Early Difficulties Translated into Valuable Lessons: Twilight Musings Autobiography (Part 4)
My family’s move from Stamford, TX, back to Abilene when I was 7 years old turned out to entail challenges that became opportunities for me to grow. The transfer to a new school is often difficult for a child, but since my illness in Stamford had forced me to begin 1st grade again, I went into 2nd grade with the advantage of being ahead of my classmates in both age and classroom experience. That advantage put me ahead of the game for the rest of my primary school years. Adding to the ease with which I made the transfer to a new school was the fact that I had very supportive teachers there, and that spurred me on to do my best. I was hungry for approval, and it came most easily to me by performing well in the classroom.
I’m not sure what the immediate catalyst was for my family’s making the move back to Abilene in 1944, but it coincided with a downturn in our financial security. Since my brother Otho and his wife Lucille had already gone back to Abilene and set up a business in watch repair, it made sense for my family to be there so that we could be more easily helped by them. Not long after we moved back, my father was diagnosed with throat cancer, and that necessitated my going to work at an early age to earn some pocket money and eventually to contribute to the family’s purchase of groceries. I had to adjust to the need for me to be a contributing member of the household, not just a dependent.
We rented a house in Abilene only a few blocks away from Travis Elementary School, so I was able to walk to school. I have numerous memories of my years at Travis. My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Buttrick, enabled me to attract the attention of the woman who was to become my third-grade teacher, Mrs, Jackson. Mrs. Buttrick had given me the task of reciting a little piece for the Parent Teacher Association, and after the event, Mrs. Jackson summoned me from the playground to tell me what a good job I had done. Her commendation was a complete surprise, and it paved the way for a close relationship with her when I went into her class the next year.
At some point in my 3rd grade year, the principal of our school, Mr. Etter, gathered all the boys to present some basics on the “birds and bees.” I suppose it was an appropriate time for such a lecture for me, because I subsequently developed a crush on my 4th grade teacher, Miss Caffee, and in the 5th grade I exchanged romantic looks and notes with a girl in my class. It was there that I learned how “love” was engendered by the locking of eyes “across a crowded room.” She sent me a little missive saying she liked me, and I manifested my early linguistic skill by replying “Likewise,” a word that probably no other boy in my class would have used. I don’t remember that the girl to whom it was addressed responded, so our brief remote romance must have faded.
I was honored in 5th and 6th grades to be voted a Patrol Boy, which gave me the responsibility of standing at the pedestrian crossings outside the school to make sure traffic stopped to let the kids cross safely. I was quite proud to wear the belt and the badge that went with the office.
Our Physical Education teacher was Mr. Sherman, a tall man who had a commanding presence. Under him I learned to play soccer, a relatively new game at the time in the U. S. It had this strange rule that you couldn’t touch the ball with your hands, so you had to learn literally to “use your head,” as well as your feet. Mr. Sherman also coached the competitive team sports, football and softball. My parents would not allow me to go out for the contact sport of football. However, I did have a stint catching for the softball team. I did not excel in sports, so early in life I accepted that my greatest successes would be achieved as an “egghead.”
My 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Barnes, inadvertently became an early sponsor of my entry into the work world. She was a kind older lady, and my chief memory of her was her answering the door bell when I was going door-to-door selling greeting cards, my first work for pay. Out of pure charity, no doubt, she bought some of my wares, for which I was grateful. Though I don’t remember much about our relationship in the classroom, it must have been generally positive.
Peddling greeting cards brought me my first pocket money, with which I bought my first bicycle, enabling me to graduate from self-employment to a brief career in selling newspapers. I broke into the newspaper trade by walking around downtown Abilene selling the Fort Worth Star Telegram (which competed with the local paper, the Abilene Reporter News) on the street, in hotel lobbies, and in restaurants. Getting up at about 4:30 in the morning to do this job; I rode my bike downtown to pick up my papers, passing by the lighted clock on a bank on Chestnut Street, which shone eerily on the deserted pavement. I would set out with a bundle of papers under my arm, for which I had to account at the end of the day by giving my employer the wholesale price for each paper sold and returning the unsold papers. It was a marvelous feeling to pay him his money and have no papers to return. There were tips from time to time, but I didn’t have to tell him about those. I found that areas around hotels were the best places to sell, since out-of-town people were most likely to want a newspaper from a major city like Fort Worth. The papers were delivered twice a day by truck from Fort Worth, mostly on time but sometimes not. When the papers were late and the delivery boys got rambunctious, Mr. Bennett, who managed the Abilene franchise for the paper, used to say, “When I die, I won’t go to Hell; the Lord will just make me wait for the paper truck to come!”
After several months of selling on the street (newspapers only!), I advanced to doing home deliveries on my bicycle, which gave me a steadier income. The wind seemed to be my adversary during my newspaper delivery years. When I was peddling papers on the street, the wind at the corners of tall buildings (as much as 17 stories in Abilene at the time!) would nearly rip my papers out of my arms. When I was riding my bicycle on the residential route, it was exceedingly difficult to make headway facing into the wind. Moreover, the bicycle I was riding supplied an additional challenge: it had only a cruising speed and it took a lot of initial energy to get it going. However, that necessary struggle on the bicycle turned out to be good for my legs, creating good, firm muscles that have stood me in good stead over the years.
Meanwhile, back at Travis Elementary, my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Lavinia Ward, took me under her wing and I worked hard for her, but my efforts were more quantitative than creative. She didn’t much challenge that deficiency in my work in 6th grade, but it turned out that she went up to junior high teaching (7th grade) the same year I entered South Junior High School, so I had a social studies class with her there. Her standards at that level, however, were appropriately more challenging. I turned in an assignment (making a papier-mache map) on which I spent a great deal of time and turned it in expecting that I would receive the same kind of praise from her that I had in the 6th grade. However, she returned the map with the comment that she expected some original thinking on the assignment, not mere hours spent. That was my first real experience with thinking analytically, and I am thankful to Mrs. Ward for initiating it. I was thereafter academically the better for it.
Our very early experiences shape attitudes and character. In my case, God used what appeared to be difficult circumstances (early illness and the need for me to work) to help me develop special strengths. My late start in schooling gave me an academic advantage which fed into my choosing an academic career. My days selling greeting cards and delivering newspapers developed self-discipline and a sound sense of thrift in using the money I earned. My family struggled financially during those years, and I was able to help out with my little bit of earnings, as well as being able to buy a few small things for myself. I was profoundly affected by my father’s example of being a faithful tither, even when things were tight. Even before I began earning my own money, I would put two or three cents of my weekly allowance of 25 cents into the offering plate on Sundays, so it was easy to transfer that principle when I had my own earned income.
I entered junior high school eager to navigate my last six years of public education and prepared to continue working to help the family. More about junior high school in the next installment.
Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)