Chapter 1

PITTSYLVANIA COUNTY welcomes you and Danville urges you to make yourself at home. Enter from the North by the great textile plants and strong-smelling tobacco factories along the Dan. Or enter from the South and drive past the tumbled-down Negro shacks of Jackson’s Branch, past poor little Providence Hospital for Colored and the fine Memorial Hospital for Whites, past Mount Vernon Methodist Church where mill officials and tobacconists lift up their Sabbath prayers.

Just before South Main leads into Main there is an unusually wide yard in which there stands a rambling white house behind a grove of oaks and elms. The lines of the house are ugly and the boxwood along the myrtle-edged brick wall is scraggly; there is merely a glimpse of the garden. Only the towering elms could have made the place seem more interesting than its commonplace neighbors, ornate structures with over-trimmed porches and other enemies of the dignified simplicity which older houses had cherished.

The rambling white house was my home. Each afternoon I returned from a public school nearby where I was trying to teach some rudiments of French and English grammar to boys and girls not much younger than myself, scholars who were even more reluctant to learn than I was to teach. Eager to release what little energy I ah left in work that produced results one could see and treasure, I put on old clothes an devoted the rest of my day to the big garden I had made in a back lot where hideous outhouses and piles of debris had stood a few years before.

Gardening was a respectable pastime for a young teacher in a Southern high school. There was nothing in it to offend my superior, the Superintendent who, after I had signed a contract to teach in his and the patrons’ school, became alarmed as to whether I could prove to be a satisfactory part of his educational machine.

“Something has been said in connection with your appointment,” he had written after I had borrowed money to go to France on the strength of the contract, “and I deem it a kindness to five you the opportunity to make adequate reply. While by strict interpretation of our fundamental principles of service none would have a right to inquire into your views in matters religious, nevertheless it is doubtful if a teacher could succeed here, in his relations to pupils and patrons, if his views on religion were particularly unorthodox or if his believe in Deity were in doubt.”

I was twenty years young and sadly unprepared to make the adequate reply. My inexperience led me to say that I supposed I had just as much belief in Deity as anybody else and, besides, I was employed to teach English and French and not to parade my views, orthodox or unorthodox, before students in their teens. The Superintendent after some to-do on the part of my friends, accepted my answer and said that we would let the matter of Deity drop and that his person regard for me was not lessened. It was all very difficult and the prospect had not seemed too cheerful. But really it had not been half so bad as I had feared. I taught adjectives and irregular verbs. I talked about Hawthorne to the Seniors without dwelling upon The Scarlet Letter. I avoided scrupulously all matters pertaining to the Deity. I attended long sessions devoted to Methods of Education. I tried to conform.

The only charge of unorthodoxy that could have been laid against me was that, in spite of being thwarted by limited knowledge on my part and a little linguistic talent on the part of most of my students, I ignored the example of my predecessor by failing to treat French as a dead language, lie Latin, began and ended with painful translation. But this was of no great importance my superiors were not especially inclined toward foreign languages and it was their policy to leave me alone as far as the French was concerned. It was what I did, said, or thought outside the classroom that mattered.

Everything went along smoothly during the first session and it seemed as though I proved, contrary to all expectations, to be as harmless as anyone else. It was not until the second session of my teaching that there came temptation—temptation which I could not resist.

There was trouble in the cotton mills, trouble which, according to some commentators, was to be an important chapter in the labor history of the South. The United Press wanted me to write for them. Now I knew I ought to stick to the safety of French grammar and gardening but I said to myself, “Hell, I’ve got to get out of this narrow rut or I’ll grow old before my time.”

So I hurried to the Superintendent’s office and waited until the coy blonde secretary granted me audience with her chief. The Superintendent, a bespectacled, solemn-faced Baptist, listened gravely as I told him that I wanted to report activities in the labor field for an outside news agency which had nothing to do with our Danville Register and Bee.

“Wouldn’t this interfere with your school duties?” he said. “And don’t you feel that it might be unwise for a teacher to be connected with a labor dispute?”

“I assure you I won’t let it interfere with my school duties,” I replied. “I’ll do my reporting during leisure hours, hours when other teachers are going to the movies or just sitting around doing as they please. And, as to the labor dispute, I hope to be an impartial observer. Anyway, my articles will not be read in Danville. Really it can’t make any difference—”

“Well, then” the educator said at length and with the tone of a relenting parent to a pleading child, “I give you my permission but I am trusting you to be very discreet.”