Monday, June 22, 2009

Matchless Valour

Wind In The Willows four friends preparing to retake Toad Hall
When I was in fourth grade, our beloved teacher, Frances Wilmeth, told us about a new program which would provide free school lunches for anyone who needed them. In that small South Texas town, each grade in elementary school comprised an A class and a B class totaling about 60 students altogether. The A class held whatever white children there were (around 8-15) and Latino children who were not from migrant families, who had arrived at first grade able to speak some English, and/or were the children of "important people". All the other Latino children were in the B classes.

Yeah, it was that overt.

Children who registered for first grade without being able to speak English were held back for a year to be taught by an elderly white man whom every one of us knew was the meanest teacher in any grade. We heard him screaming at his kids all day long, interspersed with whacks from his wooden ruler on terrified small hands and shoulders.

My family, new to town, was at the very bottom of the white social register. This meant one of the unspoken rules that we cling fast to our whiteness, not associate with any brown children, and try to prove our worth by being "good poor". Mama herself was conflicted by these pressures, facing ends of month (each month) when there wasn't quite enough to feed us, and her not eating didn't close the gap. I responded by becoming anorexic, which only upset her more. My only refuge was in books and learning. This made me a favorite among teachers, not so much other kids.

We ate mostly beans and rice at home, whatever vegetables Mama could grow, lots of macaroni and homemade red plum jam which I complained about but I'd give anything for one of those jars now. These sorts of meals didn't translate readily into lunches Mama could pack in a metal box. (This is before the days of Tupperware.) Bread, bologna and bananas cost money at the grocery store. Thus, each Monday morning was a tinderbox of tension as Mama tried to find enough change to send us off with the 1.20 cents it cost to eat in the cafeteria for a week. My brothers stayed out of her way. I didn't. I was already making the choice to allow her to dump on me rather than face our situation alone.

Once every two weeks, Daddy came home with a paycheck and, usually, steaks or chicken he'd bought along the way. I didn't enjoy those feasts, because I understood instinctively what came out of his pocket for the steaks would have to be made up by us after he was gone.

So, Miz Wilmeth's offer of free lunches arrived like a hand from g*d. I carefully folded the mimeographed sheet she handed out to every one of us and took it home after school with enormous excitement.

Mama was in the kitchen, trying to make rice and beans into something different. She was a consummate cook, and often succeeded. I stood out of her path and opened the hand-out. "How much money does Daddy make each month?" I asked. "Is it less than $250?"

"Shit yes" said Mama, distracted, giving a bitter laugh. Then she realized who was asking and focused on me. "What do you have there?"

I began explaining. I can still recall my extreme joy: I'd found a way to help. Painfully skinny and shy, asthmatic, only nine years old, I was at last going to be able to contribute something to the survival of my family.

She snatched the sheet from my hands and read it swiftly, disbelief on her face. "This is about that goddamned government program Johnson signed off on!" she shouted at me. "This is charity, do you understand what charity means? Ever la-di-da shitass in this town will be able to spit on us if we take charity!" She ripped up the paper and threw it on the floor. "Don't you EVER bring home one of these goddamned forms again, you hear me?"

However, by the following year, the school had become smarter in handling the issue. Not only were free lunches offered, but also free breakfast and a free mid-morning bottle of milk. Families were given a form where they could apply for a "discount", and enough folks did that there was no longer such a stigma attached to it. Furthermore, it was done privately, at the principal's office, not through the teacher collecting lunch fees at the start of every Monday.

The difference this make can hardly be described. Kids stopped falling asleep in class by 10 a.m. Boys having fist-fights virtually stopped. Test scores climbed. I'm crying as I write this, because it is graphic proof of how much hunger there was in that small town, and how many children were suffering.

In fifth grade, we passed from everybody's favorite, Miz Wilmeth, to the care of Eula Farmer, who was reputed to be strict but fair. That is, those of us in the A class did. All the B class teachers were allegedly mean and bad-tempered. Miz Farmer was as tall and lean as Miz Wilmeth had been short and round. She was grey, hair color, eyes, clothing, even her skin seemed to be slightly metallic. But she was a fabulous teacher, it turned out.

She worked us hard in the mornings. After lunch and a raucous recess, however, she had us lie our heads on our desks and she read aloud to us from a book. I think she probably instituted this practice after decades of teaching hungry children who might have had their first meal of the day half an hour earlier and needed a chance to let their systems crash in relief.

Some of the kids did, in fact, take a nap on their desktops, without shame or reprisal. But a lot of us lay with closed eyes listening to Miz Farmer's surprisingly expressive voice take us magical places. That first semester, she read us The Wind In The Willows. It remains one of my favorite books of all time. The second semester, she read us Magnificent Joe and made blazing animal rights activists out of us all.

