Puzzles and Barack Obama by Kameron Ray Morton

Heather, the faculty leader of the service trip, finds me annoying. She is unimpressed by the intermittent knowledge I have of the world around us, like what cotton smells like or how rice fields are flooded or how all this rain is going to kill the crops that have just been planted.

I talk about the gallon bags of pecans left for us in the kitchen of the Methodist church we’re staying at, explaining that the bigger ones are called paper shell pecans and you can tell how flavorful they are by snapping them in half and checking for tiny holes where the pieces of the pecan come together. The smaller the holes, the better the pecan. Heather thinks I’m a know-it-all because a girl who grew up in the second largest city in Arkansas and is afraid of bugs couldn’t possibly know anything about the Arkansas Delta.

I try to tell her that the Delta is where my mom’s family is at. I don’t think she quite believes me.

It’s not the first time I’ve been misunderstood this year. It’s spring break of my freshman year of college and I am so very lost. College has taken who I thought I was and tossed it away like my mom’s family tosses out pecan shells, leaving me cracked open and searching for holes that will indicate how I’m going to save the world. I don’t know how to save the world. My professors have informed me that isn’t a good enough answer.

But now I’m in Dumas, Arkansas, giving up my spring break along with ten other students for a service trip, one that I actually care about. The majority population is black. The majority population is dirt poor. That demographic is pretty close to what my high school was, and while my school was in town and Dumas is in the middle of nowhere, the residents approach me and the other people on the service trip with the same kindness and acceptance I’d received at my high school. And when the girl at the cash register in Fred’s tells me she likes my hair, that my pixie cut and bleached-bangs are ‘funky,’ I nearly cry. I almost feel like me again.

* * *

Little children scare me. Ten and up I can handle, but anything younger than that and I have no idea what to do. I tell Heather this up front, explaining that I picked this trip over the four other service trips I could have applied for solely because of it’s location and that the idea of tutoring children is terrifying to me. I ask to be placed with older kids.

So what does Heather do? Stick me with a seven-year-old little boy named Deontre.

“Puzzle,” he says, smiling. He’s a smiley kid, which I find a little disconcerting. I’m used to more serious faces. Or maybe just older faces.

“What about the puzzle?” I ask, doing my best to be patient.

He stops smiling. The kid reminds me of my best friend in high school, Trey. They’ve both got shaved heads and an overbite, and hands with long fingers. Trey plays piano. I wonder if anyone will think to get Deontre in lessons. I let go of that thought pretty quickly because there is no way his parents can afford that, assuming the clothes he’s wearing are a pretty good indicator of income.

“I wanna do a puzzle,” he says. The smile is back on his face now and he grabs my hand, pulling me towards the bookcase that holds the puzzles.

“You got a favorite one?” I ask.

Deontre drops my hand to reach for a puzzle of President Barack Obama that’s only 15 pieces. I think he’s made a good choice.

“Who’s that a picture of?” I ask, letting him lead me back to our table, the puzzle box in tow.

“President Barack Obama,” he says. He doesn’t have any trouble saying the name, which I find impressive.

I don’t know how to prompt him to turn that answer into a sentence like I did with ‘puzzle’ so I let it go. I’ve been bugging him all day to use more than one word to say things, and he’s doing really well. I don’t know if it’s normal for seven-year-old’s to speak in short fragments or not, but Deontre forms a sentence just fine with a bit of prodding. This is why I wanted to work with older kids. I know they should be speaking in sentences. With Deontre, I’m floundering. The only reason I’m trying to get him to speak in sentences is because I find one word responses annoying. For all I know, I’m asking too much of him.

Deontre drops the box on the table and sits back down in his metal folding chair. I sit down on the seat next to him and open the box for him.

“You like doing puzzles?” I ask.

“Yes, miss,” he says, taking the open box and flipping it so the pieces spill out onto the table.

“What else do you like to do?” I say, helping him spread the pieces out and watching him get to putting them together. He’s obviously done this puzzle a lot.

“School,” he says.

He sees me open my mouth and corrects himself, saying, “I like school, too.”

“You’re a smart kid, you know that?” I say, slotting two pieces together to form the top of Obama’s head.

“Thank you, miss,” he says.

“Excuse me,” Mrs. Rudie says, interrupting the conversations around the room. “Can I get some of you strong college men to help me move some tables?”

Mrs. Rudie runs the children’s daycare/after school center that we’re working at in McGhee, a thirty minute drive from where we’re staying in Dumas. She’s got a PhD, but likes to be called Mrs. Rudie regardless. Heather sent us a news article a local paper did on Mrs. Rudie’s daycare center before we left on the trip, and I’d assumed she was some little old white lady who’d come back to her home town to help, like what I saw where my mom’s family lives.

