All because he wouldn’t take that darn thing out of his mouth.
That “thing” was a little Aspirin box, measuring about 1½-inch long, and it was filled with matches, each of them broke off a bit so they’d fit. Pawpaw Buck Huffman had the little box sticking out of his mouth, refusing to listen to his school teacher’s command:
“Boy, take that darn thing out of your mouth.”
Aunt Betty Jean, Buck’s 5-years-younger sister, watched quietly with the rest of her fourth-grade class as the tug-of-war got underway.
It was 1949, and a 15-year-old Buck was in the fifth grade. He and his little sister shared the same classroom and teacher at the little schoolhouse in the Zion community, located approximately 10 miles from downtown Gordo.
Of course, Aunt Betty Jean got to go to school far more consistently than Buck, who helped their daddy with his work cutting down timber. Ol’ stubborn Buck probably wished he had been in the woods with his daddy that day, especially when the teacher stuck a finger in his mouth and tried to force the little box out.
The teacher tugged with her finger, causing Buck’s leg to act out of reflex (of sorts) and promptly kick her. Hard.
It was the last time he ever went to school. All because he wouldn’t take that darn thing out of his mouth.
Problem was it sure put Aunt Betty Jean in a spot. She was afraid their teacher was going to take her frustration out on her. She definitely felt this way after a spelling test, when the teacher asked her to please stand up from her desk in front of the class.
“Spell ‘potato,’” the teacher instructed.
Aunt Betty Jean felt the pressure. All eyes and ears were focused on her.
“Potato,” she said. “P-O-T-A-T-O. Potato.”
Silence. Then, nodding, the teacher said, “Betty Jean, you are the only one in the whole class who spelled ‘potato’ right.”
Relieved, Aunt Betty Jean sat back down. She was happy to know she was a spelling genius, although she couldn’t shake off the nagging suspicion that her teacher must have thought she’d somehow cheated.
Still, she handled the pressure well and triumphed.
Spelling tests will do that to you. Believe me, I know. I’ve felt that same pressure, the kind that all but guarantees your world will come crashing down if you add a godforsaken “e” at the end of “potato,” “tomato” or “tornado.”
My mother made this very clear many years ago, back when I was in the second grade and had a big spelling test coming up.
Problem was I was a very, very, VERY hyper kid. A “spider monkey” of sorts, or so I was told, one powered by an unlimited amount of raw energy. Had my parents been engineers, they could have built a power-generating contraption with a giant hamster wheel for me to run in, helping us save hundreds — if not thousands — of dollars on power bills.
Alas, my parents weren’t engineers, and all my poor mother wanted was for me to just sit still, stop bouncing around and study that darn spelling list.
But spider monkeys, especially the ornery type, don’t care a thing about spelling lists. Fun is too strong a yearning to worry about spelling words like “Mississippi” and “hippopotamus” right.
And yet, my mother pressed on, convinced there had to be a way to tame the instinctive hyperactivity of a sugared-up spider monkey. All efforts seemed futile, at least until she finally said something that managed to get the untiring creature’s attention.
“Boy, if you don’t pass this spelling test, you’re gonna regret it.”
Very briefly, I paused, actually feeling those last three words sink in real good. I resumed my spider-monkey ways, but there was definitely a minor easing-up in my hyperactivity, the reading on my internal energy meter lowering from “Full Blast” to “Semi-Full Blast.”
It seemed to correlate with the fluctuation of my mother’s words, emerging back and forth from semi- to total consciousness.
“... gonna regret it.”
The intensity of her warning nagged me, its pressure mounting as each day drew closer to the dreaded spelling test, inspiring me to periodically glance briefly at my spelling list. Every word seemed much longer and more complicated each time I reviewed them.
Finally, doomsday arrived. All my classmates sat at their desks, anxiously awaiting the moment our teacher would look down upon us and call out each gruesome word. My heart pounded.
It was spell or fail time.
Holding her dreaded list, our teacher called out a single word, pausing momentarily. She repeated the word, then gave us a little more time to write our spellings down. Closing my eyes, I gulped. This was the end.
Then, suddenly, something happened. All the pressure that had seemed absolutely certain it was going to crush me, echoing in its sinister guarantee that I was “gonna regret it,” lifted. I felt my brain turn on, could feel the vast multitudes of various gears and sprockets activate and churn out not only spellings…
But the right spellings.
It was as if I had the whole spelling list engraved under my eyelids. My confidence soared, scoring me a 100.
Relieved, I sat quietly at my desk. I realized I wasn’t “gonna regret it.” It’s a feeling of sheer survival, of having defied some of the greatest odds imaginable in the kid world, that’s stuck with me to this day, giving me the reassurance I desperately need each time I sit down to write anything.
Oh yes, I’d triumphed, though my nerves certainly suffered for it. All because I wouldn’t just sit still and study that darn spelling list.
Keith Huffman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.