The Real Miss Willie Mae

Stories are told – and what we learn from listening is part of the human experience we all share: love, loss, joy, fame, shame, and some amazing stories between these words.

In 2002, I left a bad work environment and found myself in a small south Georgia town, where I commuted to a small PreK-8 school, where people had their own stories. Stories of  integrating schools a few years before, race relations at a simmering boil: not over the pot yet, but simmering, and I an outsider – knowing nothing.

I stayed there a year – with the goal to return to South Metro Atlanta as soon as I could. In the years since, I have visited three times – I wished I had returned more.

But the best story of loss and found is the story of Miss Willie Mae, a real person I briefly meet after her employer had died. Unable to read in most of the years as her employer’s service, it was until after the employer’s death did this old woman bring boxes and boxes of old books to my home – literally, upon a brief acquaintance – and ask me, “You want these things? You’re a librarian. Your kids need them?”

She sat in my living room, watching my toddler. Ian, at age three, was looking at the books and digging into the boxes. “I couldn’t read when I went to work for Miss Nancy,” she told me, “She taught me to read for the last ten years of her life.”

“That’s amazing – and you don’t want these books anymore?” I found everything from Eric Carle to Hemingway  to Laura Wilder to James Joyce: just HOW OFTEN and WHAT CURRICULUM did the old woman receive from her employer?!

“She got that fancy degree up North. We worked on reading for three hours a day,” Miss Willie informed me, “I am as well read as…”

“I am,” I finished, turning over a copy of Whitman.

“You want them? I was hoping you could use them  – keep what you want and give to a library – maybe your library.”

I told her I’d take the children’s books and the high school would love the classics. “Except this one. ”

She took a book out of the stack. It was a paperback, worn and very loved.

“The Old Man and the Sea? Good one.”

Miss Willie beamed her gap toothed grin, “It’s my favorite.”

“Mine too.”

Years later, an idea and remember Miss Willie may inspired to write my favorite short story. I think she would have approved… Even if I took certain creative liberties on how a black custodian with a secret and a young librarian with a secret have their lives merge on a late night… And chances their destines forever…

Check out The Reading Of Miss Willie Mae.

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