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Oranges and bananas

Lead Summary
By Jim Thompson
HCP columnist

Priscilla Humphreys was a senior at the Illinois Normal University in the fall of 1919. In her heart, she had always wanted to teach in a poor area, a poor area with future promise for the children there.

Over her time at Illinois, she had become well acquainted with one of the instructors, Dr. Bennett. She had been telling Dr. Bennett of her career desires.

Dr. Bennett, a Missourian, told her he knew just the place for her.

“Priscilla,” he told her, “There is a need for teachers in Kennett, Missouri, down in the Bootheel.”

Priscilla didn’t know anything about Missouri, Kennett, and especially the “Bootheel,” whatever that was. Bennett went on to explain that the “Bootheel” was that part of southeastern Missouri that extends down into where Arkansas should be. It is shaped like the heel of a boot.

“What’s so special about the ‘Bootheel?’”

“Well, it used to be this huge cypress swamp, extending from Cape Girardeau, Missouri all the way south to Arkansas. It is bounded on the east by the Mississippi River and on the west by the St. Francis River. It was full of gigantic cypress trees and water moccasins as big around as a full-grown sow. In 1905, work commenced to drain it and turn it into farmland. That work is almost done now.

"Farming is taking off, and it should be a fantastic agricultural area. It has been very, very, poor, but the future is bright for the kids in school there. Kennett is right in the heart of the Little River Drainage District, which is what they call it now.”

Thinking about all this for a few weeks, Priscilla told Dr. Bennett she was interested. He made arrangements, and Priscilla arrived in Kennett in the summer of 1920. Horribly hot and with remnants of the gigantic swamp still surrounding the area, August was dreadful – the heat, the humidity and the foul swamp smell. She looked forward to fall.

School started in late August, and Priscilla had the first-, second- and third-grade classes under her tutelage. Late September came and the school was closed for two weeks for “cotton vacation” – the time when the whole community, children and all, went to the fields to pick cotton.

Being originally from Chicago, Priscilla had a lot to get used to in this strange land. A good sport, she went along and picked cotton, too, getting blisters in places she had never gotten blisters before.

Priscilla loved her students and paid close attention to them in class. One, George, was her favorite. He always had a smile on his face. He hung around with the older boys, especially the town physician’s son, Samuel Renton, who was in the fifth grade. One thing she could never figure out, though, was that George always arrived at school with his overalls wet up to his knees (he had no shoes).

She had not asked about this in late August, and, after that, thought it awkward to inquire. But George’s pants were wet every morning.

During cotton vacation, Priscilla had decided to make it a point to visit each child’s home. She would do this between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Money was scarce, but she would take each family a small bag of oranges and bananas.

It turned out that visiting George’s family was last. George was thrilled that Miss Humphreys was going to visit his home. He was excited and told her, this is a good time, for the water is down in the late fall. Priscilla had no idea what that meant.

He took her by the hand and led her into the woods. “Where is the road to your house, George?”

“Oh, there is no road to our house, ma’am, Dad says it is better this way.”

They walked a path that was damp, soggy in places, with water very close on each side. In a bit, they came to a small hill with a one-room cabin atop it. George’s dad, Arthur, met them at the door.

“Welcome! Welcome!” he stated, jollily. “It ain’t much, but it is home for me and the kids.”

There were the twins, age 4, George and Arthur. The place was disheveled.

“After Ruth died with the flu, I decided just to stay here,” Arthur explained. “Most of the year, this is an island and pretty safe for the kids if I get a little work and have to leave for the day. The twins know better than go into the water and nobody is going to come out here and bother us.”

Arthur continued, “Dr. Renton tried to save Ruth, but she was just not strong enough. She had never really recovered from having the twins. After she passed, he told me that his son, Samuel, would be sure and look after George at school. George worships him and talks about him all the time.”

Priscilla brought out the oranges and bananas. George was excited. “Here,” he said, “let me give them to my sisters.” George carefully peeled an orange and a banana. Then he gave the peelings to his twin sisters.

“George, why did you do that?” Arthur and Priscilla said, almost in unison.

“That’s the parts Samuel gives me, because he says they are the best parts. I want my sisters to have the best.” George smiled proudly.

On her way back to town, Priscilla did not go to her apartment, but straight to Dr. Renton’s office. It was time young Samuel Renton learned the true meaning of Christmas.

Jim Thompson, formerly of Marshall, is a graduate of Hillsboro High School and the University of Cincinnati. He resides in Duluth, Ga. and is a columnist for The Highland County Press. He may be reached at

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