Everybody Knew ... Nobody Knew
The Secret That Could Have No Name
It started in church. She should have been listening to the minister. Instead, a precocious fifth-grade schoolgirl saw something that morning, something curious.
Julie Spencer decided she had detected a relationship between prominence and churchgoing. She decided to confirm her suspicions by talking to people and then, if she were sure enough of her findings, present them in a school theme.
Eventually, word of her ‘research’ and her theme leaked. Many in town considered her ideas divisive. It appeared her investigation had revealed the community’s ‘secret that could have no name.’
As the financial interests of powerful people rested on the town’s façade of concord, they threatened to punish the girl, her teacher, and her parents in various ways.
Enter a whistleblower and a reporter ...
FROM THE BOOK: It had the power to bring down a town.
She’d figured it out by the fifth grade. Stuff about her town an insightful fifth-grader might possibly figure out if they were curious. At first, she tried not to think of it, that which had such power. She’d made no scientific attempt to know its truth. But there it was. She’d seen it, and it wasn’t going away.
It began to eat at her one Monday afternoon as she walked home from school. Her active mind, ready to put school behind, wandered to the day before.
She was supposed to be praying, and singing, and listening to Dr. Claude Mason’s sermon ... all of it. Instead, out of boredom and with no purpose in mind, she began to look at the people who occupied the pews, study them, the people of the First Congregational.
One or two were real doctors, not doctors of divinity who seemed always to drone on and on; lawyers—even worse droners; downtown businessmen; or management people where her father worked. Strange, though: few if any of her friends’ parents were there. Surely, they went to church, didn’t they? Didn’t everyone? But where? And why wherever but not to her church? Interesting questions.
There was no shortage of alternatives for those missing parents. Pittsfield, Nebraska—the place of record for the next 250 pages—strained to reach a population of 2,500. Surprisingly, for a place its size, Pittsfield populated enough churches to please the most exotic religious sensibility: Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Brethren, Friends, Nazarenes, New Life Holiness ... and even more Pentecostal congregations. If she cared to learn where her friends’ parents went to church, she had her work cut out. Fortuitously, at least for this story, it turned out she didn’t care that finding answers to her questions might be difficult.
FROM THE BOOK: “Johnny Fisher? Stand up, Johnny!”
A skinny lad in the second seat of the third row from the windows, stood. Mrs. Phillips had assigned him that seat for a reason; she wanted the most challenged students seated nearest the front.
“Yes?” he said meekly.
“Do you see those erasers under the blackboard?”
“Every morning, Johnny, before I come in at 8 o’clock ... You saw that I came in this morning precisely at 8 o’clock, did you not?”
“Very well. By 8 o’clock you will have taken those erasers outside and pounded the chalk dust out of them—and do not get any dust on your clothes. I don’t want to upset your mother or see a board full of chalk dust after I write on it. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Miss ...”
She cut him off.
“Take your seat, Johnny ...
“Good morning, class!”
Her voice was a clap that sounded like reveille.
Silence. Fear had gripped every small tongue in uncharacteristic paralysis.
“Good morning, class!” she repeated more loudly.
“You are to reply, ‘Good morning Mrs. Phillips!’ Now, let’s try it again.”
“Good morning, class!”
Back came the reply, not quite in unison, “Good morning. Mrs. Phillips.”
“Fine. That was much, much better. In a week, it will be perfect. Can everyone see me and hear me?”
“Yes, Mrs. Phillips!” they practically screamed, and then dissolved into laughter.
Regina Brown of Tupelo, Mississippi, was the fourth daughter of seven children born to a sharecropping couple.