The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

September 27, 2015

A Tale of Two Campuses: Northern versus Southern college cultures

I begin this week, readers, with a confession: Nothing in this blog entry is scientific at all.  If you read this and say to yourselves, “I went to college down South, and none of this is true about where I went to school,” or “Northern universities are not at all what she says they are,” I take no offense — these words are based on my observations and experiences.

That said, I have taught students in the North and Students in the South, and this is what I have seen.

These are Yankee urban students attending an urban campus.

These are Yankee urban students attending an urban campus.

Here is a photo of students attending the first college where I taught after I received my Masters’ degree, Notice the ethnic diversity of the student body, a truly enriching experience for everyone in the room, the vague weariness — most of these students had full-time jobs while they pursued their bachelors’ degrees.  Notice, too, that they do not grin the way Americans do in other parts of the country but look rather serious.  Indeed, they asked me deep questions as I taught.  If I called right now on the girl in the head scarf raising her hand, I guarantee you her question would impress you, blow your mind, and make you think a new thought.  I loved these students. They generally came to class hungry for debate.  I would throw a polemical discussion topic in the center of the room, and it would go off like a grenade.  For the next half hour, we would have the kind of conversation that makes college worth the price of tuition.  What was important in life?  What did good government do? What mattered more?  Which one betrayed the other?  Write an essay of no less than five paragraphs that argues your point of view.  My goodness, how New Yorkers know how to argue!  It’s our sport.  While the Yankees play at Yankee Stadium, the rest of the New Yorkers not in pinstripes scream at the ump, tell him why he got that last call wrong.  That is who we are. The debates were lively and passionate.  The written work of the students varied in quality.  The ideas were without exception dynamic. Though traditionally-aged, my students had survived things, emigrating from war zones, rescuing siblings from crack-addled parents, maybe just working really hard by age sixteen in a tough city.  Sometimes, they yelled at me in class.  I yelled back.  This wasn’t insubordination.  In New York, we call this conversation.

These young women call their professors

These young women call their professors “ma’am” and “sir.”

Then of course, I went South.  Here is a photo of the sort of students I am likely to teach down South.Notice the blonder hair, the conformity of pastels and Nike shorts and shoes.  They all look about five years younger (and less experienced) than the Yankees above, but they are not younger, only more sheltered.  Notice the smilier smiles.  These students all call me “ma’am.” I have to tell the students in the South that debate is not only allowed in the class, it is required, I have to put it in the syllabus.  And then we have to practice it. This happens because it is considered incredibly rude to contradict one’s elders in the South, even if your Aunt Lucille says that her chihuahua’s rump spot looks like the face of Elvis.  You’re not allowed to ridicule your granddaddy’s view that the Mexicans are about to invade with a huge army if you’re Southern.  In the North, by contrast, one of the most loving family gesture is to turn to your brother, slap him on the back of the head as hard as you can, and shout, “What are you, stupid?”  That is loving, Brooklyn style.  In the South, even if your brother is unimaginably stupid, you can’t ask the question, and frankly, if it’s that bad, you already know what he is.  He is stupid.  But this tradition of Southern respect makes my students unwilling to contradict one another and debate.  It makes class time polite but more dull as well.

As I believe in classrooms where debate takes place that the professor has a requirement to briefly disclose his or her biases on any topic, I often tell students in my classroom that I am a committed Christian.  In the North, the room of students usually slightly tenses.  Arms get folded across chests.  They wonder if  I will judge them for not being Christians (I won’t) or because they live a wild and reckless life (I don’t).  When I say the same words in the South, I hear an audible sigh of relief.  In all these students’ non-contradicting family’s gatherings, there is an uncle who pulls aside college student one by one who are there, and he puts his arm around each of them.

“Don’t let them steal your Jesus, boy!” He says.

I am not the professor who will steal, or even attempt to shoplift their Jesus, as I have mine chained to the luxury coat rack with an alarm so nobody removes Him.  So they are relieved.  I don’t want them to be Godless.  I just want them to be sort of rude, by their grandma’s standards at least.

I feel a little schizophrenic wherever I am teaching now.  When I am North, I notice the bumptiousness of my students and wonder why they are so nervy.  When I am South, I notice the passivity of my students and wonder why they don’t take more risks. The truth is, there is wisdom in being both courteous and bold, and I suppose that’s why we have a whole country full of college students, all of whom are delightful in their own ways.  On both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, my students are optimistic, compassionate, and offer fresh perspectives when urged to do so.  That’s why I love teaching all of them.

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August 31, 2010

Rebels Who Don’t Rebel

My students at Ole Miss are the sweetest, most polite, most lovely group of young scholars ever to set foot on a campus, and it’s freaking me out.

