“What do you mean you’re afraid, Roberta? Just fill it out. The paper and ink are free, so get busy,” the young teacher, Miss Smythe, said handing the college application back to the nervous pupil in the white country dress, who eyed the paper suspiciously.
“Are you sure about this, Miss Smythe? I’m a girl and no girls have ever studied there. In fact, the pastor said most young ladies are expected to start families between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, not college,” Roberta responded, accepting the application rather reluctantly.
“Roberta, look at me. You’re the most qualified student in my class or in any class in the county; your grades show that. Do you remember what the definition of courage is?” Miss Smythe said, looking at her young student intensely.
“Is it the strength and ability to take a stand and face opposition or difficulties when you’re really afraid?” Roberta answered.
“Yes,” Miss Smythe said continuing, “And I didn’t teach you to be afraid or to run and hide, but to face adversities and challenges.”
“I remember. You can’t succeed unless you first have the courage to proceed, right?” Roberta answered a little more boldly while still hurriedly filling in the application.
“You were listening after all. I’m surprised you could hear me over the Johnson boys’ snoring. Now, get that filled out; the mail carrier will be pulling up soon!” Miss Smythe said smiling, while walking back to her scuffed-oaken desk that was now sharing its twentieth year in the little one-room schoolhouse with a dusty-green chalkboard and a coal stove-heater that was seldom used except on the cool, wintry mornings in West Texas.
“Okay, that’s done,” Roberta Dillingham said as she completed the application for admission to Southwest Texas State Teachers College.
Her teacher, Miss Smythe, had seen promise in the young lady of mixed-ancestry from Weatherford, Texas. Her mother was a Native American and her father a recent immigrant from Germany. It was the late 1920’s and higher education access was relatively limited for female applicants, especially those of Native American nationality.
“Have you told your mother and father, yet, Roberta?” Miss Smythe asked.
“Yes, ma’am, Miss Smythe. Dad laughed and said he’d always figured I’d be the one to go since he’s never seen me without a book in my hands from the time I was two.”
Miss Smythe smiled and thoughtfully asked, “What was your mother’s response?”
Roberta looked down at her scuffed-tan boots that had been a gift the year before from the Missions Baptist Church. She then held her head up hesitantly and faced Miss Smythe.
A look of embarrassment came upon Roberta’s rosy cheeks as she began, “Miss Smythe, Momma told me you spoke with her at the house while I was working with my sisters in the field picking corn. Thank-you. I really wasn’t sure how to approach her since there is much work to do and baby children to care for. Mom asked if this is the path that I chose or if others were having me chase their dreams. I said that one day all people, to include ladies of any race or nation, should have the freedom to go to the college they choose and not the one that others choose for them. I told my mom the dreams I chase are my own, but the first steps I take toward that dream are for me and for those who would one day follow.”
“Good for you!” Miss Smythe responded. “At first it seemed your mother was a little hesitant when I asked her if she was willing to lose you for a couple of years so Weatherford could gain a new school teacher when you returned. Mrs. Dillingham answered that your grandfather, who was a wise Chief and counselor, taught your people much about sharing the land and maintaining peace with the early settlers from different nations. She said since you were like your grandfather, you too may one day use wisdom to counsel others to share the land so that war may be avoided and peace may continue.”
“She said all that?” Roberta questioned. “All that Mom asked me when I came in and began shucking corn was would I be disappointed if I didn’t become the first young lady to make it into the Southwest Texas State Teachers College. I said, ‘Yes,’ and Mom said she would also be disappointed, so study hard, Roberta, and come back and teach so that others may find the courage to follow their dreams. ‘So, I can go?’ I asked. She smiled and said, ‘Finish the corn first.’ I gave Mom a hug and asked, ‘What about all the work and harvest this fall when school would start?’ She said Mary Helen and my brothers were big enough to help Dad now. I asked about school clothes and she showed me a dress and said to take good care of it and wash it every day, since it was the only one they were able to afford.”
“Your mom and dad bought you a dress to wear for college? That’s really nice, Roberta. I have some old shoes and some books you might be able to use. I’m so happy that finally someone is doing more with life than just hoeing weeds, picking vegetables, milking cows, or making babies, that will also one day grow up to hoe weeds,” Miss Smythe said staring off in the distance a little wistfully.
“What’s wrong with being a mother and raising crops, Miss Smythe?” Roberta asked unexpectedly.
“Oh, there’s nothing really wrong with those choices, I suppose, Roberta. But education is a chance to become more informed and to envision a world that is more than just dirt roads, cornfields, and outhouses. Education is a bit like a train ticket.”
“A train ticket, Miss Smythe?” Roberta said appreciatively. “Okay, I get it. Going to Southwest Texas State Teachers College is my chance to climb aboard and follow that ‘dream of hope’ a little further down the “track of opportunity” that you kept talking about last fall. Miss Smythe, courage is the price of admission to climb on board, but isn’t someone else conducting the train?”
Miss Smythe listened thoughtfully and remained quiet while carefully considering her response. After a couple of minutes of awkward silence, Roberta began to believe that perhaps Miss Smythe had not heard her. Then Miss Smythe looked up and nodded. “Yes, Roberta, that’s true, but which train and destination is still yours to choose.”
Miss Smythe and Roberta skipped to the rusty old R.F.D. mailbox holding the prized large manila envelope between them. Miss Smythe then opened the mailbox and Roberta slid in the application and raised the red flag on the side. Miss Smythe then laughed as she turned to face the excited young applicant.
“Who knows, Miss Dillingham, one day you may even teach a future President; perhaps one of those Johnson boys,” Miss Smythe said smiling and then making a phony muscle pose holding up her right arm.
“I don’t think L.B. can even spell president,” then Roberta made a double-arm muscle pose and said, “Teach? One day a lady will become the U.S. President of these forty-eight states!” As they were laughing about the last comment, the mail carrier arrived and Miss Smythe and Roberta watched as the postman relieved the mailbox of its precious contents and slowly pulled back onto the grey tar and gravel road.
“Courage?” Miss Smythe said, turning to walk back up the gravel road to the old red schoolhouse whose chalkboards were waiting patiently for cleaning.
“Courage!” Roberta responded, pausing one last time to stare at the fading mail carrier before turning and following Miss Smythe back up the hill.