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Look What They’ve Done to My Score
by Tom Cottle
Just about everyone living in the apartment building on the corner of Clayborn and South Plaine calls Audon Moses “Big Mo.” Her grandson, Cornell Greenwood, who is thirteen, maintains a special relationship with her; he gets to call her “Biggest Mo.” Audon loves the name; she loves Cornell too and her six other grandchildren, but even their busy activity around the small apartment or their parent’s easy style does not seem to heighten the energy in her body. Approaching seventy, she is barely able to move about and take care of herself anymore.
“Just getting my one foot and then the other off of that mattress every morning is enough exercise for me,” she has told me. “Takes all the little bit of strength I’ve got to drag that big right leg over that ugly blanket and drop it on the floor. I’ll be lying there, you know, watching my leg, cheering for it to get the hell off that bed. Probably do best to get one of those children who’s always running around here to get it off of there for me. Feeling tired, too. Always feeling tired now, like I had this invisible sickness creeping all around inside me. Takes me fifteen minutes to get my two legs off that bed. And then, when I do, all that happens is they touch that cold floor and I’m thinking maybe I better get them back up on the bed for a little while, you know. But hell, takes too much energy to get ’em both back in the bed when I’ve just gone and spent all that time trying to get ’em on the floor in the first place. I mean, it I’m lucky I’ll hit the floor first try. More likely I swing that big right one over the top and drop it right in the ash tray I got down there near the side of the bed. Can’t move it right away when I ought to cause I’d have to get out of bed to do that. I can’t see it either. So like I say, I’ll drop it over the bed there and smack it right down into that fancy ash tray my son gave me.”
Audon Moses loves to hear her grandchildren laugh, and when she realized that I too was part of her audience, it only encouraged her. In the five years that I’ve known her there has never been a visit without at least one good laugh.
“I love to see a man like you who looks so worried most of the time show the world those nice teeth of yours. Go on, smile for Big Mo. Tell her what you’re writing. What’s the new book going to have in it?”
”Probably stuff about intelligence tests and the business of students being put in tracks,” I answered, almost hoping she would help me with my work. My words stopped any playfulness she might have had in mind.
“Well, now, you’ve cut quite a piece out for yourself this time, ain’t you? Better talk to the children about that. All I know about that is what they tell me, coming home every day with their stories and their homework and their grades. Far as I can tell they’re all born smart, it’s just that they don’t work hard enough. Maybe some of the teachers don’t push ’em to work hard enough either. Maybe they let ’em get away with too much. You ain’t got a thing to brag about in the world until you’ve got an education. You hear this child or that one saying how she’s so pretty. ‘Look at me, ain’t I pretty, Big Mo?’ That don’t mean nothing. I’d tell her too. Right to her face. ‘Child, Big Mo thinks you may be the prettiest little girl in the world, next to Big Mo herself, but don’t you come back until you can show me how smart you are.’ ” She whispered the word smart as though it were a term of sacredness. ” ‘You come back here someday to Big Mo and you say, Big Mo, I have got to be one of the smartest, best educated, intelligent people walking around on this here land. Then you got something, child. You’ve got the best the world can offer. This world anyway. Don’t you get yourself involved with anybody but the right somebody, and don’t you work on anything but what your teachers say you should be working on. Then you come on back to Big Mo and tell her how you’ve learned all these things. You tell her you’ve got great plans, plans that include getting more education. Maybe by then old Mrs. Moses here will be able to get both her heavy old feet off this stinking mattress.’ ”
“Biggest Mo,” Cornell Greenwood said one day after I had been visiting with his grandmother, “she’s all right for an old lady.”
“She sure thinks well of you.”
“Yeah,” he said, showing his modesty. “She thinks all her family is real special and stuff.”
“She’s got her ideas about school too, doesn’t she?” I smiled.
“She don’t know about school,” Cornell replied angrily. He had been leaning against a wall in the Greenwood living room but now he pushed himself away from it and took a step back from where I was sitting. “She thinks all you have to do is work hard, obey the teachers and you’ll get smart. She doesn’t know. She’s never even been to my school. It ain’t anywhere near like what she thinks. Like, you could be the smartest person in the school but if you’re black they won’t put you in the good classes, unless maybe if you’re a super athlete. Then they give you some advantage but they think they’re being nice. The rest of us, they give us the worst teachers, no matter how good we do. They keep telling us if we work hard they’ll advance us into a different division, you know, but they never do. They’ll help the athletes and some of the real good looking kids, ’cause they like them, they show ’em off, you know. I’m as smart as anybody in that school but you’ll see, they’ll fix it so I don’t go to college. They always have their ways of stopping me. You’ll see how they’ll do it.”
