Potential–A Remembrance

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. 

Georgy Malenkov. Photo by unknown, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 nl

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?”

Alfred Binet, inventor of the I.Q. test. Public Domain.

“Do you remember taking something called an I.Q. test?”

“No.”

“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.”

“What’s that?”

“What’s what?”

“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.”

Good old Teddy.

“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.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Turned Out– A Remembrance

1953

It’s July and hot, even at night. Cynda and I have gone to bed in the large room we share with Mom and Dad, just off the kitchen in my old second-grade teacher’s house. 

Cynda is already asleep, her little three-year-old snores drowned out by the adult voices coming from the kitchen.

“I know this comes as a BOMBSHELL to all of us,” my baggy old teacher says in her loud, foghorn voice. I don’t hear anything after “bombshell.”  What? A bombshell? For all of us? Is a bombshell a kind of bomb? Or is it like a bomb? Do bombs have shells? 

The door opens. Light floods the room for a second as Mom bursts in and slams the door behind her. She flings herself on the big bed she shares with Dad and lies there, sobbing. 

This is some kind of disaster.

Cynda sleeps through it. 

I have to do something. I climb out of my bed, go to Mom, and hug her. “Don’t cry, Mommy.” 

She rolls over and gathers me in her arms. “Oh, Honey, don’t worry. I’ll be all right. It’s just . . . we’ve been turned out.”

“Turned out?”

“We have to leave.” 

Dad comes in and stands mumbling.

Mom gets up. “Come on, Lloyd.” 

We pack all our things there in the dark bedroom. Five minutes later, we’re out the back door, standing in the alley with suitcases. We get into our 1939 Chevrolet and scram out of town, headed for Knoxville, where we know we’ll be good enough.

#

As my second-grade year at Grant School ended, we faced a dilemma. We were moving out of our nice house at 303 West Stanton June 30 and moving to another place farther west, but the house would not be available until September 1.

The large-framed, loud-voiced woman who had been my second-grade teacher offered to take us in for three months when we would otherwise be homeless. It was a good solution. The teacher’s two children—Freddy and his little sister, whose name now escapes me—were our frequent playmates. The family lived just a block away, on Grant Street. Mom and Dad put our furniture in storage, and we moved in with the teacher’s family.

Things started out amiably, but the arrangement went sour after only a week or so. Maybe we were just too many people to live together in a small house; maybe it was something else. But our invitation to stay the summer was suddenly revoked one night, with the result that we crept out of Streator in the dark of night and fled to our ancestral home of Knoxville. 

I never knew why we were set to flight in such a dramatic way—the code was never revealed to me. I figured out later that when my old teacher said it was “a bombshell to all of us,” she didn’t mean it was a bombshell to her—just to us. It seemed we were not worthy to live with my baggy old teacher’s family. 

Somehow, for reasons I did not know, we were not good enough.

Our exodus to Knoxville took place on a weekend. Monday morning, Dad was back at work in Streator. He stayed in a rented flat all week, then drove to Knoxville to spend the weekend with us. This became the pattern for the whole summer. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer