It was May and the last day of school had arrived. Parents had come to listen to the recitations and essays prepared by the students in Mr. Osk’s school.
Mama was seated at Nell’s desk, holding Baby May. Mr. and Mrs. Vance had seats of honor near the black stove, as did the preacher. As the students presented their recitations, the parents applauded politely.
Andy McGuire quietly shook hands with Littlejim behind his desk. “Good luck,” he said. “I hope you win.” His freckled face was red with hoping for his friend.
Ivor Vance leaned across the aisle and nudged Littlejim’s arm. “I hate to see a younger fellow win, but since I didn’t enter, I guess I’m happy you’re sure to win the prize.” He laughed, then leaned back and crossed his arms.
“Boys, boys,” said Mr. Osk. “It is time for silence. Our competition will begin. We will draw numbers to determine the order in which your essays will be delivered.”
Littlejim drew the highest number, which meant he had to wait until everyone else had read. One by one the pupils in Mr. Osk’s class walked to the platform and read their essays.
Finally, it was Littlejim’s turn. As he stood up to read his essay, he smiled at Mama. She smiled back. She had helped him practice every day that Bigjim was late in the woods.
“He will learn of his son’s triumph when the time is right,” she said. “It is not unusual for his son to recite at the school, so if he hears about your recitation at the close-of-school ceremonies, he will think nothing of it.”
Littlejim pushed his hair back out of his eyes and wiped his sweaty hands on his new pants. He really wanted to win this competition.
He began to read, “I think that what it means to be an American is that this land is our home. It was not always so. Almost all of us came from someplace else. Our ancestors left their homes and came to build a new land. Now that new land is our home, just like the Creek is home to all of us who live there.
“The man who first gave me the idea of what it means to be an American came from somewhere else. His name was Adam McGuire and he came here from Ireland. He made the Creek his home. He worked at my Uncle Bob’s sawmill. One day he told us at noonday dinner, ‘This land’s been mighty good to me. I came here with nothing in my pockets. Now I have land, a home, and a fine family. This is a good land.’
“Mr. Wiseman told us how his grandfather hid in a tobacco hogshead on a ship that sailed over the ocean. He didn’t have any money, so he served as an indentured servant to pay for his passage. He came here and made it his home. To Mr. Wiseman, this was a good land, too.”
He read on. He read of the first Houston who ran like a horse thief, and he read of Mr. Green’s grandmother. He read of his own grandfather who knew he was an American when he began to count in English. He read of all the people he had heard about who came from someplace else to make their homes in this new land.
Finally, he read, “. . . and most of all, being an American means we live in a place where a man or a woman, or a boy or a girl, can start over when we fail, like I started over when Lilac destroyed the tobacco bed.”
When he had finished, the parents applauded loudly. Littlejim bowed, smiled, and sat down. Mr. Osk called a recess. The students and their visitors wandered out to the school grounds.
“Do you think I will win?” Littlejim whispered to Mama.
“Yours was the best essay I have heard this day,” said Mama, “but then, I am partial to my fine son’s work, so perhaps I am not a good judge of its quality.”
“You’ll win,” said Nell. “I know you will.”
Mr. Osk rang his handbell to call everyone back to the schoolroom, and then asked Littlejim, Jo Rhyne, Sam Barrier, and Carl Hicks to come to the platform. Littlejim held his breath.
“Fourth place, Carl Hicks,” he said, shaking hands with the tallest boy in the class.
“Third place, Jo Rhyne,” he said, bowing to the smiling girl.
That left only Littlejim and Sam Barrier.
Mr. Vance stood up and took a small box from Mrs. Vance. “I will announce second place and the winner,” he said. “Sam Barrier.”
Littlejim swallowed hard. He had not won.
“Second place,” continued Mr. Vance. “Now for the entry in the competition at the Kansas City Star. Jimmy Houston, first place.” He turned to Littlejim and then shook hands with each winner.
Littlejim’s face broke into a grin so wide he felt his face would break. His spirits lifted. He smiled at Mama and shook hands with the others.
The sun had never shone brighter on Henson Creek than the joy in Littlejim’s face that day. Maybe Papa could see his words in the Star after all.