Thursday, March 6, 2014



Almost, but not quite.  However, a powerful lasso of the past - the taste of sausage balls made for Super Bowl Watching this year, but quickly overpowered by the memory of onion dip summoned from small plastic cartons with chips.  Flats of boxes containing half-eaten pizza becoming breakfast food, following an evening of frozen bras, levitations, Ouija boards, innocent prank phone calls and the wee morning hours running across dewy yards on silent streets of our subdivision calling out boys' names, and a sleeping mother awakened by screeching neighborhood cats calling her beloved son's name and then, a rush like gazelles dancing across the front lawn. 

My real memory of place is not first stirred by the sight of a Magnolia tree or a Natchez plantation but by today's precipitation and another cold January day decades into the past but instantly recalled, when spitting pieces of ice thankfully did not freeze to the pavement, degrees away from immobilizing the wheels of the moving van which started out ahead of us, traveling hundreds of miles to a new state and a new city, carrying hopes and dreams and every possession but the contents of a few suitcases and a box or two of precious heirlooms.  Our journey began the next day, the four of us in a car packed to the gills, complete with a tranquilized dog curled up on a towel at my feet.

But on this afternoon, the best love in all my twelve years has already been delivered by his mother to my house, saying goodbye with a box of chocolates and a card while moving men disassemble the home of all my memory and the breaths of said goodbyes already haunt a place where no one will ever know the people who lived, loved and left.  The pain of lost love and the joy of being remembered have affected my appetite for the first time.  Celebrating our new beginnings with extended family,  I can only manage a small quacomole salad - the beginnings of a lifetime affair with the succulent fruit which is now, thankfully, good for you.

We cross the Mississippi and I begin a new love affair with this mighty river.  Already the world looks different, even in winter.  Gray Spanish moss seems to be hanging from every large tree.  In the cold grey January, it looks to me as sad as I feel.  Our new home is not quite ready and the days waiting in the Holiday Inn seem forever, three of us, the tranquil dog and precious heirlooms carefully guarded.  Daddy is already working hard.

A series of quakes has disturbed the fault line we have moved to, exposing chasms still known to swallow up people, gaping raw earth which will take decades to fill in and smooth down, despite the best efforts of the best people on both sides.  In the middle of all of this upheaval, religion, education, politics and society have all grasped frantically for a way to climb out of the shock of the quakes.  Entire states are grappling with the same aftershocks.   A pipe here and a tree root over there.  Survival during free fall no matter the cost.

Here we enter the picture, already into the second semester of the school year.  Action must be taken quickly to get us enrolled properly, as advised by the new powers that be, in our new world.  Public school is not an option in this immediacy.  Private parochial and other large well respected private schools have no openings at this point in the term.  Our names are placed on waiting lists.

We are granted an interview with an organization operating several schools throughout the city.  In all of our innocence, we were not prepared for what we saw there or experienced. At the time, we had no personal knowledge of the depth of such hate and prejudice.  At twelve years old, all I could think was "Hitler?"  We were the right color and were quickly enrolled in school.  I can only imagine my mother's horror at what we discovered and knowing absolutely no one to turn to for help.  She said she felt like crying when we left the building. We were isolated in a different and lonely world.  I do not blame my parents.

The road was lined with trees, the hanging moss almost touching the road at times.  A short drive from our house.  We were quickly registered and pleasantly escorted to our classrooms but not before a quick whisper from our mother, promising a change as soon as possible.  This was the first time in my life I entered a situation knowing absolutely no one.  My sister was in the lower grade school. 

I was accustomed to brick and mortar public schools full of shiny floors and big concrete playgrounds and a cafeteria as big as four houses.  This school was composed of educational trailers with connecting sidewalks, some which were covered, leading all over the property.  A small shack served as a walk up lunch cantina for purchases and food brought in that had been prepurchased.  Several picnic tables were scattered around and on rainy days, lunches were taken inside of a trailer.  

Each trailer had two classrooms, divided by a wall with a door and a narrow floor to ceiling gas furnace for heating which always made me nervous.  When it rained, it was muddy.  The bathroom trailer was usually smokey and I acquired an education, hidden very still and quiet in a stall away from the lavatory. 