They file in quietly, having read the text in advance, wearing a veritable uniform — all of them, male and female — flip-flops, shorts, and a tank-top or t-shirt.  The boys sometimes wear caps.  The girls sometimes wear jewelry.  But they are in lock-step fashion-wise. I don’t know them well, yet, but they appear to be perfect angels.  I am spooked by this.  New Yorkers who are young are twitchy, pierced in odd places, and check out their large  pupils — they might be on something.  They wear some black.  They expose midriffs that have tattoos.  I have to tell them to turn off the music which is bleeding out of their ear buds.  I catch them texting.

I should be thrilled.  I am thrilled.  My students are wonderful.  Their mommas should be proud of them.  I am proud of them.  However, something is wrong with this picture.

I think they are not yet sure whether they are allowed to disagree with the authors presented to them in class.  When I say emphatically — I say much  emphatically — yes, they can disagree, they aren’t quite sure whether or not to believe me.  This might be a Yankee ambush.

They call themselves The Rebels, and Rebel sports are a serious business.  People here care passionately about the football team in particular, but look at their current mascot:

Yes, the Rebels still have an old man representing them

There are, of course, lots of things to say about this image:

  1. Perhaps most importantly, they are in the process around here of choosing a new mascot.
  2. This Civil War slaveholder is offensive as an image.
  3. Oddly, per an article which appeared on ESPN’s web page, the mascot — known as Colonel Reb — has only been around since the 1970s, post-integration of Ole Miss, so what were they thinking?
  4. Here’s the kicker for me  — He’s an old man!

That’s right — my Rebel students have an old  man with a cane as their symbol.  How can that be rebellion?

Ole Miss is known as one of the top party schools of  the region.  I have no doubt this is true.  However, according to Dean of Students Sparky Reardon, most of the students party Saturday night and crawl into church on Sunday morning.  If they have sinned, we may assume also that they repent. I am a Christian, and I believe in repentance.  I repent.  However, I can’t honestly say I regret being in an environment of non-conformity and rebellion.  The parties, from what I understand, that these kids go to at Ole Miss are largely the same — frat house, booze, music, shouting, drunk sex.  Before they take their clothes off, everyone is dressed the same.

I went to parties when I was their age where I danced with a man who looked like Young Vincent Van Gogh — only  he was wearing a diaphanous floral print dress, a floppy garden party hat, and waving an  organza scarf in my face.

My friend from college Becca, who later became a professional opera singer, almost got kicked out of school for using a flame thrower in an experimental musical performance.  She almost torched the front row and might have burned the auditorium down.  She had a  mohawk and a pet weasel.

I went to a night club and met one of my favorite movie stars, who treated my girlfriend, who was ga-ga over him, with a lack of respect.  A guy there beat up the movie star.  I made out with that guy in the ladies’ room.

More than once, I went to an abandoned warehouse where there was a party going on with art videos and punk rock bands.  The cops usually shut these down.

We never called ourselves rebels.  We rebelled.

Yet somehow, my students are all there in their places with bright, shiny faces, and they are the rebels who don’t rebel.

This shouldn’t bother me.  This is wonderful.  I have good kids in my class.  All the boys are handsome and clean-cut.  All the girls look fresh-faced and pretty.

These are smart kids, too.  Honestly, I wasn’t sure, based on Northeastern biases, how well-prepared they would be for this subject matter, but they are better academically prepared than most of the students I saw in similar classrooms in New York City.

The rebels have a cheer, referred to as “Hotty Toddy” for short.  It has some curse words in it, but what is striking is that this, too, is a group activity based on conformity.  It is a cheer that people shout in unison.

I have never  been very good at understanding conformists’ motivations.  I see no particular joy in being like the others.  I distrust group-think in all its manifestations.

Is rebellion a fundamental rite of passage to individuality?  Some psychologists say yes.  However, in  an era that is post-9/11, these sweet kids have wanted somehow to be good.  In fact, it was all they could do to make this place better, the United States.  They could not give their parents any additional headaches.

I should appreciate them more.  I do appreciate them.  I just hope that they don’t miss something on their way wherever they’re going.

August 22, 2010

Pledging the Southern Sorority of Sassy Omega

The founding mothers of Sassy Omega the week they invented the air kiss

Sisterhood  is powerful — unless it is accompanied by back-stabbing rivalry and hazing.  I am learning, having lived down South for some months now, that sororities have an enduring influence — often discouraging free thought and encouraging with every turn more and more group think.

Perhaps living in a house with other young women, wearing the  same haircut, attending numerous mixers with group-think boys in order to “snag” one, and engaging in the occasional community service as a substitute for real political engagement sounds more appealing than the bohemian and often solitary intellectual and artistic pursuits in which I have engaged ever since I saw the B-52s perform on Saturday Night Live and started dressing (back then, not now) New Wave and spiking my hair up (again, now I wear my hair unspiked).  I was never cut out for sorority life of any kind, at least until now.

