When I popped out of my mother’s womb with my umbilical cord wrapped around my neck, they say I had already turned blue, and until the day he died, the doctor who brought me into this world called me his “Miracle Baby.” Of course I was born in the dead of winter, in the middle of the night – 3:30 a.m. – and it was raining. I don’t know how much of that is true and how much of the story is made up. Sometimes the truth isn’t big enough for folks, especially back home in the mountains where story-telling is still an art form.
I grew up in a time when we still had segregation. I can only remember bits and pieces of it, but the memories I do have are burned into my mind. The gas station where my granddaddy Bud bought gas had four toilet doors: Ladies, Women, Boys, and Men. They were placed in that order. I didn’t know then what the difference was or why I, as a child, had to go into the Men’s to pee instead of into the one marked for boys.
I tell my students that the meanest teacher I ever had was in the fifth grade. After a pause, I shock them when I say, “The world is a better place without her in it.” Then I recite some of her horrors.
On the first day of school in the fifth grade, she caught one of her students talking in class. She came down on him so hard that he cried for the rest of that day. The next day and the day after, he cried the entire school day from his fear of her. Finally, he was placed in another class. From that day on which she disciplined him until he graduated, he never spoke again at school. Not in elementary school. Not in high school. He took F’s on every oral presentation.
Ironically, as soon as he hopped off the bus after school, he would run and play and shout like the other kids. But on the following day, as soon as he stepped back on the bus, he went silent.
On another day, my turn came around. We were not allowed to throw paper at one another in the classroom, which makes perfect sense to me. But on this day, I had several wads of writing paper on my desk. The trash can was just out of reach. No matter how far I leaned out, I would still have to toss it into the can. By this time, my fear of her was as great as that of anyone else. As she walked by my desk, I asked, “Mrs. Greenway, will you please toss this into the trash can for me?”
She suddenly grabbed me by the back of my neck with her left hand and grabbed a fistful of my hair in her right hand. And as she rocked my head from side to side with each word, she said, “Don’t . . . you . . . ever . . . tell . . . me . . . to . . . throw . . . your . . . trash . . . in . . . the . . . trash . . . can!!!” From that day as a child in the fifth grade until now, I never ask anyone to dispose of my trash. I will carry a wad of paper or a gum wrapper or whatever in my pocket until I can find a proper place for it.
On another day, I mentioned a “black lady,” during a discussion in class. She stood up on her high horse once again and addressed us all, saying, “You NEVER call a black woman a lady; we call them women.” I don’t remember much of what else she had to say on the topic after that, and I’m better off not remembering.
Bad teachers can do a lot of damage, and about this time, you are wondering why I stopped talking about my birth.
In 1949, Covington was segregated, and people of color lived in two different parts of town. I was born on Cherry Street, which ran east to west. At the point where it met Alleghany Avenue, the white part of town stopped, and the black part of town started. I was born in the first house on the right as you crossed Alleghany Avenue. I was delivered by Dr. Walter Johnson, the first black doctor our town ever had. When I came out, they called the rescue squad after turning the heat on the kitchen oven down to a low heat and placing me in that oven until the ambulance arrived. The closest hospital that could handle a baby in my condition was eleven miles away in Clifton Forge. All the way from that little house on Cherry Street to the hospital, Dr. Johnson gave me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
I often think of Dr. Johnson, and what a kind and decent man he was. Every year, I visit my home town, and I go to my mother’s grave to sit and talk with her. This summer, in the same graveyard, I went over to visit Dr. Johnson. I talked to him and thanked him for every breath that I take.