"Mr. Williams, I have three questions for you."
"I'm listenin'. Shoot."
"First, Mrs. Peters and I would like for the SGA to sell 3- ring binders. Here's the information and a design for the cover. What do you think?"
"Leave that with me and I'll give you an answer by Friday. Okay?"
"I want to apply for professional leave for the reading conference again this year."
"Okay, what's the date and do you have a sub yet?"
"Yes, sir. It's on March 3rd and 4th. Ms. Lawton has agreed to sub for me."
"Good, I've got it down in my book. Get E.B. to give the leave forms and I'll sign them. Now, what's number three?"
"William Harrison is supposed to be out on a DO NOT RETURN letter. He was in my third period class this morning. Did you know he was back in school?"
"JESUS, that *#@*!!!! I told him last week I wanted to see his mama. Tell Mr. Herschell to set up a conference for all of William's teachers, his mama, himself, and me; I'll be there. Ain't no 17 year old who needs to be in the 8th grade. I need to tell that crazy mama that it is time for William to either fish or cut bait!"
"Thank you, sir."
"Stephens, you're all right."
"So are you, Mr. Williams, so are you."
Mr. Williams was a snappy dresser. His long-sleeved sparkling white shirts and dark trousers were held together with a succession of bright colored suspenders. The white shirts brought a glistening sheen to his dark skin. In cold weather, he added a sports coat and a wide-brimmed slouch hat that looked like something a movie actor might wear.
Although his clothing looked expensive, he drove an old white Ford pickup truck; it was parked at the school early in the morning and was still there late at night. During the past year, he spent weekends at school moving furniture and supplies as construction crews renovated our school wing by wing.
One of my earliest conversations with Willie was in August of 1993 when I went to move into my new English classroom. It was a converted shop with no carpet on the floor. Instead, the concrete floor still had yellow stripes from the safety lanes where shop students were to walk.
"Stephens, what you doin' here at 8 P.M.?" Mr. Williams questioned me as he strolled into my room wearing a pair of shorts and his South Carolina Gamecock t-shirt.
"Hey, Mr. Williams! I'm trying to get some of my stuff up on the walls," I replied.
"Landsakes, you're putting up posters and things almost before the paint is dry!"
"Well, I really like a colorful room and it takes awhile to get everything up."
"Yeah, well, I'm sorry we couldn't finish things sooner. I worked with the construction crew this weekend to paint the room, remove some wiring, and hang your chalkboard. Tell James (the janitor) if you need anything else tomorrow. I told him to check with you."
"Thank you, sir."
"Oh, by the way, from everything I've heard, you walk on water, 's that so?"
"Naw, Mr. Williams, but I sure do try."
"So do I, Stephens, so do I."
On January 24, 1995, we had a teacher workday. It was an overcast, but not so cold, South Georgia day. I unlocked my classroom door, clutching a Hardee's bag, and I noticed a crowd gathered down the hallway toward the office, a tiny glass cubicle. I could see folks standing around the glass walls peering into the office.
As I approached the group, Mrs. Stone, an assistant principal with a walkie-talkie in hand, came out of the office with a panic-stricken face but a calm voice. She said, "Don't go in the office to sign-in. Willie has collapsed. We're doing CPR."
She rushed on past as she gave instructions to someone over the walkie-talkie. Teachers stood in small knots whispering and wondering. Some began to cry and moan. Tears streamed down the faces of people who had known Willie for years.
Sirens blared minutes, later. First aide personnel came from all directions. Willie's wife, Lavinia, came running down the catwalk. She had been at home. I remember the old sock hat and worn coat she had obviously grabbed hurriedly after hearing about her husband.
People stood and tried to figure out what to do or say. By the time the paramedics were ready to move Willie out of the office, the entire faculty lined the catwalk. My last glimpse of Willie, sprawled on a stretcher in his white long-sleeved shirt, bright suspenders, and dark trouser, frightened me beyond description. One EMT clasped an oxygen mask to his face; other paramedics struggled to keep an I.V. in his arm while they rushed down the walkway to the waiting ambulance.
George, the quiet assistant principal, came out of the office. He moved slowly and spoke quietly, "I did all I could do, but I don't think it was enough."
I walked back to my classroom where I found my friend Betty, a 30-year veteran, who taught next door to Willie when he first came to our county, sitting at her desk silently staring straight ahead. I say down and flipped through pages of my Bible hunting a verse that would comfort me, something that would tell me why this was happening to such a good, young man, but I couldn't find one. The silence was incredible.
Finally, at 9 A.M., Mrs. Stone announced a faculty meeting in the AV room. We walked there quietly and she confirmed our fears. Willie was unconscious when he left us, and he died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Seventy-five people sat silently in the room. Sometime later, personnel from central office - the crisis team and administrators - showed up. I really wanted them to leave us alone. We were family and our father was gone.