In the late '50s, my mother picked up a teaching gig in Franklin, Tenn. I started my fifth grade there at an all-white school. We had come from a very small, rural town west of Franklin on the other side of Columbia. I was different from the other kids.
For one thing, I looked different. I was kinda "shag-nasty." My hair was petroleum-jelly slicked back, and my clothes were from last year. There was no money for new school clothes.
I had two pairs of shoes. My favorite pair was black, with a white lightning bolt embedded on the back side of each shoe. I thought of them as being my Elvis shoes. Small horseshoe taps on the heels. I could take off running down the sidewalk, point my toes up and slide. The taps made a sound kinda like a scratchy metal whistle.
I rolled my blue jeans up from the bottom, two folds. White socks and flappy short-sleeve shirts. I rolled my sleeves up, too. I suppose you could say I looked like a little hoodlum. Or, better yet, a kid from the sticks. A hick. My look had been considered cool in the little town from which I had come. Not so much in Franklin.
I was short for my age. There were third-graders bigger than me. That was a big reason that I didn't much like going to school. I got picked on. Louie, he was a bully, and I was his favorite punching bag. The days that I did show up for class, I could count on him kicking my butt.
Louie reminded me of Lucy's boyfriend, Sluggo, in the comic books. He had a burr haircut. Basically, his big clunky head looked like he had had his head shaved and his hair was just starting to grow out. Kinky.
For every bit that I was shorter, Louie was taller than the rest of the kids in my grade. He was chunky. Not so much fat as he was stout. Thankfully, he couldn't run as fast as me. That was a big plus.
Louie probably had some attention deficit disorder in him. He was loud, and whatever he said was laced with profanity. Big gapped yellow teeth. He smoked cigarettes out on the playground, one of those kids that was on the prowl and looking for his next problem to get into. More specifically, he seemed to always be looking for me. I never really figured out why he liked to beat me up so much. Could have been my Elvis shoes.
Every day, right after school let out, he'd catch me out by the bike racks and throw me to the ground, sit on my back and push my face into the dirt. He'd pop me in the back of the head a few times and roll me over and punch me a few more times in the gut.
I probably didn't do myself any favors by telling him what a fat slob he was as he was pounding away on me.
Just down the path I took to school was the beginning of the neighborhood where Franklin's black families lived. Miss Bobbie's house was the yellow one, third door down. Miss Bobbie, in the early morning, would be sitting on the front porch in her rocker, smoking her corncob pipe. She was heavy-set and had no teeth.
I don't think any of Miss Bobbie's children went to school much. She must have had seven or eight kids. Mostly boys, ranging in age from 9 or 10 to late teen years. There wasn't a father figure around. Miss Bobbie's mother lived with them and, as far as I could tell, took care of the younger children and the house while the rest of them worked.
Sometimes, I'd jump over the little ditch out in front of the house and visit with everybody for awhile. Miss Bobbie's younger kids would stare out from the front screen door. You could hear them whispering, "Here come that white boy, Billy."
As soon as I got up close to her porch, Miss Bobbie would look like she was chewing something, and then speak. "Boy, you is gonna be late fo' yo' classroom. Da tardy bell done ring awhile ago." She and the rest of them would start laughing. Then she'd start coughing. She'd say, "Dis liddle white boy always late. Does you want some coffee? Somebody get dis boy some coffee." Nobody ever did.
I wasn't one of those kids who paid too much attention to getting to school on time. Most times, I was running behind, sometimes as much as a couple of hours. I just wasn't that interested in geography and all that other stuff. Not only that, but school was where Louie was.
On my way to school one day, I picked some buttercups out of Old Lady Crawford's yard and presented them to Miss Bobbie. She clapped her hands and invited me into the house and gave me a couple of her made-from-scratch, peanut butter cookies.
She pulled her false teeth out of the glass on the TV, put them back in her mouth and stuck the flowers in the glass.
While I ate the cookies, she sat across from me on her fading, emerald green, three-levels recliner and told me the story of David and Goliath.
Miss Bobbie told me, "Listen here, boy. David, he ain't afraid. He just a little boy, like you is. But he ain't 'fraid. He got da Lord on he side." Miss Bobbie held up her imaginary sling. Rotating it above her head, she continued, "Liddle David, he pick up dat rock and he chuck it at dat giant, you see, an' he smack him up side da head, an' Goliath, he fall down, dead as a door nail. Da Lord had give David kerrage, you see."
"Boy, you better git yo' self some kerrage. Dat Louie, he ain't no good. He gonna' keep beatin' on you till you fights him back. Men gots to fight back sometime, Billy." She leaned in toward me and waved her fist at me. She chuckled, coughed a little and said, "You be like David."
Sure enough, right after the school bell rang, here comes Louie. As he approached me, he said something. I don't remember what. There he was. Right up on me. I leaped up and got a couple of shots off. His nose began to bleed. I'm not sure who was more shocked, him or me!
I wish that this story ended with Louie falling to the ground, as did Goliath, but it doesn't. Louie took me to the ground and beat me worse than he ever had. But he never bothered me again. It hurt, but it was worth it. And I felt better about myself.
I believe, most especially, in this day and age, our faith in God, combined with our American courage, will see us through the toughest of times. So to all you out there, let's not allow ourselves to be pushed around nor pushed away from our beliefs and our right to a peaceful and happy way of life.
Let's start this coming new year off right. I suggest we follow Miss Bobbie's advice and "Be like David."
Bill Stamps is a native Tennessean who spent four decades in the entertainment industry before relocating from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tenn. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook.