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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 10, Number 2, June 2016

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Glenn G. Coats
Prospect, Virginia, USA


On His Haibun “Fields to Plow”

In 2006, my teaching took an abrupt change in direction; after many years of working with children who struggled with reading and writing, I began to teach adults how to read. Some students, especially the English as Second Language students, had short programs while others stayed in the program for several years. Over the course of time, students become more and more comfortable about sharing parts of their lives, both the joys and difficulties. It was and still is hard for me to pick up a pen in order to tell some of their stories. I am entrusted with their confidence and afraid my words will betray that trust.

In the haibun “Fields to Plow,” I am writing about a man that I am calling Charles. I felt then and do now that his story needed to be told. When Charles was fifty-eight years old, his brother called me on the phone and asked if I might teach Charles how to read. During our first class, I learned that Charles could write his name and he read a few words. That is where we began.

On May 1, 1959, Prince Edward County in Virginia closed its entire school system rather than integrate the black and white schools. Charles was six or seven years old at that time.

Both schools stayed shut tight when Prince Edward County refused to integrate and Charles lost all the important years of his education.

During the five years that followed the school closings, private schools were created and funded in order to educate white children. Nothing was formed to help black students. Many black teachers did not have jobs and were forced to seek work elsewhere. Charles did not attend school during that time.

He learned how to feed chickens and call cows in from the field, learned how to replace a broken board on the gate and work like a man when he should have been playing like a child. Almost two thousand black children did not participate in classes while the schools remained closed. Years later, those students would be referred to as the “lost generation.” For some, like Charles who had just started out, what was learned vanished in the years that followed.

winter sun
a few lines of words
forgotten

On March 18, 1963, Robert F. Kennedy (Attorney General) observed, “The only places on earth not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Vietnam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras—and Prince Edward County, Virginia.” Later that same year, black children were invited back to school. Charles was one of the students who returned. The majority of both students and teachers in the newly integrated schools were black.

Years passed by and when the schools did open up again, it was too late for Charles. He was too far behind and none of the teachers knew how to catch him up.

Charles like so many of the students whose lives were forever affected by the school closings, dropped out of school, found a job, then went on to live a good life. He like others that I have met, was denied the privacy of reading letters in the mail (someone had to read them to him), denied the opportunity to take tests without another person reading the questions, denied the chance to write a letter to a daughter who lives far away, or to simply leave a note for his wife with the words, “I miss you.”

I continue to teach Charles on Thursday evenings. No matter how worn out he is from work or weather, he is there in the doorway with his bag of books.

winter evening
thick fingers cover
most of a page

Charles is not bitter about the education he lost from 1959 – 1964. He talks to me about discrimination and what he has experienced in his lifetime, about teachers and tutors who never expected anything from him, about doubters who never believed in him. I ask Charles if he tells the same stories to his daughters and he replies, “I tell them, we have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”

frozen fields
the words he carries
into the night


Fields to Plow

He had just started school when it shut down over worn-out books, unsafe buses, and little heat in winter. Teachers and students wanted the same books as the whites-only school, same shiny buses, and same pay for their teachers so they all walked out in hope of something better. Both schools stayed shut tight when Prince Edward County refused to integrate and Charles lost all the important years of his education.

migrating geese
the sound of wood
splitting in two

Charles learned other things while the schools were closed like loading potatoes in a truck. He learned how to feed chickens and call cows in from the field, learned how to replace a broken board on the gate and work like a man when he should have been playing like a child.

winter sun
a few lines of words
forgotten

Years passed by and when the schools did open up again, it was too late for Charles. He was too far behind and none of the teachers knew how to catch him up. Charles left soon as he could and did what he knew how to do—work.

Today Charles is nearly sixty, one grown daughter and one still in school. His wife and youngest child are outside now waiting in the truck, waiting for Charles to finish his reading lesson. They will do what it takes to support him. He is going to read and they will wait for him.

winter evening
thick fingers cover
most of a page

I am showing Charles ‘s. “The apostrophe is like a little backward c,” I tell him, “shows that something belongs to someone, like your brother the preacher, he’s good with words, people like to hear John’s words.” I write down Johns words and Charles picks up a pencil and carefully makes his first apostrophe. “I am learning something all the time,” he says and I can hardly get any words out of my mouth.

frozen fields
the words he carries
into the night


Editor's Note: “Fields to Plow” first appeared in Frogpond, Volume 33:2, Spring/Summer 2010

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