A single ladybug lands featherlight on the teacher's finger, clings there, a living gemstone. A ruby with polka dots and legs. Before a slight breeze beckons the visitor away, an old children's rhyme sifts through the teacher's mind.
Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home,
Your house is on fire, and your children are gone.
The words leave a murky shadow as the teacher touches a student's shoulder, feels the damp warmth beneath the girl's roughly woven calico dress. The hand-stitched neckline hangs askew over smooth amber-brown skin, the garment a little too large for the girl inside it. A single puffy scar protrudes from one loosely buttoned cuff. The teacher wonders briefly about its cause, resists allowing her mind to speculate.
What would be the point? she thinks.
We all have scars.
She glances around the makeshift gathering place under the trees, the rough slabwood benches crowded with girls on the verge of womanhood, boys seeking to step into the world of men. Leaning over crooked tables littered with nib pens, blotters, and inkwells, they read their papers, mouthing the words, intent upon the important task ahead.
All except this one girl.
"Fully prepared?" the teacher inquires, her head angling toward the girl's work. "You've practiced reading it aloud?"
"I can't do it." The girl sags, defeated in her own mind. "Not...not with these people looking on." Her young face casts miserably toward the onlookers who have gathered at the fringes of the open-air classroom—moneyed men in well-fitting suits and women in expensive dresses, petulantly waving off the afternoon heat with printed handbills and paper fans left over from the morning's fiery political speeches.
"You never know what you can do until you try," the teacher advises. Oh, how familiar that girlish insecurity is. Not so many years ago, the teacher 'was' this girl. Uncertain of herself, overcome with fear. Paralyzed, really.
"I can't," the girl moans, clutching her stomach.
Bundling cumbersome skirts and petticoats to keep them from the dust, the teacher lowers herself to catch the girl's gaze. "Where will they hear the story if not from you—the story of being stolen away from family? Of writing an advertisement seeking any word of loved ones, and hoping to save up the fifty cents to have it printed in the Southwestern paper, so that it might travel through all the nearby states and territories? How will they understand the desperate need to finally know, Are my people out there, somewhere?"
The girl's thin shoulders lift, then wilt. "These folks ain't here because they care what I've got to say. It won't change anything."
"Perhaps it will. The most important endeavors require a risk." The teacher understands this all too well. Someday, she, too, must strike off on a similar journey, one that involves a risk.
Today, however, is for her students and for the "Lost Friends" column of the Southwestern Christian Advocate newspaper, and for all it represents. "At the very least, we must tell our stories, mustn't we? Speak the names? You know, there is an old proverb that says, We die once when the last breath leaves our bodies. We die a second time when the last person speaks our name. The first death is beyond our control, but the second one we can strive to prevent."
"If you say so," the girl acquiesces, tenuously drawing a breath. "But I best do it right off, so I don't lose my nerve. Can I go on and give my reading before the rest?"
The teacher nods. "If you start, I'm certain the others will know to follow." Stepping back, she surveys the remainder of her group. All the stories here, she thinks. People separated by impossible distance, by human fallacy, by cruelty. Enduring the terrible torture of not knowing.
And though she'd rather not—she'd give anything if not—she imagines her own scar. One hidden beneath the skin where no one else can see it. She thinks of her own lost love, out there. Somewhere. Who knows where?
A murmur of thinly veiled impatience stirs among the audience as the girl rises and proceeds along the aisle between the benches, her posture stiffening to a strangely regal bearing. The frenzied motion of paper fans ceases and fluttering handbills go silent when she turns to speak her piece, looking neither left nor right.
"I..." her voice falters. Rimming the crowd with her gaze, she clenches and unclenches her fingers, clutching thick folds of the blue-and-white calico dress. Time seems to hover then, like the ladybug deciding whether it will land or fly on.
Finally, the girl's chin rises with stalwart determination. Her voice carries past the students to the audience, demanding attention as she speaks a name that will not be silenced on this day. "I am Hannie Gossett."