We are all learners, doers, and teachers. Richard Bach I believe that every human soul is teaching something to someone nearly every minute here in mortality M. Russell Ballard
A little girl named Taffy, perhaps six, would drift over to Devon's farming plot nearly every evening she was working there, until her brother Leaf, seven or eight, came to fetch her for dinner. They talked of many things: her family, her friends, life on the farm. She always carried a rag doll, made from a black sock, with loops of stiff black wool sewn to its head. She said the doll's name was Sunshine.
One day she said, "You talk real good."
Leaf, who had just arrived, said, "She talks like a white girl."
Devon said, "I talk like an English person. That's where I came from, from England. In the belly of a big ship."
That got Leaf's attention, and he had many questions about the "big ship." Devon told them how dark and wet and crowded it was in steerage, where the poor people were held, and how nearly everyone in the hold got sick, and half of them died before they reached the shores of America. "I was lucky to get here alive," Devon told them. "As your ancestors must have been, being brought from Africa under even worse conditions."
"Why you come dat way den?" Leaf asked.
"I had no money, and I had to get away from a bad man who hurt me. That's why I'm a servant now, until I earn enough to pay Mr. Winter back for the price he paid the ship's captain for my passage."
Devon told them how the group in steerage had chosen her to go up through the trap door to find food, after a storm washed the animals brought for fresh meat overboard, and the sailors had stopped coming down with limes to prevent scurvy and the promised food for those who'd been able to pay for it. She didn't tell them how some of the women had paid for the food and limes when they became scarce.
The children listened with wide eyes to the tale. But when it was over, Taffy returned to her initial interest. "Wish ah c'd talk good as you." Devon felt somewhat torn on that subject. "You know, you talk just fine; I can understand you perfectly. And many of the white people around here talk pretty much the same, if they didn't get a chance to go to school." "Edom talk good."
"Edom got to go to school, so he learned how to read and write and speak like those he studied with."
"He don' talk much t' us," Leaf observed.
"And that's his loss," Devon said firmly.
"You mus' gone t' school then."
"No, I didn't. Girls aren't thought to need a real education, in England or here. I only talk the way I do because my father had a good education at a good school, before his parents' merchant ship sank, with them on it, and he had to become a tailor to make a living. Tailors don't make much money," she added. "But he read to us every night before we went to bed, and I would sit on his lap when I was about your age, and watch the words while he spoke them. That's how I learned to read and write."
"Where's da rest a' you' fam'ly den?" Leaf asked. "Di'nt dey come wid you?"
"No. My family all died when there was an influenza epidemic in our neighborhood."
"Ah'm glad you di'nt die," Taffy said.
"Thank you, Sweetheart. I'm glad I didn't either. Because I really like it here. I always wanted to be a farmer, like my mother's parents were. And now I get to do that."
"Ah's a fa'mer a'ready," Leaf said. "Ah plants th' seeds sometams, an' picks the peas 'n beans. An' shucks th' co'n."
"It's nice when you can do the same thing as your parents. I never really learned to sew like they did; I was the oldest girl, so I had to take care of my sisters and brother when they were still little. And cook, so my mother could work with my father in the shop to make enough money to feed us all."
"How many dem was dere, you' sistahs 'n brodahs?" Leaf asked.
"I had three sisters and one younger brother. My brother Boyle was older. He went out with his barrow to find clothing the rich people had thrown away, so my parents could make good frocks and jackets from the cloth, for people who couldn't afford to buy new."
"Wha' was dey names?" Taffy asked.
"My twin sisters, three years younger than I, were named Carrie and Cavan. My littlest sister was Annalee, and my little brother was called Dunny, for Dungannon. They were all named after places in my mother's homeland of Ireland. I'm named Devon, for Devonshire."
"Why she leave dere?" Leaf asked.
"There was a drought, and their crops failed. So my mother's parents sent her to London to live with her aunt, and they went to America to try to make a living here." Tears had threatened ever since the conversation had begun, and now they spilled down Devon's cheeks. She didn't wipe them away; tragedy was something they all knew.
"Where dey live now, you' gran'pappy an' mammy?" Leaf asked. "We nevah knowed ou's. Dey was slaves di'nt get bought when dey sell der chillen." "I never knew mine either. They worked in a factory in New York and there was a fire. The doors had been locked so no one could leave before their work was done, so everyone inside died."
"Ah don' laks no fahr," Taffy said. "It burn mah han' once." She held out her left hand as proof, though the spot of puckered skin was barely noticeable.
"I don't much either," Devon said. "After I heard how my mother's parents died, I had nightmares about fire burning our shop and the smoke getting into the back where we lived so we couldn't breathe." So as not to scare the children, she added, "That wouldn't happen here, of course, because everybody lives close together, so others would see the fire and get it out before it could hurt you." Eagle and Childe Alley had been even more tightly packed, but vertically; in these fields, the cabins were all on one level. So what she'd said would be true; these people did look out for each other.
Taffy looked visibly relieved. But she was not to be deterred from her original subject. "C'd you teach me t' talk lak you? Lak a 'ed-ucated' chile?"
"We talks jus' fahn," Leaf said stoutly.
"He's right, you do," Devon said. "But if you'd like to learn how to read books, I think I could teach you that. I love books."
"We don' got no books," Leaf said.
"I don't either anymore, and I miss them. You know, though," Devon said, thinking out loud, "Mister Winter has books in his house; I've been reading his books on farming. He taught himself to read too. Maybe they have children's books, from when their children were little. I'll ask him. We might read them together, so you could learn the words like I did." Both children looked excited about that. Then they heard their mother's voice calling them from their cabin farther down the fields and left at a run for their dinner. Devon found herself excited too at the prospect of sharing reading with the children. She had read Gulliver's Travels to her younger siblings until they could quote the next paragraph from memory, although she hadn't had time to teach them to read themselves. The chores of being a second mother had been never-ending, and it was all she could do to read them a chapter at bedtime when their parents had to work late, before her own eyes closed as well.
"What you need with children's books?" Mr. Winter said irritably when she asked. "You can't afford to be no child no more."
"I'd like to read to the children," she said patiently. His temper didn't distress her anymore.
He scowled harder. "Readin's almos' as bad as teachin'," he said. "An' you know there ain't no teachin' slave folks t' read, you know that, right?"
Devon nodded, not correcting him that there were no slaves on the property anymore. She understood all too well that none of the black residents dared leave the boundaries of the farm, for the very real fear that slave-catchers would seize anybody they found beyond Winter's protection and sell them back into slavery elsewhere.
"There be a $500 fine f'r such teachin' in these parts. An' time in jail besides. You don' wan' none a' that, do ya?"
Devon shook her head, not bothering to point out that she had no income with which to pay a fine. She surely didn't want to go to jail, but how would anybody know, really, as hidden away as they were down in this little valley. She was sure the word would never get out from any of the black residents. They might not think of her as one of them, but the punishment for breaking any rule as strict as this prohibition would be just as harsh for them as for her.
Cyrus Winter grumbled something unintelligible before he said gruffly, "Them books're all in a trunk in th' bedroom I use' t' share with my wife, 'fore she got tired a' the arrangement. I s'pose you might as well take some." But before Devon was out the door, he said, louder, "See that nobody ever catches you teachin' any nigra t' read, let alone write. That's how they fake the passes when they run."
Devon nodded again and was out the door. She had just, she reflected, gotten permission to do both, in his way. Because it would be Cyrus Winter who would pay the fine, if not jail, if she got caught; they both knew that.
She did, in fact, find many children's books in that trunk she searched once she was certain Eunice was out of the house. Eunice Winter was a firm believer in the rules that gave her all the privileges she enjoyed over her darker neighbors.
Devon recognized many titles, and was excited at the prospect of reading them again: Gulliver's Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Tales of Mother Goose, The Swiss Family Robinson. . .
And some she didn't recognize: The Gigantic History of the Two Famous Giants and The Life and Perambulation of a Mouse—didn't they sound fun! And Fabulous Histories and Lessons for Children, by Anna Laetitia Barbauld. Whatever that was. She'd have to read it first and be sure she agreed with the "Lessons." Some people's idea of appropriate counsel for children was to preach blind obedience. And how was one ever to learn more that way?
Devon caressed the worn covers of the books, like the treasures they were. She couldn't wait to share them with Leaf and Taffy. And maybe other children would like to join them. Maybe their parents would enjoy listening in. Or learning to read themselves. Or to write. . .
Devon stopped herself from getting too carried away. They would be putting themselves in danger of discovery. And possible penalties. She must make very sure they knew what risks they could be running. They must decide for themselves, as she had.
But it made her angry. Forbidden to know how to read and write? It was bad enough girls often weren't thought worthy of a formal education beyond the basics. The prohibitions—and penalties—in this country based simply on race were outrageous. Yes, she did suppose such knowledge would make a slave yearn for freedom—even more, since they did already of course. But nobody should be forbidden the pleasures of learning. And if that made them even more eager to expand their horizons, all the better!
Devon slammed the trunk shut and began to gather the books into her arms. Almost too many to carry, but they would do. For a start.
When Devon returned to their cabin that evening after making sure Mr. Winter ate his dinner—by threatening to feed him if he didn't, and watch him while he did—Joelle was already there, and looking over the books. She started when Devon opened the door, as though caught doing something she shouldn't.
"Aren't they wonderful?" Devon said. "I'm going to read them to Leaf and Taffy. If their parents approve."
"You better not be teachin' no readin'," Joelle warned.
"I'll teach anything I like," Devon retorted, thinking, You too?
"They got pow'ful punishments fo' that in these parts."
"And who's going to tell?" Devon said crossly.
"Anybody could, get theyse'ves in good wid dose on top."
"You're too much of a cynic," Devon said, removing her dress to change into her gardening clothes; already she was losing the light and had work to do. Ever since Joelle had missed out on rescuing the indentured women, she had been touchy. Devon called on more patience. "I'll tell everybody about the risks. Then it's their decision whether it's worth it. Surely you support everybody's right to learn how to read and write."
Joelle maintained her scowl but said nothing.
Devon wondered how she should ask, then decided that outright had always been their way. "You were glad enough to learn how to write your name. Wouldn't you like to learn more?"
Joelle didn't answer right away, then said with a lowered voice, still staring at Fabulous Histories, "Yeah ah would. You know ah would.""Good," Devon said. "Come with me while I'm teaching. You'll learn faster than anybody, you're so sharp."
"'Sharp,'" Joelle repeated grimly. "Yeah ah am. Lak a knife ah's 'sharp'."
"You don't have to be cuttin' nobody to be sharp," Devon responded, and became aware that she was beginning to talk like Joelle as much as Joelle was like her; Joelle was prounouncing th's and would have said knows before she'd gotten used to Devon's way of talking. And why not? Devon had been entirely sincere in telling the kids that the way they talked was just fine. It was always good for people to speak to each other in their own mutual way. But if you wanted to converse with educated people, that was their own way. Not to mention that if you wanted to be taken for a free person, it could be helpful to learn to talk like someone who'd had some education at least. Like Edom. And Black Ben. It would probably have helped the people they'd sent on their way north if they'd had the time to provide a few speech lessons.
"Couldn't you just teach me here?" Joelle's voice remained low.
Devon brought herself back to the present moment. Why was Joelle so reluctant, apparently, to mix with the other people here?
"I only have so much time," Devon said, trying to tread carefully around her friend's feelings. "Couldn't you come with me when I teach, if you have time? It would be fun to all learn together."
Joelle didn't answer.
"I'll let you know what Leaf and Taffy's parents say about teaching them. Their names are Justin and Marigold, right?"
"Yeah. Justin and Marigold. Fleece."
"Maybe I'll go now," Devon said. "It's gotten too dark for hoeing; I'd likely uproot something I planted. Marigold's probably fixing dinner." She dropped the shirt and pants she'd been about to put on and pulled her dress back over her head. When she turned to close the door, Joelle wasn't looking at the book, but out into space, at nothing. Devon wondered if her friend would ever tell her all the secrets she seemed to wear like chains about her.
"Come in!" Marigold called at Devon's knock.
She smiled when she saw that it was Devon.
After the chilly air outside, their cabin was cozy warm, a fire burning in the oil drum many had converted to fireplaces by filling with coal and adding a stovepipe that vented through the roof. In the cut-out circle just above the burning coals, the fire burned brightly and made Devon think about their combination kitchen/parlor's fire at home.
"Devon!" called the children, scampering in from one of the doors off the large room. The Fleeces were one of the few families who had a two-bedroom cabin. They had chickens, and Marigold sometimes sold their eggs by the roadside at the edge of the Winter property. Devon had passed her a few times when she'd gone into town on errands for the Winters. Justin had used to do repairs for people in town, she'd heard, but had stopped when one of their friends had been seized by slave catchers and had not been seen since.
"Chillen tole me dey ask you t' teach 'em f'om books," Marigold said.
"Yes," Devon replied, after a hug from each one. "But only if it's okay with you and Mr. Fleece. I know there are laws against it and I don't want to get anyone in trouble." Marigold was a tall, pretty woman with an elaborately woven braid wrapped about her head like a crown.
"Laws again' teachin'," Marigold said. "You be th' one mos' in danger."
"Well, they wouldn't treat the learners very well either, I'm sure."
"You gots dat raht. But dis ou' home. Ain' nobody gonna tell us wha' t'do an' wha' not in ou' own home."
"That's settled then," Devon said. "What would be a convenient time for you?"
"We all goes t' bed purty early," Marigold said. "Rooster's up raht at dawn. May be afta suppa? We tells de chillen tales den, fo' dey go t' sleep. Tales ou' people tol' us. May be dey get tales outa books now. May be we learns some more too."
"Great. I got some books from Mr. Winter. Ones their children read."
"Sumta Wintah c'n read?" Marigold said, with such genuine disbelief that they both broke out laughing.
"Hard to imagine, isn't it? Maybe only Arden learned. But these two will learn fast; you can tell they don't miss much."
When Devon returned the next evening after a quick supper from the kitchen, the Fleece's cabin was chock full of people. Lubin and Penelope, about eight and ten respectively, were seated on the floor alongside Leaf and Taffy; and their parents, Big Gus and Zoe, were seated at the table.
"Ah hopes y' don' mind," Marigold said, undoing her apron. "Dey hear 'bout de readin' an' wanna come too."
"Of course not," Devon said, sitting on the floor alongside the children, although Justin had offered her a chair at the table. "Please, sit," she said to Justin and Marigold, "I'm practically a child still myself."
They sat and all looked at her with bright expectation; and Devon could not speak for a moment, remembering her own family gathered around the stove of an evening, waiting for her father to open the world of books for them.
"The Swiss Family Robinson," Devon said finally, holding up the book for all to see. "It's about a family from Switzerland who get shipwrecked on a desert island and have to find a way to grow food and make themselves some sort of house to live in."
"'Ship-reck'?" Leaf said.
"Yes. Their ship gets wrecked. Destroyed. I forget how; we'll find out as we read it. But they have to use their imaginations to survive. Like you use your imaginations to picture the stories your parents tell you. But this book has pictures, so the artist has already imagined how each of the people look, and how the house looks that they build, and the animals they meet."
The children's eyes had grown even wider.
"Can we see the pichers now?" Lubin asked.
"Let's wait until we get to them," Devon said. "That way you can imagine what you're hearing, then see how the artist who drew the pictures saw what he was reading."
She checked the cover. "She," she said proudly. "The artist was a she."
"I like reading," Taffy said, though they had not yet begun.
"Me too," Devon said, squeezing her hand.
She showed them all the cover. "The first word is 'The'; you'll find that word a lot as we read. And this word"—pointing—"is 'Swiss.' That's what people from Switzerland are called. You see how many 's's it has? S's are what make the word hiss like a snake."
"Ssss. . . " all the children went.
By then all four children were crowded close around her. And she began to read the story, pointing out words occasionally for their sounds or what they meant. The adults listened as attentively, and soon stood behind her to see the pages and what she was explaining to the children. She would definitely, Devon thought, get word to the adults on the farm that she was happy to teach anyone who wished to learn to read. But then, they would probably learn of her teaching soon enough. She just hoped the news would stay within this precious valley.
She read for half an hour or so, stopping at words she had identified and asking the children what they were.
"Thh. . uh," replied Penelope, the th sounding unfamiliar to her tongue.
"Seee," Leaf said.
"Right. And you see that it's spelled s-e-a instead of s-e-e, which means the seeing you do with your eyes. That kind of sea is the huge expanse of water on both ends of this country. I came across the Atlantic Ocean—another word that means 'sea'—when I came here from England. Like your ancestors did, from Africa."
"Is Af'ka in this story?" Lubin wanted to know.
"No, it isn't. But I'll have to find a book with Africa in it. I don't know much about Africa, so we can learn together."
"Mah granmammy say Af'ka a bootiful place," Penelope said wistfully. "She din't wan' t' leave it, no way."
"Yes," Devon said, "I don't think anybody did. Men came and stole those people, and brought them here to work without ever getting paid or able to leave. And that was so wrong."
The children nodded gravely. "Mah mammy sell eggs," Taffy said. "An' she get paid f'r dem eggs."
"As well she should," Devon said.
"Peoples here don' pay," Taffy added. "She get dis dess f' me fum Mizzus Pine."
"It's beautiful." And it was, dyed dark red, probably from the cranberries Devon had seen growing around the old woman's cabin. There was fine smocking around the neck of the dress, and Devon allowed herself a few moments of sadness that her mother had never had the time to show her how to do that. She wondered if Mrs. Pine would make her such a dress, maybe trade it for crops, or lessons for herself. Mrs. Pine was very old and lived alone, but there might be someone Devon could write letters to for her.
Taffy was looking up at her expectantly. "I think that practice, one person giving something to another in exchange for something they have, is called bartering," Devon said. "That way, you don't need money for everything. One person needs something and has extra of something else, like eggs or corn or something they can do. Like your father used to help people repair their houses."
"He don' do dat no moe," Leaf said. "Don' wan' no slave cachers get 'im." The boy pronounced the words 'slave catchers' with angry disdain.
"Dey try sell us a-way," Lubin said gravely.
Devon was surprised that the children knew this, then reflected that their parents would have to tell them about the danger slave catchers posed, so they'd know not to venture off the property. What a terrible thing to have to be aware of, while you were still so young.
Devon stopped reading after the first chapter and asked, "Would anyone like to learn how to write your name?" remembering how Joelle had almost literally jumped at the chance.
The children shouted a chorus of "Mee-mee-meee," so Devon took from the pocket of her dress the pencil and paper she'd brought from Mr. Winter's study and started with the boys. "Your names both begin with 'L'," she told them, and wrote a large L on the paper. "Then Leaf's has the same sound as 'sea' did in the book, and is written with those same letters—'e' and 'a' followed by 'f', like 'Family' in the title of this book," which she showed them again. "Only small, like this," and she wrote an 'f' on the paper.
She looked behind her at his parents. "At least I think that's how it's meant to be spelled. Like a leaf on a tree?"
Marigold nodded. "Ah loves when dem leafs turn all red when it start gettin' cool."
"The only leaves I saw in London were in the parks," Devon said. "Or in the country if I was taken there." She remembered her mixed feelings, riding through the countryside with Newgate to that awful fox hunt. She had looked at those small cottages with such longing, wanting to live there and work the land like they were. Although already, she'd learned, that land had been bought up by rich men, and the peasants were not too different from slaves, working the land for little more than the lesser share of the crops and the clothes on their backs.
"Ah did it!" Leaf declared, showing her the letters he'd written on the page. They were a little wobbly, but easily recognizable.
"Excellent!" Devon gave his shoulders a squeeze.
Then she showed Lubin how his letters were written. "The 'u' is like this, even though the sound is more like 'oo', like 'ooo, yummy-yummy.'" She rubbed her stomach to demonstrate the feeling.
Lubin got the b backwards, like a d, and she showed him the difference. She'd heard some people see things that way, and thought she might have to spend extra time with him. "You sure got that dot on the 'i'!" she said, pointing to the fat circle he'd made. "Your name becomes like part of you, doesn't it? So you wear it with pride."
Penelope and Taffy were just as proud of the names they wrote, each child on his own page. Taffy's letters sprawled a bit, but were written with a determined flourish.
"I'll write your parents' names on each of your pages," Devon said, "so you can practice writing those too." She was embarrassed that she'd never heard the last name of Big Gus and Zoe's family. She'd have to find out and teach the children to write their last names the next time.
By then, the single window of the cabin's large room showed it was fully dark outside, and Devon took her leave.
"Thank you," Marigold said with feeling at the door, clasping Devon's hand in both of hers. "They gone be smaht chillen."
"They're already smart," Devon said. "They'll just have another way to show it."
Word spread quickly through the community that people were learning to read and write, and many approached Devon over the next weeks, asking for lessons and offering what they had to exchange. Soon her evenings were full of teaching. Edom complained about the time that took from their evenings together, but Devon's retort silenced him. "You should have been teaching them yourself. Who said you were more worthy of learning than they?"
She was especially gratified when Marigold and Justin showed her that they had learned how to write their own names and those of their children. Not long after that, Zoe asked Devon to visit their cabin and showed her the well-worn sheet where she and Big Gus had been practicing their family's names. They had nailed it to the inside of their door. "To 'dentify ou'seves," she said.
"I don't know your last name," Devon said with regret, having not found anyone who did.
"We don' takes de name a' ou' firs' massa. He one real mean man, he was. Mos' peoples takes der massa's name, but we don'. Not even Wintah."
"Then why don't you choose a last name for yourselves, and I'll show you how to write it."
Zoe's face lit up like the brightest of candles. "We do dat," she said emphatically. And on Devon's next visit, Zoe told her they had chosen Black as their surname. "'Cause we be's black an' p'oud ob it," she said. And Devon showed them how to write 'Black' in big bold capital letters, which soon appeared on their door beneath all the first names.
No one posted their names on the outside of their doors, however. Too much 'identity' could attract the notice of slave catchers, who'd already been on the farm once to Devon's knowledge, looking for Kyle. Everyone in this little valley, Devon thought, had best keep their heads down and their secret learning to themselves. Herself included.
Patricia Brooks: I was the Managing and Fiction Editor of the Northwest Review while in the 3-year MFA program at the University of Oregon, have published two novels, and stories and poems in a variety of print and on-line journals. Now, a book and a half into this project, I am seeking an agent/publisher for the series.