There was no teacher like Miss Lorene Bumpus.
It was 1950 and the Korean War was getting underway. Miss Bumpus was my first grade teacher. There was no way to know it at the time, but she would become a significant figure in my life in years to come. My appreciation of her was slow to develop even though she made a lasting impression on me in the first grade. She showered me with attention, and that wasn’t all.
I was the subject of her wrath more than anyone else in my class. She experienced my Problem Child tendencies right away, and she was determined to tame me. The trouble I caused was not malicious, but disruptive nonetheless. I liked to talk and socialize, and was keenly interested in attracting the attention of a very pretty girl in class, Carolyn Wyatt. My older brother Nolen Robert was good friends with her two older brothers, Johnny and Lucian. But while Carolyn never seemed to notice or care what I was doing, Miss Bumpus did—unfortunately often.
Miss Bumpus had two weapons that she used on me, one was deliberate and one was involuntary. Her deliberate weapon was a stiff and jabbing index finger that she would use to poke me hard on the shoulder in rapid-fire succession, while she leaned forward toward my face and delivered a reprimand. Her involuntary weapon emanated from a speech impediment that caused her to speak with her tongue protruding between her teeth in such a way that delivered a shower of fine spittle to my face. Over a period of months I adapted my behavior to avoid these pokings and showers—especially the showers.
She was also my fifth grade teacher and on occasion would allow me to stand up in front of the class and tell impromptu “tall tales” for the amusement of my classmates. I’m not sure how this process came to be, but my classmates requested these tales, probably not so much because they liked the tales, but that they were a light diversion from class work. So I came to really like Miss Bumpus after I had modified my behavior to avoid her pokings and showers.
However, on one of my report cards she wrote, “E. B. likes to fuss and argue.” (I was known as E. B., not Earl, until I went to college.) My parents had to sign the report card and I had to return it to Miss Bumpus so she could see that they signed it. Somehow I have managed to keep this report card among my prized possessions—documented evidence from a teacher of my Problem Child nature. No doubt my parents appreciated this feedback to the point where they realized they weren’t the only ones who I provoked.
At about this time in my life, I don’t recall if it was before or after the report card, my parents sat me down for a conversations that etched deeply in my memory. This particular conversation may have been triggered by something I had done, but probably more likely from a pattern of behavior on my part. They showed no anger whatsoever. They picked a time when my brother Nolen Robert was not in the house, assuring that we would have privacy.
Their message was brief, but they wanted me to know that my brother, Nolen Robert, was “the obedient one.” They asked me if I understood that, and I indicated that I did. While they did not say it directly, it was very clear to me that they wanted me to obey them more than I had been. What impressed me by that short conversation was that my parents were expressing a concern, not a reprimand. It was filled with love, gentleness, and firmness, but completely without punishment as I had experienced it when I had been caught smoking some years earlier and at other times when I needed swift discipline. While my parents never used the term to my knowledge, their feeling had to be that I was a Problem Child and that they would very much have liked me to be less of a pain in the neck.
Then years later Miss Lorene Bumpus reappeared.
On my high school graduation day in 1962, she found me lounging under an oak tree on the front lawn of the school and gave me a graduation gift. It was a bottle of Old Spice after-shave talc, signaling that I was then a man in her eyes. It obviously made an impression on me. I kept that bottle for many years, and it always reminded me of her.
Miss Bumpus is now deceased. I never looked her up later in life to thank her. I should have. But maybe it has taken me this long to sit down, reflect on these memories, and appreciate them.