March 31, 2023

‘No’ can be a big motivator


             The old brick building looked like a school and smelled like a school. At least it did in my 13-year-old mind. I can still smell the oil-soaked floors and hear the squeaking boards, from when principal James E. Bacon—in his big black wingtips—tromped up and down the hall of Jesup Junior High.

After I had moved on to high school, an errant spark reduced the old school to ashes. But the flames didn’t destroy my memories there. I believe it was there—on East Plum Street—that I began to figure out who I was and where I was headed.

                Things were going well until my seventh-grade English teacher poked a hole in my eighth-grade dreams.

                Already, my friends and I had started talking about college. And the “in thing” to do was take foreign language in the eighth grade. Since French was the only foreign language offered, I was hyped to parler francais a little. But there was one hitch. Your seventh-grade English teacher had to recommend you. That’s where I hit a snag.

                One day, after class, I approached my English teacher.

   “Mrs. Peterson, I would like to take French next year.”

                She sniffed a snooty sniff and pushed her glasses to the end of her nose. And then she paused.

                “Absolutely not. No, I will not recommend you.”

                “Mrs. Peterson, I really want to take French.”

                “I said, ‘No’.”

                “Mrs. Peterson, I would like for us to speak with Mr. Bacon about this.”

                She sighed, and off we went.

                This time, it was her high heels making the old boards squeak. My Hush Puppies were quietly gliding along.

                With his slicked-back black hair, starched white shirt, narrow black tie and black horn-rimmed glasses, Mr. Bacon was a striking figure. His other vocation was a Baptist preacher. When he raised his voice, he could rattle dust off the rafters. I should have been intimidated, but I wasn’t.

                I knew Mr. Bacon to be a stern but caring man. I was confident that he’d listen to my plea.

                When Mrs. Peterson and I walked into his corner office, he looked up from his oak desk and cleared his throat.

                “Good afternoon, how can I help you two?”

                Mrs. Peterson waved her hand in my direction.

                “Mr. Bacon, I asked Mrs. Peterson to come with me. I have a question.”

                This time, he pushed his glasses to the end of his nose and looked first at me and then Mrs. Peterson.


                “Mr. Bacon, I would like to take French next year, but I need Mrs. Peterson’s recommendation.”

                That’s when Mrs. Peterson spoke up.

                “Mr. Bacon, this young man barely has a grasp of the English language. No, I can’t possibly see how he can manage a foreign language.”

                ("Uh-oh," I thought. "She’s going to tell him about the time that I pronounced genuine as 'gen-uuu-wine.' She had laughed and mocked me in front of the class.”)

                He stood up and walked over to me. Placing his right hand on my shoulder, he asked, in that big baritone voice, “Dink, do you want to take French?”

                “Yes, sir, Mr. Bacon, I really do.”

                He smiled and turned to my English teacher.

                “Mrs. Peterson, I believe we should give this young man a chance.”

                The next thing that I heard was her high heels clicking back down the hall.

                In 1989, when I gave the Rev. James E. Bacon’s eulogy, I retold that story.

                No, I didn’t deliver a portion of it in French.

                But, yes, I did just fine in French and English in the eighth grade.

                However, today, some of you may agree with Mrs. Peterson: “He barely has a grasp of the English language.”