Crowder Tales

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On the first Tuesday in November Juddie was missing from school. Mr. Beaseley explained that he was taking the day off to vote. Noting some bewilderment in the faces of the pupils, he added:

“You must remember that Juddie is twenty-one and has the right—and the responsibility—to vote. You all will vote some day yourselves.”

“But, Mr. Beaseley, how can anybody in the primer vote?” asked Freddie Surrency, in the fifth grade. “Somebody who can’t even spell cat and rat ?”

“Well, Freddie,” replied Mr. Beaseley patiently, “nearly half the people in Crowder can’t spell cat or rat , but they vote. They just get somebody who’s educated to help them mark the ballot.”

“But suppose the person who helps them is dishonest and tells them to vote for the wrong person?” asked the incredulous Freddie.

“That’s why you—all of you—must go to school and learn to read and write and figure,” said Mr. Beaseley. “If you can manage to get through the sixth grade—even if you don’t go on to high school or to college—you can at least read and mark a ballot yourselves. And people can’t cheat you like they can an illiterate.”

That afternoon as we walked past Mr. Kicklighter’s store, where the balloting was being conducted, Juddie was sitting on some sacks of feed, with his knees tucked under his chin, and he was smoking a cigar. He looked mighty pleased with himself. Several of the kids yelled at him: “Hello, Juddie.” “Who’d you vote for, Juddie?” asked Ronnie Driggers.

But Juddie returned the greetings in a matter-of-fact way, and he didn’t answer Ronnie Driggers. He seemed to want us to consider him a grown and important person that day. And so he turned his head from us after speaking, not haughtily, though, and blew a cloud of blue smoke toward the sheet-iron porch roof. Next day he was back in school, clumsily writing c-a-t and r-a-t and acting like the same old friendly Juddie.

As time went by, however, it became plain that Juddie was dropping behind. The little fellows in his class were beginning to spell simple words. And while Juddie pondered hard over how to spell a word all the little hands in the primer class would be reaching for the rafters. Mr. Beaseley had a lot of patience with Juddie because he was trying so hard, never showing the exasperation that he ordinarily showed when the rest of us had trouble with our lessons.

On the last afternoon of the term before Christmas holidays Mr. Beaseley told us to put up our books. We had what we called “society.” We sang songs, had a spelling bee, sang more songs, and Mr. Beaseley read some stories to us out of his own books. Juddie enjoyed all of this very much, and he especially liked to join in the singing, but he didn’t join in the spelling bee. Juddie couldn’t spell, of course. Just before time came for us to go home, Mr. Beaseley made a talk. He told us how he hoped we would enjoy ourselves over the holidays and how he hoped Santa Claus would be good to us. Then he paused a moment for a change of pace.

“Juddie won’t be with us when school takes up in January,” he said. “Juddie is leaving us for good. He asked me to say a few words in his behalf.”

 

There was a buzz through the schoolroom, then quiet as all eyes were focused on Juddie, who, as usual, sat with his knees sticking up in the air on either side of his desk. He was wearing a sad smile.

“Juddie would like for you to know how much this short term of school has meant to him,” continued Mr. Beaseley. “As you know, Juddie never attended school before. He wanted to learn how to read and write. He has learned how to write his name. But he’s not young like the rest of you, and learning comes hard. However, he wanted me to tell all of you to be sure to go on to school and to learn how to read and write and to do arithmetic. Now, let’s all give three cheers for Juddie Matlock—all together:

“Rah, rah, rah for Juddie Matlock; rah, rah, rah for Juddie Matlock; rah, rah, rah, for Juddie Matlock.” And school was dismissed with the cheers still ringing in our ears.

I never saw much of Juddie after that, because he lived far out in the flatlands, where I had no reason to go. But I have often wondered how he made out. I used to hear that he was one of the best crosstie cutters and turpentine chippers in that part of the country.