I felt at ease with Mr. McPherson from the start. Mr. Conroy was scary, but I still had to call him Frank. “Don’t call me Mr. Conroy,” he said when it first came out of my mouth. “It makes me feel old.” So Frank was Frank and Marilynne Robinson was Marilynne and Mr. McPherson, who I felt the most at home with, was Jim, and I almost got comfortable calling him that.
“Never call adults by their first names,” my mother instructed me when I was a child. She was an adult basic education teacher for the Cleveland Public Schools, and taught at the King-Kennedy, Cedar Housing, and Woodhill Housing Projects in the inner city, where, my father joked only it was true, “even the police are afraid to go.” She talked about her students with pride. There was Mrs. Hatchette, who had passed her GED on the first try, Mr. Woodford, who barely knew the alphabet when he first came to class, and Mrs. Hopkins, who was thrilled that she could now read her Bible and in celebration baked my mother a sweet potato pie. I couldn’t imagine an adult not knowing how to read, but my mother’s students had been the children of sharecroppers in Jim Crow South. Their parents moved around working the fields, and when they were in one place long enough to send their children to school, they were “segregated schools,” my mother said, “and those aren’t equal.”
Mrs. Hatchette. Mr. Woodford. Mrs. Hopkins. My mother sometimes called other adults by their first names but her students were all older than her, and calling an older adult by their first name was disrespectful, especially because they were black and she was white. She taught me the history to understand why. “You can’t understand American history without understanding black history,” she said. “American history and society can’t be called history without Negro history,” Jim said in a 1995 lecture on Ralph Ellison and Invisible Man.
“Race is a social construct,” he also said in the same class. Still, I sometimes wondered what it was like for him teaching white students. I’d watch him talking to my classmates Charles and Diane, the only black students in our class, and the bond they shared reminded me of the bond I’d felt with foreign friends in Japan.
“We’re going to talk about Miss Pierce’s story “Snake Sake” now,” Jim said at the start of one workshop.” Would it seem odd if I switched back to calling him Mr. McPherson? “Learn about the mythology underpinning Japanese culture,” he said to me about my story. “Learn about Japanese history. What year in the Japanese calendar is this story set?” And here I had been trying to remember what color a poisonous snake turned into when it was pickled in sake to make a medicinal brew for cough.
The lesson that my stories were set against the backdrop of a larger culture and history didn’t stick until after I left Iowa, when Crabcakes was published, and I read about Jim’s friendship with his neighbor Howard Morton. That’s when I remembered my 4th grade classmate Bret, a handsome, sober child, reserved and shy, the first black child to enter Millikin Elementary School. His family had moved into the neighborhood. My mother baked chocolate chip cookies and took a plate over to them. “Welcome to the neighborhood,” she said. “Call on me if there’s anything you need.”
During my last term with my favorite writing teacher, word spread that a thief had darted into my classmate Stephanie’s apartment, and stolen her laptop with all her stories on it. At our next workshop on Tuesday, Stephanie sat stiffly in her chair with the shellshocked look of the newly bereaved. Jim started to tell her how sorry he was, and she burst into tears and fled the room. Looking mortified, Jim swept off his hat, something I’d never before seen him do. He threw a $100 bill in his hat, and handed it to me. “I’m passing the hat to buy Stephanie a new computer,” he said. Later we gave Stephanie the money we had collected, and watched astonishment dry her tears.