“It’s alive!” she screamed.
The male population of the class rushed as one to her assistance. Lord, I thought, she’s scared of a mouse. Little Chuck Little, whose patience with all living things was phenomenal, said, “Which way did he go, Miss Caroline? Tell us where he went, quick! D.C.—” he turned to a boy behind him—“D.C., shut the door and we’ll catch him. Quick, ma’am, where’d he go?”
Miss Caroline pointed a shaking finger not at the floor nor at a desk, but to a hulking individual unknown to me. Little Chuck’s face contracted and he said gently, “You mean him, ma’am? Yessum, he’s alive. Did he scare you some way?”
Miss Caroline said desperately, “I was just walking by when it crawled out of his hair . . . just crawled out of his hair—”
Little Chuck grinned broadly. “There ain’t no need to fear a cootie, ma’am. Ain’t you ever seen one? Now don’t you be afraid, you just go back to your desk and teach us some more.”
Little Chuck Little was another member of the population who didn’t know where his next meal was coming from, but he was a born gentleman. He put his hand under her elbow and led Miss Caroline to the front of the room. “Now don’t you fret, ma’am,” he said. “There ain’t no need to fear a cootie. I’ll just fetch you some cool water.”
The cootie’s host showed not the faintest interest in the furor he had wrought. He searched the scalp above his forehead, located his guest and pinched it between his thumb and forefinger.
Miss Caroline watched the process in horrid fascination. Little Chuck brought water in a paper cup, and she drank it gratefully. Finally she found her voice. “What is your name, son?” she asked softly.
The boy blinked. “Who, me?” Miss Caroline nodded.
Miss Caroline inspected her roll-book. “I have a Ewell here, but I don’t have a first name . . . would you spell your first name for me?”
“Don’t know how. They call me Burris’t home.”
“Well, Burris,” said Miss Caroline, “I think we’d better excuse you for the rest of the afternoon. I want you to go home and wash your hair.”
From her desk she produced a thick volume, leafed through its pages and read for a moment. “A good home remedy for—Burris, I want you to go home and wash your hair with lye soap. When you’ve done that, treat your scalp with kerosene.”
“What fer, missus?”
“To get rid of the—er, cooties. You see, Burris, the other children might catch them, and you wouldn’t want that, would you?”
The boy stood up. He was the filthiest human I had ever seen. His neck was dark gray, the backs of his hands were rusty, and his fingernails were black deep into the quick. He peered at Miss Caroline from a fist-sized clean space on his face. No one had noticed him, probably, because Miss Caroline and I had entertained the class most of the morning.
“And Burris,” said Miss Caroline, “please bathe yourself before you come back tomorrow.”
The boy laughed rudely. “You ain’t sendin’ me home, missus. I was on the verge of leavin’—I done done my time for this year.”
Miss Caroline looked puzzled. “What do you mean by that?”
The boy did not answer. He gave a short contemptuous snort.
One of the elderly members of the class answered her: “He’s one of the Ewells, ma’am,” and I wondered if this explanation would be as unsuccessful as my attempt. But Miss Caroline seemed willing to listen. “Whole school’s full of ’em. They come first day every year and then leave. The truant lady gets ’em here ’cause she threatens ’em with the sheriff, but she’s give up tryin’ to hold ’em. She reckons she’s carried out the law just gettin’ their names on the roll and runnin’ ’em here the first day. You’re supposed to mark ’em absent the rest of the year . . .”
“But what about their parents?” asked Miss Caroline, in genuine concern.
“Ain’t got no mother,” was the answer, “and their paw’s right contentious.”
Burris Ewell was flattered by the recital. “Been comin’ to the first day o’ the first grade fer three year now,” he said expansively. “Reckon if I’m smart this year they’ll promote me to the second. . . .”
Miss Caroline said, “Sit back down, please, Burris,” and the moment she said it I knew she had made a serious mistake. The boy’s condescension flashed to anger.