My eighth-grade teacher once said that a crucible was a really tough situation where guys with serious attitude issues go up against each other, but something good usually comes out of it. Well, looking at it like that, I’d have to say, I’ve done serious time in a crucible of my own.
In eighth grade, I couldn’t decide whether to go onto high school or drop out entirely. I wasn’t a great student. Not the worst—but failing on my own terms, if you know what I mean.
My sister went into the Navy, and my older brother, J. J., was into stuff. My little brother was toddling about the place, and mama was still carrying the baby on her hip like a sack of groceries. She wanted me to go on in school and told me to get extra help. I wasn’t about to ask for any, but then my teacher told me that there was this college lady, Kelsey, who needed to earn points or something for her teaching degree. She needed someone to tutor, and he thought I could use the practice.
The first day Kelsey came after school, I was a little nervous. She was a bookish type—short hair, glasses, dark sweater, and a real stiff handshake—though nice enough.
We went to the library, and Kelsey asked me what I liked to read. I pulled out a book about a sports hero, and she smiled. I can still remember that smile. We met after school for weeks, and every day I read a little better. She’d asked me questions—what I thought about a character or what might happen next. She didn’t seem to care that I skipped over some of the words, or that I couldn’t pronounce the names. It was about getting inside the writer’s head and figuring out why the story mattered. I liked that. Understanding the whole point made it work for me. Kelsey would say, “Motivation is everything, James.”
One day, I had to hurry home. There’s been trouble between Mama and J. J., and I was worried, but Kelsey said she’d come with me so that we could read at home. I wasn’t so sure that was a good idea. My house was on the other side of the river, and I doubted she’d ever been in that part of town before. But Kelsey said she’d be okay with it. So—we went.
Mama greeted Kelsey like a long lost cousin, all smiles, and a big slapping handshake. I looked around for J. J., but he was nowhere insight. The baby was sweating in her diaper, and Mama went back to fixing supper. Kelsey and I sat at the kitchen table, and we started on the last chapter of the book. I had already figured out the ending; I had kinda looked ahead a few days back. I also knew that this would be our last meeting since Kelsey had graduated and taken a job in the northwest.
Suddenly, J.J. stomped in and started yelling—screaming his head off. I didn’t know what had set him off this time, but his glazed, red eyes and waving arms told me all I really needed to know. Kelsey rose to her feet like she was expecting to be introduced, but J.J. got in her face and screamed some more.
“Why didn’t nobody ever help me? What’s so damn important about James that he gets all the attention?”
Kelsey stood her ground, but she couldn’t break through. She said she’d help him if she could, but I knew it was hopeless. J. J. didn’t want to read.
After a bit, J. J. blew out of the kitchen as fast and furious as he had blown in.
Mama went over to Kelsey and lifted a big, black skillet she had in her hand. “I would’ve banged him over the head if he’d have taken another step.” Poor Mama was shaking all over—from rage or fear I didn’t know. Probably both.
Anyway, I knew our time was over. Kelsey had given me her best effort, and I appreciated it, but it was time to move on. Her last words that day were: “Don’t forget the last chapter, James; it’s often the most important.”
I can’t remember the last chapter of that sports book. It didn’t matter much. But the skillet in Mom’s hand and Kelsey’s courage did. I found a job working across the river and, though it took me some time, I did make it through high school. I never went to college, but I got a good job. J.J. did some time in prison, and then one day my sister found him od’ed in his room.
When I think back to all the things I’ve done, the people I’ve known—like Kelsey and mom—and how things turned out for J. J., I’ve got to say that something good came from my crucible. I started reading my life, and I got motivated to write a really good last chapter.