Gail said classes started at eleven o’clock, and the other kids should be here soon. I prayed nothing would happen that would cause me to lose my religion, like what I would do if Esther corrected me one more time.
A few of the kids from the low end of town drifted in. Some of them ran through the house. Where were their manners, and why didn’t Esther correct their behavior? I bit the inside of my lip. Miss Pastel and Miss Flora walked in the kitchen with their kids trailing behind them. They ducked to keep their heads from touching the top of the doorframe. Miss Pastel was dark, and Miss Flora was light skinned. They both were almost as wide as the door.
By the time class started, there were about eleven kids in all, ranging from ages five to sixteen. Esther and Gail broke the classes up by age. They taught the older kids first, and then the older ones taught the younger kids and they assisted. I was in Gail’s class. She had three different sets of books. I hadn’t ever seen any of them. They looked similar to our books at school except they didn’t have ugly words written in them, weren’t falling apart at the seams and didn’t have any pictures of white people. Within thirty minutes, Gail had figured out I could read as well as or better than the older kids and moved me to the table with them. I liked her for catching on so quickly ’cause I sure wasn’t going to tell her. Correcting grown folks would only lead to trouble for me.
After class, Gail asked me if I would help teach the adults how to fill out the voter registration forms. She pulled the forms from her bag and gave me a sample.
“Read it first,” she said. “Then we’ll go over what you don’t understand. They have to be filled out perfectly, so ask me anything you don’t know.” She gave me the blank copies. “After you finish reading them, take the test,” she said.
There was an “Application for Registration Questionnaire and Oaths,” which included five parts, and several copies titled “Literacy Test,” with a minimum of thirty questions each. The first instruction on the “Literacy Test” said it was to be given to anyone who could not prove she had above a fifth-grade education. I scanned the questions and wondered how many colored folk made it above fifth grade, and if they could pass the test.
The second instruction read, “Do what you are told to do in each sentence, nothing more, nothing less. Be careful because one wrong answer denotes failure of the test. You have ten minutes to complete this test.”
What in the world: one question wrong, that wasn’t fair. They’d still have an A if they missed. . . I counted the number of questions and divided in my head.
The questions seemed as if they were written to trick me. For instance, question number five: “Circle the first, first letter of the alphabet in this line.”
I read and reread it, and then my eyes scanned back up to the top of the page and landed on “ten minutes,” so I circled the A, but I thought it could also be the C. I guessed at many of the multiple-choice questions I didn’t know the answer to outright, and a lot of the fill-in-the-blank questions stumped me. I wondered if I should’ve known the name of the attorney general, and ’cause I didn’t know, did it mean that folks were just telling me a story when they said I was smart for my age?
I finished the test as best as I could and gave it to Esther. I thumbed through the books left on the table from our class. Esther came back in the room with Gail.
“We graded your test,” Esther said.
“We don’t want you to be alarmed,” Gail said.
Be alarmed about what, it was just a test. I’d taken many tests and passed them all, pop quizzes, too.
“Remember they are designed for adults,” Esther said. “We gave it to you so you would understand how much patience. . .”
“Why y’all beating around? You acting like I flunked it or something. Let me see.”
I grabbed the papers out of Gail’s hand before she realized what I was doing.
“Sarah,” Gail and Esther said.
“I know I missed more than one question, but that’s okay. Even if I missed five, it’s still an A. It’s silly for them to flunk you for missing only one question. That’s crazy, isn’t it, Esther?”
Gail sat in the chair next to me. “Sarah, let me explain,” she said.
By then, I’d seen all of the red X’s. I turned the page, and there were more X’s.
“I flunked. I didn’t pass. Look how many . . .” A lump formed in my throat. I couldn’t speak or swallow. And when I did get my voice, I blamed both of them.
“Why y’all give me a test like this? I wasn’t prepared. I never seen this material before.”
Tears formed in my eyes and streamed down my face. I’d answered more than half of the questions wrong. I was going to the fourth grade and should’ve known the material. I’d never missed any questions on a test before, not even the ones given for honor students.
Esther placed her arms around me, and Gail dabbed my eyes with Kleenex. Both of them encouraged me to cry, get it out. The more they fussed over me, the harder I cried till I was whimpering like a baby.
“I’m so sorry. We should have explained it to you,” Gail said.
“Don’t worry about the test, Sarah. It’s for grown folks, not kids,” Esther said.
I pointed to the test. “I flunked.”
They kept trying to console me. Neither of them could believe it had that type of effect on me. They stared at me while I cried and rolled my eyes at them.
Mrs. Carrie walked in and handed me a Popsicle. She took me to the bathroom and washed my face. We sat at the table. She waved away the onlookers.
“Go on back to your work. She’ll be alright,” Mrs. Carrie said. Esther and Gail attempted to walk toward us, and she waved them away, too. “What’s wrong, Sarah?” Mrs. Carrie said. “Tell me what’s got you so wound up.”
She took the Popsicle from me and peeled off the paper as if it were a banana.
“They gave me them tests to make me look dumb,” I said.
“No, they wouldn’t do that, sweetie. Nobody wants to make you look bad. We’re here to empower you, but those applications are meant to make potential colored voters feel worse than you did today. They’re adults and can’t pass the test.”
She talked to me for more than an hour after she allowed Esther and Gail to join us at the table. Esther told me about the poll tax, threats and many other tactics to keep coloreds from voting. I vowed to learn every test backwards and forwards so I could teach other colored folks. I didn’t want nobody to be at the registration table crying like I did.
