The spring rains came and the daffodils bloomed. With the warm days, students at Mr. Osk’s school left their shoes and stockings behind and trekked the Creek road in bare feet. The end of the school year was near.
“That’s a prize-winning essay, Jimmy,” said Mr. Osk when Littlejim showed him his work.
“I hope my papa will think so,” said Littlejim.
Mr. Osk peered at Littlejim through his thick glasses with wire rims.
“Jimmy, I know your papa well. A harder working man never lived. Honest, too. He wants you to better yourself.”
Mr. Osk placed a thin hand on Littlejim’s shoulder.
“Just last week, he says to me, ‘Osk,’ says he, ‘I could do a lot more if I had that boy in the woods. But to my way a figgerin’, he ought to be in school. I didn’t get much schooling. He has a good head on his shoulders. I’m bound he’ll get more’n I got.’ Now, Jimmy, a man that feels that way, he’ll be proud if you win the competition.”
Littlejim kicked his toe against the porch rail and looked away.
“It appears that I don’t do nothing to suit him,” said Littlejim. “I got sick the day the gaffer got killed at the mill. I had to leave the butchering when I lost my breakfast. I let the horses run away from me when we went to town. Papa says I ain’t much of a man, just a no-account boy.”
“Of course you’re not much of a man,” replied Mr. Osk with a little snort of a laugh that upset his glasses. He took them off and blew on them. Then he took a big handkerchief out of his pocket, wiped them, and set them on his nose again.
Littlejim felt a stinging in his eyes. He blinked. He must not let Mr. Osk see tears. He had always thought Mr. Osk liked him, but now he knew that Mr. Osk felt just like Papa did.
The boy’s shoulders fell as he turned to walk away.
“Jimmy,” asked Mr. Osk. “Where are you going? We’re not finished.”
Littlejim turned to face Mr. Osk again.
“What I was about to say was this. Of course, you’re not a man. Not yet. No twelve-year-old boy is yet a man. There’s no shame in that. Bigjim demands a lot of you.”
“He wants me to be a man. I try, but I can’t,” said Littlejim. “Everything I do is wrong.”
“It just appears that way, my boy,” said his teacher. “I seem to remember about your age when every time I walked, I tripped over my own two feet. That’s part of life, I reckon.” Mr. Osk laughed.
Littlejim laughed, too. Mr. Osk, it was said on the Creek, was the best dancer in these parts. Tripping over his own feet did not seem to be a problem for him now.
“Jimmy, you’ve the makings of a fine man,” said Mr. Osk. “I’d venture a guess that you’ll not be a whole lot like Bigjim. It’s my guess you’ll be a whole lot more like Bob. He’d be a fine feller to be like, don’t you think?” Mr. Osk slapped Littlejim on the shoulder. Littlejim grinned.
“I don’t know anybody I’d rather be like than Uncle Bob,” he said.
“Now, Jimmy, I’m of a mind that it may be that Bigjim is a mite envious of his fine son. That son has a good mind and can do so many things well. That fine son has a way with words. He can work with his hands, and he’s my prize pupil in this school. Bigjim’s a fine man, but you can do a number of things he can’t do.”
Littlejim blushed. “Thank you, Mr. Osk,” he said. Littlejim had never thought there was anything his papa couldn’t do. Then he remembered the struggle his father had to read the words in the Star or the almanac. Reading was an easy thing for his son to do.
“I don’t think you need to worry anymore about being a man. And a fine man you’ll be when the time comes. Don’t you fret.”
“I hope I can show Papa that I am,” said Littlejim with a sigh.
Mr. Osk led the boy back into the schoolroom.
Every day while the other students played outside, Littlejim sat at his desk studying and revising his essay.
He read half aloud, “Being an American means we can start all over when we fail . . .”
Then he wrote about Lilac and the tobacco bed and all the people he had heard about who started all over and how they had made the new land their home.
Through the door, he could hear the chant:
“William a Trimmy Toe,
He’s a good fisherman.
He catches hens,
Puts them in pens.
Some lay eggs,
Some lay none.
William a Trimmy Toe,
He’s a good fisherman.
Wire, briar, limber lock,
Three geese in a flock.
One flew east,
One flew west,
One flew over the cuckoo’s nest,
Wire, briar, limber lock.”
While his classmates played the circle game, their voices echoing a chant, Littlejim revised his essay, sometimes reading it aloud to hear the rhythm of the words.
Finally, it was ready to present for the end-of-school ceremonies.