The half-acre belonged to my father. He had to share the rest of the crops with Monsieur Bijeaux, but whatever came out of the half-acre was his to keep. Always, it seemed the patch produced the prettiest, the greenest plants.
"Because it's more mine than the rest of the field," my father explained when I asked him about it.
"You take care of it more?"
"Non, mon fils. I'm a fair man. All my crops get the same attention. It wouldn't be fair to Clifton if I ignored his crops for mine. It's just I take care of the half-acre a little different, I guess, and the plants know it."
"How?" My father peered into my eyes. I studied his pale blue eyes set deep in his sun-toughened face in return and sat up straighter, trying to look older.
"I never wanted to answer to any man. This half-acre is probably the closest I'll ever get to owning my own land. When something belongs to you, you treat it different."
"How?" My father frowned and his eyes traveled over me to the field beyond.
"I don't know if you're old enough to understand. It's like wishes and dreams. You treat them different."
"Yessir," I said, and he seemed relieved.
He pulled weeds in the half-acre when I brought him the note from Madame Garré, my first-grade teacher. He straightened and leaned against his hoe when he saw me coming. He looked like part of the field in his sun-bleached khakis and brown skin.
"I got a note from Madame Garré," I yelled, skipping from row to row, careful not damage the young sweet potato plants.
"What's that you said?" he asked once we were within talking distance of each other.
"I got a note from Madame Garré. Momma said I had to show it to you." I held the piece of paper before him.
"What does it say?" I unfolded the paper and pretended to read it.
"Momma says, it says that you're supposed to go meet with Madame Garré tomorrow afternoon, after school."
"Does the note say why?"
"Do you know why?"
"Nosir. Unless it's because I don't talk américain." My father registered surprise.
"You talk américain. Me and your momma, we showed you how."
"Madame Garré says not good enough, and she says I don't understand good enough, neither."
"What don't you understand?"
"Not much. She talks too fast."
"Well, we'll see tomorrow, I guess." He wiped his forehead with his bandanna and started hoeing again. I ran ahead of him pulling out the bigger weeds.
I met him in front of the school the next afternoon. He looked exhausted in his sweat-stained khaki shirt and straw hat. He had walked from our farm, over seven miles away.
"Where's this teacher of yours?"
"In room twelve."
"Take me there."
"Yessir." I led him through the hallway past rows of doors with bold numbers painted on them to a room at the end. Now and again, I would look back at my father. He looked out of place in my school, as a weed does in a recently hoed field. When we arrived at the room, he stopped, took a deep breath, pulled off his old straw hat, and held it before his chest. Madame Garré sat at her desk grading papers. She looked up when she heard us enter. My father walked up the middle aisle between the rows of desks and stood directly in front of her.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Leclerc. I'd asked you to sit, but I'm afraid the only extra chairs are desks, and as you can see, they're too small for you."
Madame Garré had a clear strong voice, and although I did not always understand what she said, her voice did demand respect and attention. She spoke American, and my father leaned forward a little to understand her better. He looked around nervously.
Madame Garré interrupted him with a wave of her hand.
"Mr. Leclerc, I'm going to come right to the point," she said slowly. "Your son does not have a chance of passing the first grade. Do you understand, Mr. Leclerc? Do you speak English?"
"Some. I can't read or write, though."
"Do you understand me?"
"Enough, I guess. I understand you pretty much if you talk slow."
"How about Mrs. Leclerc? Does she speak English?"
"Yes, ma'am. She can read it and write it, too. She went all the way to the sixth grade."
My father said this with pride. He was proud of my mother's ability to read and write. He often asked her to read to him from the bible, and he would sit before her and marvel over how she translated words into a story. It always seemed to amaze him, and he always gave her a special look whenever she read.
"That's good. Maybe you can get her to help your son. He needs it."
My father placed a callused hand on my shoulder.
"My boy is not dumb."
"No, he isn't, Mr. Leclerc. He simply does not speak English very well and understands precious little of it. Do either you or your wife speak English with your son at home?"
My father straightened.
"Well no, not much leastways. We don't talk much américain, and we haven't got much use for it. We're Cajun and that's what we talk. It's easier."
"Mr. Leclerc, you're a farmer." My father nodded. "Just try to think of me as a farmer, too. My field is the classroom. My crops are all the young children who pass my class and go on to finish high school and beyond to live productive lives as educated Americans. I'm a good farmer, but even the best farmers need help."
My father nodded again.
"That's true," he said.
"I need you to speak English in front of the boy. He has to forget his French heritage, or he'll never succeed. He'll never become an assimilated American."
"Forget that he's a Cajun? Forget how to talk Cajun? But it belongs to him, that. It's a part of him. How else is he going to get along in the world?"
"What world, Mr. Leclerc? Yours?" Madame Garré shook her head sadly. "I don't mean to be impertinent, but your son will never make it in the real world unless he learns how to communicate in a civilized tongue." She looked straight at my father as if she were deciding what to say next. He met her gaze and nodded.
