Millicent was a pretty and quite precocious young girl. By age 5, she had developed a startling trait of listening to adults a little too closely. While her contemporaries squabbled over dolls and crayons, she dedicated herself to watching the strange adults around her. Instinctively, she also learned to spread her questions around among a variety of adults. After a certain number of questions, most adults became defensive or, worse, annoyed. Much of the time, their answers made little sense. Though she was young, it didn’t take her long to decide that most adults were winging it in life. Because she figured out that it was true for almost everyone, it didn’t upset her or make her sad.
Grandma Tuggins, her mother’s mom, noticed Millicent’s vocabulary had exceeded her own by age 6. Millie often sat on the floor while the older women watched “As The World Turns.” In the mid-70s, it was the show that defined daytime soap operas for women in Georgia. During one of the biggest melodramatic moments of the season, Millie stood up and announced, “Well, the plot is a bit preposterous if I’m expected to swallow the fact that she’s in love with both of those gentlemen!” She stomped away to get herself a bottle of Coke from the fridge. Tugs and the other women laughed.
Tugs, as her friends called her, knew the dangers of a girl being too smart. Alabama was still behind the times in 1975. Tugs made it her mission to bend Millie’s inquisitive nature before things got out of hand. Tugs was the organist at the Methodist church in town. She played the organ on Sundays and did the books for Reverend Hawkins. Within weeks of watching her grandmother as she counted the money and paid the bills for the church, Millie could do the math in her head.
Everyone knew that Millicent had announced that she could read on her fourth birthday. For a year, she would stare at the books on the floor or in her lap as she sat in the rocking chair with her mom. Her lips didn’t move, but her eyes seemed to read the words on the pages. She started with her collection of Curious George Books. Soon enough and her mom found her with a Nancy Drew series boxed up in the cellar. Millie’s other grandmother, Ellie, bought Millie a set of Encyclopedia Brown books for her birthday. “Just like a real set of encyclopedias,” she proudly (and wrongly) proclaimed. No one told her they weren’t the same thing. After eating the cake with no frosting, Uncle Pete asked Millie to read a bit of Encyclopedia Brown to him, knowing she wouldn’t be able to. A full chapter later, as Millie recited the words perfectly, Uncle Pete kept saying, “Lord, where did she get all them brains from? Ain’t none of us got that much smarts.” Grandma Tugs knew better. Millie’s dead father Andrew was the guilty party to passing along so much brains. Andrew also liked to take shortcuts for everything.
What concerned Tugs the most was the Wednesday evening when Millie turned from her chair and said, “The Reverend makes a lot of money for selling promises, doesn’t he?” Tugs burst out laughing at the question. “Yes, but his message makes a lot of people happy, Millicent!” Millie looked a little troubled. “Mr. Harley doesn’t seem happy about the message. I think his drinking has him thinking he might not go upstairs when he dies.” Grandma Tugs laughed again, but she was surprised that Millicent knew that Mr. Harley had a drinking problem – or that she had a grasp of the difference between Heaven and the brimstone place.
As the years passed, Millicent’s grades suffered. She was more interested in learning from books on her own and doing things with her hands dirty up to her elbows. She learned the piano by watching Grandma Tugs. Her Grandma spent one afternoon showing her what all the squiggles were on the music book and how they corresponded to the keys on a piano. Grandma Tugs spent years to get decently good. Millie needed less than a few weeks before her fingers learned the keyboard and improvised on the fly. “Grandma, can we jazz it up a little next Sunday? Give Reverend Hawkins a shock?” Grandma Tugs hugged Millie close to her on the piano bench. “That would be a hoot, wouldn’t it?” Tugs decided she needed to keep an even closer eye on Millie.
In fifth grade, Reverend Hawkins visited Heritage Elementary School, where Millie attended. Despite all the arguing about it, her school still offered a Bible Study class. Millie hated all the discussion. “People say it means stuff that isn’t written in there! At least with Encyclopedia Brown, the answer is the answer.” Grandma Tugs would shake her head and tell her to focus on not blurting out what was going on inside her head. Reverend Hawkins had no idea that he was about to face his most formidable adversary.
“Boys and girls, I hope you’ve been reading your Bibles. It’s just as important as math and reading comic books,” he said, as Millie’s focus wandered. She started at the open dictionary on her desk instead.
Millie looked up, surprised. The Reverend had asked her to tell her what her favorite Bible verse was. “Proverbs 31:6,” Millie said immediately. The Reverend looked startled as he hastily searched for the verse in his Bible. Millie told him, “Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish.” Several of her classmates laughed. “Proverbs 20:1 says, ‘Wine is a mocker and beer is a brawler, whoever is led astray by them is not wise.'” Ms. Atkins politely applauded Reverend Hawkins.
Reverend Hawkins began to speak again. Millie cut him off, saying, “1 Timothy 5:23: Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.” Both the Reverend and Ms. Atkins stared at one another in consternation.
“Can I speak to you in the hallway, Ms. Atkins?” The Reverend didn’t wait for an answer and almost ran outside into the hallway. After a minute of whispered discussion away from the eyes of the class, they both returned.
Ms. Atkins folded her hands in front of her. “Class, let’s all give Millicent a round of applause for studying her Bible so diligently!” Her face was flushed. Her classmates nervously applauded. They knew something wasn’t right but didn’t know quite what had happened. “Let’s all make our way single file to the cafeteria where we’ll all enjoy a milk and chocolate pudding with the Reverend.” At that, everyone began to talk animatedly and to lose their interest in what had happened. When Millicent stood, Reverend Hawkins asked her to wait a moment.
“Millie, how did you know those verses? Alcohol is a subject a little advanced for you.” The Reverend had underestimated Millie. He wouldn’t be the last.
“I learned the Bible, Reverend. And everyone has alcohol in their houses. Even you.” Millie smiled at him.
“You learned it? How much?” He seemed concerned. He filed away the idea that Millicent somehow knew he liked to drink a bit of whiskey. Oddly, he suddenly wanted a sip right then, too.
“All of it. It’s already broken into indexed pieces by book, chapter, and verse.” Millie wasn’t bragging.
Revered Hawkins opened and closed his mouth several times. Finally, almost croaking, he said, “Let’s go get some pudding.” Millicent ran out of the classroom, smiling.
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