Editor's note: In the post-Civil War South, a young African-American girl is determined to prove that she can go to school just like her older brothers.
For two years us boys -- that's George and Will and Nelson and Val and me, C.C. -- been schooling at a place started by some folks who love the Lord. Quakers, they call themselves.
They opened a school for black people after Mr. Lincoln declared us free like we ought to be.
And I was beginning to wonder, What about Virgie? She was free too. Couldn't she go to school with us boys?
Summertime going by, one week gone, and then another with Virgie asking and asking ...
Till one day in the fields, Papa said, "Boys, Virgie, me and your ma been thinking. All free people need learning -- old folks, young folks ... small girls, too. Virgie, next school time you can go. You can go to school with the boys."
Summer over. Harvest in. School time here!
"Monday morning early Mama cooked us big bowls of cornmeal. She cooked eggs, too. Papa led our prayers. Safe journey. Clear minds. And thanks to the good lord for our own school. "Take care of Virgie," Papa said after prayer time. "And take care of each other."
Giving orders, George took the lead. "Not too fast. Stay in a line." We passed by our barn and Papa's mill, then cut through Mr. McKinney's field. "Virgie, keep up now," Val said.
Up one hill and down another, up and down, down to the creek.
We took off our shoes, rolled up our pants legs, and stepped real careful on the upping stones. The cold water woke our hot tired feet. Virgie held her skirt with one hand, her shoes and bucket with the other. Then all of a sudden she was sliding and slipping. "Watch out, Virgie!" I yelled, trying to grab her, but...
Splash! In the creek she went. "Now she'll cry," Nelson grumbled. But she didn't. Virgie was laughing! "It's a warm day," she said. "My skirt will dry." Virgie's all right, I thought.
"Let's go!" said George. "Hurry up!" said Will. "It's looking like rain!"
Just when we were coming to the woods. It's thick and leafy in there ... dark even when the sun's bright.
"I'm not scared," she said, but she held my hand tight. Nobody talked. We just walked. Silent 'cept for twigs crackling.
Trees leaned over us. Shadows got darker. A branch snatched ahold of my shirt, and my heart quit beating. Then Virgie whispered, "Let's sing!"
The walk went faster then. Seemed not so dark. Soon we were out of the woods.
Across one field and then another. "Almost there, Virgie. Almost to town."
We passed by the Inn and the Courthouse and the churches and all the shops, as we followed Main Street to the top of the hill. "Do you see it, Virgie? Do you see it?" We were almost shouting.
Mr. Warner the headmaster came out to greet us. "Welcome, boys. George, William, Valentine, Nelson, Cornelius. (That's me, C.C.) Glad to see you back. And who is this fine young lady here? Your sister?" "Yes sir, this is Virgie," George said. "Virgie, speak up to Mr. Warner." "Good morning, sir," Virgie said.
"Come look, Virgie," I said, pulling her inside with me. "See all the desks? See the books?" Virgie was staring, staring at everything.
Especially the bookcase. "So many books!" she said. She touched one softly with her hand. "Someday I'll read all these books!" Already Virgie was seeming bigger.
"When we go home on Friday, C.C.," she said, "we'll tell Mama and Papa all we've learned. That way might seem like they've been to school too. Learning to be free, Just like us."
Excerpted from the book VIRGIE GOES TO SCHOOL WITH US BOYS. Text Copyright c 2000 by Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard. Illustrations Copyright c 2000 by E.B. Lewis. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., Children's Publishing Division. All rights reserved.