Hattie Robinson just had her heart broken. Alone in turn-of-the-century South Carolina, what future does a lonely elementary school teacher really have?
Publisher Katherine P. Stillerman
Hattie Robinson just had her heart broken. Alone in turn-of-the-century South Carolina, what future does a lonely elementary school teacher really have?
Hattie Robinson sat on her front porch swing in stunned disbelief as she read the letter that had come in the morning mail, just one week before her graduation from Greenville
My dear Hattie,
I am deeply grieved by what I am about to tell you in this letter. In recent weeks, I have become entangled in certain affairs that must be resolved before I can commit further to our relationship.
I am not at liberty at this time to share the particulars with you, but suffice it to say that I must call off our engagement and our plans to marry on August 3. As a result, I am certain that you will understand why I cannot be in Greenville for your graduation as we earlier planned.
You are a wonderful Christian woman and deserving of a man much worthier than I. I hope someday to be able to explain to you the extraordinary circumstances that have led me to cancel our marriage. Until then, I will cherish the memory of our relationship and will think of you as you were that night I saw you in the choir at First Baptist Church and knew at once that you would be a kindred spirit.
Yours in Christ Jesus Our Lord, Will
Will Kendrick’s words struck like a backhanded blow to the face. Pain and humiliation would soon rise, and she would feel their mighty sting. However, in the no-man’s-land between recognition and understanding, the only thing Hattie could think to say was, “‘Christ Jesus Our Lord,’ indeed. I doubt Jesus had anything to do with this.” Why did people always invoke the name of the Lord as if that would help everything to make sense?
She might as well face facts: the only man she had ever loved had jilted her. She would be forced to tell everybody that the wedding was canceled and her plans ruined. A melodrama played in her mind of an endless line of classmates, church members, and family filing by like grief mongers, crowding in to bestow sympathy on a poor, wretched soul. She could read the pity in their eyes and hear their whispers—“Poor little thing, she’s just had her heart broken.” Hattie shuddered and forced that image from her mind.
Blinking back angry tears, she stuffed the letter deep into her pocket. With her most convincing and determined voice, she made an oath to herself as she sat on the swing, rocking back and forth in a nervous vigor. “I will not be the object of anybody’s gossip or pity. Mama always said, ‘When adversity comes, you either rise above it or allow it to suck you under,’ and that is exactly what I will do—rise above it. I will take charge and make a plan. I will put up a strong front and announce the news to the whole family tonight at dinner. But first, I need to get over to the college and try to find a job to sup- port myself.” Hattie paused to smooth her skirt and hair, drew herself up to full stature, took two cleansing breaths, and began the brief walk from her house on East Washington Street to the dean’s office at the Greenville Female College.
She found Dean Judson, in deep concentration, pouring over the Journal of Pedagogy on her desk. Mary Judson had been Hattie’s favor- ite teacher and had strongly encouraged her to pursue postgradu- ate work. Motioning for Hattie to enter, she marked her page and removed gold wire-frame glasses, revealing intelligent eyes that now focused as intently on her student as they had upon the article she had been reading.
Hattie took a chair, pulled it close to the desk, and got right to the point. “Dean Judson, do you know of any teaching positions open in the area that I might be able to take?”
The dean’s brows arched in surprise, and she paused briefly be- fore responding. “Why, yes, Miss Robinson, I do, but I thought you and Mr. Kendrick were to be married soon and that you would be returning to Louisville with him in the fall. Besides, the jobs I am thinking of require the candidate to be single.”
Hattie shrugged with chagrin. “That is just it. My circumstances have changed, and I have decided not to marry Mr. Kendrick.”
“I see. I always thought a lot of Mr. Kendrick and considered the two of you a good match. But things don’t always work out like we expect, do they?”
Hattie loved that Dean Judson never pried or offered judgments. She exhaled and bowed her head slightly. “No, ma’am, they certainly do not.”
Dean Judson continued, “In that case, you may be in luck. I had a request come across my desk just yesterday.” She reached for her glasses and began shuffling through a batch of letters from the in-basket on her desk. “Here it is. It’s for an elementary teaching position at Calhoun School, in Pickens County. School starts over there on September third, and they are anxious to fill the position as soon as possible. Reverend James Fitts is the acting principal. Would you like for me to contact him and recommend you for the position?”
“But, Miss Robinson, since your plans have changed, would you want to reconsider and stay on for another year at the college to pursue the advanced normal course as we discussed earlier?”
