Bridge to Global Literature

Here, translation unlocks stories from languages afar, people unknown yet familiar in voices that stun you and resonate with you. here is your book of world stories

If – Allison Whittenberg

Jun 25, 2021 | Fiction | 0 comments

“If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you/ If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you/ But make allowance for their doubting too… ” Mrs. Butts-Shropshire said.
She worked the room as she read, her slim hips easily weaving in front, behind, and between the aisles. A wisp of a woman, she was, I suspected quite young, (not young, young but teacher young) but I wasn’t sure. Then again, there was something old, no, sophisticated about her. Something solitary and self-sufficient, despite her marital status.
Most of my classmates thought she was a dog, but what did they know. I didn’t find her hard to look at. In fact, I thought she was the opposite of ugly. She had an angular face and consistently sharp features except for her lips, which were oversized – like they didn’t belong with the rest of her. She kept her chestnut brown hair pulled back in a loose, low ponytail.
“What do you think, Jonah Thelen?” she asked me.
I was thrown off: one, by her use of my full name and two, by her starting the discussion off with me.
“What do you think of Kipling’s words?” she restated her question.
My eyes went down the page in which I saw a series of “ifs.”
I cleared my throat and began to formulate an answer. I said, “He’s talking about manhood. It’s conditional.”
She smiled at me and I thought: Can I live on that? Could I take that full-lipped smile with me and wrapped it about me like a coat on bleak, gray days like today?
“That’s it exactly,” she said. She seemed to take an account of me, and I found myself hoping she couldn’t read past the bruises on my face to see the bags under my eyes. She touched my shoulder then she moved past my desk.
My eyes followed Mrs. Butts-Shropshire as she proceeded toward another student.
“Rudyard Kipling is telling us that not when, but if you do these things you will earn the right to be called a man. You know, in many cultures the passage into manhood is given a full ceremony. In the Jewish faith, at thirteen a boy is thrown a party and told he is now a man. What do you think of that, Cole?”
“I don’t know. Why do you think I’m a Jew?” he asked, taking her question as an accusation. “I don’t have a long nose.”
“Oy vey!” Lori said.
Lori could always be counted on to blurt out a crack like that. Though she seemed like she would have been the natural ally to Mrs. Butts-Shropshire’s mission, our teacher largely left these barbs unacknowledged. At any rate, Mrs. Butts-Shropshire gave Cole a different smile, not as open or bright. Her smile was dismissive. She moved on. “In ancient African cultures, young boys were sent out to slay a lion. What do you make of that, Thom?”
Thom’s gray-blue eyes did a double take on her. “I’m not black.”
That answer made her beaming totally cease. The tendons stood out in her neck. She took on a tone of high seriousness.  I wanted to tell her right then, give up. Surrender. Quit trying to introduce us to ideas.
But she forged on with the question: “In this culture, in America, how do you know you’re a man?”
The response became even more flippant. “Check your underwear,” someone said.
“Are you sure that’s where to look? Is it all physicality?” Mrs. Butts-Shropsire said. “How do you know when you’re grown?  What do you think of Buffy?”
Dead silence.
I took a sideways glance at Buffy Rogers and her two wheat colored braids. I bet she had had that same hairstyle since kindergarten. She was the daughter of my supervisor at my after school job.
Deader silence.
Buffy spoke up, in a weak voice finally. “You’re a man when you can vote at twenty-one.”
“You will be granted the right to vote when you’re eighteen,” she corrected. “But the real question is will you?”
Looking around the room, I wished for one thing — God, I hope not. The country, after all, was in enough trouble.
The bell rang. We hadn’t plumbed the depth of the poem, which was okay. I really didn’t expect that day to be any variation from any other. Mrs. Butts-Shropshire always knocked herself out in her never-ending quest to scrub away our provincial ties. I was fond of her but concluded her Don Quixote mission was idiotic. There was no penicillin for us. No miracle-cure on the horizon mainly because most didn’t feel like they were suffering from any great sore.
We may have been ignorant, but we weren’t dumb. This was Peirot, and it wasn’t like we didn’t want to get good grades and “make something out of ourselves”.  (A fair percentage of us would make it to the state university; a few more would even go out of state for college.) It was just that worldly perspective Mrs. Butts-Shropshire kept trying to cram down our throats that went against our grain. She steadily told us about all those people and responsibilities that existed out there somewhere beyond our county, but even I, who was on the fringe, didn’t feel the urge to join the globe. As an et cetera, visually beyond the racial makeup of the bulk of my class, I had lived in this town all my life. Though I never knew total acceptance, I never thought of running away. Peirot was the one thing I knew from the inside out. Call it fear, or habit, or whatever, but I encountered no burning to get out there to the “real world” and see “things”.
At the bell, I filed out with the herd, giving Mrs. Butts- Shropshire one more glance. I moved slowly because my other classes were real zeros… woodshop (with Mr. Tate and his frozen toupee), trigonometry (with Mr. Hays who smelled of aftershave and church), and lunch and superannuated Mrs. Pastore’s Western Civic class (and her iron gray hair and a practiced gentleness that all but put me to sleep) and on and on till school let out.
Mrs. Butts-Shropshire caught me scooping her and her face became pleasant rather than driven.
God, what a face.

Allison Whittenberg is a Philadelphia native who has a global perspective. If she wasn’t an author she’d be a private detective or a jazz singer. She loves reading about history and true crime. Her novels include Sweet ThangHollywood and MaineLife is FineTutored and The Sane Asylum.


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