I learned one of life’s most valuable lessons many years ago on a hot afternoon in June, while hoeing tobacco—a lesson that had nothing to do with farming.
The summer before I was to start school, we moved from Lula Street to a vacant house on Uncle Stoney’s farm. Suddenly we were far away from other people. Mom cried for days because she had to leave her friends, and I knew immediately that life would be different there.
Daddy had promised Uncle Stoney a crew of tobacco workers in exchange for a place to live. The first day Uncle Stoney came to the house to gather us for work in the fields, I was the only one who could go—Mom didn’t feel like it, Josephine didn’t want to go (and it was best not to upset Josephine), Daddy needed to stay at the house in case Uncle Stoney needed anything from him, and Amy was too young.
“Ever worked in ’bacca before?” Uncle Stoney asked me when he arrived early the next morning. There was something dark and gooey-looking all around his mouth. I was too scared to answer him, so I just shook my head no. “When I ask you a question, I need an answer,” he barked. “How else will I know what you’re thinking?”
“No, sir. I’ve never worked in ’bacca before!” I found myself almost yelling at him.
“She sometimes forgets how to talk to people, but she can work just like a boy,” Daddy tried to cover up.
“When you get to the field, the workers will show you what to do,” Uncle Stoney answered.
I was scared when I got into the truck, and I was glad Uncle Stoney didn’t talk much, except to himself. The trip to the tobacco field wasn’t very long, but I had no idea where we were when we pulled off the road and came to a stop. I saw a big field with little green plants spaced neatly in rows, and I assumed these were tobacco plants. Standing at the edge of the field were four grown women and a girl about my age. I was happy to see the girl, and I wondered if she would talk to me.
“These ladies will help you get started,” Uncle Stoney said as I got out of the truck. Then he drove away.
“Do you know what this is?” one of the women asked with a sly smile as she held a hoe high in the air.
I shook my head to say yes. “It’s a hoe, and Daddy kills snakes with his,” I answered.
“Very good,” the second lady responded. “You’ll use one to kill weeds.” Everyone laughed.
I looked at the girl my age and noticed that she, like me, was barefoot. The girl was looking at my feet, too. When we made eye contact we grinned at each other. Then, without speaking, she handed me a hoe and motioned for me to follow her. “My name is Lucinda,” she told me as we made our way to the first unworked row of tobacco. I didn’t tell her my name because I was afraid to talk, and I figured she didn’t really want to know it, anyway.
When Lucinda reached the beginning of the first row, she said, “Watch,” then she started scraping the hoe blade through the dirt between and around the newly planted tobacco plants. She made the weeds disappear and the soil look fresh and loose around the plants. In fact, she made the ground look beautiful. I watched her for a minute, then thought I’d give it a try.
Attempting to work as fast as Lucinda, I dug my hoe sharply into the dirt near the first plant. To my horror, I had just cut off the very first tobacco plant in my row. Lucinda gasped, then looked around to make sure no one was looking. She picked up the severed plant and stuck it back into the ground as if nothing had happened.
“Shhhhh,” she whispered as she put her index finger in front of her lips.
“Will it be all right?” I asked her.
“No, it’ll die,” she answered. “But no one will know why it died.”
I slowed down to be more careful and could not keep up with Lucinda, but every few minutes she would skip down to my row and catch me up with her.
Lucinda was so fast, and I wanted to be just like her. Her arms were long and lean, and her pace forced me to work as hard as I could to try to keep up. Even the grown women were slightly slower because they stopped to talk a lot.
I was really hungry when Lucinda’s mom, Mrs. Ganey, finally announced that it was lunchtime.
In the shade of a nearby oak tree, she spread a blanket and started taking chipped dishes out of a grocery bag. “’Cinda,” she called to Lucinda. “Come here, and I’ll show you how those fancy white folks I worked for yesterday set a table.” Lucinda sat down in front of her on the blanket.
“I wanna know how white people set a table, too,” I begged. Everyone, including Lucinda, rolled with laughter.
“Girl, don’t you know what color you are?” Lucinda laughed.
“But I don’t know much about white people,” I replied, honestly confused.
“Baby, you know all about white folks; you just don’t know much about fancy white folks. But I’ll teach you,” Mrs. Ganey continued talking through her smile. She set a place for me with mayonnaise and bread that I suspected she had planned to eat herself. But before we ate lunch, I learned how to set a table just like fancy folks.
“What if I don’t want to set a table like this?” Lucinda protested.
“Then you don’t have to,” Mrs. Ganey smiled as she explained. “But now you know how, just in case you ever need to know. Now you have a choice, and there is freedom in choices.”
I think about Lucinda whenever I must choose whether to follow the expectations of others. But thanks to Mrs. Ganey, I know that I have a choice, and I feel free.
Bethanie Tucker is author of Tucker Signing Strategies for Reading and coauthor of Research-Based Strategies and Understanding and Engaging Under-Resourced College Students, among other titles. She is an aha! Process national consultant training on the programs she created, plus A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Research-Based Strategies, and others. Keep an eye on the aha! Process blog to find out what happens next in Tucker’s memoir series “Many Bridges to Cross.”