Thursday, April 10, 2008
The Preacher’s Corner
Fourth grade was more than 40 years ago...
All of us owe gratitude to those in our past who shaped us as persons. But it is difficult, I think, for most of us to find words to thank them. I write this week with special reference to the teachers we have admired — teachers for whom we may have been difficult students but for whom, as the years have passed, our respect has grown, and to whom the opportunity in this life may have passed to say thanks.
The preacher of Ecclesiastes says, “To everything there is a season.” And so it seems strange to be writing in the past tense about my teacher, Annie Fair Smith, when the memories of fourth grade seem like yesterday. “Yesterday,” however, is now more than 40 years ago.
But perhaps these recollections will inspire some of you to recall formative moments in your own experience. Because if you do, enough years have passed that you know how much teachers shape lives, and how much we are all in the debt of our teachers.
I do not precisely remember all the lessons we learned together in that big classroom on the east side of the old elementary school in Cleveland, looking out over that wonderful playground, with the huge oak tree encircled by the green bench where many a little boy had his first tentative conversation with a childhood sweetheart. I suppose we drilled on multiplication tables. I remember the stories she read for quiet time after we had run ourselves out of wind on the playground.
But I especially recall (in utter and ignorant innocence) being put up to going to ask Mrs. Smith on behalf of the other boys, if we could play a certain game which we had made up, which required permission because we had to cross the road over to the junior high play ground, and which one of these boys who had three older brothers had given a wonderful rhyming name, and the name was not a polite expression.
I remember how Mrs. Smith gently put her arm around me and asked, “Milton, my love, who taught you to say that word?” She knew I had not learned it at home!
Fourth grade was the last time I felt fully in command of the challenges life presented. Mama said later it was because Annie Fair gave us so much homework. She wanted to make sure we fully understood long division, and I believe to this day that I do.
Annie Fair was a good “shorter catechism” Presbyterian. Her father had been a Presbyterian minister, and she deeply loved her church. She believed in that kind of old-fashioned evangelistic Presbyterianism, which in the case of our church involved a ministry to the prisoners at Parchman. She was a pianist for this enterprise, and my involvement came as a high schooler, just testing a call to the ministry.
Now, some readers at this remove may not be familiar, but Parchman was, or is, Mississippi’s grand old prison, a notorious state penitentiary, and in those days it functioned like an old Southern plantation, with great barracks-like structures set in the middle of cotton fields that stretched out as far as the eye could see. I preached my very first sermon there (on that “to everything there is a season” chapter), with Annie Fair looking on and encouraging me, and the whole affair under the watchful eye of a trustee with a loaded sharpshooter’s rifle!
Those were the days of segregation, and so the camp assigned to us was made up of white men. So the story I am about to tell is in no sense a reflection upon the culture or religion of any other race of people than my own.
The ministry team would go over on Sunday afternoons, with baskets of sandwiches and cool drinks, and a sermon by one of the church elders (usually Carlton Ashford, my Sunday school teacher), of a decidedly evangelistic nature. Before the message Annie Fair would play hymns on an ancient upright piano, and you should have heard the singing.
That piano, by the way, seemed none the worse for wear, even though some of the church deacons had carried it over on a pickup truck, and when they had accelerated too quickly going up Highway 49, the piano had rolled off the back of the truck and flipped over on its back in the middle of the road!
It still played well enough, and as there were no songbooks, everyone sang from memory. The lack of hymnals seemed to pose no problem for, as I said, the singing was amazing. Every one of those 30 or 40 men — all of them in prison remember, for having committed some crime — nonetheless knew every one of those old gospel hymns, and sang all of the many verses lustily.
And it was then that I first began to ponder how it might be that men could know every verse of the very hymns we sang in our Sunday school back home, and still be in prison for having done horrible things. It is an odd place this state of ours, with more churches per capita than any other state in the union, and also more of its men locked up in jail, per capita, than in any other democracy in the world.
So surely, then, the Presbyterians of Cleveland were at work in the right place, and Annie Fair was among them. Her school teaching also addressed the heart of the matter, for surely that, too, is a key to a better life for all our people. At least that is what Annie Fair thought, and she gave 25 years of her life to the effort.
The Prayer of St Francis was her motto:
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is dying that we are born to eternal life.”
As the years passed toward sunset, and age cast its mantle over Annie Fair like a benediction, she began to look more and more toward heaven, and having lived her life not too far from its regions, it was a perfectly natural thing to do.
Among her papers were found these lines:
Some 35 years ago, on the day I was received under the care of the elders of my home church to become a candidate for the ministry, that Annie Fair told me she had prayed to that end since I was a little boy in her fourth grade. She knew more then than I knew of my future, and I have been comforted by that thought many a Sunday when I did not feel particularly ministerial, or able or worthy to get dressed and go over to my church and preach my sermon.
As I said, I cannot recall too many of the subjects we studied in her class. But what I shall never forget is the love. And that is as it should be, for love is the one thing that lasts forever. We shall meet again.
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