But back to The Wind In The Willows: I imagined the four friends, Ratty, Mole, Badger, and Toad, as leading the kind of all-one-gender unmarried lifestyle I dreamed of having one day. Messing about in boats, having picnics, keeping each other in good spirits. They had plenty to eat and community respect. It was all I dared allow myself to want.

Toad was a problem, of course. Impulsive and unable to learn from his mistakes, he was like Daddy, but Badger and Ratty had a handle on the situation. It looked grim when weasels and stoats moved into Toad Hall. But I can still remember the afternoon when the four friends used one of Badger's mysterious tunnels to come up under the Hall itself, burst in and retake the place. Nobody napped that day; we were all sitting upright in our desks, fidgeting with tension, then giving a loud spontaneous cheer when at last the vile vermin were handcuffed, beaten senseless, or driven away into the Deep Woods.

I was reminded of that satisfaction today when I read Lance Mannion's post Everything I Know About Writing, I Learned From Beatrix Potter (hat-tip to Batocchio at Mike's Blog Round-Up, who published the link). Mannion writes about Pat Buchanan's scorn of Sonia Sotomayor learning English from stellar children's books, how misplaced his sneering is, and only a thin veneer for woman-hating and racism.

I realized we've been cheated, in this country, from the redemption we'd feel at our own taking of Toad Hall -- in our instance, reclaiming the Constitution and real American values. We need to see Rummy in handcuffs, Rove frog-marched to the stationhouse, Cheney rained about the head and shoulders with Ratty's cudgel, and Mole confiscating all their weapons for none to use again. I'm not talking about revenge, I'm talking about simple justice and setting the house to rights.

Think about what a difference that would make.

Or lay your heads down on your desks and follow the words of Kenneth Grahame himself. We'll start in the middle of Chapter XII, "The Return of Ulysses", where the four friends have prepared themselves and plunged into Badger's dark tunnel, following him in the direction of Toad Hall:

So they groped and shuffled along, with their ears pricked up and their paws on their pistols, till at last the Badger said, `We ought by now to be pretty nearly under the Hall.'

Then suddenly they heard, far away as it might be, and yet apparently nearly over their heads, a confused murmur of sound, as if people were shouting and cheering and stamping on the floor and hammering on tables. The Toad's nervous terrors all returned, but the Badger only remarked placidly, `They are going it, the Weasels!'

The passage now began to slope upwards; they groped onward a little further, and then the noise broke out again, quite distinct this time, and very close above them.

`Ooo-ray-ooray-oo-ray-ooray!' they heard, and the stamping of little feet on the floor, and the clinking of glasses as little fists pounded on the table. `What a time they're having!' said the Badger. `Come on!' They hurried along the passage till it came to a full stop, and they found themselves standing under the trap-door that led up into the butler's pantry.

Such a tremendous noise was going on in the banqueting-hall that there was little danger of their being overheard. The Badger said, `Now, boys, all together!' and the four of them put their shoulders to the trap-door and heaved it back.

Hoisting each other up, they found themselves standing in the pantry, with only a door between them and the banqueting-hall, where their unconscious enemies were carousing.

The noise, as they emerged from the passage, was simply deafening. At last, as the cheering and hammering slowly subsided, a voice could be made out saying, `Well, I do not propose to detain you much longer' -- (great applause) -- `but before I resume my seat' -- (renewed cheering) -- `I should like to say one word about our kind host, Mr. Toad. We all know Toad!' -- (great laughter) -- `Good Toad, modest Toad, honest Toad!' (shrieks of merriment).

`Only just let me get at him!' muttered Toad, grinding his teeth.

`Hold hard a minute!' said the Badger, restraining him with difficulty. `Get ready, all of you!'

` -- Let me sing you a little song,' went on the voice, `which I have composed on the subject of Toad' -- (prolonged applause).

Then the Chief Weasel -- for it was he -- began in a high, squeaky voice --

`Toad he went a-pleasuring
Gaily down the street -- '

The Badger drew himself up, took a firm grip of his stick with both paws, glanced round at his comrades, and cried --

`The hour is come! Follow me!'

And flung the door open wide.

My! What a squealing and a squeaking and a screeching filled the air!

Well might the terrified weasels dive under the tables and spring madly up at the windows! Well might the ferrets rush wildly for the fireplace and get hopelessly jammed in the chimney! Well might tables and chairs be upset, and glass and china be sent crashing on the floor, in the panic of that terrible moment when the four Heroes strode wrathfully into the room! The mighty Badger, his whiskers bristling, his great cudgel whistling through the air; Mole, black and grim, brandishing his stick and shouting his awful war-cry, `A Mole! A Mole!' Rat; desperate and determined, his belt bulging with weapons of every age and every variety; Toad, frenzied with excitement and injured pride, swollen to twice his ordinary size, leaping into the air and emitting Toad-whoops that chilled them to the marrow!

