I began my formal education at the age of five. If I’d been a week older I wouldn't have started for another year. As it turned out, all of my classmates were six years old and bigger, and faster, and in most things, smarter than me.
Today, a year is nothing to me. I wouldn't notice if tomorrow I was 69 or 71, because today, one year of my life only amounts to 1.5% of my total years. However, at age five, 1 year of my life amounted to 20% of my total years. There is a major difference between being six years old as opposed to being five. Ask any five or six year old in case you've forgotten.
The difference in age between me and all of my classmates was only one of three major obstacles I faced. The second obstacle was, I had always been at home – no day care or kindergarten for me. The third obstacle was, I already knew how to read, and as far as I was concerned, learning to read was the only justification for going to school.
I tried to reason with those who held power over my life but reasoning never worked with them, so, on the first day of school, 1947, accompanied by my mother, I walked to Barrett Elementary School, six blocks from my house. In the classroom, which was filled with kids who were 20% older and 20% taller than me, my mother introduced me to Miss Tillman, my teacher. Then Miss Tillman took me to my desk in the back of the room and got me settled in. Five minutes later, mother left. Seconds after she departed, so did I.
With my lunch box in one hand and my sweater in the other, I ran down the alleys as fast as I could. I was sitting on the front porch when mother arrived. I won’t go into detail about the conversation that followed. I’ll just say the next morning was a repeat of the first day until it was time for me to be seated. Mother escorted me to my desk, not Miss Tillman. When she left, it was with the admonition that I better not be on the front porch when she got home.
I got the message, and I wasn't on the front porch when she got home. However, a minute after she left the school, so did I. This time I didn't go home. I went across the street and about fifty feet down the alley. There I found a shady spot, spread my sweater like a picnic blanket and opened my lunch box. In minutes, I was eating and reading the books I’d tucked in with the sandwiches just before leaving the house.
When the last bell rang, and kids came streaming out of the school, I joined them. I did that for two days, not knowing for years afterward that Miss Tillman had called my mother moments after I disappeared and told her that she could see me from her classroom and she would keep an eye on me and work things out. Then she asked mother not to say anything to me. A lot has changed in our school systems since then.
About mid-morning of the third day, just as I finished my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, it began to rain. Seconds after the first drops fell, Miss Tillman, holding a huge black umbrella appeared, knelt beside me, and said, “Bert, I know you don’t like school. I’m going to tell you a secret if you promise not to tell anyone. OK?”
I nodded, and she continued, “When I was your age, I didn't like school either. I already knew how to read, and everyone in my class was older than me. To be honest, I hated it. Do you know what I mean?”
She paused, looked at me, and waited. I was about to cry so I didn't try to talk. I just nodded my head again. She smiled and continued, “I thought you would.”
We stayed like that for a while. The only sound was the rain beating on her umbrella. Finally, she held out her hand and I took it. She smiled again and said, “I’m going to tell you another secret. Is that alright?”
I nodded and she said, “If you’ll go back into class with me and just stay there until the day is over, I’ll let you play with my dogs after school.”
I couldn't believe it. Miss Tillman had two Scotties – one solid white and the other solid black. There was no way to get near them because they stayed behind a fence that enclosed her back yard. I’d wanted to pet those dogs since the first day I saw them. I managed to say, “Yes Ma’am.” Then we stood and walked into the classroom. That afternoon I played with Miss Tillman’s Scotties just as I did every afternoon until summer, and we moved away from Birmingham.
I didn't see Miss Tillman again, in fact, I never saw Barrett Elementary School again. However, I think about Miss Tillman often and every time I do, I marvel at my good fortune in drawing her as my first teacher.
Miss Tillman was number five in my series of blogs inspired by the work of Norman Rockwell. Tomorrow I’ll tell you the story I call Choosing Up. I’ll use Norman Rockwell’s picture of the same name to illustrate the story. Here it is: