I may have accomplished little in life, but I'm most often complimented on my teaching skills, and my discerning observation and evaluation of politics. I'm occasionally asked why a nobody from nowhere like me became so interested in, as well as informed enough to become a "shade-tree" free-lance writer. The answer? I was in ninth grade. Every year every class had elections for class president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer and reporter, as well as class king and queen. The king and queen from the class that raised the most money would reign as king and queen of our entire school. It was our first year in high school, and we were determined to win. Our grade-mothers pledged cookies and brownies to sell, and we put whatever contributions we could give or gather in the Mason Jar with the split in the lid on our homeroom teacher's desk.
Election time came and our class in-crowd held their usual primary to decide which of them all of us would vote for. After all, it was common knowledge that only the elite of society deserved to hold office. The in-crowd boys easily settled on a son from a prominent family to serve as king, but the in-crowd girls fell "out" over which of them would be queen. Each one got someone to nominate her, and they competed against each other. This might not have caused a problem, but a brave girl from one of our three cotton mill villages courageously broke tradition, and nominated her friend from another cotton mill village. The in-crowd girl's vote was split, and the unthinkable happened; a daughter of "lint-head factory bats," as they were insultingly called, won by one vote and became our class queen.
We lower-class farm kids and the mill village kids put what coins we could in the jar, but any enthusiasm from the in-crowd ceased, and the grade mothers did not show up with the cookies and brownies to sell. Our homeroom teacher continually asked what happened to the enthusiasm and when would our items for sale arrive. He received no answers, just nonchalant gestures until an in-crowd boy blurted out in so many words that the quality of our queen was not worthy of in-crowd support, reducing her to tears. When the teacher asked the question again the next day, I stood and confirmed what the in-crowd boy had said, and pointed out that the grade-mothers had had plenty of time to deliver their contributions, if their children still wanted them to. For any who may not understand cotton mill town culture, grade-mothers were the non-working wives of professionals, managers, supervisors and foremen. Farm and factory wives worked to supplement their husbands' meager wages.
My statement infuriated the in-crowd boys, but they knew better than to challenge a rugged farm boy. They hired a bully who towered over me to beat me up. I never owned tennis shoes until I was grown. Poor students had to remove their shoes to play on the varnished gym floor. I was in the "commoners' corner" putting my shoes back on when the in-crowd boys approached with their bully, and one of them spoke a prepared statement about how I must be punished for insulting the in-crowd girls, then stepped aside. I knew I didn't have a chance, but I made up my mind to deliver at lest one punch the bully would always remember. When I balled up my fists and made my stance, a look of absolute fear came over his face, he backed away, and then with the in-crowd boys, ran away. I turned to see how many had seen me back the big bully down. I had not backed anyone down; the commoners' corner farm and mill village boys were right behind me with their fists balled up. The older hired bully had no idea why he was hired to beat me up. Sadly, he was from one of the mill villages himself. Today, we're the same size as well as good friends.
When we became seniors, the same in-crowd boy who insulted our ninth grade queen lost a cherished senior position to another mill village girl in an election. He asked our homeroom teacher when the next election would be, then insultingly commented "Maybe we will do a better job then." The in-crowd held their customary primary, and told us who to vote for. But this time, we farm and mill village "commoners" held our own primary, and won every election as a result. It never crossed my mind to vote for anyone other than who the in-crowd told me to until one of them deliberately insulted kind, sweet mill village girls who had done him no harm. Why, in the sense of a "shade tree mechanic" am I an undereducated "shade tree" free-lance writer and political commentator? Because no matter how large the population, too many communities, cities, states and nations are victims of a collective cotton mill town mentality, and too many cowardly well-educated elites who could "speak truth to power," leave that to courageous self-educated nobodies from nowhere like me.
Yes, we go to jail for speaking out. Yes, I will probably go again. But when jailers and inmates commend you for opposing injustice, and your jail time is spent in profound conversations, jail is simply a vacation from courts that put winning cases over justice, and a world that tolerates unscrupulous legal criminals using the courts for exploitation and personal vendettas.
Robert C. Currie Jr. of Laurinburg is a previous contributor to The Readers Write.