“I.Q. tests?” I asked cautiously.
“Yeah, that’s one way.”
“How does that work, Cornell?”
“Well, say they want you to stay where you are, they give you an I.Q. test and say you did bad. You can’t argue to no one. The dude says 95, you got 95. Or like, if they want you out of their class they’ll put you in some special ed class. What do they care? We got kids in our school, they’ve been in those special ed classes all their lives! Every year they keep going back to those classes and there’s nothing in the world wrong with them. We ask the teachers, hey, what they got him in there for? What he do? Oh, he did bad things, they’ll say. Or they’ll say, ‘Old Jonah he’s a strange little boy. Something wrong with his brain. Been that way since he was a little tiny baby. He can’t learn the right way like the rest of us. And that’s a fact!’ But that’s a lot of stuff, man, ’cause we’ll know different. Old Jonah, see, he’s got a brother or sister maybe, and they know there’s nothing wrong with him. Folks at the school just don’t like him, that’s all. So they shut him up in that special ed class. Teachers try to tell us kids like him will learn better in there but we know it’s a prison. I don’t care what they lie to us, because we always got ways of finding out the truth. But I’ll go pitch a bitch when one of those high and mighties goes around thinking I don’t know what the truth is.”
Cornell was steaming mad. Audon always quieted him down when he got like this, at least she did in front of me. I suspect she did the same when I was gone. She would throw in a few words too about behaving politely in front of company while Cornell, who was already uneasy about talking to a white visitor in his home, would give her a look as if to say, I’m no child anymore. You take care of the little children and I’ll take care of myself. But Audon, I could see, valued Cornell’s outrage. She knew he “had it,” as she said. He wouldn’t “let things go on as they had all these years. Cornell and his friends will change things no matter what it takes because they keep their eyes and ears open, and know when to do the same thing with their mouths. And that’s a sign that they’re intelligent. It doesn’t matter, see, how people answer somebody else’s question. Even a teacher’s. What matters is that children like Cornell and his friends understand what it’s like living in the real world. They know what’s happening to them at the school. They know everything there is to know about what’s going on. The secrets have been told. They used to have a kind of a sheet they’d throw on themselves and all their institutions,” Audon said, “especially where black folks were involved. But this generation, with the help of their elders, have pulled that sheet away, and there is America, the rich and the poor, the black and the white, just laying out there naked like a woman ready for her lover to come in that front door of hers, for everyone to see. But these kids see it all in a special way. They see it and behind it too. Every last one of them. ‘Cause they got it. The intelligence I mean.”
Cornell was looking around the room, wanting to say something else, about school presumably, but checking to make certain Audon wasn’t able to hear him.
”I think she’s asleep,” I said, trying to encourage him to speak.
“She don’t let me say my piece.”
“I think she would.”
“I tried to tell her about the way they run their intelligence test at the school and she didn’t believe it. She told me I made it all up.”
“Tell me, Cornell. What stories?”
“You won’t believe me either.”
“Try me. I’ve got some stories myself.”
He was clearly interested. “Oh yeah? What you got?”
“Kids given I.Q. scores without ever being given I.Q. tests.”
“Right on! I’ll tell you something else—we got a boy in our school took one of them tests and scored seventy something. Everybody knows he ain’t that dumb. Teacher, she was surprised to find that out too, so she asked him how come he did so bad? He told her it was because partly he got so scared he couldn’t think straight and partly cause when he’d take too much time or miss something, the man giving the test would say, ‘Well, if you don’t know that one and it’s the easiest, no sense giving you the rest.’ Then another kid, he said that when he took the test the man kept telling him he was sounding like he wasn’t only dumb but sick in his mind, you know. He kept saying, ‘Maybe we better stop, maybe we’d better stop.’ So finally the kid got so frightened they stopped and he wasn’t half way through the test. But then they put down his score without anybody saying he’d only worked half the test. Everybody’s got a story like that, man. Everybody.
