After almost two glorious months of living in Knoxville, with Dad coming to visit us on the weekends, we moved back to Streator. Our new house was at 601 West Stanton, just three blocks west of where we had been living. I still attended Grant School, but now I had to walk farther.
The house was smaller, only one story, and I had to share a bedroom with Cynda.
The Korean War had ended in July. The new Russian leader Malenkov said that the Russians now had the Hydrogen Bomb.
We were supposed to be terrified. People on the radio said we were in the Atomic Age and the world might blow up at any time. In Streator we were at least sixty miles from any target the Russians would deem worth an H-bomb. We yawned and went about living our lives.
Much more explosive to me was an event that happened in October. I was in third grade, under the eye of a kindly old teacher named Mrs. Winders. One sunny Friday afternoon, she took me aside after class was dismissed.
“Larry,” she said, “when you come to school on Monday, report to the fourth grade.”
Time stood still for a while.
“Yes, Ma’am,” I said at last.
On the way home, my brain boiled furiously. I tried to work it all out. What could this mean? Why would I go to fourth grade? I was in third grade. It made no sense.
“Oh, well, that,” Mom said when I came home and announced the mysterious news. She looked away. “Sit down, and let’s talk.”
“Why do I have to go to fourth grade?”
“Do you remember taking something called an I.Q. test?”
“Well, you did. And you scored very high.”
I stared at her blankly.
“And because you scored high, you get to go to fourth grade now.”
“You knew about this?”
Mom leaned back in her chair and lit a cigarette. “When Daddy and I went to the parent-teacher conference, they told us about it. You know Rue Rhymers?”
“Miss Rhymers? She comes and sits in the back of our class sometimes.” A nice lady with glasses, who dressed in a tan suit.
“Yes. And do you know why she comes to observe your class?”
I shook my head.
“Because of you.” Mom exhaled a stream of smoke and tapped the ash off her cigarette into the ashtray on the end table. “She comes to watch you, to see how you do in class, how you answer questions, things like that.”
“No, Mom, not just me. She comes to watch us all, to see the whole class.”
“Mm-hmm. Anyway, your scores are in the genius category, so they have to move you up a grade.”
The room tilted. “I don’t want to go to fourth grade.”
She looked at me.
“Mom, all my friends are in third grade. And Missus Winders is nice.” I did not mention that Mrs. Winders sometimes let me do other things, like write stories, when the rest of the class was still working on a classroom task I had finished. As far as I knew, that was our secret, between me and my teacher.
“But pretty soon, you will get bored with third-grade work because it’s too easy for you. And then you’ll stop paying attention, and you won’t do your school work, and you won’t fulfill your potential.”
“Potential?” Mom rolled her eyes back in her head, leaned forward, and stubbed out her cigarette in the ash tray. “It means, if you can do a certain level of work, like a high level, you should do that. If you’re only doing low-level work, you’re not living up to your potential.”
“This . . . potential. It’s something I have?”
She nodded emphatically. “You have it.”
“So it’s mine. So I can do what I want with it, right?”
“Right. You can do great things.”
“Or I can leave it sitting on a shelf, like a toy I don’t want to play with.”
Mom frowned. “No.” She lit a new cigarette, shook the flame off the match, and dropped it in the tray. “It would be a sin to waste your potential. You’re such a smart boy, you can do anything you set your mind to.”
I went to my room and lay down on my bed, hugging my teddy bear and chewing my lip.
Larry F. Sommers
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