Octavia was explaining how teacher explained it to her. “She said there’s only correct way to balance your checkbook. Arithmetic doesn’t lie. Learning your spelling words is the same. You’re either right or wrong and you learn how to spell for the same reason you learn addition and subtraction. Ignorance is a crying shame. So, could you quiz me on my spelling words, please, daddy? Please.”
Hank Buttons stroked his chin. Octavia always ignored school work before. She saw school as an intrusion on good times. Hopscotch, jacks, and singing were all she used to talk about when speaking of school. Her teacher Mrs. Jefferson cast a spell on his daughter. She was enchanted; that was a good thing in his opinion. The school was forced to de-segregate this year as a result of Brown vs. the board of education case heard before the Supreme Court.
Mrs. Jefferson arrived at school only to be greeted by a tomato flying at her face. Mr. Buttons remembered how she kept her chin up, squared her shoulders, and entered the school house despite ugly words and names being thrown her way. Several teachers this year were women of color. His co-worker at the barber shop, Jim, said he didn’t know coloreds could read.
“I didn’t know you could read, Jim,” Mr. Buttons teased. Of course the teachers could read. There was a college for blacks at the edge of the county. Everyone knew that, didn’t they?
Originally students were going to mix in the de-segregation process but that decision ultimately changed. The secretary of education stated sending children into all white schools implied de-segregation was a form of rescue. Children might think their schools were inferior. To make the point that non-white people were equals what needed to happen was a display that they succeeded in spite of being kept apart.
Hank recalled a summer afternoon when he took Octavia to the bus station to pick up her grandmother for a visit. Octavia saw two water fountains, side by side, and the signs above. His heart skipped when she went to push the button for the fountain labeled: Colored.
“Daddy, this water is clear. That sign is wrong.”
He agreed. Racism was something he couldn’t explain. He hadn’t known the answer to why the sky is blue and he didn’t know why people hated those different from themselves. He’d served in Korea with blacks and believed; there was nothing mystical about them; no reason to fear them. People come in every color. It’s nature’s way. In his family he was one of three brothers. He had red hair, Harry was blonde, and Hugh had dark hair. Their mother loved them all the same. She claimed they were unique but equal.
Octavia knew her spelling words forward and backwards which she demonstrated proudly.
“You’re talkative,” Mr. Buttons tousled her hair.
“I’m loquacious, l-o-q-u-a-c-i-o-u-s,” she grinned then just for fun spelled the word backwards, hopping from one foot to the other as she recited each letter. “Mrs. Jefferson taught me that word, aint that a pretty word?”
“It sure is,” he agreed. “When is she going to teach you to stop saying aint, huh?” He raised an eyebrow.
“She tries,” Octavia sighed.
The phone rang. Mrs. Buttons, expecting a gossip session picked up. “My goodness,” she murmured. “Hank, the volunteer fire department needs you,” she handed him the phone.
Octavia listened. He mentioned Mrs. Jefferson’s name. There was a stone in Octavia’s stomach. Mrs. Jefferson’s house was in trouble. She wanted to help. While her daddy switched his carpet slippers to boots she ran to his truck, hiding under his firefighting jacket in the bed of the truck. She believed it was easier to ask forgiveness than permission. He’d say no if she asked. When the acrid smell of smoke infiltrated her nostrils the truck came to a hard stop. Her dad grabbed his jacket, uncovering Octavia. He exhaled. It sounded almost like a growl.
“What are you doing, girl?” He shook his head. “We’ll talk about this later. I have work to do.”
Octavia sat up. Three tall crosses in the yard were ablaze. Mrs. Jefferson stood in front of her ranch style house. The house looked identical to Octavia’s. Mrs. Jefferson held a little girl’s hand. She was wearing a red dress. The girl looked to be nine also. A tall man was pacing, rubbing his temples and shaking his head. He must be Mr. Jefferson, Octavia thought.
Her daddy and two other men were extinguishing the fire. Octavia saw three figures dressed in white robes with peaked hoods covering their faces. These figures were big, like men, but couldn’t be men. Men didn’t disguise themselves and set crosses on fire. These creatures were monsters. She saw the picture window of the house had brick stuck in the cracked, shattered glass. The hooded figures were chanting: “We will not be replaced.”
Octavia got chill bumps. One chanter sounded like the gym teacher from school. She climbed out of the truck, tiptoeing towards the hooded figures. They were so angry they didn’t notice. The gym teacher had one green eye and one brown which made him easy to identify. It was him. “No!” Octavia screamed.
Two police cruisers arrived with lights flashing and sirens blaring. The hooded figures ran. Three officers ran after them. One hung back. Octavia told the officer about the gym teacher. He made a note in his little book.
“We’re peace officers. Those men disturbed the peace. We’ll get them. Mark my words.”
“What are you doing here?” Mrs. Jefferson asked Octavia.
“I heard where daddy was going. I was worried,” she said.
“You’re kind.” Mrs. Jefferson said. Her head was held high. She reached out to pat Octavia’s shoulder and smiled.
The officer was speaking with Mr. Jefferson and writing in his notebook. He took note of the brick in the window shaking his head and calling the men who ran away cowards.
Octavia felt a tug on her sleeve. “Who are you?” The littler girl in the red dress asked.
“That’s my name too,” said the little girl. She extended her hand. Octavia held it. Mrs. Jefferson mentioned once her daughter was also named Octavia but she’d forgotten. It was hard for her to think of a teacher existing beyond the classroom.
“The Klu Klux Clan did this,” Octavia Jefferson whispered.
“Who?” Octavia Buttons asked.
“She doesn’t know anything about those hateful men,” Mr. Buttons explained.
“I know enough,” Octavia Buttons protested.
The officers returned with the hooded men in handcuffs and put them in the back of the cruisers. “I told you we’d get them,” the officer she spoke to winked. “They won’t get away with this.
Nodding, she cleared her throat. She was moved to sing.
“This land is my land,” she began. Octavia Jefferson joined in, “This land is your land.” Mrs. Jefferson was next. “From California to the New York Island;” Mr. Buttons shook his head but the look in his wife’s eyes moved him to join hands. He sang, “From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters,” Mr. Jefferson held Mr. Buttons hand. He joined in, “This land was made for you and me.” They held hands above their heads in triumph.
The other volunteer firemen joined in. Together they sang, holding hands.
“Windows are easily mended, but not the hearts of wicked men,” Mrs. Jefferson said.
“Keep loving the kids how you do and maybe they’ll change,” Mr. Buttons said. “Love is the only thing that stops hate. It’s like firefighting. Fire dies because we drown it. Drown hate with love.”
Mrs. Jefferson nodded. She did love her students. She loved watching them grow and learn. Kindergarten was her favorite word for a classroom. She thought of her classroom as a garden too. Pupils needed tending to. Octavia Buttons started the school year on a first grade reading level, bored and distracted. Now she was beyond the fourth grade level. Octavia was blossoming. She was an eager and curious child and so were the seventeen other students in her class. They needed her. She needed them.