Robert so admired Mrs. Arvin that he was sad to leave her second-grade classroom. He moved on to Mrs. Moyers’ third-grade room. Mrs. Moyers was a dignified teacher with a heart of gold. Attired in slender skirts of pleated brown plaid with matching fox-brown blouses and jackets, Mrs. Moyers appeared to be as sophisticated as she indeed was. She collected birds’ nests, several of which adorned her shelves. She was happy to be asked about them, and she delighted in describing how she baked them to eliminate insects, mold, or mildew.
Every elementary teacher could wield a paddle, but Robert could tell that several of them greatly preferred not to resort to paddling a student. Mrs. Moyers was one who truly disliked her paddle, but, with Robert’s class, she encountered a difficulty.
Who knows why? For some reason, Robert’s class had a tough time memorizing multiplication tables. Mrs. Moyers tried every strategy she could apply toward helping the students remember such products as 9 times 7, 9 times 8, and 9 times 9. Finally, in desperation, she said, “I will paddle anyone who answers incorrectly when I ask for a product resulting from the multiplication of two factors.” She arranged each day so that, in the final period, she could go up and down the row, asking students, “What is the product of seven and eight?” or “What is the product of six and nine?” When a student gave the wrong answer, she walked toward her desk, slowly removed the paddle from its drawer, and turned toward the student. Then she would say, “The period is nearly over, and I’ve yet to give the homework assignment; for that reason, I’ll postpone paddling you for giving the wrong answer.” … and, the next day, she seemed to have forgotten that she was to have paddled someone!
One afternoon, she came to Robert’s desk. “What is the product of nine and six?” she asked. Suddenly, Robert felt confused. He remembered the product of nine and five: forty-five. He recalled the product of nine and seven: sixty-three. He could not—for the life of him—remember the product of nine and six. He blushed. Ultimately, he said, “I forget.”
He felt his classmates’ eyes staring at him—burning into him—from all sides. He pictured how it would feel to be marched to the front of the room, to be commanded to bend over, and to receive the humiliating blows of the paddle across his backside.
Mrs. Moyers glanced up at the large clock on the wall of her room. “Well, Robert, the period is almost over. I still need to give the homework assignment for tomorrow. You’ll have to wait to be paddled another day, but I want you to be sure to tell your mother that you do not know your nines.”
All the elementary teachers respected Robert’s mother because she, too, had taught elementary school for some fourteen years before Charles was born, when she quit teaching. When Robert returned home from school, he walked up to his mother and said, “Mrs. Moyers told me to tell you that I do not know my nines.”
Ida was rolling pie dough. Flour was clinging in dusty patches on her forearms and her apron. She stopped in mid-roll and stared at Robert.
“What do you mean? You don’t know your nines?”
“I forgot the product of nine and six today.”
“Mrs. Moyers called on you, then? Is that it? And you couldn’t answer her question?”
“Yes,” Robert said meekly.
“Sit down here at the table while I finish the dough.”
Robert took a seat on one of the bentwood chairs.
“Let’s go through the nines,” she began. “What is” she pushed the roller forward “nine times two?” she drew the roller back.
“Eighteen,” Robert answered.
“What is” she pushed the roller forward “nine times three?” she drew the roller back.
“Twenty-seven,” Robert answered.
Ida went all the way through the nines and made three circles of dough for pies while Robert responded to the drill.
While she prepared the pie fillings, she took him through the sevens and the eights. Then she went back to the nines to see if he would forget any of them. Luckily for him, he remembered all.
Then Ida sat down across from him. She looked him straight in the eye and said, “Are you embarrassed that you didn’t know the answer when Mrs. Moyers asked you?”
“Yes, very much so,” Robert replied.
“See that it never happens again,” she said, and, after a stern moment, she smiled her trademark smile. “You know the answers now, and you need to know them for the rest of your life.”
After that day, Robert never again came close to a paddling in school.
One of the greatest experiences of that school year was joining the 4-H Club, of which Charles was already a member. The sponsor was Mr. Coffman, a jolly elf of a man with a huge smile for everyone and every occasion. He was not terribly tall and a tad roly-poly. He wore black rimmed glasses through which his honest eyes sparkled, and his black hair was always cut somewhat short. He taught agriculture and shop classes, and he was the Future Farmers of America advisor, to boot. The 4-H meetings were held in Mr. Coffman’s classroom in the basement of the gymnasium that opened out to the track and field to the north. A carved wooden owl for FFA meetings stood at the front of his desk. Thanks to the owl, he had gained the nickname “Bird.” Everyone liked Mr. Coffman, and, before 4-H meetings were called to order, someone would say, “What’s the word?” To this question, the universal reply was “Bird!”
Robert quickly memorized the 4-H motto: to make the best better. He soon mastered the promise: I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living for my club, my community, and my country.
Robert and Charles’ father, who had been in 4-H when he was a boy, decided to enter Charles in several projects that year, one of them the raising of a dairy cow. Robert, meanwhile, was enrolled in swine and gardening (plenty for a boy his age). Joe had a promising Holstein calf that he thought might do well in the judging. Charles was given the responsibility of training her to be exhibited in the coliseum that coming summer. Robert helped Charles because both boys thought the world of the calf.
Her name was Buttercup. She was as gentle as a lamb, but her personality was as powerful as a lion. She loved to be around people, and, at times, she seemed human, herself! Her coat of velvety black and purest white was always shiny (from the frequent brushings she received), and she fluttered her long lashes in a way that was most becoming.
Joe hoped Buttercup’s conformity to the expectations for her breed would earn her a strong showing at the 4-H fair. She was duly registered as a purebred Holstein.
With thanks (in part) to Robert’s 4-H project, Ida would have an extra helper in the garden that spring. His parents would teach him to keep exact records as he went along. Robert could hardly wait to see the vegetables grow!