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The Yellow Shirt

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So, this was my first college history class. The instructor walked in. He wore a shockingly yellow shirt and sat on the edge of his desk. He did not do our textbook the courtesy of opening it; instead, he spoke to us, the students, of ourselves. He laughed often, and I thought I had never heard such a loud, uninhibited laugh. Professor Jackson’s laugh amazed me almost as much as his shirt.

History, to me, had always seemed to be too much involved with wars. A war, a war, and a war—with nothing in between but causes and effects. I was not prepared to enjoy a course in history.

Then, in the second week of the course, Professor Jackson assigned seats. Not alphabetically, but according to some secret scheme of his own, he lined us up by the blackboards and assembled us into rows. 

On one side of me was Nola Jeraldine Kirby, from “up in the mountains, close to Higginsburg,” she told me. And on the other side, in highly polished boots and a hand-knitted sweater, sat Thomas Webb Carpenter. I knew this, not because he ever spoke to me, but because that was the name I saw on his neatly folded papers on their way to the aisle. I knew about his shoes because I was too awed by him for days to really turn and look at him, but I could see his shoes by moving just my eyes. After all, his entrance exams carried marks that had made him quite well known on our campus. He was a brilliant boy.

The history class was more than I had guessed a class could be—a constant interplay of ideas, an occasional jab of debate, enough joking so that everyone in the room felt quite at ease. Professor Jackson was one of those rare teachers who could allow this great amount of freedom in a class without ever losing his control over the situation or his dignity.

I began to treasure the professor’s cogent beginning-of-class prayers, his reverent examination of history in relation to the Bible. His whole feeling for history crept in around the edges of my thinking. After a while I rather liked his laugh; there was something free and unafraid in the heartiness, the very loudness of it. And the yellow shirt—well, he hadn’t many others, so I learned to face it with a resignation that approached bravery.


Perfect partners

The professor assigned a great deal of outside reading and more outside projects than most of us thought were necessary. My project partners: Nola and Mr. Carpenter of the immaculate boots.

Nola, to my left, struggled valiantly to condense the swift discussions into notes with her leaking, scratching pen and her cheap cardboard notebook. And to my right, Thomas Webb Carpenter wrote his notes in flawless outline form without effort, without interrupting his own participation in a debate.

Poor Nola, slow enough in any class competition when compared with my other neighbor, seemed even more painfully gross. I sometimes wondered if he ever saw her, noticed the way her face never changed from its strange, puzzled expression.

Sometimes when the topic was especially involved, Nola would glance at my notes and sigh. It was such a tiny, helpless sigh, and if I whispered, “Never mind, Nola, you just listen today, and I’ll help you with your notes tonight,” how she would smile at me.

We were in the library working on some map project, and I remember that the three of us were talking about what we would do after college. We were finished except for Nola, who was carefully coloring in a sea. Tom was telling us about his plans to become an engineer. His mother had insisted that he come to a Christian college for at least one year, although he assured us he had no desire for the poverty connected with Christian service.

Nola’s hand, covered with small cuts and burns and stains from hours of work in the school kitchen, released its diligent grip on the crayon as she told us about the one-room building near her home where she wanted to start a school. 

“The church folks—they’s all mighty anxious to help me get my two years’ teacher training—no school a’tall for miles and miles up there. And the poor little children beyond Higginsburg, they don’t have half a chance of growing up and meeting the world. I want ’em to have a real schoolroom like the one I got to go to when I stayed with my Aunt Jo, with real blackboards and a high shelf in the back to put their little lunch buckets on.”

She paused, her face flushed from so much unaccustomed talking. “I know you think I wouldn’t be much of a teacher, because I’m not even what they call ‘college material,’ but I’m all they got up beyond Higginsburg—and I love the children. Besides,” she leaned forward, and her face took on an intensity that surprised me, “besides, the Lord helps me to remember just the things I need to know. Just ask my orientation teacher; it’s supposed to be impossible for anyone with an IQ as low as mine to make grades as good as I do. The Lord just knows my purpose and helps me. I study very hard, but I couldn’t make it without the Lord.”

I had never heard anyone speak so honestly about their limitations before, and I was stunned. There was no joking in her manner, nor sullenness; she merely stated the facts. 

Even Tom Carpenter was disarmed. He looked at her for a long moment, and then he grinned and said, “You’ll make it, Nola. You really will. It’s the spirit quotient that matters more than the intelligence quotient, and you’d rank genius there.”

A dim smile crossed Nola’s face. “The Lord helps me in all sorts of ways,” she repeated simply. Then she picked up the blue crayon and went back to work.


Eye-opening observation

The next day in class I saw Tom watching Nola as she took her pitiful notes. It was the first time I had seen him really observe anyone else. 

The next class period I noticed something strange at the desk to my right. Tom was bent over his notes, writing longer sentences, taking time with his words. When the closing bell rang, I saw him remove a carbon and give the extra copy to Nola. He spoke to her for only a moment, but somehow I could not linger to hear their conversation. During the weeks to follow, the extra set of notes became a regular procedure.