But, like almost everything, except for the very worse things about life, and as bad as this could be, there were good things.  The trailers had big bright windows on one wall.  Bright sunshine and good access for seeing what was going on outside.  I had my first home economics class and learned to sew.  Most of my teachers looked tired but overall, friendly.  The lessons were not challenging for my sister or me but the teachers did the best with what they had.  Despite the political leanings, thankfully, I don't remember any propaganda being taught.  One teacher always had fun ideas and we would do activities to go along with the lesson plans like making an Asian meal and dressing up.  We even had a class picture on that occasion.  Two teachers stand out in my mind, for two very different reasons. 

The first teacher was a coach/teacher, Coach L.  To be fair to other Coaches who are also teachers, I know the double job can be done well but it can also be a poor substitute for everyone involved.  Coach L. would fall into the poor substitute and nothing done well category.

I don't remember the course subject but I do have two clear memories of this class.  This school was the first and only school I attended where corporal punishment or "licks" were quickly meted out by the nearest Coach carrying a wooden paddle about sixteen inches long, four inches wide and about one inch thick, with a handle on one end and three holes cut out of the middle.    This power is easily applied.

At the end of class, his favorite game was to walk around the small class room and play a game of Gotcha.  Everyone would place their hands palms down on the desk and he would walk up and down the rows with his wooden paddle of great authority.  Actually, it was more a game of Chop, Chop as he would randomly pick a student and whack the narrowest side of the paddle down on the desk as the student jerked their hands away.  What relief not to have your fingers chopped off.  The paddle was very accurately deployed to narrowly miss any fingers but to elicit a scare.  But I was an adult before I realized the physical and mental control of the one wielding the paddle.  For a seventh grader, terror and peer pressure kept the game a secret.

C.L. was young and also liked to flirt with the girls in the class.  I was not about to flirt with a teacher but he was very manipulative.  One minute something was a joke and the next minute he was not happy.  An almost teenager is very conflicted about telling someone about such actions.  After all, the whole class was going along, trying to appease the teacher.

Talking in class was always my chief talent.  Not one for much warning, one day he decided I was talking too much and he told me to go outside for licks. I thought he was joking and everyone laughed along, thinking it was a joke also.  He shut the door behind us as we walked outside.  I had never been called down in such a manner.  I didn't know what to do.  I thought we would stand outside and then go back in and pretend he had given me licks.  Girls just didn't get spanked and certainly not just for talking.  I was wrong.  He directed to me face the corner of the building and place my hands on the corner of the building at shoulder level.  I remember the day was a pretty spring day and I was embarrassed because I could hear and see the younger children playing on a field down in the lower school area.  Then he told me to spread my legs .  I was wearing one of my favorite new outfits, pale green jeans and a blouse my mother had made for me.  I got three good licks on my backside. 

I came back in the building, humiliated.  I didn't shed a tear I was so angry.  Even though I had fair, loving parents, I didn't go home and tell my parents.  I had gotten in trouble for talking and punishment had been given.  Now I was really scared of the teacher.  He did not ruin my psyche because I was too young and innocent at the time to really recognize the seriousness of his threatening manipulation.  Unfortunately, things like this still happen.  But I do think there is much more scrutiny and openness about such matters in schools today.

Just to show me that life can teach me something new, even decades later, is the memory of my favorite teacher at this school and her bright influence which would be a spark in my life. A spark of the very best and good offered by a committed teacher.

For years, I have remembered learning this poem by memory and the elaborate poster I drew to illustrate my version.  And the poet.  I remembered this teacher and her love of poetry.  Throughout all the moves in my lifetime, this little book went from this box to that box, but was never tossed.  Certainly, it had been in hiding and not on a bookshelf for decades.  Until recently, in the past few years of setting up my office.  I actually found it last year. 

Like a long-lost treasure, precious leaves of gold and silver I didn't even remember missing, until it was found.  Such relief.  Now the pages smell like an old library.  But recall a twelve year old girl who now needs glasses to read the words.  The glorious words.  The words of all the poems we studied in the classroom of this teacher who threw out sparks of light.

One landed on me and lit my life for the rest of it.  A young poet whose first poems are dated back to this same year.  Finding this book reminded me of the influence of this teacher.

In this exact place of education, muddy and dark, in our little classroom trailer, she wielded a book of poems by American poets which was not segregated by color or religion or subject.  She was the brave heart, listening to us recite our poems and helping us tape our posters up on the classroom walls.  My chosen poem........

                                                "Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes

                                        "Well, son, I'll tell you:
                                          Life for me ain't been no crystal stair."

She would be one of the many good people I would come to know.  A new place which would become home, full of good memories and friends to last a lifetime.