“You know my sister Paula? She was taking the test and they came to the part where they got these blocks, you know, and you’re supposed to match up the designs on these little cards. So she starts working on the first one, and the guidance counselor, Mr. Kiplinger, he’s sitting there real stitch ass, you know, like he really knew his business, timing her with this big stop watch. So Paula’s working away, looking at her blocks, then looking back at the little cards.” Suddenly Cornell began to laugh out loud. Nothing he did could suppress his laughter. “She’s working these, see,” he continued, trying to catch his breath and looking over his shoulder for fear that Audon might have heard him, “putting all these blocks together only she figures out there’s two blocks missing. Well, she’s ready to lay her bitch on him when he says, ‘Smile awhile, Pretty Paula face. You go on and do the best you can with the two blocks missing. Don’t make no difference. Just go on like they were there.’ So she does. Each time she finishes a design she says, ‘There it is and the other two blocks would go, like, here and there,’ you know.” Cornell poked twice in the air in front of him, as if pointing to the missing blocks. “So old stich ass, he smiles and compliments her, but all the time he’s marking on the page that she couldn’t figure it out. She could see what he was writing all the time. That’s why her score was low and why she stayed in the same class.
“I don’t know this one boy but Derond Williamson told me about a kid who did real well on his test. Fact he did so well that when he got done the woman giving him the test stuck out her hand, you know, to shake his hand. So he just walked away. Spun around, man, dug that heel of his into the rug and departed. So she yells at him, ‘Where you going, boy? I’m waiting here to shake your hand.’ ‘You ain’t touching my hand,’ he goes. ‘Oh yes I am,’ she goes. He goes, ‘I don’t know of a single rule in the Constitution of the United States that says I got to shake your hand!’ ‘Don’t you give me stuff about the Constitution. In this school you’ll do as I say!’ ‘I did your little whitey test,’ he goes. That’s what he said. ‘And that’s all I was supposed to do. Nobody told me about shaking no lady’s hand at the end.’ Now she’s really screaming at him but he don’t pay her no mind at all. He just goes. So she takes a whole lot of points away from him and they put him in that special ed class I was telling you about. That kid was three years older than me. He was sixteen and a whole lot smarter. He just proved that on the woman’s own test, but he committed the fatal sin, man. He misbehaved. He talked back to the goddess. Nobody ever said nothing about her calling him boy. He was in that class half the year before they sprung him. Then they put him in the second year class where everybody was too young for him. I tell you, man, that dude, he was really smart. I heard him talk. He could find a word for everything, man.”
“He finish school?” I wondered.
“Not a chance. He left school two weeks after they sprung him from special ed. I saw him hanging around outside a couple of times after that, but he’s gone now. Maybe he’s in the army.” His voice had become soft. “Maybe the streets got him.”
Cornell stared at me without speaking. Then he sighed deeply and his eyes closed halfway as though he could see Paula, frustrated by the absence of the two small wooden blocks. This time he didn’t smile. “Hey mamma,” he whispered, “look what they’ve done to my score. They do it to us everytime. Move us here, move us there, pushing us around all the time. It ain’t what school’s supposed to be. You know what you got to learn in that school, in all these schools? You got to learn where your place is. If they think you’re dumb, they put you in that special ed class until you drop out of school, which is what they want you to do. If you got too many brains showing they paint over your test scores so no one will come around and ask, how come this kid ain’t in a higher division? Up and down, we’re a bunch of yo-yo’s. If anybody’d ever stop to think what we got to do to finish they’d know where we’re spending all our energy. Hell, getting out of bed ain’t no easier for me than for my grandmother. What do I got to get out of bed for? What do they think I’m supposed to be doing in school that matters? I ain’t learning from school, I’m learning about that school. They’re teaching away but I see way behind their sweet asses.
“They’re all hung up in these I.Q. tests. They ain’t honest tests. Everybody knows that. All the advantages go to the white kids. And since they mess all over with us, why do they even bother to take time to give us the tests? I’ll tell you why. So’s they can convince themselves that they’re doing the right thing. So’s they can sleep at night. Go on home to their old lady and tell her they did the best they could that day with those nasty little black boys and girls, that evtl eleven percent, but those nasty little black boys and girls just couldn’t do the tests so they’ll go into the special classes. Hate to do it to you little boys and girls, but you know the rules we’ve written here for you all. Doing the best we can.” Cornell’s imitation had ended. “Hell, that Kiplinger was probably spreading his fat stich ass over Paula’s blocks so to make sure she’d flunk. He got a glimpse pretty quick how smart she is and he knew there’d be no way of keeping her back after that. Folks like they got there would eat those blocks ‘fore they’d be honest enough to admit black kids got what it takes to be intelligent.
“They control us with those tests, man. They got us dancing on the end of those scores. Hey mamma,” he shouted out, looking upward, “they’re going to break my ass just like they broke my score. ‘I ain’t going to give you no trouble, teach,’ ” he announced to an imaginary person in front of him. ” ‘I won’t try to bust out of my division. Just let me take the good courses. Let me see if I can do ’em. Let me show you what I know. You folks got to change your minds about this intelligence idea. You got to learn from us and our intelligence. You think, lady, we could make it this far without being super intelligent? You think we don’t know what’s happening? You think we’re blind and stupid? You bet your fat ass, lady, I ain’t going to shake your hand. I’ll let the streets get me too ‘fore I stoop to you! You going to tell me that the guy who invented those divisions and prisons we got in that school was intelligent? You ever hear those people talking, lady? They ain’t intelligent. They’re dumb, man. I mean, where they’re supposed to have brains they got fuzz. Golden white fuzz.’ ” Cornell was grinning. His eyes met mine.
“What are you thinking?” I asked.
“I was just thinking,” he mused, “that when I go to decide who’s the most intelligent person in the world, it comes out to be my grandmother. She’s got wisdom, man. She’s wise, man. She knows about things she’s never even seen. She ain’t never once been near my school and she knows it. Hell, she ain’t even ever been to school that anyone can remember. Least she says she ain’t. But she knows. Grant the lady her due. She knows what a kid needs to know. She says her heart tells her more than her brain, that’s why she knows she’s smart.”
I remembered Audon using the same phrase with me once, only she had said, “A person who knows when to listen to his heart and not his brain is bound to be a wise person.”
“She’s smart, all right,” Cornell was saying. “She’s the reason I stay on. I ain’t going to drop out and let her down. Even after she dies I’ll keep at it, no matter what they do to me at school. Paula says we got some of Biggest Mo’s blood, which is all right. You can bet I’ll be plenty careful not to cut myself so I won’t waste a drop. I’ll say okay ‘if I end up like her, even laying in that bed. I’ll be like that, ’cause her brain is going every minute; it’s going and she’s learning something about life, something that if she can’t use she passes on to us. They may be shrinking us to death in school, but my grandmother’s making us big.”
“You’ve got a grandson that sure admires you,” I told Audon later that same week.
“I’ve got all good grandchildren,” she replied. “I hate to hear how the schools hurt them. Been going on too long, seems to me. No sense to it anymore. What’s anybody got to prove by it now? No sense hurting children. Not just my children, but all these children sending them out where they’ll only find trouble. Everybody can see that. Oh what the hell.” Audon’s mood had changed suddenly as it so often did. “If I could get my old body out of this house I’d probably go with those children and make a little trouble myself. I’d like to hear the sounds out there. Haven’t been outside, you know, m eleven years. All I got is the television and a few books and the words those children and their parents got for me. Eating ain’t too exciting. News just gets me mad, but it don’t teach a person much. I depend on those kids now for feeding me whatever food they got leftover from living. And what I hear is that their school is closing off more things to them than it is opening things up for them. They don’t let them advance, don’t treat ’em fair, and they sure got their ways to stick ’em. Miracle of it all is that they stay intelligent about so many things; who they are, where they come from, where they might be going. There’s no way to measure that sort of thing, you know, not with all the tests in the world. Only person can measure that is the Man who gave it to them.” Audon was leaning her weight to one side of the bed, straining to see where the ash tray was. The room was dark and very cold. Finally she gave up and lay back, flicking the ashes of her cigarette on the floor. “The Lord makes them smart, then their parents got the problem of keeping them that way, which ain’t as easy as you might think when you stop to consider what everybody does to them, or might like to do.”
The simple conversation kind of research that I conduct is criticized because of its subjective, personal and idiosyncratic nature. True enough, but I wonder whether the living presence of people like Audon Moses and her grandson Cornell Greenwood wouldn’t stop researchers from making certain “scientific” claims if the claimers had to face these people every time they made o11e of their claims. The first step in examining the implications of one’s findings is to see the reaction on the face of the human being about to be affected by that finding.