`Toad he went a-pleasuring!' he yelled. `I'll pleasure 'em!' and he went straight for the Chief Weasel. They were but four in all, but to the panic-stricken weasels the hall seemed full of monstrous animals, grey, black, brown and yellow, whooping and flourishing enormous cudgels; and they broke and fled with squeals of terror and dismay, this way and that, through the windows, up the chimney, anywhere to get out of reach of those terrible sticks.

The affair was soon over. Up and down, the whole length of the hall, strode the four Friends, whacking with their sticks at every head that showed itself; and in five minutes the room was cleared. Through the broken windows the shrieks of terrified weasels escaping across the lawn were borne faintly to their ears; on the floor lay prostrate some dozen or so of the enemy, on whom the Mole was busily engaged in fitting handcuffs. The Badger, resting from his labours, leant on his stick and wiped his honest brow.

`Mole,' he said,' `you're the best of fellows! Just cut along outside and look after those stoat-sentries of yours, and see what they're doing. I've an idea that, thanks to you, we shan't have much trouble from them to-night!'

The Mole vanished promptly through a window; and the Badger bade the other two set a table on its legs again, pick up knives and forks and plates and glasses from the debris on the floor, and see if they could find materials for a supper. `I want some grub, I do,' he said, in that rather common way he had of speaking. `Stir your stumps, Toad, and look lively! We've got your house back for you, and you don't offer us so much as a sandwich.' Toad felt rather hurt that the Badger didn't say pleasant things to him, as he had to the Mole, and tell him what a fine fellow he was, and how splendidly he had fought; for he was rather particularly pleased with himself and the way he had gone for the Chief Weasel and sent him flying across the table with one blow of his stick. But he bustled about, and so did the Rat, and soon they found some guava jelly in a glass dish, and a cold chicken, a tongue that had hardly been touched, some trifle, and quite a lot of lobster salad; and in the pantry they came upon a basketful of French rolls and any quantity of cheese, butter, and celery. They were just about to sit down when the Mole clambered in through the window, chuckling, with an armful of rifles.

`It's all over,' he reported. `From what I can make out, as soon as the stoats, who were very nervous and jumpy already, heard the shrieks and the yells and the uproar inside the hall, some of them threw down their rifles and fled. The others stood fast for a bit, but when the weasels came rushing out upon them they thought they were betrayed; and the stoats grappled with the weasels, and the weasels fought to get away, and they wrestled and wriggled and punched each other, and rolled over and over, till most of 'em rolled into the river! They've all disappeared by now, one way or another; and I've got their rifles. So that's all right!'

`Excellent and deserving animal!' said the Badger, his mouth full of chicken and trifle. `Now, there's just one more thing I want you to do, Mole, before you sit down to your supper along of us; and I wouldn't trouble you only I know I can trust you to see a thing done, and I wish I could say the same of every one I know. I'd send Rat, if he wasn't a poet. I want you to take those fellows on the floor there upstairs with you, and have some bedrooms cleaned out and tidied up and made really comfortable. See that they sweep under the beds, and put clean sheets and pillow-cases on, and turn down one corner of the bed-clothes, just as you know it ought to be done; and have a can of hot water, and clean towels, and fresh cakes of soap, put in each room. And then you can give them a licking a-piece, if it's any satisfaction to you, and put them out by the back-door, and we shan't see any more of them, I fancy. And then come along and have some of this cold tongue. It's first rate. I'm very pleased with you, Mole!'

The goodnatured Mole picked up a stick, formed his prisoners up in a line on the floor, gave them the order `Quick march!' and led his squad off to the upper floor. After a time, he appeared again, smiling, and said that every room was ready, and as clean as a new pin. `And I didn't have to lick them, either,' he added. `I thought, on the whole, they had had licking enough for one night, and the weasels, when I put the point to them, quite agreed with me, and said they wouldn't think of troubling me. They were very penitent, and said they were extremely sorry for what they had done. but it was all the fault of the Chief Weasel and the stoats, and if ever they could do anything for us at any time to make up, we had only got to mention it. So I gave them a roll a-piece, and let them out at the back, and off they ran, as hard as they could!'

Then the Mole pulled his chair up to the table, and pitched into the cold tongue; and Toad, like the gentleman he was, put all his jealousy from him, and said heartily, `Thank you kindly, dear Mole, for all your pains and trouble tonight, and especially for your cleverness this morning!' The Badger was pleased at that, and said, `There spoke my brave Toad!' So they finished their supper in great joy and contentment, and presently retired to rest between clean sheets, safe in Toad's ancestral home, won back by matchless valour, consummate strategy, and a proper handling of sticks.