I was never a good student. I was fine up until the third grade, but my fourth grade teacher, Eloise Long – the strictest of teachers by many standards – had one quirk: She didn’t assign written homework.
To be sure, I learned my multiplication tables. It was impossible to escape Miss Long’s class without knowing them. She had this submarine-shaped thing that let her flip through the combinations while we stood there in front of our classmates, one by one, and called out the answers. In those days, it was perfectly acceptable to ridicule a child, and Miss Long didn’t hesitate to apply the epithet of “bump on a log.”
But there was no written homework. I liked not having any.
Then there was fifth grade, and Miss Holt’s class, and there was homework again. But not for me. I simply didn’t do it. Nor did I do it in the sixth, seventh or eighth grade. My teachers would send home notes for dad to sign (Mother died when I was in the sixth grade – something I probably won’t write about in this series), but I had learned to forge his signature. I made excellent use of this talent.
Dad never saw the notes, and my teachers never knew why he didn’t seem to care that I was now making C’s and even D’s.
In high school, the F’s began to appear. Dad had to sign report cards, because he knew to expect one every six weeks. But by that time, I was a mess – a social misfit, depressed, flunking my way through school. It was impossible for me to imagine ever succeeding at anything.
We moved out to Roebuck after my freshman year, but I rode the bus to continue attending Woodlawn. It was my anchor. What I didn’t realize was that it was also a ball and chain pulling me down. Finally, the politicians and bureaucrats came to my rescue in the fall of 1970.
That was the year the school zones were finally enforced (a measure to accelerate desegregation), and I was forced to go to Banks. The mortal enemy. The cross town rivals. I was finally ripped away from the last vestiges of Woodlawn and Crestwood. Away from the endless chorus of disapproving voices and agony over my failure to measure up to what people expected of the Carters.
At Banks, nobody had heard of a Carter. I had to make my own way, and I began to make some new friends among a new crowd of people who didn’t know what a loser I had become. I started doing homework, and for the first time in four or five years, I began to believe in myself.
But I wasn’t home free yet. My biggest failure was dead ahead. We’ll talk about that tomorrow.