I remember my first black teacher for three things, which is magical because I was in the third grade. She was one of the few black faces in an endless ocean of white in the ’70s, in Kentucky, in my youth. That was the first thing. She was Black. This seemed supremely important to me. She was significantly different from every other adult in my life up to that point. Although I had lots of black kids sitting rank and file with me in the classrooms, there were not lots of black teachers. There was one. Her name was Clara Dixon. After twelve years of public school and two years of college I did not retain the full names of any other teacher but I remembered hers. I think about her all the time but I think of her with special fondness every time I write or type the word February.
Lady Dixon had a thing about the word February. Let me also tell you now that if you’ve read my story about the first time I begged a black classmate to let me touch her hair and the hair oil shining in the part between her braids, it was in Lady Dixon’s class. That essay I wrote about being a white girl who wanted an afro? That also happened in Lady Dixon’s class. Lady Dixon herself had a very small afro, tidy and teacherly; not the giant poofy kind which enchanted me so as a third-grader. But heaven help me, that Lady had such gorgeously voluptuous lips, like ripe roses. She wore clear lip gloss on them instead lipstick and when she pronounced the word February, those lips were poetry in motion. I found her hypnotically beautiful and smart and confident and sophisticated. She was very dark-skinned. She was my first idol.
Lady Dixon taught us to say February the correct way rather than the common way. We were not to say Feb-you-ary. We were to deliberately pronounce the first r. Lady Dixon stressed this r was not silent. We practiced saying with it with her, Feb-brew-ary. We watched her mouth move and mimicked, as children do when they learn new words phonetically. First you learn to make the sound, then you learn to make the word. When we called the month by its common name Lady Dixon corrected us and required us to pronounce it properly. It was a big deal. We spent a lot of time on it; at least the entire month of Feb-brew-ary, which is forever in the third grade.
I’ll also pause and tell you yet again that in the third grade my dream was to sing and dance on Broadway. I wanted to be a stage actress rather than a movie star. Saying things the correct way mattered very much to me, even in the third grade. Pronouncing words correctly was important. I took Lady Dixon’s correction as coaching, rather than teaching, and I wanted to execute the skill expertly. The desire to speak well took root. People have asked me my whole life long how I escaped all those years of education in Kentucky and emerged without a southern accent. D’uh. I learned how to talk right. (← giggle). I wanted to speak well. I wanted to be a well-spoken woman like Lady Clara Dixon. May she be praised.
So that was the second thing, February. The third thing was pee pants. Pee-smelling pants. Lady Dixon’s teachings were rife with lessons on hygiene. Learning to clean and groom ourselves was also a big deal and Lady Dixon did not tolerate kids who walked around smelling like pee because they were too lazy to wipe correctly. We also spent time on sneezing and nose-wiping and all-around snot management. Nose-picking, crevice-scratching, not putting things into mouths, ears, noses, armpits, etc., and of course, washing hands properly. We spent a lot of time on these things out of necessity. Third-graders are gross. I ought to know. I thought wiping after a pee was stupid. I didn’t have time for that. After a tinkle I would drip dry (dry enough for a third grader), pull everything up and go.
It never occurred to me that not wiping might cause an odor, because as we all know, kids cannot smell their own stink. It’s one of the kid superpowers we lose when we grow up. Lady Clara Dixon could smell my stink though. She nailed me cold one day while sitting in our small reading group. Do kids still do reading groups in school? The class was divided into three of four groups for reading lessons based on reading levels. My group’s little chairs were pulled up close in a circle around Lady Dixon’s big chair, closely enough that we could speak and read without disturbing the rest of the class. Books balanced on our knees, we waited for Lady Dixon’s direction. I loved reading group. It was my favorite.
But something was wrong that day. Lady Dixon’s normally placid face registered displeasure as she exclaimed to the group as a whole that Someone was not wiping properly after using the restroom and smelled of urine. Her beautiful lips curled under a nose wrinkled and brow furrowed. She shook her head in disapproval. Someone stunk of pee. This was nasty and disrespectful to the class and the Offender had been taught better and needed to do better. Another lesson in restroom hygiene and classroom etiquette hijacked our reading time. And it was my own fault.
She never addressed me personally but I knew my guilt. And truthfully, I might not have been the only stinker in the group. Judging from the amount of boogers I’d seen eaten and buttcracks scratched within the circle, odds are I wasn’t alone in my guilt. But I knew I was at least one if not The One, and although I didn’t care about not wiping for the sake of proper hygiene, I cared deeply that I stunk to Lady Clara Dixon. I couldn’t fail her. I certainly couldn’t risk her knowing the stinky kid in the reading circle was me, which she was sure to figure out soon enough if I got near her outside of the reading circle.
On my very next trip to the restroom I threw my underwear in the trash can and immediately starting wiping properly after that. I think of it every time I’m caught in a urination situation without toilet paper. I don’t want to be That Kid stinking up the reading circle with her gross pee pants ever again. Feb-brew-ary did not stick, however. I don’t say it the way she taught me. I say it the common way, Feb-you-ary. But between the two lessons one of them probably had to give, as I’m far too rebellious to follow every convention of society.
A friend of mine told me the other day it wasn’t too late to live my dream of acting on stage. He said I should try out for weekend theater. The idea made me smile though I have no experience. If I landed a role it would be nothing more than damn good luck. If I got my photo taken for the Playbill program I wouldn’t have much to put in my bio. Or at least, not the standard stuff like where I trained and which other shows had featured me. Mine would be more like:
The Unknown Theater welcomes newcomer Mercy Manades in the role of Late Bloomer. This is Ms. Manades’ first production. Ms. Manades is a freelance writer and poet. She has one cat and one dog, a collection of rocks, and knows the proper pronunciation of the month of February.
And then of course, if I didn’t suck I’d have to dedicate my debut performance to my third grade teacher. And black teachers. And all elementary school teachers whose lessons last lifetimes.