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by Frank Shortt
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She thought she was beautiful. She usually wore Salvation Army dresses or ones made from
flour sacks, crudely sown. She always caught bus seventeen up at the old Irby Altizer store located on the curviest curve on Route
460 in Virginia. When one drove around it you almost met yourself coming back.
Irby’s store sat exactly in the middle of the horseshoe turn over the headwaters of Grassy Creek. It was built on stilts. It is a
miracle it didn’t wash out every spring freshet when practically every footbridge on the creek ended up in Grundy the Buchanan County
seat. Outhouses too close to the creek ended up there also. Huge bolts must have been used to hold the stilts together. Boys used
to explore underneath the store, walking the huge beams, but very carefully, for fear of falling, and of wily copperheads or rats.
The girl’s name was Bernice Rose. Her hair, usually in two braids, hung
down her back reminding one of two black racer snakes. She must have been of Native American lineage, as her skin tone was very tan
and her eyes were of the darkest brown. Most mornings she was accompanied by her sister, Tilda, who looked a younger, slimmer version
of Bernice. Tilda was somewhat brighter than Bernice, or so it seemed to all the children around Shortt Gap.
Bernice and Tilda lived with their parents, Will and Mary as well as Alvis and Sherman their two brothers. The old house was built
of logs and when first built had nothing but dirt for floors. Wood floors were probably added later.
Both girls walked barefoot around dusty Boyd Ridge, made that way by countless coal trucks traversing back and forth. Coal was mined
out on the Ridge and had to be transported to Fork Ridge for dumping in the N&W coal tipple. The two girls washed their feet in
Grassy Creek before putting on their rough brogans, without socks. Mountain shyness prevented them from accepting rides from the coal
As the Rose girls entered the bus this day, snickers
could be heard emanating from behind grimy hands. Bernice’s face turned crimson as she realized she was the brunt of the joke. She
simply sat down beside Tilda and cried.
“Where’dja git that fancy getup?” boys
hissed at her.
“Air ye goin’ to a fancy ball?” girls inquired.
Bernice uttered not a word. She just continued to sob. In vain, Tilda tried to comfort her. The bus driver was no help as he stifled
guffaws behind the palm of his free hand. He finally warned the children to can the laughter.
Suddenly a small boy rose up. He had been sitting between a sister and a brother. They called him Frankie. He was red of face with
battle on his brow.
“Who do you think you are, makin’ fun of another human bein’?
Y’all act like a dress is what makes a person. Y’all oughta be horsewhipped.”
“Aw, shaddup,” could be heard from some.
“Mind yer own business,” came from
Bernice continued to cry.
The small boy succumbed to the berating he received just for standing up for a fellow student. The sister and brother pulled him rudely
back into the hard bench seat. The rest of the way to Grimsleyville School was very quiet, outside of Bernice’s sobbing.
Upon arrival at the school, the children debussed noisily. The subject of the day was Bernice’s dress. It was an old blue prom dress,
bought at some thrift store in Raven, Virginia, one size too large, with some of the rick-rack hanging down in back. On the front,
above the bodice, was a wilted bouquet of flowers probably picked along the way on Boyd Ridge. The uneducated mother had thought it
to be the greatest dress she ever saw. She thought it would be a welcome change from the faded dresses Bernice usually wore. She didn’t
know it would be a point of derision for her daughter.
When Bernice arrived
inside the school, to the taunts of several students, the generous teacher read the situation immediately. Although she saw the humor
of the moment, she stifled her emotions in order to extinguish Bernice’s anquish. This teacher, Mrs. Wade, had seen many other strange
situations in her sojourn at Grimsleyville School since arriving from Eastern Virginia as a census taker. She was given the teaching
job because she displayed both wisdom and assertiveness. She showed that she would be able to deal with the sons and daughters of
the farmers and coal miners of upper Buchanan County, Virginia. It was said that some of the older boys ‘packed razors in their lunch
boxes’. This was a way of saying they were much older than the grade they were in.
“Come in, young princess,” she invited. To what do we owe this display of royalty? Has a fairy princess decided to grace our humble
school with her presence?”
Bernice didn’t know what to think. Between sobs,
she thought long and hard about what the wise teacher had said.
“I I I’m so
ashamed, all the students have made fun of me since I got on the bus at Irby Altizer’s store. D d do you like my dress?”
“Why of course I like it. Those kids don’t know a princess when they see one. Why, you’re gonna be my special assistant today. Don’t
they know that?”
With that she placed a chair beside her desk. Every
time a student wanted something that day, they had to go to Bernice first. If she could not meet their request, she passed them along
to the teacher.
At recess, every girl in school gathered around Bernice.
“Where’d ya get that purty dress? They wanted to know. Where can we get one? I luv
yer bouquet, did you pick it yerself?”
Bernice beamed at their questions. She
thought herself to be the ‘fairy princess’ that Mrs. Wade had implied her to be. She never again thought of herself as being ‘different’.
In fact, she became one of the brightest students in the whole school, just because a fast-thinking teacher had made the best out
of a distasteful situation. Mrs. Wade used this situation as an incentive to self- improvement. Whoever did best for the week was
allowed to be the Prince or Princess for a day. They could dress in any costume they chose.
Bernice was chosen several times thereafter because of her improved academic ability. Her mother made sure she repaired the hanging rick-rack.
Each time Bernice wore the dress, she included a fresh bouquet on the front.
What a difference an old prom dress had made for a poor mountain girl.