“All the kids are my family.” — Willie Jefferson

October 25, 2009

CHLOE SMITH and WILLIE JEFFERSON / Copyright StoryCorps

CHLOE SMITH and WILLIE JEFFERSON / Copyright StoryCorps

The custodians at Memorial School when I entered kindergarten in 1947 were Charles Dunkerly, Archibald Brown, and George Schmidt. Mr. Dunkerly retired a couple of years later, and there was a tear-filled party for him in the lunchroom. He was replaced by Henry Knoblock.

While I was there, Memorial School mounted a production of “The Marriage of Tom Thumb” which, as the name implies, was a wedding in miniature. Staging this wedding was, I think, a popular diversion in schools at that time. It got its name from an historic event — the marriage in 1863 of Charles Sherwood Stratton and Livinia Warren Bumpus at Grace Episcopal Church in Manhattan. Both were diminutive performers who were employed by showman P.T. Barnum. Stratton’s professional name was “General Tom Thumb.”

CHARLES STRATTON and LIVINIA BUMPUS

CHARLES STRATTON and LIVINIA BUMPUS

The school program used the name “Tom Thumb” but did not otherwise allude to the 19th century ceremony beyond the fact that the whole wedding party and all the guests, not just the bride and groom, were little people — namely we kids. Jackie Carroll, who lived about six blocks from us, was picked to appear as my father, who was chief of the fire companies in our town. At that time, I was put off by that decision, but it has occurred to me since that whoever cast the wedding went to a neutral party rather than choose between my brother and me. They needn’t have bothered. I would have nominated my brother, who shared our father’s name.

My brother and I were chosen to appear as Mr. Brown and Mr. Schmidt — the custodians. I took that as a compliment, because these men were treated with great deference at school and they were very patient and friendly with me, even when I haunted their room in the basement. They gave me little jobs to do around the building — sometimes even getting me out of class to help with some project. With their warmth and self-assurance, they helped create, for me at least, an atmosphere of welcome and safety in that school. When I circulated my autograph book just before graduation, I made sure the custodians signed along with my other friends.

I thought of those men on Friday when I listened to the latest installment in StoryCorps on NPR. The subjects were Chloe Smith, 13-year-old girl who attends a Catholic school in Atlanta, and Willie Jefferson, a custodian she has known since she entered that school in kindergarten. Their conversation is sweet and its implications are profound. You can hear it at this link:

http://www.storycorps.org/listen/stories/chloe-smith-and-willie-jefferson

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