'Raising Sweetness'


Editor's note: A single man who's an unconventional housekeeper adopts eight orphans. One of them learns to read and write to improve their family situation.

Them little tykes come into the kitchen, all screamin' and excited. "Looky here what come to our house, Pa!" they hollered. They was holdin' somethin' mysterious. "What is it?" I asked. "It's not good to eat, I know that," said Lizzie. "Can't wear it, neither," said Pearl. "Well, I know what it is," said the teeniest child, Sweetness. "That there is a letter!"

It was all full of squiggles and black marks. "What's these?" I asked. "Them's letters," said Sweetness. "Now let me get this straight," says I. "This here's a letter, but these here is letters?" "That's right," says Sweetness. "I'm confused," says I. "Them letters spell out a message, Pa," she said, right proud. "And I know that 'cause I been to school!" "Well, I'll be switched!" says I. "Can you make out what it says?" "Naw," says she, and a big tear rolled down her precious cheek. "Didn't stay there long enough. Had to go to the orphanage."

At the mention of the orphanage, all the young 'uns commenced to shudder. You see, that there orphanage was run by a female person named Mrs. Sump, who was meaner than a skilletful of rattlesnakes.

But it don't matter now, thank goodness, 'cause I adopted all them orphans and put her right out of business. "Well," says I, "ain't nothin' stoppin' you from goin' to school now. If people are gonna start sendin' us these letters what got letters on 'em, we better learn how to read 'em." "Pa, you is right, as always," says little Sweetness. "Exceptin' for one little problem." "What's that," says I. "The teacher done left," says she. "Yes," I answered. "I knowed that. She done gone to New York City, and that's a long, long ways away. Maybe even a hundred miles." "So they had to get a substitute," says Sweetness. "Well, that's all right, ain't it?" says I. "The substitute is Mrs. Sump."

Well, now that was an evil twist of fate! It looked like we wasn't ever gonna find out what that there letter said.

But then little Sweetness piped up and says, "Looky here, I know what to do. I'll go to school and figger out the readin'. Then I'll teach it to y'all."

Well, Sweetness went over to the schoolhouse every day. And every night we all sat around listenin' to her stories about A's and B's and 3's and 4's. Now, I admits I ain't had no schoolin', but i suspect that Mrs. Sump was leadin' them little ducks to the wrong pond. For example, she was tryin' to tell them that if you adds up 1 and 8 you gits 9. Ever dang fool knows you gits 18! It's a good thing I'm here to straighten them out.

And she's got these two different letters, C and K, for instance. They got the exact same sound. Except that sometimes C sounds like S. I guess it depends on what kinda mood it's in. Every night we'd get out our mysterious letter and look it over. We found out it had a lot of A's in it, all right. And some B's and C's, too, though I wasn't sure how these particular C's was feelin', so that wasn't too helpful.

Well, the readin' just went on and on. By the time we got to P and Q, it seemed to me that we had more letters than we'd ever need. But most days here come Sweetness with another one. "How many of them dang things is there?" I asked. "Twenty-six," said she. "Well, dog bit my buttons!" says I. "Seems like five or six would be enough! Heck, maybe readin' aint' worth all this trouble!" "I have a feelin' it is," says Sweetness, studyin' our letter. "I'm startin' to figger this out."

Well, Noah's flood coulda dried up afore we got through that there applebet. Sweetness said the little tykes at school couldn't make much progress on accounta all the scrubbin'. Seems Mrs. Sump was still partial to toothbrushes, y'see. Once she got them desks as shiny as a bald man's head, she set them to work cleanin' the blackboard. "That's all right," I says. "I betcha you don't use those last letters much anyway." "Pa, you is right as always," said she.

From RAISING SWEETNESS by Diane Stanley. Text copyright c 1999 by Diane Stanley. Illustrations c 1999 by G. Brian Karas. Reprinted by permission of G.P. Putnam's Sons, a division of Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers.

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