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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Competition for Valdectorian

I wish I knew which was Mary Neil.  My dad is in the back row leaning against the door frame on the left.

The school year was going fast and I had been letting tomcatting around with Roundtree on weekends interfere with my studying.  After I cut that out, I buckled down to it especially after Mary Neil had made 100% on a history test and I only got 96%.
Soon my fifteenth birthday came and I knew that Mr. Mitchell would have to say who the valedictorian would be before long as graduation was only a month away. (The length of the school year was different then.  I believe it was adjusted so that the older children would be out of school in time to help with spring planting.  Anyway, our graduation was scheduled for the evening of April 2nd at the Bona Church.)
An example of flour sack dresses during the Great Depression

A few days later during a nice spring afternoon, at the end of the school day when he dismissed us, Mr. Mitchell quietly said, “The rest of you are excused but I would like for Conrad and Mary Neil to stay for a little while.”
The others filed out casting knowing smiles at us.  They had known all along that it would be between Mary and me.  I looked sidewise across the room at her.  She was sitting very straight with her hands folded in the lap of her faded cotton print dress and with her chin set determinedly.  She turned her head to look at me so I quickly looked away and stared at the picture of Sir Lancelot and his horse on the wall above Mr. Mitchell’s desk until he said, “Come up here, both of you.”
We stood side by side in front of his desk waiting.  Mitchell reached into a drawer and took out two slim books—one red, the other blue—and laid them on his desk.  The title of the blue one was “Valedictories” and the red one was “Salutatories”.
Mitchell studied us and said, “Relax.  I want you to know that I am really proud of both of you.  You are, without a doubt, two of the best students I have had in my classroom and I know that you will both go far.  The competition was good for both of you and forced you to do your best.
“I will not keep you in suspense any longer.  Mary you did better than Conrad in History, a little better in Geography, and you were dead even in English.  Conrad had a definite edge in Mathematics and Science.  It was close and I congratulate you both.”
He picked up the two thin volumes and handed the blue one to me and the red one to Mary.  I must say that she took it without wincing.  She touched my arm and said softly, “I’m glad for you, Conrad.”  There was just a trace of moisture in her pale blue eyes.  At that moment I almost liked her.
Mr. Mitchell said, “Don’t memorize any of the sample speeches in those books—they are old fashioned.  Just get the idea and write your own.  I would like to see them next Monday.  You can go home now.”
The other had all gone so I walked the mile to Bona with Mary Neil.  She didn’t say much, maybe because she was not used to walking with boys.  I was happy as a turkey gobbler in a polkberry patch, but somehow, I could not lord it over her.
She had a threadbare sweater over her well-washed print dress.  I knew that the Cook Neils did not have much.  In fact, Cook Neil was one of the regular loafers at Grandpa’s store.  I do not know how he kept groceries in that little shack, much less clothes.
I felt sort of guilty somehow.  I said lamely, “You sure are smart for a girl, Mary.  Maybe you should have won.”
She smiled wanly and answered, “It doesn’t matter, Conrad—I’m used to sucking hind tit.”
“Hah,” I scoffed, “you won’t always be.  You know what I bet?  I bet that when our graduate from Dadeville High School in a couple of years you’ll get a scholarship and go on to teacher’s college or something.”  I grinned at her.  “I won’t be here so you won’t have to worry about me!”
Dorthea Lange Photo

By then we were at the crossroad in front of Grandpa’s store.  She laughed and, unexpectedly, held out her small hand to shake hands with me.  “I hope you have good luck out there in Washington,” she said, then she turned and marched down the hill clutching that little red book.

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