The teacher, Miss McCabe, had pre-arranged us alphabetically by our last name and taped a tag with our full name on the front of our desks. She had been a teacher for a long time, and this must have been her method of quickly learning the names and faces of her new first grade students. When we came into the room, she asked us to find our names and take our seats. It was our first test, and few of us received a gold star.
Since I only lived a half-block from the elementary school, I was one of the first kids in the classroom on that day. I was already fidgeting in my seat when she brought Kevin to the desk in front of me and introduced us. As soon as he situated himself at his desk, he turned around, and we started talking. I liked him immediately.
I think we probably talked through the first two times that Miss McCabe asked everyone to pay attention because I distinctly remember her standing in front of Kevin and looking down at us while we talked. He seemed to feel her presence and turned around slowly with a grin.
One of the first facts Miss McCabe taught us was how to pronounce the name of our school, “Tiskelwah” (the “l” is silent) and its origin—Native America or “Indian,” which was the word we used in 1969. Tiskelwah, she told us, was what the Indians called the nearby Elk River, and it meant “river of fat elk” in English. I remember snickers and Kevin getting a case of the giggles over a school named for fat animals when others were named for presidents and famous leaders.
Kevin and I became fast friends and were often class partners. Our abilities were complimentary, and we worked well together. Kevin was athletic, and I was artistic, we naturally took relative roles in the winter talent show that year. My first girlfriend Karla and I sang, Here Comes Suzy Snowflake, while Kevin danced throughout the cafeteria in a snowman costume my mom and grandmother made for him. I can still clearly see Kevin skipping around that room to our song and the laughter of the parents.
Kevin and I were in classes together through elementary school. Tiskelwah was a small school with only one class per grade for the lower grades. In the upper classes, some teachers taught split grades because there weren’t enough students for a full class.
In the fall of 1972, Kevin and I were in Mrs. Downey’s third-grade class. We were working as a team again, and our assignment was to write a short story with four or more characters. We had a small reputation as cut-ups in class, not so much that it got us into trouble, but enough for us not to complete our work at times. For this assignment, we were running behind, and I invited Kevin to my house after school one day so we could catch up. We worked for several hours on our detective saga, choosing the name “Jim Coldspot” as our investigator. We were not so creative when it came to names, and many characters were named from the appliances in my parent’s kitchen.
My dad left work most days by 4:30 PM, and mom had dinner ready shortly after he got home at 5:00 PM. We were still working at the table when she came in to start dinner, so she asked Kevin if he would like to stay. He said he would, but he would have to call his mom to ask for her permission. Kevin called home, and I continued to work on the story. I looked up when Kevin handed my mom the phone.
“She wants to talk to you, Mrs. Harkins,” he said.
My mom picked took the phone and listened for a moment, and then she said, “No. It’s okay. It’s really no problem. All right. Bye.”
As she hung up the phone, she told Kevin, “Your mom said you could stay for dinner, but you need to come home right afterward.”
Kevin and I danced around the kitchen. Such little things made us happy.
We remained close friends throughout elementary school. We spent one year in the same junior high, and then my family moved across town. Kevin and I saw each other as frequently as we could; many times, he would stay the night, which gave us more time to catch up. Our parents became friends, too, getting together on occasion.
In high school, Kevin became a big track and field star in our town. I watched his press and cheered him on from a competitive school. I lost track of Kevin after high school, but I thought of him from time to time.
Over the years, we’ve managed to stay in touch, as we were able. When I first got married in 1984, Kevin was at my wedding. In the spring of 1988, Kevin called me to tell me he was getting married and asked me to photograph his wedding. We lost touch again for some years, but the Facebook explosion brought us back together. Even though I haven’t seen him in person for more than 20 years, I consider Kevin a brother and would do anything for him.
At almost forty-three years, this friendship with Kevin is my longest continuing friendship. In 1969, it was an unlikely friendship in our hometown because Kevin is African American, and parts of West Virginia were still in the heat of the civil rights movement at that time.
Many years later, my mom and I were talking about my friendship with Kevin, and she told me about her phone call with Kevin’s mom the night of his first dinner invitation. My mom said Kevin’s mom was concerned about him staying. She recalled her saying, “…many white people don’t want colored people in their homes.”
I’m thankful my parents were never “those kind” of white people.
Photo Credit: Tiskelwah Elementary School. Kanawha County Library Archives.