When I see you I think of music. We feel alike – music comes first – and last.
— Miss Earnhart, Cle-Tracks, 1956


Since that graduation day from Cleveland High School, near Clayton, in June, 1956, I have traveled the country and lived in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In 1996, after eighteen years in Southern Pines, North Carolina, Nin and I moved back to Paul’s Hill, my homeplace, ten miles north of Benson, near McGee’s Crossroads.

As I look back on the days at my school, where I spent twelve years, I think how I would like to see Miss Earnhart to tell her how I appreciate her, devoting her professional life to her piano and to the arts, teaching students in a public school in the country, when country was country, when small game like the opossum, the rabbit, and the raccoon were popular as yard-dogs.

One day Miss Earnhart said to me – all this before she wrote in Cle-Tracks the quote which begins my story: “Shelby, I will give you piano lessons free, if you want to take them.” And I spared her and myself the blunt, outwardly melt-down-embarrassment of telling her what I was thinking: Piano lessons are for girls and sissies and teaching anything is for sissies, too.

I stood there in my eight-grade-ness, full of puberty’s inward howling, looked the other way and said, “Oh, thank you”; then I vanished toward high school. Four years later she wrote the truth in Cle-Tracks.

Over half a century sweeps the years between then and now, as I see her, face turned aside, watching us (we were called “pupils”) file into chapel at Cleveland School. She is playing “Glow Worm,” her hands bouncing on the keys, her fingers leaving a whir and brush of happy light coming through the blinds on either side of the second-floor auditorium. Mr. Thompson, our janitor, has recently oiled the floor. The fresh smell doubles Miss Earnhart’s melody. Our foot-shuffles sound like snares toward graduation.

Now every time I sing or try to let the music in a poem find me, I think of Sulu Earnhart. Invitations abound: “Please come and play at our Independence Day Celebration-Bell Ringing at the Coats Estate, on Saturday, July 3.” Or this one from the librarians at Mary Duncan Public Library in Benson: “We would like to ask you to perform for our Reading Program again this summer.”

And hear my father say again, late in his years, a hearing-aid battery pinging in his ear, his thirty or so dogs on another fox’s track, “Oh those dogs make the most beautiful music in the world!” And I hear him say again as I went off to college – Stay here with me and we’ll hunt and fish. As he hobbles away from my breath, I know I will leave my guitar at home, for somehow I had to find a way to relive what I hastened to leave, the little white church, my family there on the small farm, the splendor of that schoolhouse I left behind, and my teachers who thought of me as a singer.

At the time Miss Earnhart wrote in my high school annual, I was trying to write songs in the manner of Hank Williams, mostly lyrics of separation and heartbreak. My attempts to find a form for how I felt turned my longing toward trying to write poems; rather, that desire chose me to try to turn music into words. This calling most certainly is rooted in the hymns I heard in Rehobeth Primitive Baptist Church in Elevation Township near Coats Crossroads, not far from where I live today, in the same spot where I was born at home, June 14, 1938: “How Firm a Foundation,” “Precious Memories,” “Amazing Grace,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Have Thine Own Way, Lord.”

We did not have any books in the plankhouse I was born in, except the Bible and the Sears Catalogue. (There was another catalogue, the “old” one, in the backhouse (we never called it The Outhouse), a two-holer I restored in 1996.

“Glow Worm” dances in my head. Hands on a keyboard brush my glances. In a reverie I see Alton Dupree take his fiddle from the case. The music swells beyond the reality that he is propped up in bed on a chair turned over, in a farmhouse near Angier, a pillow placed between the chair’s slats and his back, for his arthritis keeps him from sitting up or standing when he fiddles.

In my school’s auditorium, Miss Earnhart’s ready at her piano.

Shelby Stephenson

Shelby Stephenson was poet laureate of North Carolina, 2015-2018. His recent book of poems is Slavery and Freedom on Paul's Hill.

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