In the summer of 1981, I was thirteen years old when my father accepted a transfer from our home state of Ohio, to Wilmington, North Carolina. The move was the start of a two-year long bad mood for me that didn’t lift until we moved back to Ohio.
It seems so preposterous that a move from small-town northeast Ohio to a coastal Carolina town could be the cause of my misery, but let me reiterate, I was thirteen. I was a MORON. But to explain it better, I loved my extended family and depended on my aunts and uncles to be a safety net for my mother and father’s parental shortcomings. In particular, my Aunt Gwennie, was my favorite person in the world. She encouraged my love of reading and made it clear she thought I was unique and smart and a delight to her. The thought of not being able to see her whenever I wanted was devastating. She had also become a widow in the previous year, and this felt like one more loss to me. I couldn’t just pick up a phone and call her. This may not make sense to a younger audience, but in 1981, there was no internet and there were no cell phones. A long distance phone call could cost $20 or more, and minimum wage was just over $3/hour.
I was the epitome of teen angst, but at 13, I was a painfully shy, bookish girl, with the body of a curvy young woman older than her years. I had no idea how to handle myself or the sudden interest shown to me by the opposite sex. I left a school that had almost no diversity, it was about as whitebread as you can get, only to be bussed to an urban school where I was suddenly a minority. In hindsight, I’m so grateful I had that experience and had to navigate an uncomfortable situation that forced me to grow and exposed me to a vastly different experience than my very generic, white suburban life.
One of the biggest drawbacks for me was the academic adjustment. The school I attended in Ohio had all of my records on file; my teachers knew I was reading at a college level, and placed me in appropriate classes. I don’t remember any testing before starting classes at Williston Junior High. I’m sure my mother must have sent a transcript, but I was lumped in with the general population.
My eighth-grade language arts teacher was Mrs. Jacobs. I believe her full name was Evelyn P. Jacobs. I was impressed that she always used her middle initial. Mrs. Jacobs was a tall African American woman, close to six feet tall-higher when she wore heels. She was dressed to the nines every single day. All of the students feared her, and I was terrified of her from day one. She controlled that class with a fierce glance. The default look on her face was one of watchful irritation with all of us, challenging anyone to disrupt her controlled environment. She carried a ruler in her hand, stalking the classroom, up and down the rows. If she caught anyone being at all disruptive, the ruler came down on the desk of the offender with a CRACK! God forbid you made the mistake of drifting off to sleep. Mrs. Jacobs would take a textbook and slam it on your desk, centimeters from your sleeping head. The only reaction from the rest of us would be gasps, we dared not laugh at her victim, for fear of drawing her attention our way. Better to be invisible in Mrs. Jacob’s class. Her cousin Brian was in my hour and she made it clear to him on day one that there would be no nepotistic preferential treatment for him and he could only refer to her as Mrs. Jacobs just as everyone else did. In fact, she would hold him to a higher standard than the rest of the class. I came to know Brian as the class clown in other subjects; I can only imagine the discomfort he felt at this censorship.
I maintained a cloak of invisibility in Mrs. Jacob’s class, but I watched her and studied her from the sidelines. She was the most confident woman I’d ever seen. Her posture was amazing, and she was “built like a brick shithouse” as my dad used to say. She reminded me of a pigeon with her enormous chest and equally ample behind. She knew how to carry herself, with authority and power. Occasionally, something struck her as humorous, and she would throw back her head and let out whoops and howls of delight, and even in her mirth she unnerved me. In hindsight, I think she was the first powerful woman I’d ever met and witnessed in person. None of the women in my family were fearless like she was, nor were any of my previous teachers.
One of the first lessons Mrs. Jacobs had for her class was sentence diagramming. I’d endured that topic a year or two earlier, and I despised it then. Now? It was utterly intolerable. I already knew how to do it; I didn’t need to sit through it for another whole semester! Despite my fear of Mrs. Jacobs catching me off task and in a rare moment of rebellion, I decided to bring in a leisure book for reading. I’d discreetly place it on the open pages of my language arts book, with the textbook giving me cover. I thought this plan was foolproof.
My mom had a serious addiction to garage sales at that point, and while I was embarrassed by her shopping habits, she persuaded me to humor her by purchasing books for me to read. She wasn’t a big reader herself, but she knew what books I should be reading. While I did manage to snag the occasional Stephen King, more often than not I was given paperback copies of Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger, Hemingway and other classic authors. When I decided to defy Mrs. Jacobs, my mom had pressed Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” into my palms the day before. “You NEED to read this,” was all she said, but it was an order, not a suggestion.
Intrigued, I took it with me to school and tucked it inside my textbook. As Mrs. Jacobs marched up and down the length of her chalkboard, explaining the structure of a sentence diagram, I was lost in Stamps, Arkansas. Suddenly, the CRACK of her ruler hit my desk. She looked at the ceiling, barely containing her anger as she held out her hand for my offending tome. “Give me the book!” she ordered.
There was no escape, and now I wasn’t only not invisible, everyone was staring at me. Sheepishly, I handed over Maya Angelou’s autobiography. She looked at the book cover, and her face registered brief, but unmistakable shock. She asked, “Who told you to read this?”
I whispered, “My mom.”
She stared at me, trying to decide if I was lying and said, “See me after class,” and stomped back to the front of the room.
I wanted to cry. I had a lump in my throat, and my hands shook. I couldn’t even comprehend the trouble I brought on myself. Worse still, I wanted the book back.
I stayed in class after everyone left. Mrs. Jacobs occupied herself at her desk until we were alone.
“Why did your mother tell you to read this book?”
“She didn’t say; she just told me I needed to read it.”
“And what do you think of it?”
“I like it a lot. I want to keep reading it.”
“From now on, you are excused from the regular coursework of this class. I want you to turn in a book report on “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” When you finish that, you can read another book and turn in a report on that. Reading and writing book reports will be your assignment for the rest of the year.”
I was stunned. I was thrilled. Mrs. Jacobs understood me and saw me as an individual! She rewarded me for reading! I was even more awestruck with her than before, but now, she was my hero, my liberator from the drudgery of diagramming!
After that, Mrs. Jacobs asked me personal questions, where I came from, what I thought of Williston. She listened to me, and she understood me. For the first time since I left Ohio and the comfort of my aunts and uncles, an adult paid me attention and saw my homesickness and took the time to know me. I wasn’t invisible anymore, but I felt a little exposed and vulnerable. This woman was perceptive. In hindsight, I can see now she was my first therapist.
It’s been 34 years since I last saw Mrs. Jacobs. I’ve done Google searches and called the school and scanned obituaries trying to find her. My 13-year-old self thought she was in her 40’s, but from the vantage point of 49, I think she was probably in her 30’s. I’d love to send her a letter, thanking her for making me feel special and forcing me to be honest with myself at a time when I wanted to be someone else and to fit in. I’d love to let her know that “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” remains one of my all-time favorites, not only because it’s a wonderful book, but largely because I knew she approved of me reading it.