The old house at 14th and W had a front window that protruded, so that if you sat on the inside sill you could look down the street to the corner and see the bus stop.
Anna Thompson worked days then. This was in the 1940s when $5 a day was good for cleaning house. She'd been a teacher in southern Maryland, where she met her husband, John, who couldn't spell his name. When they moved to D.C. for work, she couldn't teach anymore because she had only a two-year school certificate.
Every afternoon, when Anna got off the bus at the corner, first thing she did was look up the street to that protruding window. Sure enough, there would be her baby boy, her only boy and the youngest of her four children. There in the window, waiting, would be John Jr., who knew that no matter what troubles he had at school or on the street, he always could feel good in Mama's arms.
In the bathtub, she'd play with his toes. "This little piggy went to market, this little piggy went to town . . . " One time he was bringing in coal from the front sidewalk and banged the can against his shin. He cried and a neighbor, Miss Boston, mocked his crying. He said bad words to Miss Boston, who threatened to tell his father, a stern figure.
When little John saw his father coming home, he ran through the house and out the back to the bus stop at the corner, and he returned across the lawn hand-in-hand with his Mama, smiling in Miss Boston's direction.
However big John Thompson got--and he would get to be almost 7 feet tall and 300 pounds--he felt safest in Mama's arms. He would become famous in a way, a big-time basketball coach at Georgetown University, where his world knows him as a man who can scream his head off at something he thinks is wrong or hug a kid when the kid most needs a hug.
Anna Thompson was 76 when she died last month. The last nine years, after her husband died, she lived with John. They lived all over town in the '40s and '50s. They tried to hide her $5 a day from the projects' office man, because he would raise the rent or move them to a more expensive place. Finally, they moved in with Anna's sister Mary on W Street, and little John slept on a couch in the kitchen.
Looking back now, now that he's 41, and talking about his mother, John sees how it was. He didn't know it was poverty then. He knows now that his mother and father didn't buy a single thing for themselves. They took care of him. One Christmas they gave him a tool box, because he liked to fix things. He fixed the plug on a radio once and Aunt Mary started calling him Mr. Fix It. "If Fix It can't fix it, it can't be fixed," she would say.
That made John feel good. He was in Catholic grade school and having trouble. He couldn't read. His mother, the old teacher, would read to him at home. It was wonderful, John remembers. She would act out all the parts in the stories. Such a voice she had, dramatic as all get out. She'd find a way, such as with the tool box, to make John feel good about himself.
When John took the box into the back yard, green paint came off on his hands. "Gee, this tool box Santa Claus brought me, I got paint on my hands," little John said, and Anna Thompson said, "Honey, he just must have painted it." A lot later she confessed to big John that money was short and she bought a used tool box and had painted it just then.
At school, the nuns had a Gold Star row. They put a gold star in front of the seats for the smart kids. The Blue Star row was for the average kids. They had a picture of a baby for the Baby Row, for the kids doing poorly. That's where John sat, and he didn't like it, and every time you turned around he was being sent home for acting up.
Some parents told the nuns to beat their kids if need be. Wear 'em out. John got his share of iron rulers across his knuckles. But Anna Thompson wouldn't allow another thing. She talked to the nuns about John, and they told her he couldn't read. They said he might be retarded. They said he might never learn anything. Fact is, they got so fed up with John that they kicked him out of Catholic school after the fifth grade.
About the only hope came from one nun who said John did well on tests when somebody read him the work. And John's sister Mary told their mother, "Don't you believe that. That boy is not retarded. Don't let them convince you of that."
Fat chance, for Anna Thompson was a determined woman, a teacher, a mother who first thing off the bus looked to a window to see her baby boy. She took him to maybe the first public reading clinic in Washington, at 14th and R. From her $5 a day, she paid for a private tutor besides. She took him all over the city, he remembers, and she read everything to him, acting out the parts, and she talked a lot about his Uncle Lewis.
Lewis Alexander, her brother, was a poet. He lived with the Thompsons. Tall and elegant, he spoke in magical words of romance and night and tears. John Sr. didn't know what to make of this guy who daydreamed his life away. John Sr. couldn't read because, at school age, he was chosen from his family to work in the fields. In D.C., he worked marble and tile with his hands.
Little John, who couldn't read however much he tried, was fascinated by the tall, elegant poet. He remembers yet the day his mother said to him, "You remind me so much of Lewis."
One of the great things in Anna Thompson's life, her son would say after she died, was that he finally caught on to reading and school. The basketball made his father cry with joy. They had gone to baseball games at Griffith Stadium together, especially to see the Cleveland Indians' black players, Larry Doby and Luke Easter and Suitcase Simpson. What John Sr. always said to his son was, "Boy, you get an education because that's something the white man can never take away from you."
The old man loved it, too, that little John grew up to be a basketball star in high school and college. Every morning at 5 o'clock, John Sr. would cuss the paper boy for being so late, and at breakfast he'd have somebody read to him the part about his son.
At work, John Sr. would strut some and ask the people, "See what they say about the boy in the paper?"
His son became a high school coach and John Sr. used to sit on the bench. One time at LaPlata, a player from the other team dove into the bench and John Sr. jumped up, swinging his cane. "He thought we were at war," his son said.
Anna Thompson didn't go to games her son coached. They had a different relationship. She had taught him life, not ball. Don't want what you can't have. Keep family problems in the family. Be positive. She taught him--when he sat in the Baby Row, at the hardest time to teach him such a thing--to believe in himself and to speak his mind. A thousand times she must have recited a little poem to him.
You can do anything you think you can,
It's all in the way you view it.
It's all in the start you make, young man,
You must feel that you're going to do it.
He couldn't figure out why blacks had to sit in the back of the Catholic church at his father's little town in Maryland, and his mother said, "Don't get caught up in that. The world can be very mean sometimes. Just go ahead, ignore it. The people who run the church aren't the same as what is being taught in the church."
Even later, when her grown-up son was angered by discrimination and came to her in low spirits, she would say, "Go forward, John. Ignore it. You can do anything you think you can . . . "
In her 50s, Anna Thompson studied and became a practical nurse. There's a painting of her in her white uniform on Thompson's office wall. The time she lived in her son's house, these last nine years, she yet was proud of him as her son, not as a pivotman with the Celtics, not as a famous coach. Still a mama's boy, he would say. Sometimes, her mind confused by age, she would call him Lewis, but they would talk their way back to today.
He gave her baths, as she once did for him, and in the bath he would play with her toes. "This little piggy went to market . . . " She would say, "Stop that, boy," and her son would laugh out loud.
The nuns in Catholic school always told the kids to kiss their parents every time they left home because you never know if they'll be there when you get back. Every morning, Thompson would peek around a corner into his mother's bedroom, to see she was all right. Last month, leaving on a basketball trip, he kissed her a bunch of times very fast, pecking away until she giggled and said, "Stop that, boy."
He came back from that trip when she was dying, and three weeks after she died, Thompson woke up one morning and out of love's habit peeked around the corner into her bedroom.