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Willowy of frame, white-haired and always dressed in a suit and tie, Crouch wove tirelessly up and down the maple-planked aisles of his classroom addressing the children of these humble and humbled families as scrupulously as if they were pupils at an East Coast prep school. He taught them Chaucer, Shakespeare, Emerson and Poe. His decision to teach the connection of The Song of Hiawatha to the Kalevala, no doubt, had as much to do with the greatness of the prose as it did with the children of Ojibwe and of Finnish descent in his classes. Jones, who counts Irish in his ancestry as well as African-American and Cherokee, didn’t miss the connections, either. “I related to Hiawatha because he was an ethnic soul, and that was his part of the country we had moved to,” says Jones.
The day Jones presented his grapefruit poem to Crouch, the actor says, is an “encrusted tale or legend in my mind,” one that Jones recounts in his autobiography Voices and Silences. Crouch, he writes, told him: “I’m impressed with your poem, James Earl … I know how hard it is for you to talk and I don’t require you to do that. Unfortunately, it is hard for me to know whether these are your words … I think the best way for you to demonstrate that you wrote this poem yourself is for you to say it aloud to the class.”
With his honor at stake, Jones was forced to do the thing that terrified him most. In Crouch’s second story English class, the room that looked out over the basketball court and the baseball field, wearing clothes that probably smelled faintly of morning farm chores, James Earl Jones stood and recited his grapefruit poem. “I was shaking as I stood up, cursing myself,” he writes in Voices and Silences. “I strained to get the words out, pushing from the bottom of my soul. I opened my mouth—and to my amazement the words flowed out smoothly, every one of them. There was no stutter.”
A dam had broken, the floodgates come loose. Jones realized that when he spoke the written word, he didn’t stutter. With Crouch as his mentor he began public speaking at every opportunity he could—poetry readings in front of the school, debate, forensic competitions. All skills that would help land him a scholarship to the University of Michigan, then on to New York City where he would build his career.
Sixty-one years later, the Dickson School still stands at the corner of Coates Highway and High Bridge Road in Brethren—though now it is a mess of broken and boarded windowpanes, crumbling brick and peeling, dilapidated trim. In the 1950’s it was abandoned for the modern Brethren High School that sprawls down the road from it today. The Dickson School was sold to private owners. For a time it was a restaurant, then a private residence. But the building was never maintained.
On a blue-skied September afternoon, when the salmon have just begun to run in the nearby Manistee River and the bells of the white Lakeview Brethren Church across the street have just finished ringing the hour, a knot of people wait in front of the old Dickson School for its most illustrious alumni. James Earl Jones is in town to help fix the old schoolhouse. Not with hammer and nails, but to lend his name and his talents to raise money by giving two performances of poetry readings—Hiawatha, the Kalevala and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven are all on the billing—at the Ramsdell Theatre in nearby Manistee. (Like the Dickson School, Jones has fond memories of the Ramsdell where he performed summer stock while enrolled at the University of Michigan.) If all goes well, the renovation, instigated by a group of alumni from the old and new high schools, will turn the old schoolhouse into a community cultural center. Among its planned uses is the Donald Emerson Crouch community library and a multicultural museum to showcase Brethren’s history.