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Memories Of A Home

This is a complete sample chapter. Each chapter is about 2,500 words in length.

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21
The Capitals Test


    Students attended the Acorn Primary School from first through fifth grades. Along that journey, they learned to read and write; add, subtract, multiply, and divide; sing in small classroom choruses; shoot a basketball through a hoop at recess; explore constellations of the sky, creatures of the sea, and rocks of the earth; and name all fifty states…and each state’s capital city.
    Every fifth grade student was administered the dreaded capitals test.
    Frank was a good student; not a great student. He was among the last to learn long division, but he was always ahead of the curve on spelling tests. Science intrigued him; history was his favorite. He loved to read, but he did not like the assigned classics. He thought arts and crafts were a waste of time, but he loved woodworking. Not surprisingly, he was one of the last to sink the basketball in the hoop, but he was one of those who most wanted to accomplish it.
    The capitals test did not excite him. R.C. and Kathryn Wilcox had the means to travel the United States. They drove throughout the continental United States, took photographs, and collected postcards. Kathryn loved to sit beside Frank on her white sofa (not her best decision for a hog farm) and review all of the postcards and photographs. She even had a US puzzle with wooden pieces, and he had learned to put it together quickly, calling out the state names as he did so. Often she took out the picture postcards from national parks, and Frank named the corresponding state.
    “Here’s Mount Rushmore,” she would say. 
Frank pointed and called out, “South Dakota.”
    “Here’s Arches National Park,” she said. Frank pointed to Utah. “Here’s Mammoth Cave.” Frank pointed to Kentucky.
    Frank knew his US geography long before he approached the capitals test in Mrs. Elizabeth Smith’s fifth-grade class. But in all that geographic studying, he and his granny had never talked about the state capitals. If she didn’t think it important to teach him, well, was it really that important? He concluded it was not.
    He brought a folding US map to school and asked Mrs. Smith why the students needed to take the capitals test.
    “All the capitals are on this map,” Frank said. “Each one has a star beside it. If we know the states, we can find it on this map and see the state’s capital.”
    “Then why do we have spelling tests?” she said, smiling. “Why not let everyone use a dictionary?” 
Indeed, he thought, why not just let everyone use a dictionary?
    His argument failed. Whether Frank believed the investment of time in learning the state capitals was worthy or not, the capitals test was going to happen. The test, it was rumored, was required by suit-and-tie people in Atlanta. This mysterious bunch apparently gathered and planned what children needed to know, despite not having been children themselves in fifty years. 
Frank’s revolutionary spirit was sparked. His disdain for the capitals test, and his lack of respect for the faraway tribe that ordained it, did nothing to create passion for studying, learning, or memorizing the state capitals. In fact, he was so opposed to the test that he decided to simply ignore it. During class, when everyone practiced the capitals, Frank stared out the window and thought about baseball. Sometimes he pretended to study the capitals and instead drew pictures of army battles. Someone had drawn a maze on a piece of notebook paper, and he thought that looked like a fun project. So during one study session, he drew what he felt was the most difficult maze ever drawn on a piece of paper. (Jack, however, completed the maze in record time.)
    On the eve of the capitals test, Mrs. Smith reminded the class that the test would be “first thing in the morning,” and she encouraged the students to get a good night’s sleep. “I will call out either a state name or a capital name. If I call out a state name, you will write its capital. If I call out a capital, you will write its state name. Good luck!”
    Frank propped his head on his right fist, mashing it into his right cheek. Her words struck his ears but never got inside his head. He had not studied for the capitals test, he would not study for the capitals test, and furthermore, he didn’t care. Plus, his deportment grade was always a good one, and that was the only grade his daddy really cared about anyway.
    Deportment, a noun, was defined by the famous Webster’s dictionary as “a person’s behavior or manners.” Tom Wilcox scanned the regular report cards until he came to the word deportment. No matter what other marks were on that piece of paper, the mark beside the word deportment had better be an S for satisfactory. Frank knew he did not always have to show his daddy an A grade in his coursework, but he had better show an S in deportment.
    “If there’s ever a grade that’s not an S, you don’t have to wonder if you’ll get a whipping,” Tom said. “I promise that you will get one. Any dumbass ought to be able to go to school and behave. Do you understand me?” He gave this lecture at the start of each school year and again after the Christmas break. It was always said in a tone that suggested he suspected the brothers of going to school and swinging from the light fixtures like wild monkeys. The lecture always left them confused, but they also understood. It was wise to sit and behave, whether you learned anything or not.
    So Frank wasn’t that worried about the capitals test. He planned to thumb his nose at the test on principle and not worry about the consequences. He always got an S in deportment.
    He should have worried.
    Sometime during the day before the test, Janet had talked to one of her friends, whose child was also taking the capitals test. Janet heard all about how her friend’s child had been studying every night, and how the friend had studied with her child. Janet heard all about how prepared the friend’s child was for the test—even excited about it.
    So when Frank got home, Janet said, “I hear you have a big capitals test tomorrow.”
    “Yes,” Frank said. “It’s going to be first thing in the morning.”