“What’s a poll tax?” I asked Esther.
“Taxes we pay on land we own. You see, only land owners who have paid their poll taxes are eligible to vote.”
“What about folks who don’t own land or haven’t paid?”
“They can’t vote. Even the ones who do own land have to pass a test like this or do some other ridiculous thing before they’re allowed to vote.”
“Can you vote?”
“The only person in this room who can vote is Mrs. Carrie.”
I was dumbfounded. Mrs. Carrie went on to explain more of the rules to me and was still talking when Bro Hollin interrupted.
“We need y’all up front. They been beat pretty bad,” he said. Rutherford, James, Miss Flora and Miss Pastel were sitting in the chairs in the front room. Rutherford’s lip was cut and bleeding. James’s face looked as if it had been squished around in the gravel. Miss Flora was holding Miss Pastel’s arm.
“He twisted it behind her back,” Miss Flora said.
Rutherford was cussing and calling them crackers. Esther left and came back with a pan of water, towels and a first aid kit. They checked the wounds to see if any of them needed to be rushed to the hospital. Gail poured peroxide on James’s face. He looked a lot better after she cleaned his wounds. I could’ve sworn he’d have to go to the hospital. They all tried to tell what happened at the same time. Mrs. Carrie finally calmed them down enough for us to hear.
According to them, Rutherford mostly, they’d timed it to take Miss Pastel and Miss Flora to register when the new clerk was at the window. A person was on watch at the office to let them know when the old clerk left the building. While she was checking the forms, the old clerk came back with the police chief and his two deputies. They couldn’t figure out how she knew they were inside unless like them they had somebody on watch, too.
“Crackers outsmarted us this time,” Rutherford said.
Esther rubbed salve on his lip. His jaw was swollen and growing. Somebody placed Miss Pastel’s arm in a sling. They were known around town to be bold women whom nobody, woman or man, ever won a fight against. Other than one being light skinned and the other dark, they looked just alike, as tall as most men and weighing more than some. When they got a person down, they sat on him and dared him to move.
Miss Pastel swung at the chief, and one of the deputies grabbed her arm and pinned it behind her back. Miss Flora wasn’t having it and bit him till he was in so much pain he let loose of her arm. They seemed to enjoy telling it. Fear eased out of the room as each one of them told their version of the incident. I laughed along with them as the tone changed from anger to good nature, but an uneasiness in my stomach caused me to want to run home to Muhdea and Granny, to our end of town, to First Baptist where folks didn’t register to vote or get in fights. But if I left, who would teach them how to pass that test?
Later that evening, they held a meeting at the Hall. The men set out chairs and a podium up front. The lawyer John Walker from the NAACP, Mr. Bill Hansen, head of Arkansas SNCC, and Mr. Dick Gregory and Mr. Julian Bond, from the national SNCC office, had come down to speak to us. Our situation with the schools required immediate attention. After they all spoke, sounding like the news- man on the radio, they sat in chairs behind Esther while she stood at the podium and read off the names of the students that would be going to the white school. Esther said the Freedom of Choice Act required us to go to the white school. We were going whether we wanted to or not. She’d warned us at the last revival. Nobody’d believed her then, but it had come to pass. The Maeby Citizens for Progress, our grassroots organization, and the SNCC organizers had selected ninety-five of the smartest colored students to register to attend the white school. They hadn’t asked me if I wanted to go. I liked my teachers and friends at the colored school. After she read my name, I eased open the door and slid out sideways. One of the other girls came out and stood beside me.
“Do you want to go?” I said.
“We don’t know them. We’ll have to cross the train tracks and the highway every day. You got anything to get us out of it?” she said.
“We could pretend to be dumb,” I said. “We can make bad grades.”
“They won’t believe we all of a sudden started making bad grades. Miss Esther said it’s the law. I don’t believe we’ll be able to outsmart our folks and them lawyers.”
I peeped my head back in the door, and at the top of my lungs I said, “Why we got to go to their school? Why can’t they bring their good books over to our school?” I darted right back out the door, walked off the porch, and before I knew it, I’d followed the rainbow down the road and toward the country. I passed the spring for the watering filtering plant. The shadow of a rainbow shone across the water. I turned around and followed the stream of colors. I kneeled at the spring, prayed to the Lord and asked Him along with sending me a sign to keep me from going to the white school. Nobody knew where to find me, so I trailed the rainbow to the other side, looking for the end where the leprechaun had left his pot of gold. If I could find it, we wouldn’t have to go to the white school. I’d buy us a brand new school with brand new books.
This piece is excerpted from Faye's novel Mourner's Bench (University of Arkansas Press, 2015).
Sanderia Faye is a professional speaker and activist. She is co-founder and a fellow at Kimbilio Center for Fiction, and her work has appeared in the anthology Arsnick: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Arkansas. Faye moderated the grassroots panel for the Arkansas Civil Rights Symposium during the Freedom Riders 50th Anniversary and is coordinating the first AWP African Diaspora Caucus. She is currently a PhD student in English at the University of North Texas, an instructor at the 2017 Desert Nights Rising Stars Conference at Arizona State University, and serves on the faculty at Southern Methodist University. Her novel, Mourner’s Bench, is the winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in debut fiction and The Philosophical Society of Texas Award of Merit for fiction.