While sitting and listening to good Georgia Mountain Music, a memory came back to me that brought a smile to my face. It was a memory of a 12-year-old boy and his first appearance on a stage in front of a group of people.
Back then I could hold my own with the people I knew, but to stand up in front of a group of people you don’t know — it is frightening. In later years I grew out of being bothered by people that I didn’t know. Try being a policeman and it will bring a lot of things out of you.
I was in the sixth grade, going to Neely School. I had got to know all my classmates and was at ease with them. I remember that we had Mrs. Smith for a teacher. You know how things sort of slow down, close to the end of the year? Homework had got to be none and the teachers were just waiting for the year to end. I thought that we had it made but the teachers got together and decided to put on a play.
We had been over to the Rome High Hilltoppers before. They had a big auditorium with loudspeakers and a stage. We listened as Mrs. Smith gave out the names of those who would be in the play. Since there was only one person whose name started with an A, I was the first one she called.
We were told to come to the front and pick up a paper with our part on it. I walked real slow, hoping that she would change her mind and forget me. She handed me a sheet of paper and I hurried back to my desk. I looked at the paper and there was a song written on it. I was stunned. Me, sing? I could not ever remember singing.
With the parts given out, she began to tell us a story about an American girl who visited France and how she won the hearts of the French people. I was to play the part of a shy boy who would go off in the woods and sing. The girl would ask that I sing for her after hearing me. I had to sing to her but a boy whom everyone called Stinky would win her heart. Quite a letdown for me but I was determine to learn the song and sing.
The weekend was coming up and we were told to learn our parts and on Monday we would go in to rehearsal.
My mother could not understand what had come over me. I had walked around over the weekend singing. She had never heard me sing before. Think about a 12-year-old boy whose voice was beginning to change, who never sang, walking around for two days singing. I stayed out in the swing under the big tree in the yard most of the weekend.
Monday morning and I was eager to show Mrs. Smith and all my classmates what I could do. I got with my usual people and we headed for school. Once inside, everybody was nervous. That is, everybody but me. I had my part down pat.
We went into rehearsal and it went good. Then my part. With all the confidence in the world I went into my song. I finished and waited for Mrs. Smith to ring a small bell telling me to move out and let the next one start. I looked at her. She looked at me. Finally she said, “Young man, are you going to stop in the middle of your song or will you finish it?”
My mouth must have fell open for she said, “You only sang half of your song.” I mumbled something to the effect that I sang what was on the paper. She turned the paper over and said, “Here.” It had never occurred to me that the gibberish on the back side of the paper was part of the song.
I have always been a fairly decent reader but I could not read and understand what was on the back of the paper. I walked back to my desk and sat down. They were still in rehearsal but my mind was on the gibberish on the paper. At the end of the day she told me that I would stay after school and she would teach me the rest of my song.
The classroom empty, Mrs. Smith sat down at her desk and told me to come and sit in a chair she had placed in front of her. I sat down and she reached for the paper. Then I got my first and only lesson in French.
I tried as hard as I could to say the words in French the same way as she did. To this day I will always believe that I spoke French different from her. She kept me for almost an hour, letting me go with these words: “You learn that song by tomorrow for we meet at the Boys High School in the morning and the play will start.”
I know that on my way home the people that saw me must have thought I was a nut loose from the funny farm. Picture a barefooted boy in overalls singing what he thought was French while going down the street.
The next morning I put on my Sunday-go-to-church outfit and, wearing shoes, headed for the Boys High School. I grabbed a biscuit and filled it with sorghum syrup. With syrup all over my hands, I used my handkerchief to wipe them clean. I put the sticky handkerchief in my back pocket. When I got to school I was rushed backstage with the others.
I really enjoyed it. I played the part of a bashful French boy who would go out in the the woods and sing to the birds and animals. The American girl was given a going-home party and had asked for the boy who sang in the woods to sing his song for her. I was told that I strutted a little when I walked out on stage. On cue I started to sing my song.
Are you sleeping, are you sleeping, Brother Jack, Brother Jack. Morning bells are ringing, morning Bells are ringing. Ding dang dong, ding dang dong.
Now my French Version:
Fer a Jacko, Fer a Jacko, dough mae boo, dough mae boo. Sana la tena, sana la tena. Ding dang dong, ding dang dong.
The audience gave me a big hand and, like I was told to do, I bowed and thanked them. Then as I hurried back to my seat, the audience got louder and they were laughing and the kids in the crowd were hollowing and, as told, I went back out on stage with a big smile on my face and bowed. I again thanked them. I sat down and the crowd got quiet and the play was over.
We were let out for the day and I started home with the rest. All my friends were telling me how good I was, that gave me the big head. Then one of them started to laugh. I told him to let me in on the joke. Then I was told that when I had bowed to the audience, instead of saying “thank you” I had said “Amen.” Then I was told that when I went back the second time I had bowed and, loud and clear, I said “Amen” into the mike.
And I remember that later my mother wanted to know what I had put in my pocket that stuck my handkerchief to it. She said she had to put the pants into boiling water to get the handkerchief free.