We all became such special friends—Tom, Nola, and I. One day when Nola made the highest score on a daily quiz, we all three nearly had to be sent from the room for laughing when, as we compared papers, Nola said, “I’m sorry, Tom. I’ll help you study your notes next time.”

Every week Tom and I made a special trip to the library to find outside reading that would not be too hard for Nola. And together the three of us studied for all major history exams, although it must have been a trial for Tom (he actually seemed to enjoy it). And Nola, when she worked behind the counter in the cafeteria, saw to it that the largest deserts were saved for Tom and me.

Sometimes I wondered how much of this odd three-way partnership had been planned in the secret mind of Professor Jackson, who never seemed to notice what his seating arrangement brought about.

Tom and I talked of the professor once. Tom said, “Isn’t it just beautiful the way that brilliant man brings his vast energies to focus in a classroom? His methods are subtle, but if you observe closely—he knows every person in each class very well. The questions he asks each one are the questions that person needs to answer or think about. I wonder how he does it.”

“Why don’t you ask him?” I ventured.

“Perhaps I will.” There was silence for a long while, and each of us returned to our homework. Suddenly Tom said, “But I could never be a teacher. How could one live on that kind of salary?”

The idea of Tom Carpenter as a teacher left me speechless for a moment. “I don’t know, Tom, about living on the salary. I suppose you’d just have to believe the way Jackson believes, that self-denial and happiness go together in a Christian’s life.”

“That’s the answer, of course.” And he took up his trig problems again.


Critical crisis

January came with long, gray days of monotony. Semester exams were just behind us; no vacation in sight, too early for picnics, banquets, et cetera, to begin. January seemed the ebb tide of the school year.

One evening Nola called me to her room after study period. She stood in front of the mirror trying to appear absorbed in making her hair stay in pin curls. “I want you to pray with me tonight because the business manager called me to his office today. I guess I have to go home on account of I can’t work any harder than I am now, and I owe too much money.”

“There must be some scholarship fund—”

“Not with grades like mine.” She shoved her report card at me. Straight C’s, except for a D in a math subject.

“I’ll talk to him, Nola; I’ll think of something. You just can’t go home now when you’re so near through.”

She was crying now, and something in the quietness of her soft sobs, the rigid way she stood there, with the tears washing down her pale cheeks, showed how confused and afraid she was.

“Someone used to help me,” she finally said. “I don’t know who it was, but all last year and some this year, when things got pretty rough, someone would put some money in for me—sometimes just ten dollars, sometimes even fifty dollars. But this time, well, I just don’t see any way out.”

In my own room later I thought of Nola’s progress—how painfully she had struggled with her grammar, how diligently she had studied her Bible lessons. What a beautiful lesson of faith she had been to me, for, just as she said, the Lord did know her purpose and did help her.

Psychologists say that when it is difficult for a person to learn, it will usually be difficult for them to retain knowledge. This was not so in Nola’s case. She remembered remarkably well. She constantly amazed her teachers. 

Then I began to wonder who had previously put money on her account. She didn’t have many friends. Yet it must be someone who knew her fairly well, for who would put money to the credit of such a seemingly useless case unless they knew of her determination and dependence upon God?


Surprise discovery

The next day as I walked down a hall in the ad building, Professor Jackson walked out of the business office and joined me. There was a small slip of paper in his hand, which without notice he pushed into one of the books in the stack he was carrying.

“I have something to tell you,” he said, excitement sparkling in his eyes. “I just helped Tom Carpenter with his second semester schedule.”

“He’s changing his major?” I asked.

“I thought you’d like to know,” he said, unable to stop smiling. “I was never so pleased as when he came and told me. He’s taking a double major—history and education.”

I was as happy as the professor had expected. On the sidewalk when we said goodbye, he suddenly remembered a book he had for me.

“Let’s see, it’s somewhere in this stack. I thought you might enjoy it for some outside reading,” he explained, handing me a slim red volume of history in a period that particularly fascinated me.

In my room, when I opened the book, a small piece of paper fluttered to my desk. It was a receipt bearing that day’s date. On it was written: “Paid to the account of Nola Jeraldine Kirby, one hundred dollars.”

It was weeks later in class one day that Nola whispered to me, “You know, I like that yellow shirt Professor Jackson has on.”

I think she did not understand why there were tears in my eyes when I nodded my head and answered, “I think it’s the nicest shirt I ever saw.”  


This story originally appeared in the March 16, 1971, issue of Insight. Joan Marie Cook attended La Sierra University and later earned an M.A. in both social work and counseling. She moved to Texarkana, Texas, where she was a counselor in private practice, specializing in groups. Her husband, Charlie, had a vibrant, color-drenched art studio/gallery, and she liked to do groups in one of the rooms there. She also worked as a school social worker and a psychotherapist in a psychiatric hospital. She published her first book at the age of 21, and she took up writing again later in life, applauded as having “the gift of storytelling.” She died at the age of 79 in September 2015.

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