Keeping promises

By: Leon Smith - Contributing columnist

“You know I expect an A in this course,” she said as she walked into class for the first time. “I have made nothing but A’s my entire career at Capley, and this class is not going to get in my way.”

“I would be delighted for you to make an A in this class,” I said, “if you earn it.”

“I will get an A,” she promised as she turned on her Nikes.

I watched this lithe cross country runner find a seat at the back of the room. At the zenith of her college career, she — like the others who believed so passionately in their innate excellence — surely had miles to climb before attaining the peak of Fool’s Hill.

Soon we studied the sounds of spoken English, striving to listen to a speaker, then write down the symbols for each sound we heard, using the International Phonetic Alphabet.

“How did Professor Higgins pronounce the name of the cockney girl in ‘My Fair Lady,’” I asked.

Lucy held up her hand.

“Tell us, Lucy.”

“Doolittle,” she smiled,” Eliza Doolittle,” reproducing the precision of Higgins’ speech.

“Yes. Very good,” I said. “Let’s transcribe the sounds in ‘Doolittle.’”

I walked to the chalk board and looked around. “First sound?”

“Doo,” the class said.

“Yes. Here is the transcription.” I wrote a “d” and a “u” with a tail, like this: [du]

“Why that ‘u’?” Lucy asked.

“Because that is the way we write ‘oo.’”

“Now that we have ‘doo,’” I continued, “what are the other sounds do you hear in ‘Doolittle?’”

“There is an ‘l’ in ‘lit,’” said a young man in the front row.

“Yes, the standard ‘l’ symbol. Lucy, let’s say the name again.” After she spoke, I continued. “Class, what else do you hear?”

“An ‘ih’ sound,” said another student.

“This ‘ih’ is written with an ‘i’ that has a cross beam top and bottom.” I wrote the symbol : [ɪ] on the board. “Then a ‘t’ and we have ‘Doo-liht’; how will we do the ‘uhl’ sound?”

“Uh,” said one.

“Plus ‘uhl,’” said another.

“Excellent,” I smiled, “‘Uh’ plus ‘uhl.’”

“Here is the ‘uh,’ I said, “an ‘e’ rotated a half turn to the left.” I wrote this symbol: [ə]

“We add the standard ‘l’ symbol, and we have ‘Doolittle.’” Like this: [ du lɪt əl ]

As the semester went along, Lucy made solid B’s — and probably would have made have A’s, had she attended class more. After missing an entire week of classes, she implied her philosophy on class attendance, when she asked “Did I miss anything important?”

When exam time came — including every possible sound I could imagine — Lucy made an 85 percent, bringing her final average to 88. Because I had two students who had 95 percent-plus averages, Lucy’s average fell solidly in the B range, well below that of the two top students.

But remembering Lucy’s vow, I re-checked all the grades, then after I checked Lucy’s for a third time, I became confident I had kept my promise to give her the grade she earned. And for a brief moment I felt sorry for her, having missed her 4.0 grade-point average, as well as all the honors appertaining thereunto.

Then I drove home. It was late and I felt very tired, but as I walked to the back steps, an image of my mother came to mind.

“I’ve got to go see Mama … tonight,” I told PJ, who met me near the porch.

“Tonight?” she asked.

I nodded. “I can’t tell how I know,” I said. “But I have to go.”

“It’s six o’clock,” she said. “You won’t get to the hospital ‘til after eight.”

“I know,” I said. “But I’ve got to go.”

I grabbed an extra shirt and climbed back into the car. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

When I walked into her room, Mama was asleep. My sister said she had been sleeping for a couple of hours. So we sat by her, quietly, until around 2 a.m., when we leaned back in the hospital chairs and tried to get some sleep.

In the night, we heard Mama struggling for breath. I got up and walked to the nurses’ station. The nurses came to help her; after about an hour she breathed much easier.

In the morning, she continued to do so. I asked a nurse how Mama was doing.

“I don’t expect her to die right away,” she said. “She probably has three or four more days.” Then she added “Her heart is so tired. “

I went to my mother, bent down and whispered, “Mama, I need to tell you something.”

“When I was a little boy,” I said, as she slept, “I promised I would take you to Jerusalem, but I didn’t do that.”

“I knew you wanted a sun porch at home,” I continued, “but I you never got you one.”

“I know you loved orchids…” I trailed off.

“But I did get you that little guitar,” I said, after a while, “… to pay you back for letting me destroy yours when I was 5. “

“But I want you to know I am sorry for every time I failed you, Mama, and I want you to know that I love you. So very much.”

I paused for a moment. “You said you wanted me to leave the world a better place than I found it, Mama. “I paused again. “I have not done that, either … but I‘m going to try, now.”

I sat down, then pulled out my pocket watch: a few minutes before 10 o’clock. “I need to get back to Capley,” I said. “I have a responsibility there.”

So I walked to her bedside, patted her hand and said “Bye, Mama. I’ll see you again.” I turned away, then turned back to say,“…But if I don’t get to see you again, here, I will see you in Heaven.”

I said goodbye to my sister, and walked away. At a vending machine on the first floor, I bought a Bit ‘o Honey to eat in lieu of breakfast, and tore open the wrapper in the car. The candy tasted good, but was so sticky that it wrestled a cap from one of my teeth after the fourth bite.

About an hour after I left her, Mama slept off into eternity. But I didn’t know that until Patsy told me when I got home. I was sad, but not sorry. Sad she was gone; she had been a great mama. Not sorry that her struggle was over; she had suffered enough. I cried anyway.

After a while, I drove to campus to learn that Lucy had protested her grade, and that the dean had changed it for her. Perhaps he did so because I was out of town and could not be reached. Or maybe he made his decision under pressure from the powers above him, who seemed more concerned about a lawsuit than the integrity of the grading system. Or it could have been that the brochure, which named Lucy the recipient of the Silver Torpedo, had come back from the printers, and everyone but me wanted to stay with the program. Then I realized that the actions which increased Lucy’s grade, in effect, had decreased those of her classmates.

I got up, walked to the registrar’s office, and asked for 19 change-of-grade forms. When I received them, I stepped outside, sat on the brick wall, and filled out each one, requesting a letter-grade increase on each. In less than 20 minutes, I dropped those forms back off at the registrar’s office, then grinned broadly as I started back across campus. Although I had been unable to right the wrong which gave Lucy her A, I had been able to make the world a tiny bit more equitable for her classmates — and to keep another promise in the bargain.

Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.

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Leon Smith

Contributing columnist