A morning trip back for Mrs. White’s pocketbook

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 23, 2013

It was my senior year of high school. (Would you believe 1989? If you do, there’s a nice new bridge leading to Woodleaf I’d like to sell you.)
It was during homeroom period. We were all waiting for the first period bell to ring. I sat at the head of the row nearest the door. I was reading “Up the Down Staircase,” a best seller at the time.
All of a sudden, I heard “Pssst! Pssst!”
So I looked up, then around the class, to see if I could identify its origin. I couldn’t. So, just as I was returning to my reading, something caught my attention.
My homeroom teacher was motioning to me to approach her desk.
A little background on my teacher. I’ll call her Mrs. White. She is the same teacher who, the previous year, had dismissed me from her dramatics class the week before our big production of “Pride and Prejudice,” costing me a fairly juicy role. She told me she never wanted to see me again. I had betrayed her, she said.
I had cut her class (my last of the day) one afternoon and gone home early. I was caught and punished by the school administration. Mrs. White tacked on the expulsion from drama, and with it, my springboard to Broadway as an actor.
A year later, not only am I in Mrs. White’s homeroom, but also back in her dramatics class. Maybe she forgot, or perhaps, forgave.
She had already announced that this was to be her final year as a teacher, a career she had begun some 40 years earlier. Most everyone treated her very delicately this final year, since she was prone to burst into tears over almost anything. She was reading a poem one day to one of her English classes when she experienced a meltdown, causing her to seek solace in the teachers’ lounge for a regrouping.
Anyway, back to my memorable morning.
Answering her request to approach her desk, I leaned over to her and said, “Yes, Mrs. White?”
She whispered in my ear, “Oh, Mike. I did the silliest thing this morning. I came to school and left my purse at home. Would you go get it for me?”
But, no … it wasn’t. “You know where I live, don’t you?”
I answered, “Uh, yes, ma’am. Everyone knows where you live, Mrs. White.” And, indeed, they did.
She handed me her car keys and said, “Take my car. You know my car, don’t you?”
Again I responded, “Uh, yes, ma’am. But Mrs. White, I’ll miss my first-period class. I need a root canal. I have to shovel coal into the furnace. I have to set myself on fire.”
I was grasping at anything not to have to do this.
“Don’t worry about your class. I’ll write you a note. Who is your teacher?” I told her. I was doomed. Nothing I could do, that is, except go and get her pocketbook.
One last attempt to make this entire ordeal a bit more tolerable. “I have a car here. I’ll take mine.”
“Oh no. I can’t ask you to burn your gasoline because of me (even if gas was 25 cents a gallon then). Take mine.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
Just as I was about to leave the room, she called me back to say, “Just go in the front door and walk all the way straight through the house to my bedroom. I left it on the nightstand next to my bed.”
“And don’t forget to lock the front door on your way out.”
“Yes, ma’am, “ I said, totally defeated.
So I grabbed my books and left the room. A left turn once in the hall took me directly to the faculty parking area. I unlocked the door of her mid-1960s blue Buick and began my journey. As I pulled from the parking lot and headed up the Center Street hill leading to metropolitan Statesville, I was thinking that I’d rather spend another entire Saturday morning retaking the SATs than to be doing this. It also occurred to me that some administrator probably saw my leaving, thought I was stealing Mrs. White’s car and had notified the police.
A couple of turns, and I found myself in front of 256 E. Broad St., Mrs. White’s house. I parked in front where she always parked. She had no driveway, so the Buick was always parked right in front of her house. Everyone always knew when Mrs. White was at home.
I unlocked the front door, thinking this is when a city policeman would just happen to drive by and see me. “Holy cow, some dude’s breaking into Mrs. White’s house.” But, thankfully, that didn’t happen.
Once inside, I rushed as quickly as possible, without knocking anything over, straight to the back of the house into the bedroom, grabbed the purse from the nightstand and ran back to the front door.
Remembering what I was told, I locked the door and headed back to her car, again thinking this is when a city policeman would just happen to drive by and see me. “Holy cow, some dude broke into Mrs. White’s house, and he stole her pocketbook.”
My first trip, as a customer, to the then-new Statesville Police Department building.
Again, thankfully, no.
I carefully drove the Buick back to the campus and parked it in the same space in which I had found it.
With my books in one hand and my (her) pocketbook in the other, I entered the classroom and handed her the keys and handbag, drawing a round of chuckles from my peers.
She thanked me and gave me a note to explain my first period tardiness.
The trek to my class took me to the main hall of the school. Before I could enter the class, I was stopped by the principal, asking why I was in the hall during class time (that was not permitted).
I told him of my adventure and showed him the note. He read it, said, “Okay” and returned it to me. I entered my first-period class and received a “thanks for joining us” greeting from the teacher. I sheepishly handed him the note.
He read it, gave me a kind of “Oh, brother” expression, smiled and told me to have a seat.
You know, I wish now that I had taken the time on my journey to actually read the note, but I never did. I’m sure it was a dilly.
Mrs. White was a dilly. She taught four or five generations of Statesville city school children. She knew everyone in town, and everyone certainly knew her. After a 40-year teaching career, she continued to substitute teach another 25 years, eventually passing away in her mid-90s.
I was a member of her final dramatics class and production. She told us she was cleaning out the dramatics class treasury when she retired. “The new teacher is going to have to start from scratch.”
She decided to split the treasury with the drama students as a senior class award. On the senior assembly awards day, she did just that. I got $10. I still have the envelope.
I have called the teacher of this recollection Mrs. White because that was her name. Josie White or Mrs. Earle G. White. I liked her a lot, even if she ruined my Broadway career (yeah, right).
She left the school the same night as my classmates and I.
That summer, I was working at the downtown movie theater. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon. I was high up a ladder, changing the theater marquee for the evening’s attraction.
Looking up the street, I saw Mrs. Josie heading my way, she having just attended a wedding at the ARP Church a block away.
I timed my descent from the ladder to coincide with her approach to the theater.
Just as she was upon me, I dropped to the sidewalk. “Hi, Mrs. White. How are you?”
She looked at me as if we were in class and said, “Mike, what are you doing here?”
I proudly answered that I was working at the Playhouse Theatre for the summer (before heading off to college).
She shook her head and said, “Oh, Mike, you can do better than this.” And off she went, not missing a step in her stride.
Stunned at first, then I laughed a little.
I believe that’s the last time I ever saw Josie White.
Mike Cline’s website, “Mike Cline’s Then Playing,” documents all the movies that played in Rowan County theaters from 1920 through 1979.