Luck hasn't always been my lady, but in the second grade she did agree to go out with me. Believe me, it couldn't have come at a better time. I was flunking arithmetic, and had just gotten paddled for punching Pudge Garner in the stomach. Pudge had demanded my chair in reading circle and attempted to sit on me when I refused to yield. As much as she out-weighed me a good twenty pounds, I pleaded self-defense, but Mrs. Walker overruled.
My troubles started in late January when my oldest sister Pat planned on having her first child in a place called San Antonio, and my mother, a rookie grandmother, had decided to make the 600 mile trip to attend the birthing, which meant she left my sister Michele and me with Daddy. Normally that would've been fine, except Daddy had butchered a hog in the fall, and decided to put us on an all-pork diet until Mom got back. During that time I got the flu, so Aunt Velma, Daddy's sister, came up from Tulsa to stay with us, and tried to feed me milk toast.
"Your Uncle Erwin loves milk toast when he gets an upset stomach," she said.
When I told Daddy about it that evening, he snorted and said, "Your Uncle Erwin is a pansy, if you want my opinion."
With my scholastic difficulties, plus the prison food menu Dad and Aunt Velma had put us on, I was on the verge of setting off in search of Mom. I didn't have much trouble convincing Michele to bust out with me, either. Finding San Antonio, we reasoned, would be easier than eating more salt pork and pansy food.
I wanted to put our escape plan into action quickly, because that coming Monday Mrs. Walker would pass out report cards. The principal's call to conference with Dad regarding the Pudge Garner Incident hadn't set well with him, and now, if I brought home a bad grade in arithmetic, well.... That's when Lady Luck accepted my collect call.
"Philip, I want to speak to you after class," Mrs. Walker said. She wore her hair in a bun twisted atop of her head which she used as a pencil holder. She usually had a couple sharpened ones stuck into it. Her thick glasses magnified her small eyes, and she pursed her lips before speaking making her look like a dried apricot with headlights. She wasn't a bad woman, though, merely intense about the business of instructing seven-year-olds.
Earlier, she had said, "Philip, go to the board and complete problem three." Mrs. Walker believed in the Board Problem Method of public humiliation, and used it extensively.
Gulping back dread as thick as cold molasses, I walked to the front of the room. Sniggers bombarded me from every direction. By February of that year, my reputation at the chalkboard had become legend. As I passed George Botts, he bit his tongue and slapped the top of his desk to suppress his mirth. At the board I stared at the chalk horror before me.
"Read us the problem, please," Mrs. Walker said from the pulpit of her desk.
"Nine hundred thousand, fifty..."
"Nine thousand, nine hundred fifty," she corrected.
"Nine thousand, nine hundred fifty and two..."
"Holy cow," George Botts snorted. The class howled.
"Class," Mrs. Walker warned, and snapped her fingers twice. Silence returned, but facing the board I could still feel the grins.
"...take away fifty hund...
"Fie-ev hundred," she said.
"...five hundred f-f-for...I mean, fifty-seven."
"Very good. Now figure the answer."
In the second grade, answers to arithmetic problems came to me by divine messenger, not logic. I hastily wrote four random numbers beneath the problem's horizontal chalk line. It was wrong, of course. Mercifully, Mrs. Walker let me return to my seat, judiciously ignoring the left jab I sent to a gasping George Botts' shoulder as he tried not to fall out of his seat in his hysteria.
"Philip," Mrs. Walker said once we were alone that afternoon. "I wanted to talk to you about your arithmetic grade." I started mentally working out my plans for the road trip to San Antonio. "I know your mother has been gone for several weeks, and with your father taking care of you, you're probably not eating right, and..."
A ray of sunshine cut through my gloom. "Yes ma'am," I blurted. "It's the ham. And Aunt Velma's been trying to make us eat pansy food, and—"
"What?" She looked confused at my outburst, and somewhat perturbed that I had interrupted her. Her brow furrowed. Her lips pursed. Her eyes flashed to high beam. I buttoned my lip.
"Well, anyway, I know your mother would be upset if you brought home this 'U' (Unsatisfactory) in arithmetic, so I'm going to change it to an Incomplete, but you must promise me you will study very hard this last nine weeks."
"Oh, yes ma'am," I said.
So Lady Luck paid me a visit in the second grade. I was darn lucky my mom had taken off for southern Texas, so that my teacher felt sorry for me, thinking me semi-orphaned, and flunking arithmetic because of excessive wimp food and a pork overdose.
As it turned out, I was flunking arithmetic because I needed glasses. The nature of my problem finally dawned on Mrs. Walker during one of her stints as playground warden. She watched as George Botts threw me a softball which I missed with my hands, but stopped with my forehead...three times.