Sunday, December 7, 2008

In the Wiregrass

I visited two high schools as a teacher of writing in the fall of 1985 in rural Alabama. One was located in Abbeville, in the southeast corner of the state, just across the Chattahoochee River from Georgia. The other was in Wicksburg, less than 20 miles from the Florida State Line. It was called Wiregrass Country because the vegetation that poked through the plains could slice open your ankle.

The towns -- and their schools -- were separated by less than a half hour’s drive by automobile but, as I visited them in a two-day period, they seemed to be cleaved by a intellectual and spiritual chasm that was unfathomable.

On the first day, I walked up Abbeville’s main street, walked along the raised wooden sidewalk outside the Rexall Drug, then passed beyond the courthouse, down along the scattered leaves beneath the oaks and hackberries, finding my way to the broad grass lot where the students, all of them African Americans, sat on the fenders of their cars and talked and smoked cigarettes, their stereos blazing. Several couples pressed up against their cars, or leaned up against the hackberry trees.

The classroom windows were taped across the cracks, and the boy’s bathroom was lighted by bare bulbs, the sinks broken and faucets leaking. In the library, I waited for students to come and show me their writing. One girl had crafted a marvelous story about magic and superstition, about the spirit of a murdered seamstress who inhabited the shadows beneath the football bleachers. Another told how you know the moment an illness steals its way inside you.

I attended an afternoon English class and while I was midway through a lecture on metaphors, a bumblebee blazed through the open window and nested in my beard. The students leaped from their desks, shouting, laughing, singing, and their teacher, a gaunt, middle-aged Caucasian woman leaned against the rear wall of the classroom and buried her face in her hands. Class dismissed.

I spent the evening in Wicksburg, a hamlet just west of Dothan, a flat Alabama town with a military base and a sky filled with the drone of jet helicopters. I dined at the home of the high school principal, a burly white man who wore a red college ring on his right hand. We sat in his living room before a coffee table strewn with Baptist tracts. When told I had spent the day in Abbeville, he remarked that their football team had “a nigger guard that’d rip your head off.”

The next morning as I waited for my students in the Wicksburg school library, I found in the stacks a first-edition copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls that had not been checked out--recently or ever for all I could tell--with crisp pages and binding. These white students arrived punctually for their conferences bearing rather blasé and sanitized tales of hunting and fishing and cheer leading.

The hallways were scrubbed, and posters of football heroes painted in tempera hung from the rafters. The boys and girls did not touch each other, although a fellow in a varsity jacket and a girl in a plaid skirt and sweater held a pen between their fingertips just before they parted for separate classrooms. It reminded me of two people sucking at opposite ends of a strand of spaghetti except, of course, that the gesture lacked any real suggestion of sensuality. Rather, it seemed desperate.

At the bell, the students in the English class sat erect in their desks, pencils held tightly to their writing tablets, eyes forward. “If they’re not in their seats at the bell,” the teacher informed me, “they’re sent to the vice-principal’s office.” The paddle was a common remedy. The teacher was a robust, round woman with bright eyes behind thick metal glasses. When I began to speak to students about images and metaphorical language she informed me, “Honey, I have my hands full with the basic R’s, let alone you bring up anything difficult.”

I was invited to attend the pep rally after lunch, but I declined. I drove home to Tuscaloosa, where I’d been teaching composition and creative writing to university students who had been graduated from the high schools of the cities and towns of Alabama.

What I want to say -- what I need to say -- is that rationalizing away my experience simply by saying, “Well, that’s Alabama,” is insufficient. It would be negligent. My experience played itself out over and again across heartland Illinois, the Alaskan north, the Tidewater of Virginia, and other places where I taught over the years. In college-town Illinois, my best friend was told that because she was sporting a New York Mets baseball hat, she obviously liked "Hebrews".

But everywhere I went amidst the monstrous idiocy I found a resiliency that simply isn't attached to justice or an equitable distribution of money. The creative mind flows like water seeking its own level beneath the hardpan of ignorance.

There’s an awful lot of Alabama everywhere you go, far outside the Heart of Dixie. American schools and communities are but an organic outgrowth of behavior and belief, embodying the best and worst of the families that send their sons and daughters out to the world.

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