In reading and writing, I found rhyme and reason, but not in arithmetic.
One afternoon, when Jaybird and I were lounging on his front porch looking across my father’s Mississippi Delta farm, I told him that my teacher’s explanation of percentages went right over my head.
The wise old black man, my boyhood best friend and mentor, was the most gifted teacher I have ever known, and as was the case so many times before, he filled another gap in my education.
“Let’s say you’ve got $100, and I borrow it all. That’s a hunnud pussent. If I borrow $50, that’s fifty pussent; if you loan me $10, that’s ten pussent. But, if you remember what I always taught you — don’t never borrow and don’t never lend — and you don’t loan me no money, why, that’s zero pussent.”
Jaybird’s lessons were unforgettable, especially the one for overcoming life’s challenges: Work hard, succeed; hardly work, fail.
My school’s spelling bees demonstrated this truth. In the third grade, I won easily by spelling a word the other finalists misspelled, and looked forward to the next contest.
I wasn’t counting on Velma Jane, whose dad had recently moved his family from Michigan to Mississippi. Her accent cracked me up, and I was convinced that anyone who talked that funny couldn’t be smart. Shy, skinny, pigtailed, and freckled, she kept to herself, always reading books.
In the fourth grade spelling bee, Velma Jane and I were the finalists. We swapped rounds, spelling difficult words, such as aardvark, bivouacking, bourgeois, and chandelier. Then I misspelled “chauffeur.” Velma spelled it correctly.
“That funny-talking girl beat me, Jaybird,” I sniffed.
“Did you practice?” My silence answered.
“Do what she does — practice every day. She put forth a hunnud pussent; you put forth zero pussent.” His words hit home.
One day, I saw Velma Jane in study hall, flipping through a dictionary, randomly selecting pages. When I asked what she was doing, her friendliness surprised me.
“This is how I practice spelling,” she said. “I learn so many words this way. Let me show you.”
From then on, we took turns using her technique and calling out words to each other. We learned and had fun at the same time.
At the next bee, Velma Jane and I eliminated everyone and squared off again. Something had changed, though. I didn’t want her to win, but didn’t want her to lose either. She thought the same about me. The reason was obvious: We’d become best friends.
An appropriate word — selflessness — stumped me. I was sad about losing, but glad for her; she was happy about winning, but sad for me.
When Jaybird asked how the spelling bee turned out, I shrugged and said, “Velma Jane won.”
“You ain’t mad?”
“No. I don’t feel like I lost — I gave it my all.”
The beloved old black man pulled me close, looked me in the eyes and said, “You didn’t lose because you gave a hunnud pussent. That’s what winning takes.”
Oxford, Mississippi, resident, Ole Miss alumnus, Army veteran, and retired Mississippi Delta cotton farmer Jimmy Reed is a newspaper columnist, author and college teacher. His latest collection of short stories is available via Squarebooks.com at 662-236-2262.
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