A Moral Paper Bag

My wife often substitutes at a local private school, one of the area’s finest.  It is where many of Huntsville’s professional elite send their children to be prepped and to gain that special leg-up that only money can buy.

Sometimes, she comes home and tells me stories.

Yesterday, she read her 5th graders the short story, “Thank You, Ma’am” by the noted 20th-century African-American writer Langston Hughes. In it a young boy with a hankering for a pair of  “blue suede shoes” decides to steal the purse of Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, a hairdresser who is walking home one evening after leaving her shift at a local hotel.

The teenage wannabe thug, unkempt and uncared for, bites off more than he can chew. Not only is the purse heavy (the weight of it throws him off balance, causing him to fall as he attempts to flee), but so is Mrs. Jones.

She kicks him in the seat of his britches and then picks him up and shakes him “until his teeth rattled.”  As she forces him to pick up her purse, she interrogates him and chastises him for his dirty face and shames him for his actions. When it is apparent that he still hasn’t learned his lesson, she places a half-nelson around his neck and drags him down the street toward her apartment. The boy is terrified that she will either turn him over to the police or else continue his beating.

Once there, though, the boy experiences a moment of pure grace, a Les Misérables moment with a distinctly Harlem beat. She finally lets go and lets him go wash his dirty face, trusting him enough not to grab her purse (which she leaves unattended) and run again. She prepares and serves him a meal of ham and lima beans, topped off with cocoa and “ten-cent cake.” She tells him about her work and how interesting it can be.  She listens to his story about wanting the blue suede shows and shares a few confessions of her own.

After the meal, Mrs. Jones leads the boy to her door and gives him boy $10, telling him to go buy his blue suede shows.  The boy, stunned, cannot say “Thank you” before she closes the door behind him. He never sees her again.

My wife asked this group of privileged, mostly white, Indian and Asian students what they thought of the story. Their answers were telling.

The boys approved of Mrs. Jones’ half-nelson. They liked the idea that she “roughed up” the young boy and gave him a little taste of his own medicine. Few of them noted the tough love and grace that came afterward, though.

The girls in general did not approve of Mrs. Jones “touching” the boy at all, despite the fact that he had started the whole episode with unwanted contact of his own (“‘But you put yourself in contact with me,’ said the woman. ‘If you think that that contact is not going to last awhile, you got another thought coming.'”). They seemed to think that it was Mrs. Jones who had violated the boy’s rights, not the other way around.

Neither group seemed to “get it.” Of course, none of them were remotely familiar with the black culture of that era and how the saying “It takes a village to raise a child” was not just a proverb but a daily rule of life.

They’re also probably still a little too young and not far along enough in their moral reasoning to capture the essence of the story and its application for their own lives. The whole point of exposing them to such stories at that age is to till the soil and plant a few seeds.

But what struck me was the quality of the moral reasoning that they did apply, calling straight crooked and mistaking up for down. It made me wonder what messages that our society, and their parents, are sending them and how they are taking them in and processing them.

I’m not one given to conservative diatribes and boring stories of “The Good Old Days ” (Really? Good for whom?).  But I was left wondering if we have let go of some things that we should have held on to.

In a few years, many of those students will speak several languages fluently, perform advanced calculus and ace the SAT. They will attend the finest colleges and universities in the land and become the nation’s “movers and shakers,” our future leaders.

I just hope some of those righteous seeds that my wife spread yesterday will take root. I hope that once those kids arrive in the halls of power, they’ll be able to think their way out of a moral paper bag.

  1. mmlace

    Wow.  I’m not really sure what to think of that, Dr. Eyeguy.  But thanks for sharing…I think…?(In other news, this is the first time in a long time that I’ve actually been able to comment on your actual blog, rather than Facebook.  For the longest time, I’ve not had internet access and have been unable to post real comments on your actual blog from my iPhone.  Gotta say, sir, it feels good to be back on the actual blog!)

  2. eirenetheou

    i recall another, more tragic parable that is, sadly, a true story. Close on 35 years ago in Memphis, a young boy of middle school age, a student in the school where my spouse taught, grabbed the purse of an old lady in the aisle of a grocery store, knocking her down, and headed for the door, pursued by a security guard. In the street, outrun, the guard ordered the boy to stop. When he didn’t stop, the guard drew his gun and shot the boy dead.There was, of course, an outcry of moral indignation. All of the persons involved in this tragedy were of African descent. The dead boy was mourned publicly by his mother and nine siblings. His mother had never married, and each of the children had a different father. They lived in the “projects” near my spouse’s school. She had taught some of them, and knew the deceased. The security guard stood trial and was acquitted.”Who sinned. . . ?” Who is responsible for this young boy’s death? Whose rights were violated? By whom?May God have mercy.d

  3. Michael Brown


    The tragedy you describe is not your typical moral paper bag; more like a burlap sack, tied together and loaded with heavy weights, and tossed into the ocean.

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