My Mississippi Teacher Corps Experience: Reflections
I committed to Mississippi Teacher Corps with the hope that I would become part of something much larger than myself. While lobbying or law, business or banking were professions I had carefully considered throughout my formative years, I knew that my spirit would not thrive if I took a job that wasn’t an incredible challenge. Often times I find myself seeking situations that will test me. Now having martinis with wealthy white men as part of development and fundraising work seemed sexy at the time, and that was hard to turn down, but luckily, I had enough foresight to realize that I had much life yet to learn. I knew spending two years in the Delta would be trying, but I had no idea it’d be worth it. During documentary filming for a folk art piece, an artist I interviewed started his thoughts with, “Do what you love and the money will come,” which I felt was fitting as inspiration for my decisions and direction. I realize now that without my teaching experience, I would not have skills in multi-tasking, management, public speaking, and I cannot imagine the expansion of my patience... Teaching has given me countless gifts, not the least of which are about two-hundred wonderful, world-changing students, who have left an impression in my heart that will remain.
Today is a breath of fresh air. Yesterday, I could hardly breathe.
The juxtaposition between such days, the dichotomous dark and light that separates each and every reflection has become commonplace. Life, for the past two years, has been a rollercoaster. The highs were pleasing perfection, finest fulfillment, the moment when a teenage frown finally relaxed in understanding a complex concept, inspiration. The lows were painful, struggle to make it through the day, hiding beneath the blankets to prevent the world from finding fault, the indescribable hurt of true disappointment, unfocused frustration. But, as if it was planned this way from the start, every single terrible, awful day I have had, the day when I thought I would not dare do it again tomorrow, those days were always immediately followed by an incredible day, a wonderful, top-ten, couldn’t-be-better day. And that’s pretty much how it went, weekly—terrific, terrible, terrible, terrific. Sometimes I thrived, other times, barely survived-- rollercoasting.
I told Coach I was leaving today, and I cried. I didn’t imagine I would cry, but tears flowed freely as I attempted to commit my most sincere efforts from now until my very last day. He smiled as I choked through my rehearsed speech about giving one-hundred-and-ten-percent and the lack of eligible bachelors in this town and wanting to adopt a few students and freezing my ass off in Colorado. Coach is the kind of boss most of you only dream about, and I told him that too. Although he has been constantly harassing me about staying for another year, he was incredibly kind and supportive when I revealed my plans to be otherwise. He said if he had the endless possibilities before him, the opportunities that await me, he wouldn’t be able to stay either. I wonder, though, is the grass always greener on the other side?
The English II SATP is over, and the contemporary Leonardo DiCaprio-Claire Danes version of Romeo and Juliet is playing on my Smartboard. For whatever reason, my students are enthralled. They stare at the screen, watching this white, wannabe, hip-hop version of Shakespeare, smiling and laughing, ooh-ing and ahh-ing. I sit at my big, presidential desk in the back of the classroom, and I watch too. I am happy because they are happy. This has become a strange reaction to my students’ feelings—I live vicariously through them sometimes. They ask me why the actors and actresses are “talking like a poem” and I try to explain Shakespeare, fumbling over descriptions of the time period and themes. I have a momentary flashback to my first summer in Holly Springs. I joined the Drama Club, for a reason I still haven’t figured out, and we put on a play. Shakespeare’s MacBeth took control of our “activities period” in summer school, and we practiced and rehearsed for what seemed like months and months. We took an iPhone photo of our lead actor (MacBeth)’s face, zoomed it, printed it, and taped it to a basketball to use during the beheading scene. The entire summer school came to watch MacBeth that July, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the smiles on students’ faces when the production was complete. My fondest memory of that summer was spent immersed in some sideline Shakespeare, and today, I can’t help but feel a little circle-of-life leading me back to some version of something Shakespearian— and speaking of Shakespeare, of literature… I think I’ll always be part English-teacher from here on out, regardless of my profession.
The Dirty Delta
Friends often joke about the fact that I spend my days in a "dirty Delta" town, particularly Tunica, where I sometimes introduce myself as a cocktail waitress or blackjack dealer. The Delta has a personality that most people cannot comprehend. I have talked extensively about the complexities of the region, through a soon-to-be-published book compiled with students or an occasional blog post about the culture of the place I now call home. In James Cobb's The Most Southern Place on Earth, he talks of the transition of wealthy planters from Kentucky and Virginia who came to settle in the Mississippi River Delta, beginning in the northern region, now known as Tunica. These landowners were hungry for a space where their agricultural business could be more sustainable, and in the Delta, then just as now, the soil is as rich as any in the entire country. As I have spent the past few weeks managing phone calls from family and friends who are worried that I'm being washed away down here, I watch the waters of the Mighty Mississippi rise to levels not seen in more than one hundred years. The levees are holding tight, but friends who live closer to the river (not that you can get much closer than Tunica, but there are fishing camps literally on the water) are evacuating their homes now. The tropic summer is nearly upon us, and although a summer in the Delta provides downhome blues hardly seen elsewhere in the world, the 100-degree-heat mixed with the humidity makes July nearly unbearable. Tunica is the sweatiest place I've ever been, and particularly at the spring peak, I can't help but imagine the immense heat further frying the flat lands very soon. The Dirty Delta might be sticky, but it has also become a place of refuge for me. As someone who spent the majority of her childhood moving from place to place, I'm not sure I've ever felt more at home than when I drive south from Memphis and the bottom flattens to lowland and the cotton is high.
I like to think I'm a foodie. The term became popular in elitist little circles where folks are consumed by the culture of the available dining options in a particular place. I live above Cafe Marie, a Tunica staple with a wonderful chef and a stocked bar. From cream-covered pastas to skirt-steak sandwiches, I am never void of delicious food just down the stairs from my home (and luckily, too, since my kitchen houses paperwork and to-do lists rather than canned goods). Whether it be the barbeque at Abe's in Clarksdale or the divine dishes at Morgan Freeman's Madidi, the juke joint plate lunches across the street at Nickson's Disco or hot wings gone wild at the famed Blue and White on Highway 61, I am fortunate to find myself surrounded by heavenly meals. Paula Deen in all her Southern glory and butter even has a restaurant at a nearby casino. On the rare occasion when I wake up and crave a fresh salad, I shutter at the thought of the produce section at the local Piggly Wiggly, and I know that the steps I take from here will likely entail a much healthier lifestyle than I've experienced in these two years. However, I know (without a doubt) that my cravings for asparagus or pomegranate will likely be overshadowed by the lack of legitimate hot wings. I will miss the Delta for countless reasons, but the food will most certainly top the list of things I miss the most (my sweet baby students shooting for a tie there too).