    “Have you studied for it? I haven’t really noticed you studying for it.”
    “We’ve been studying a lot during class,” he said.
    After supper, Frank was finishing his other homework when Janet said, “Let me call out the states to you, and you tell me the capitals.”
    Frank shrugged his shoulders. He looked at his Caravelle watch. It was 8:30 p.m.—bedtime. He yawned. The yawn did not work.
    “Mississippi,” she said.
    He repeated the word. “Mississippi.” He stared around the room.
    Janet took a deep breath. “Okay, Nevada,” she said.
    Nothing.
    “Texas?”
    Nothing.
    That was strike three. She closed the book, fury in her eyes, and said, “You are not prepared for this test.” Like any good parent, she laid into him with a verbal assault that made things perfectly clear: he might not care about the grade on the capitals test, but his mama absolutely cared—a lot. She stormed out of the bedroom, perhaps recalling the failing mark he had received earlier in the year on a major science test. Frank had concluded that as he was never going to Saturn, learning about Saturn was therefore not particularly important.
    Now Frank sat in the quiet of the empty room. Jack stuck his head in the door. “Is the coast clear?” he asked, smiling. “Boy, you are in trouble.”
    “I know,” Frank said. He didn’t know what to do. It was bedtime. The test was first thing the next morning. How in the world could he learn the capitals now?
    A voice called Frank’s name from outside the bedroom. “Come here.”
    Frank stepped into the hallway, holding the list of states and capitals in his hand. He stood there, a pitiful sight in his seersucker pajamas. His daddy looked at him.
    “Come on,” he said, and gently pushed him into Tom’s bedroom, where Frank crawled up on the bed. Tom shut the door and sat down on his bed. “I’m going to help you.”
    For the next two hours, Tom patiently helped his oldest son with those states and capitals. They started with the ones he knew—well, the one he knew. Frank knew Atlanta was the capital of Georgia. That was the sad state of affairs.
    “We’ll start with the South,” Tom said, demonstrating remarkable patience—the anti-daddy from the pump-pulling day. When Frank got one wrong, his daddy simply said, “Nope,” and moved on to another one. Finally it came down to two: Mississippi and Missouri. Frank struggled to remember which capital was Jackson and which capital was Jefferson (City).
    His daddy began to sing a familiar song, Johnny Horton’s tune, “The Battle of New Orleans.”
    “In 1814 we took a little trip, 
Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip,
    We took a little bacon and we took a little beans, 
And we caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans.”
    Tom said, “When you hear Mississippi, just remember Colonel Jackson. Jackson is the capital of Mississippi. That will help you remember the capital of Missouri is Jefferson.”
    Tom went through the entire list again, sometimes calling out states and sometimes calling out capitals. Frank got all of them right. At the end of it, Tom said, “Wow, it’s almost eleven. You’d better get in the bed.”
    Frank went to bed beaming. The next morning at the breakfast table, Tom and Janet called out states and capitals, and he answered them correctly. On the drive to Acorn, Tom continued the drill, and with each question, Frank fired off the correct answer.
    Parked in front of the school, Tom said, “I hated tests. But you have to take them, so you might as well do your best.” He looked at Frank. “Just do your best. And behave.”
    That morning in the classroom, Mrs. Smith made the students write the numbers one through twenty-five down the left margin of a sheet of paper. Then she told them to start back at the top and make a second column, numbering twenty-six through fifty, down the middle of the sheet.
    She started, “Number one, Georgia.” She went through the list, mixing up the alphabetical order of the states, and calling out either state names or capitals, just as she had promised. She looked over at Frank more than once. She was pretty sure he had not studied at all because she had watched his daydreaming and cartoon-drawing during class time.
    At the end of the test, she collected the papers. “I will grade these tonight and give you the scores tomorrow,” she said.
    Frank felt like he had done really well, and he just couldn’t wait another day to find out his score. Not after his daddy had sat on the bed with him until eleven at night, and not after they had sung all six verses of “The Battle of New Orleans” on the way to school.
    At lunch, he approached his teacher. “Mrs. Smith,” he said, “I studied hard last night with my daddy. Will you grade my paper so I can tell him how we did?” 
She smiled at the way he had included his daddy in the test taking. When she got back to the room, and the students worked on science projects, she graded Frank’s paper.
    “Frank, please come to my desk,” she said.
    He went up and she pointed to his paper.
    Fifty. Perfect score.
    Frank thought he might just cry. Mrs. Smith smiled at him and winked. Then she said, “You see, Frank, you are smart enough to do all the work and make good grades all the time. You’ve got to understand that many times we have to do things we don’t want to do.” She folded his test paper and gave it to him, putting a finger to her lips as a way to say, Keep this quiet until tomorrow.
    When Janet picked Frank up from school, he waved his paper and said, “I got them all right.” 
Janet beamed. In fact, she beamed all the way to the Dairy Queen, where he got a large chocolate shake for the ride to Brookwood Road.
    When he got home, Frank climbed on his green bike and rode as hard as he could to the farm. He found his daddy in the meat house. He walked up to him and simply handed him the paper. Tom opened it and smiled.
    “I’m proud of you,” he said, and gave the paper back. Frank then passed the paper around the meat house, earning the praise of everyone and a big hug from his granny.
    No one walked taller than Frank Wilcox that day. In truth, he was guilty of procrastination and arrogance that almost cost him respect and a good grade. But he was redeemed, as many are, by people who loved him and cheered for him to do his best.

(End Chapter 21)