Hattie sighed. “No, ma’am. As much as I would like to do that, I can’t put that burden on Mama. Since Papa died, she has been raising all of us alone. Papa’s last wish was for all us children to be educated, and our little one-room school in Anderson County only went up to the eighth grade. That’s why he moved us all to Greenville after he got sick—to make sure we would be near Furman and the Female College.”
Dean Judson nodded.
“The older girls are out of the house now. Maudie is married and living in Atlanta, and Minnie finished secretarial school and is holding down a good job here in town. With me graduating this year and Lottie finishing up next year, that still leaves Lillie and the three boys for Mama to educate. Plus, the boys are growing like weeds and they’re just about to eat us out of house and home.”
Dean Judson smiled sympathetically. “Your mother certainly has her hands full, and I think it is commendable of you to want to lighten her load. Given your circumstances, a fresh start in different surroundings may be just the thing for you as well. I will contact Reverend Fitts today and let him know of your interest in the position.”
Hattie thanked her profusely and left the dean’s office for home. As she descended the stairs that led to College Street, she fingered the letter, which she had thrust into her pocket, and withdrew her hand as rapidly as if she had touched a hot ember.
Perspiration had dampened her blouse, and she removed her jacket to cool down as she began rehearsing the speech that she would make to the family. If she hurried, she could slip inside the house and have a few hours to pull herself together in the upstairs room she shared with Minnie, who would not get home from work until late afternoon. She walked around the gravel driveway of their comfortable two-story home and entered through the screen door in back, where she thought she could go up the rear stairway to her room unnoticed. Mama would probably be in the kitchen, but she could give her a quick hug as she passed through and run on up to her room without having to say anything.
She was caught off guard when a familiar voice called out from the dining room, “Is that my namesake?”
“Hey, Aunt Harriet,” Hattie answered. It was Mama’s sister, her favorite aunt, who must’ve come for a visit. She could smell the coffee brewing.
“Don’t you disappear up those stairs until you come in here and give me a big hug and tell me all about that Will Kendrick. I’ve brought something real pretty for your trousseau.”
Hattie could feel her heart pound and her resolve weaken as she forced a smile, brushed past her mother—whose back was to her at the sink—and made her way to the dining room. Harriet slid her chair back and got up to greet her. As she enfolded Hattie in out- stretched arms, she stopped suddenly and looked at her niece with a concerned expression.
“Hattie, honey, your arms are all clammy, and you are as white as a sheet! You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Mama’s ears perked up and she dried her hands and joined them in the dining room. Hattie was determined to stay strong and deliver the lines that she had prepared—albeit not until that night at the dinner table. “No, I’m just fine. It’s just that there has been a change of plans. Will and I are not getting married after all, and I have just been over to see Dean Judson about lining up a teaching job for the fall. She says there is an opening over in Calhoun at the elementary school and is pretty sure they would take me on.”
“What on God’s green earth are you talking about?” Mama’s typically mellow voice raised an octave. “Just this morning at breakfast, you were going on about how Will was coming for your graduation and you couldn’t wait to see him. I had already made arrangements with the Easleys next door for him to stay in their guest room while he was here. And now you’re talking about going to Pickens County to teach?
Hattie’s eyes welled up and she broke into tears. She retrieved the letter from her pocket and thrust it into her mother’s hand. “Here, you read it,” she said, her voice quavering. “It’s all there.”
Aunt Harriet sidled up to Mama and read over her shoulder. The taller of the two by several inches, she and her sister shared family traits from their mother’s side: the oval face; straight, prominent nose; deeply set eyes; and a full head of dark, wavy hair that both women had worn long in their youth, but as matrons had gathered and tamed into neat buns. They were alike in temperament as well. Hattie had inherited her aunt’s height, and she could have passed for Harriet’s daughter.
Mama was the first to speak. Her voice had lost its edge and had now become calm and soothing. “Oh, suga’, you’ve had your first real heartbreak, and there is nothing in the world that hurts any worse.”
Harriet nodded sympathetically and added, “That’s the God’s truth. But I just want to know one thing: where does that Will Kendrick get off sending you a letter instead of showing up in person to tell you face-to-face two months before your wedding day? I say, if he doesn’t have any more character than that, good riddance. You don’t need a man like that!”
Hattie laughed through her sobs at her aunt’s indignation.
“Well, Harriet,” said Mama. “I am sure that Hattie will come to feel that way, but she will shed a lot of tears before she does. You go on and let it all out, honey. The sooner you do, the sooner you will be able to forget about Will Kendrick and move on. But why didn’t you say something right away?”