One of the advantages of sorority life is an instant and institutionalized circle of friends.  I am a stranger here, and I find myself alone too much of  the time.  When I have managed to snag an invitation somewhere, I feel like a pledge about to be blackballed.  My haircut is just not standard issue, and neither  is the worldview under it.  I have been thusfar utterly NOKD — Not our kind, dear.

This all changed when I went to the Mississippi Writers Guild conference and met my Dixie Doppelganger — Lauretta Hannon. There I met a sister of a sorority I would LOVE to join  — the  one that has been occupied by women like Politico  Molly Ivins, Comedienne Brett Butler, and the shockingly frank and original girl gone wild Rosemary Daniell — that of incredibly funny and iconoclastic Southern women.  Let me call them the Ha-Ha sisterhood.  No, because it’s a  form of political subversion, not just empty laughter, the sharp collection of words these women have written, let me call them the Southern sorority of Sassy Omega.

We Northerners, Lauretta discussed in brief during her lecture at the conference, have the misconception that women down here are either manipulative and archly feminine a la Scarlett O’Hara or Super-cheerleader Republican Femmebots.  In fact, there is another breed of woman down here who dances between the expectations of ladylike behavior and subversive liberation.  They are funny in ways that men down here find a bit intimidating, unless they themselves are really, really cool.  They are sexually and politically demanding.  They are  not generally mean.  They are, however, stubborn.

The Southern sorority of Sassy Omega would appreciate my manicure and bodacious blondeur.  However, they would love it more that I’m funny and naughty and smart.  I  am pledging this Sorority.  I am willing to be hazed if necessary.  Please, oh sisters, please, invite me to the next tea dance!

Lauretta is about my age, spent time in Europe, as I did, and she, too, coped with her family’s dysfunction with bad 1980s  hair dos.  Later, like I did, she became a writer, publishing and promoting the bejeezus out of an autobiographical  book of humor and pathos entitled The Cracker Queen.  Lauretta is wickedly funny — called by one magazine “the funniest woman in Georgia.”  While I’m beginning to believe  that being the funniest woman in Georgia, given the general lack of irony present at most Greek Life functions, may be easier than being the funniest woman in Brooklyn, where unladylike funniness is generally encouraged, I nonetheless see this as quite an accomplishment.

Here’s a photo or two of  her from back then, and I think she looks marvelous.

Lauretta Hannon, a.k.a. The Cracker Queen, before she was ever a biscuit.

Okay, the hair is NOT spiky, but today, she has short, stylishly feathered hair that COULD be spiked, and today, my hair looks enough like her hair in Amsterdam, that — well — it sort of fits the matching haircut paradigm for sorority conformity, despite the time warp.

What is definitely in conformity is the sense of humor.  She is,  as some would say up North, a pissah.  She’s not a little bit funny — she’s hugely so.  She made me laugh so hard I almost fell off my chair.  I apparently have made her laugh, too.

I tried to scan in my photo just now of my bad hair days from Paris, not spiky so much as bright red and frizzy, with my white leather bomber jacket and my absurd combat boots, but my scanner is not cooperating.  Just take it from me — I am also stocked up on silly photos from the same continent and era.

Lauretta looks like this now:

Lauretta recounting a drole episode with all her Sassy Omega charm

If she looks hilarious, well, she is.  She tells her stories about her completely redneck and utterly provincial childhood in small-town Georgia in such a way that she makes the poignant absolutely side-splititngly comic.

Her stories, in the oral tradition of the Southern tall tale, are at least as much about the spoken word as about the page, but that said, run, don’t walk to your local independent bookseller and buy at least twelve copies of  The Cracker Queen (2010, Gotham).  Make my sorority sister rich so she’ll let me wear identical dresses with her at the cotillion — and then we can take our husbands, doubtless both brothers from the fraternity of Messy Mu Delta, out on the dance floor and give each other the thumbs-up and the okay sign over their shoulders during the foxtrot.

Lauretta and I laughed a lot at the conference at each other’s comments, and she impressed me to no end when she told me  she  was having lunch at a snooty tea salon with Rosemary Daniell before the end of the month, that they intended to “defile the temple” of Southern smug womanhood that this institution constituted with its cucumber sandwiches and sweet tea.

I have asked her for absurdly precise details about the lunch.  She has, much to my great honor, promised to include me in the conversation — at this point, possibly given this blog entry, preceded by the comment, “I have this odd Yankee stalking me,” but I’m hopeful they may just let me decorate the float with them this year for homecoming.  I can crumple tissue paper with the best of them.

I am pledging.  I am baking cookies.  I am hoping they will let me clean their peau de soie heels with my toothbrush, then give me a Sassy Omega pin in a ceremony involving a rubber chicken and some Jack Daniels.

I am ready, girls.  I am desperately ready.

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