Gary Ives lives in the Ozarks where he grows apples and writes. He is a Push Cart Prize nominee for his story "Can You Come Here for Christmas?"
A SIGN OF HATRED
Even as a girl I was reviled in Girdyville, my old hometown reviled as some kind of pariah. Why? Well from my entrance into this world I was considered to be a bastard, then a legitimate term for the child of a single parent, never mind that my poor mom had died when I was five. Add to that the press later published that I loved a man with whom I lived without benefit of marriage, that I was an atheist, and a socialist. Although this story goes back some fifty years, there are, I assure you, old timers in Girdyville crunching those old bones in the dark recesses of those small provincial minds. Oh, how I disliked Girdyville where at home I was forced to attend my foster parents' fundamentalist church three times a week, where I was teased at school for being a ward of the state, for being a plain skinny black girl in hand-me-down dresses, and for exhibiting intelligence, and I was ridiculed by the other children because I loved learning. But then small towns the world over are often long on memories and short on tolerance, aren't they? Oh my, where to begin…
My senior year in high school was 1956, the year my exhibit on using algae to produce oxygen aboard future space ships won a first prize at the State Science Fair in the capital. The prize, a full four-year scholarship which would be life changing not only because of the academics but also for the escape from the smothering atmosphere of religious fundamentalism and group-think that permeated Girdyville like so many counties in our state. I thank my lucky stars that I had the goodness and guidance of Miss. Ora Willis, probably one of the finest science teachers in the nation. Miss Willis obtained permission for me to use on weekends one of the biology labs at the junior college at the county seat. She was the only person who understood me. She knew the sting of adverse opinion, of sneers, and whispers behind her back. You see she was a black woman and a hunchback, and while brilliant she had been hired by the Girdyville School District only because her employment brought with it a large grant as Miss Willis was considered a handicapped person but chiefly because the school district was under a court order to hire a person of color.
Life at the university was an instant explosion of wonders: dorms where students studied and partied and held deep discussions into late nights, the library with seven floors of books, books, books, the labs, the natatorium, tennis courts, the gymnasiums, even free movies– all there for students. I loved it and immersed myself in my studies and college life, graduating magna cum laude in three years and receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation to enter a PhD program in the physics of Biology. My advisor, as fate must have decreed, was Dr. Nelson Aleman, who became my life partner and decades later would share with me the Nobel Prize in Medicine for our pioneering work in the physiology of stem cells in the human central nervous system.
It's true that Nelson and I were lovers throughout my university years. After twelve years together we married, not for societal acceptance but rather for tax and inheritances reasons. Our teamwork was acclaimed not only by our scientific colleagues but also by the liberal press. Now in its twenty third edition, Nelson's textbook "Physiological Concepts for the Twenty First Century", adopted by over two hundred universities on six continents brought in immense wealth. Our subsequent activities as venture capitalists in Silicon Valley have resulted in our names appearing on the annual Forbes list of the worlds' wealthiest 500. How much you may wonder? I can honestly say that I don't know.
Nelson's death last year gave me strong reason to ensure proper planning for after Elvis leaves my personal building. As we had no children we established the Nelson and Molly Aleman Foundation which funds hospitals in Haiti, Africa, and on American Indian Reservations and which also funds research into a variety of diseases. As one considers one's end, he or she is drawn to reflect on the past. Accordingly, I had thoughts of my home town of Girdyville and of lovely, sweet, brilliant Ora Willis. Since leaving for the university in 1956 I had returned to Girdyville only once – to attend a small funeral service for Miss Willis. Before leaving I had commissioned a proper grave marker with an inscription attesting her brilliance as a woman, a teacher, and an inspiration to a future Nobel Laureate. I planned to make one more sojourn to Girdyville, but would need to consult with the Foundation lawyers first.
Sam Rosenbloom the Foundation Director, two lawyers on our staff, and Sally Stevens our Public Relations Director accompanied me. The meeting with the Town Council and County Commission had been arranged for a Sunday afternoon in the school gymnasium. Press notices and leaflets insured a large public presence for the presentation of the Foundation's offer to the town of Girdyville. Sally Stevens had convinced CBS's Sixty Minutes to cover the meeting and promised an interview with me. My delivery of our proposal was short, made from a flimsy lectern on the gym's stage. Here it is verbatim:
"Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, Members of the Press, as I look around I find the people and the town of Girdyville has changed but little since my days here as a youth. The addition of a MacDonald's is probably the biggest change. This school's appearance has changed but little. Oh, there's a nice football field and stadium. But no library, no laboratory, no separate facilities for girls' sports. And when I scan your faces out there I see no people of color. Why is that? Please, quiet please, you'll want to hear what I have to say. Girdyville is what, in less kind quarters, is referred to as a jerkwater town, Backwards, Ingrown, Incestuous. Please, quiet."
At this point the sheriff, the mayor, and school principal had to stand to insist on quiet.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, you live in one of those remaining pockets of intolerance, stagnation, and self-imposed isolation. How is this? Poverty? Poor leadership? Lack of Education? I'll leave it to you to decide. Not all of you are averse to change, and it will behoove you to challenge your neighbors to accept our offer. Here it is.
The Nelson and Molly Aleman Foundation will, upon popular acceptance of at least 60% of every resident over the age of twelve, construct a state of the art public K-12 school, a library, and a civic center. Teacher salaries will be augmented by the Foundation. Additionally, every child under the age of 16 as of the date of acceptance will be granted a full scholarship to the state university upon meeting that school's entry requirements. The voting on this proposal is to occur on this Wednesday, here in the gym, supervised by your sheriff and Foundation attorneys.
The terms of acceptance are these: Before the terms are placed in effect Girdyville must change its name to Hatred[GI1] [GI2] [GI3] [GI4] . State offices must acknowledge in writing such change of name. Any business enterprise, public office, religious facility currently including the name Girdyville must replace signage, stationery, etc. with the new name of Hatred. After the terms are in place the school teaching staff must be composed of at least 50% minorities by the next fall term. Hiring and firing of teachers must be approved by Foundation administrators.
These terms are spelled out in the pamphlet being circulated now. This offer is made because I believe the power of education is the best way to lift us toward a better world away from cruelty and ignorance. My success in the world of science is due to a beautiful dedicated teacher. Her efforts continue. The name of Hatred will serve as a reminder that the iniquities of the past can be overcome. I look forward to the results of your voting on Wednesday. Thank you."
Not many, least of all me were surprised by the results of the voting. Was it to spite the shaming attention brought on by the press? Was it the defiance of a proud people, or perhaps, simply one of those instances of outrageous misfortune, the slings and arrows aimed this time at me, the home town colored-gal who never really belonged in a town called Girdyville.