Imagine my surprise when I got there and saw that she’s darker than most of the kids she works with, the descendant of a freed-slave who bought himself a few acres south of town and made enough money to send all three of his daughters to college. Mrs. Rudie credits her love of education back to him, the first black man to own land in the county. We drove out to that land one day, a small area of tall grass surrounded by soy beans on all sides drowning in the relentless rain. I wonder what Mrs. Rudie’s ancestor would think to see his land no longer being used.

“I can help with that, Mrs. Rudie,” Caitlin says, quickly abandoning the five-year-old she’s working with to shoulder past some of the boys and move a table.

I didn’t notice just how annoying Caitlin was until after a day or two in Dumas, just enough time for me to stop feeling so small and confused and instead feel like the girl I used to be. Caitlin has bleached-blonde hair, caked on make-up, and is the kind of feminist who insists on lifting things when I, also a feminist, would much rather sit and watch a guy do it because I’m lazy. I’m sure I will hear about this incident in our nightly reflection facilitated by Heather, keeping us up past midnight even though we have to wake up at six. I’d rather sleep.

“You want to put in the last one?” I ask Deontre, picking up the one puzzle piece left.

“Yes, miss,” he says, taking the piece from me and putting it into the puzzle, filling in the last bit of the American flag behind Obama’s head.

“I think this might be my favorite puzzle now, too,” I say. Deontre’s smile gets even bigger, which I honestly thought was impossible.

“You wanna make the puzzle again?” he asks.

“I’d love to,” I tell him.

He sets to work breaking apart the puzzle with as much concentration as he’d used to make it in the first place.

We make the puzzle three more times before Deontre’s mother shows up. All of the parents get the same look on their faces when they walk in and see us. Two parts defensive, and one part intimidated. The intimidation is easy for me to understand. I would be a little intimidated, too, if I walked into a room of people dressed better than me, holding iPhones and wearing $150.00 sandals. As for what they’re trying to defend, it could be any number of things.

Maybe that their clothes are worn out but they have two-inch, bedazzled fake nails on or that they’ve got three kids and no wedding ring, things the media has warned society to be suspicious of. The majority of the people coming to pick up their kids are women who just manage to force out a smile. The few men who come in only stare.

“Aisha, your momma’s boyfriend is here to pick you up,” Mrs. Rudie says.

Aisha sticks out in my memory because she was perplexed to find me in the girl’s bathroom one day, not because of my short hair, but because Mickey Mouse was on my shirt.

Mickey is only for boys, apparently.

“Bye, Aisha,” Caitlin says, giving the little girl a hug.

“Bye, Miss Caitlin!” Aisha says, skipping off to the waiting arms of her mom’s boyfriend.

He scoops her up and nods at Caitlin, his face that same mixture of defense and intimidation. I watch Caitlin’s expression turn sour and I look between the two, trying to figure out what’s going on.

Then, I see it.

Aisha’s mom’s boyfriend has cornrows. He’s got on a stained-white wife-beater, and he’s wearing his pants low. He’s not smiling, and there’s a gold chain around his neck. It doesn’t matter that Aisha looks beyond excited to see him, or that he’s holding that girl like she’s as fragile as a newborn baby. Caitlin is face-to-face with a stereotype, and she’s making all kinds of assumptions. It’s easy to tell from her expression that those assumptions are not good.

I guess I’ll have to listen to this bullshit tonight, too, I think. God help me.

* * *

“I had to help move that table,” Caitlin says. “The feminist in me just couldn’t handle it. I mean, I like to think Mrs. Rudie is doing a good job, but what is she really teaching those little girls?”

It’s 11:30 at night. We’re in the youth room of the First United Methodist Church of Dumas, Arkansas, spread out on couches and air mattresses. Heather is sitting on the floor at the front of the room, her greasy hair pulled into a bun. This morning Heather had been talking about how only washing her hair once a week has made it the healthiest it’s ever been. I just think it looks like an oil slick.

“It’s difficult to face the flaws in people, isn’t it?” Heather says. “Was anyone else bothered by this?”

Another girl starts in and I allow my mind to wander, thinking about how I can’t wait to finalize my paperwork to transfer out of this school. I’d been second-guessing my decision throughout the first half of the semester as I got to know different professors and worried about what people would say when they found out I’d left such a prestigious school for a public university. Being in Dumas has taken away all of my doubts. The students on this trip are slowly turning into symbols for everything I hate about the school I’m attending whereas the kids and adults we’ve been working with, the ones so like my friends from high school, are reminding me just how comfortable in my own skin I used to be. I have to get out. Preferably to a school where there are at least a few people of color, instead of a bunch of white people with some African exchange students dotted around. Getting the same type of people in a room together means all you ever hear is your own opinions repeated back to you over and over again. Mix in some different ethnicities and income levels, and you might actually get to learn something.

“Was anyone else bothered by the man who picked up Aisha?”

That question pulls me out of my thoughts and back into the conversation. The other students are nodding their heads, eyebrows furrowed, matching faces of an odd brand of racism.

“What bothered you about him, Caitlin?” Heather asks, her face remaining neutral.

“He just looked so scary,” Caitlin says, wrapping her arms around her stomach. “And that wasn’t even her dad. Just her mom’s boyfriend. What kind of home environment is she living in?”

I want to call Caitlin a hypocrite. Yesterday she was talking about a man she met at the EMT office down the street where we were taking showers. He’d been asking her if we’d seen Hoodnic, the unofficial car show that had been going on the first night we’d got in to town.

We had seen Hoodnic. The tricked out, brightly painted Cadillacs had been parked out in front of the grocery store. The other students and I had observed from inside our mini-van as the men fawned over the cars and the women fawned over the men up until the police showed up and asked them to leave, directing traffic as at least fifty cars pulled out of the lot and onto the street.

The man had asked Caitlin if she’d gotten to talk to anyone at the event and she’d said no, she hadn’t. He’d said that was a shame, because it’s fun to listen to the way they talk.

Caitlin had been absolutely horrified by this “outrageous display of racism” from one of the few white men we’d encountered during our stay. She felt that this man was making fun of the way black people talk and expressed concern that this prejudice could effect his job as an EMT, meaning he would not be as concerned with helping black patients as he would white ones. Caitlin had gone on for thirty minutes about how terrible this man was to pass judgement on these people and now she’s sitting here passing judgement on a man she saw for a few seconds.

“That is a hard thing to wrestle with, isn’t it?” Heather says, passing her gaze over all of us. “We don’t know what these kids are going through at home. After we leave, we won’t know anything about them anymore. Is anyone worrying that maybe we came down here for nothing?”

“I’m worried about it,” Caitlin says, monopolizing the conversation like she’d been doing the entire evening. “But I just have to remind myself that by being here, I’m inspiring these kids to do better than their circumstances and strive for something great. An experience like this is incredibly fulfilling.”

For a moment I think that maybe I’m more cynical than I realized, because if I had answered Heather’s statement I would have said, ‘Of course we aren’t helping. We’re here for a week. That isn’t going to change anything. Of the twenty kids we’re seeing, maybe one will make it out, and even that is unlikely.’

But I don’t think I am a cynic. I just went to a high school that looks like this county.

Poverty is a learned behavior, and not in a ‘cheat the system way,’ but in a lack of knowing how to handle money way. Education can only get someone so far if they don’t have the skills to make something of it. I look at Deontre and think ‘At least I’m giving him a good week.’ At no point do I think ‘I’m inspiring him to seek a college education.’ Doing a puzzle with him probably isn’t particularly inspiring.

Maybe I should have said something. Maybe I should have argued against Caitlin’s statement, accused her of having a white-savior mentality, and revealed my cynical thoughts. But I didn’t. I just listened.

* * *

The last day of working with Mrs. Rudie, Deontre doesn’t show up. I make conversation with the older kids instead, just like I’d wanted to in the beginning. I’m surprised to find I miss doing a puzzle of Obama over and over again.

“I can’t thank you enough for being here,” Mrs. Rudie says at the end of the day, once all the kids have gone home. She looks tired. For the first time I really see her as the seventy year old woman she is, not this incredible pillar of strength and determination that she has looked like the rest of the time.

“And you,” she says, walking over to me and taking my hand. “What you did for Deontre was amazing.”

“What do you mean?” I ask. I hadn’t done much of anything for Deontre.

“I have been working with that boy for months to get him to speak in full sentences and you did it in a day,” she says, squeezing my hand and nodding her gray-haired head. “You were so good with him.”

“Thank you,” I say. “I didn’t know I was helping that much.”

I really hadn’t. I’d just thought the kid was maybe being lazy by speaking with one word, and he was far too smart for that. So I’d prompted him into a sentence. It hadn’t occurred to me that doing that was some big feat.

“If only you’d gotten to work with him more,” Mrs. Rudie says. “Who knows what he could have been saying.”

***

Kameron Ray Morton is a student at the University of Central Arkansas and is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing. Their writing has appeared in the undergraduate magazines The Vortex and The Aonian. They currently work as an Assistant Nonfiction Editor for Pithead Chapel and as an intern for the podcast I’m Afraid to Ask. They feel pressured to drink less coffee, but find their best ideas emerge from a caffeine-induced high. Follow them on Instagram @tallsoyflatwhite.