"Go on," he said. "I don't understand all these words, but I think I know what you getting at."
"Do you want your son to turn out like you, Mr. Leclerc, illiterate, unable to read or write?"
My father placed his old straw hat on his head.
"Thank you, Madame. I'll do what I got to do." He turned and motioned me to follow. When we were out of the school building, he turned and gently squeezed my shoulders. He spoke American, slow and hesitant, to make sure I understood.
"I don't expect you're going to pass this year, but I expect you will next year."
"Yessir," I said.
He and my mother stopped speaking to me in Cajun, but it was too late, and as he predicted, I failed the first grade. I took it over the next year, and it was easier.
I understood Madame Garré much better.
I skipped across the rows waving my report card, yelling, "I passed" over and over again. Twice, I dropped the Mason jar I carried, half filled with Momma's dark coffee. My father waited for me under the shade of the two magnolias at the far end of the half-acre. The two mules, Sarah and Susie, waited patiently before the plow, absently swatting at the flies with their tails. I gave my father his coffee, and he cleaned the dirt from the jar and opened it.
"What's got you all excited?" he asked before sipping the coffee. I showed him the report card with "Passed to the second grade" written in Madame Garré's hand across the bottom of it.
"What does it say?" he asked.
I read it to him.
"I passed," I said, pleased with the look he gave me—the same special look he gave my mother when she read to him. He wiped his mouth with his forearm.
"Mon fils, I'm real proud of you. You're doing real well in school, and you can talk américain as good as that teacher of yours."
"That's because you and Momma hardly talk Cajun to me anymore. I still know how."
"You know a lot of things. You can read from a book and write words down on a piece of paper. Someday you're going to be able to pass as a américain. Madame Garré was right. There isn't just one world." He sipped his coffee again and sat in his spot among the magnolia roots spreading across the ground. I sat in the dust in front of him.
"This is my world." He indicated the field with his arm.
"Yes. In a way, but I meant more than this little patch of land. I meant everything."
"The house and everything?"
"Everything, mon fils. The house, the mules, the fields, and the half-acre, too. Everything you see and more." He picked up a stick and silently drew in the dust at our feet.
"Do you know how I plant this half acre?"
"Yessir. You plow up the land and then plant the seeds."
"That's right. This year I'm planting sweet potatoes. I find the best seedlings I can get a hold of and start me a nice seedbed. Then I prepare the soil real well. The more you work the soil, the better chance your crop'll have." As he talked, my father drew in the dust. He drew a small square for the seedbed and then a larger rectangle with lines running the length of it for the half-acre. "After a month or so, I'm ready to plant the seedlings into the field. I give them plenty water to start them and take care of them when they start to take. I do everything I can for them and if I'm lucky, I'll get me some good healthy plants when it's time for harvest."
"Yessir," I said, studying the drawings in the dust as carefully as I studied Madame Garré's blackboard.
"Sometimes I'll get almost perfect potatoes out of that dirt, and it's a pleasure to dig out one dark brown number one potato after another. Sometimes, I'm not so lucky." He removed his straw hat and wiped his forehead with the old bandanna he carried in his back pocket.
"This is my world. I plant things, they come up, and sometimes they don't. It's a hard world, but it's not a bad one." He replaced the bandanna and picked up the stick again. He drew a circle around the half acre.
"But I didn't choose it. It was all I could do. Someday, you’re going to get to choose."
He pointed to the drawing in the dust.
"You're going to choose what world to live in. This one." He poked the stick into the drawing. "Or the other one, the one your teacher talked about."
"Someday, when you know enough to choose. You're going to have the chance I never got. You're going to choose the world you want to live in." My father reached down and erased the drawings. Then he drew another half-acre and put an "x" in it. He looked at me.
"I'm giving you the half-acre. It's the only part of me that I don't have to share with another man. That and what I am. I hope you do it right." I did not know what to say, so I watched him carefully retrace his "x" in the dust. When he was done, he spoke again.
"I'll help you, but it's your half-acre."
It was not the money he received for the crops that he gave me. I understood that. It had something to do with dreams and wishes. I knew I would understand later, but first, I would have to decide what to plant in the half-acre. Then I would have to work the crops and harvest them, and one day, when I was ready, I would have to decide whether to plant the half-acre at all. I wanted him to know I understood what he was trying to teach me, but I could not find the words.
"Merci," I said finally, and he reached over and hugged me.
This story appeared in The Southern Review and is part of my Lighted Windows collection.It is fiction, of course, but I did fail the first grade because my parents never spoke English in the household. After that, they started speaking English to me. I struggled with school until high school, when I blossomed. (My grades did not reflect this blossoming, but my teachers recognized my abilities and worked with me.) Hope you enjoy the story.