A School for George

“A School for George,” Friend, Aug.–Sept. 1979, 46

A School for George

George hurried through the woods, munching absentmindedly on a corn dodger stuffed with strips of home-cured meat. He glanced about at the bright ferns and wild flowers poking up through the forest floor as he went, but his thoughts were not on them. Ordinarily he would have stopped now and then to study a beetle crawling over a stem or to wonder why certain tiny flowers flourished in shade while others wilted without sunshine, but not today. He had someplace special to go on this Indian summer day in 1871.

George was heading toward the school in Diamond Grove, Missouri, about a mile away from where he lived with Aunt Susan and Uncle Moses. They were the white folks who had taken him in after he was orphaned. George recalled Aunt Sue talking to the neighbors about their children’s schooling, and now he was going to find out what it was all about. Though he was ten years old he had never been in a school.

George was slight for his age, and his voice was permanently damaged as the result of a babyhood illness that never quite left him. But he made up for it with his sharp, hungry mind. He wondered about everything he saw, even small things that everyone else ignored. Perhaps the boy felt that their small size, like his own, didn’t make them unimportant.

When George reached a clearing and spotted the small, dingy cabin that was used for a schoolhouse, he paused a moment. It doesn’t look like much, he thought. Then he crept quietly to the doorstep of the little building and crouched there, listening.

What George heard made his heart thump—the droning of children’s voices, interrupted now and then by the sharp voice of the teacher. The students were reading and reciting their lessons!

George sat spellbound for several more minutes; then he stole away as silently as he had come.

I want to read! George thought to himself as he slipped quietly back through the woods. Suddenly, he flopped down in the spongy moss under an oak tree and pondered a while longer. The more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea.

Back at the farm, George hurried to find Uncle Moses. The hardworking farmer was in the barn, currying one of his fine horses.

“Uncle Moses!” chirped George shrilly.

Moses Carver whirled around to face the barefooted boy.

“You startled me, boy!” he exclaimed. Then he said, “What is it?”

“Uncle M-Moses,” piped George like a little bird. Then he remembered to speak slowly so that he wouldn’t stammer so much. “When can I go to s-school, Uncle Moses? I’m big enough now! C-can I go tomorrow?”

Moses turned away for a moment, rubbing his stubbly chin. “George,” he began, “that school in Diamond Grove …” He paused painfully. “It’s for white children. You can’t go there, son.”

George stared, the shining hope in his eyes dimmed. He wanted so much to learn! He stumbled out of the barn into the bright sunlight. The bloodhounds that Uncle Moses raised for hunting yelped and bayed, but he didn’t hear them. Aunt Sue spied him from the house and called, “George! Could you help me with the jelly this afternoon?” George kept on walking. “George?” she called again.

George broke into a run. He needed to be alone—in his secret garden in the woods. This was a place where he kept many kinds of plants and flowers. He tended them carefully, seeing to their special needs. If a plant wilted in the pure, rich loam of the forest floor, he mixed in sand. If a rosebush were ailing, he tracked down the tiny insects that were nibbling its leaves and made it well. Even the neighbors had taken to calling him the plant doctor, and they brought him their plants and flowers to mend. He hardly ever lost a patient.

“That George has a way with wild things,” they’d say to one another.

Today George scarcely noticed his garden. He just sat silently, hardly aware of the woodsy sounds of twittering birds and scampering squirrels.

There in the quiet of the woods, George tried to sort things out in his mind. There were so many things he did not know, and he wanted to learn everything! I will learn to read and write! he decided. Perhaps Aunt Sue and Uncle Moses will help. There must be some reason why I’m darker than other folks. Up to now it hasn’t made any difference. But if I have to work extra hard for what I want, then that’s what I’ll do.

George started for home, skipping pebbles as he went. That very evening, he and Aunt Sue sat down and looked over an old blue-back speller she had used as a girl. By the light of a tallow dip they practiced words and letters from the book. Then Uncle Moses helped George do simple sums and write his name.

George learned quickly. The neighbors heard about his thirst for knowledge and loaned him books to read.

Uncle Moses nodded knowingly. “That boy’s going to make something of himself,” he told Aunt Sue.

George did indeed make something of himself. He went to school, although he had to leave the home of his family to do it. He wandered the country throughout the West and South, taking jobs wherever a school was located nearby. He finally managed to attend college in Iowa. After graduation and work at the agricultural experiment station there, he was asked by Booker T. Washington to teach at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The folks back home and the friends he had made everywhere he went were very proud of him.

George never stopped learning. He lived to be more than eighty years old and became known throughout the world as Dr. George Washington Carver, distinguished professor, scientist, artist, musician, and inventor. As a chemurgist (one who uses farm products for industrial purposes) he devised more than 300 different uses for peanuts, 118 for sweet potatoes, and 75 for pecans. Perhaps more importantly, he spent a lifetime working to help his people—all people, regardless of race or religious faith.

Although many had been unkind to him along the way, there always seemed to be at least one friendly face encouraging George to go on. He wanted to be that friendly face to as many others as possible. He got his wish. He was an inspiration to thousands in his own country—and to the whole world.

Illustrated by Dick Brown