“Oh, Mama, I didn’t want anybody feeling sorry for me,” Hattie wailed. “I can just hear it. Down at the church and over at the college and everywhere I go, they will be talking about me getting jilted and giving me that look of pity and gossiping behind my back. And Lottie and Lillie will be all smug and say, ‘I told you so,’ because they never liked Will from the start.”
“Hush now, Hattie, and don’t be so dramatic. You did the right thing in telling us. You are not alone in this. I will take care of Lottie and Lillie, and we can get the word out at the church that it was a mutual decision between you and Will, so as to preserve your dignity. You can let everybody at the college know that you have decided to teach a year, which is the truth. Time is the only thing that will heal your heart, but you will rise above this.”
“Your mama’s right, Hattie, and I think a year of teaching would be just the thing to do. Lord knows, it will keep you busy, and you will be so tired at night you won’t have time to think about being lonely. If the job in Pickens County works out, I am sure I can help you find a place to board. My dearest childhood friend married a man from Calhoun, and they live on a beautiful estate right outside of town.”
“Oh, that’s right. Elizabeth Cahill,” said Mama as she gathered the soiled coffee cups on a tray. “She married Charles Barton. She went to the Oak Grove School over in Anderson County when we were living on the farm there. She is a lovely person and would be a wonderful role model for Hattie. I’d feel really good about her being over there.”
“If you like, I’ll make contact with her right away. I feel sure that she and Charles would be happy to have you, Hattie.”
“Thanks, Aunt Harriet.” Hattie mustered a smile and gave her aunt a peck on the cheek. “Mama, I’m gonna go on upstairs for a little while before everybody gets home. I’ll be down in time to help you set the table for dinner.”
The arrangements for Hattie to work in Calhoun fell into place seamlessly. Prior to graduation, Dean Judson confirmed the position, with the agreement that Hattie would arrive before Labor Day to sign her contract and begin school on the opening day.
Elizabeth Barton had responded by return mail with a letter saying that they would be delighted to have Hattie as a boarder and that, in fact, she would be teaching at least one of their boys.
Hattie kept busy during the summer, helping Mama with the garden and the chores. Coming to terms with the breakup had been almost unbearable at first. Each dawning day, when the eastern sun slipped through the slats in the louvered shutters that covered her bedroom window, fingers of light poked at her sleep and stirred her from dreams of Will, the wedding, and their new life together. The cruel fingers poked until they roused her consciousness and along with it the disappointment and heartache for a dream that was not to be.
She had reread Will’s letter so many times that it was beginning to tear along the folds, but she was still unable to make sense of that one phrase: “I have become entangled in certain affairs that must be resolved before I can commit further to our relationship.” What could he possibly have meant by that? The words haunted her like the lyrics of a song that kept popping into her mind unexpectedly. If he had only told her the reason for the breakup...
Night after night, she lay awake considering the numerous possibilities, and the only one that made any sense to her was that Will had gotten cold feet about the wedding because he had either fallen for someone else or fallen out of love with her. But why so suddenly? Nothing in his previous letters suggested that his feelings for her had changed. In fact, each one expressed his increased devotion as well as his excitement that they would soon be reunited. The wording in his last letter was so formal and cold, almost as if someone else had written it. It was a perplexing mystery.
As difficult as it had been, the weeks passed, the summer eventually drew to a close, and Hattie discovered that her grief was beginning to subside. When the dreaded August date that would have been her wedding day finally rolled around, it came and went like any other.
Had she and Will married as planned, she would have been leaving Greenville and moving to Louisville to make a life together with him. Now, she would still be leaving Mama and her family, but she would do it alone. The thought of being completely independent for the first time in her life both excited and terrified her. She wondered what the Bartons would be like, if she would be successful as a teacher, and what new experiences her life in Calhoun would bring.
Join BookDaily now and receive featured titles to sample for free by email.
Reading a book excerpt is the best way to evaluate it before you spend your time or money.
Just enter your email address and password below to get started:
Instant Bonus: Get immediate access to a daily updated listing of free ebooks from Amazon when you confirm your account!
Katherine Stillerman has thirty years’ experience as a teacher, curriculum specialist, and middle school principal in North Carolina public schools. She graduated Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, with a BA in history. She also earned an MA in intermediate education from Campbell University, Buies’s Creek, North Carolina, and an EdD in educational leadership from UNC-Greensboro.