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Texas : Feature : Columns : "They shoe horses, don't they?"

SPECIAL DELIVERY

by Robert G. Cowser
When I began the seventh grade at Saltillo, Paul Dodson, our teacher, told us that the State Department of Education would present a certificate to those students who read and reported on thirty books during the school year. Although I had received awards from the school, I had never received an award directly from the state capitol. I decided to tell Mr. Dodson that I planned to earn the certificate. Three others in the class also pledged to read thirty books that year.

As proof that we had read each book, we students in the project were required to write book reports. Though I probably would have read at least thirty books during the year even if a reward had not been in the offing, I surely would not have written thirty book reviews. Mr. Dodson provided each of the four in the project with an official form to follow in writing our essays. On occasion I would see on Mr. Dodson's desk a report from one of the others in the program. Almost every time I saw one of those reports, within a couple of days I would write a report on the most recent book I had read.

Even though Mr. Dodson faithfully recorded the credits we earned as readers, he never discussed our outside reading with us. Neither did he prod us to complete the project. Clearly, keeping the pledge was our responsibility. I believed that our teacher did not care whether any of us finished the project or not.

By the time April had passed, each of us who had begun the program had read and reported on thirty books. We assumed that our certificates would be awarded at the eighth-grade commencement exercises held late in May each year. Usually the teachers would tell the students in the lower grades who were scheduled to receive awards so that the students could ask the parents to bring them to the ceremony. On the day before the eighth-grade exercise that year, I realized that Mr. Dodson had not told me that I should attend the exercise. When I asked the others in the program, I learned that he had not told any of them that they should attend the exercise. Each of us was too timid to ask Mr. Dodson about the certificates.

Just as the school term ended that year the county workers began a major reconstruction of the dirt roads in our community. They came with a grader and other equipment needed to rebuild the roads. With huge blades attached to the front of the machines, they cleared the ditches of the debris left by the winter rains. The glistening blades pushed relentlessly, piling mounds of white sand so high that it was difficult for the few drivers who came down the road to maneuver their automobiles. When the west winds began to blow each morning, the sand blew across the roadway, lowering the visibility for drivers and walkers alike.

Late one morning about three weeks after school had ended, I began to read a novel day I had borrowed from the rental library in Saltillo's only drug store.

After I had been reading for an hour or so, I decided to step out on our front porch. The sun's rays were reflected off the white sand in the roadway. With my eyes squinted, I looked toward the south where I could see a cloud of dust billowing. Soon I saw that the cloud was caused by a slow-moving car. Eventually, it stopped in front of our house.

I was startled to see that the driver stepping out of the car was Mr. Dodson. Why would any teacher come to our house, especially during the summer vacation?

In his right hand Mr. Dodson waved a sheet of white paper. Even then I did not consider that he had brought the reading certificate I had earned. Because of the effects of polio that he contracted when he was a boy, he could not grasp anything with his left hand. I wondered how he was able to shift gears and steer the car over mounds of sand with the use of only one hand.

"I brought the reading certificate for you," Mr. Dodson said. The gold seal with its Lone Star emblem in the lower left-hand corner sparkled in the bright sun.

"I just came from Jo Nell's house, and I'm on my way to deliver the other two certificates. I'm proud of all of you," Mr. Dodson said. "You read and reported faithfully on the required number of books."

After the dusty Ford coupe pulled away, I stood for a minute reading the commendation in the Gothic script the printer had used. I looked at the seal again. There was nothing bogus about this document.

But somehow the sheet of paper itself did not seem as important as it had seemed at the start of the project. What was more important to me was that my teacher had brought the certificates to each of the four who had earned them. I learned that Mr. Dodson would not be teaching the following year. His health was failing, and the men who had left teaching jobs to fight in the Second World War were returning to claim the jobs they had left.

As a teacher myself, I realize now why Mr. Dodson needed to deliver the certificates to us in person.

Robert G. Cowser
"They shoe horses, don't they?"
Guest Column, March 15, 2010
More Columns by Robert G. Cowser
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