure and I gave in to the impulse, the beginning of my goal in life becoming the urge to learn to read so that I could understand life’s deepest meanings.
“Oh, look, Mattie, a bird! And a cute ‘ittle kitten! Oh, my, I wonder what’s amiss—it looks like the gal done breaked her teacup.”
And thus began a thirst, that still has not been quenched, for an education.
It wasn’t long before I had mastered the letters and their sounds by following along in my “borrowed” primer as the tiniest pupils spelled out their lessons therein. My imagination knew no bounds after the printed words became my best friends, and I dutifully taught Mattie all I knew, unconsciously reinforcing each day’s learnings. It was during one of these sessions that my mother had caught me—teaching Mattie—and she forbade me to attend any more clandestine classes.
“She jus’ don’t unnerstand, Mattie! I can’t stop NOW. I need to har what ‘appened to Masser Peter at da wishing well an’ larn dem times tables. An’ Mammy’ll be that proud for me to read words from da Good Book someday.”
So, I continued on in my secret quest. Before long, some visiting missionaries convinced Masser & Mizus to have Sunday Church meetings for the slaves. They left us with a Bible to use. Oh, how reverently was that Book treated by all those amongst us! When Mammy heard me read whole stories from the Old Testament, she changed up her mind about my learning. Although she thought it too late for her, she encouraged me to teach our children the best I could and was happy to see us all progress as we studied Scripture.
Oh, how that summer changed my life! The mysteries of the world opened up to me gradually as I picked up discarded books here and there, and I even lived long enough to read the Emancipation Proclamation several years hence, another life-altering experience following—freedom!
But, as I have often remarked in the years since, MY freedom began that summer I turned eight years old!
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