One plus one always equals two.
A precedes B.
And, people are the same regardless of their skin color.
My mother armed me with these three facts all first graders should know then stuffed a slip of paper with our phone number on it in my pocket before sending me off to my first day of school at Perry Primary. I was five going on six, but even then, I doubted whether all my mom’s so-called facts were indeed proven truths or just aspirations she wanted me to believe.
The year was 1970, and although my mother tried not to show it, she was more than a little nervous about sending her firstborn to the “white” school. She had grown up during the “separate but equal” era and received her elementary and high school education at the “black” school, Jerkins School. So, on one hand she was ecstatic about the opportunities that a real “equal” education presented for me, but on the other, she was terrified about sending me to a place where she had not been welcomed.
At the time, I didn’t understand why she doled out the first two facts: One plus one always equals two, and A precedes B. My kindergarten teacher had already taught me the 26 letters of the alphabet and how to combine them to make simple words. And I had learned to count and add up to 25 cents by buying penny cookies and freeze cups.
What I didn’t know then, was the first two facts were simply her effort to disguise the other fact as something a first-grader needed to know. And her apprehension was because she believed facts only applied in a perfect world. And for parents like my mother, the first week of school in Taylor County and in many other towns and cities that year was anything but perfect.
Even though I was going to first grade, my mother was afraid there might be riots at the school. Shoving over the see-saw. Rumbles in the sandbox. Spitball fights. For sure. But riots? It seems ludicrous now to think that a race riot would break out at a primary school, but try telling that to the parents of kindergarteners and first-graders back then.
My mother spent weeks preparing me for the transition from an all-Black school to an integrated one by reiterating the three facts all first graders should know, and in the process her anxiety rubbed off on me.
When my bus pulled into Perry Primary on the first day of school, I was the last child off. At the end of the school day, I was the first one back on the bus, but it wasn’t because my mother’s fears had come to pass.
My mother was waiting on pins and needles at the bus stop.
“How was your first day?” she nervously asked as soon as I stepped off the bus.
She was a little surprised when I told her, “I had fun.”
As we walked to the house, she asked what I had learned at school and I replied, “White children are nice too.”
My mother never did let me forget what I told her I learned on that first day of school. And I never let myself forget the real lesson of that day.
It wasn’t, one plus one always equals two.
A precedes B.
Or, people are the same regardless of their skin color.
It was realizing that facts are still facts even in an imperfect world.