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

June 13, 2017

Markup: Why We Need to Call our Senators Every Day This Week and Next

Danesfield crest

This is the crest of arms of my old school when I was a kindergartner in England (no, not Hogwarts).

Non Progredi est Regredi — Not to move forward is to go backwards — was the motto of my English school where I attended kindergarten and the equivalent of first grade, Danesfield Manor School in Walton-on-Thames in Surrey, about an hour outside of London. My father had a job predicting the impact of international oil production for Shell Oil in London, and in the 1970s, when I was sent to Danesfield in a blue pinafore and school blazer with a cute straw hat during the spring months, the place operated like a Dickensian panopticon (though now, it seems more progressive, diverse, and experimental than what it was). Each morning in chapel where we intoned a vague Anglican prayer after an off-key Anglican hymn I never knew, the head mistress, Miss Kate, a woman with a tight bun who truly never seemed to smile, had the older students conduct a reading of the marks.

How I dreaded hearing this recitation of the marks! Each of the three mark readers had a little red notebook from which they recited in a clear but dreary monotone, that always when a bit like this:

Danesfield students

I used to dress like this at school — only back then Danesfield Manor School made girls wear a straw hat with a blue ribbon.

“Forgetfulness marks for the day: Jane Emerson, 1 forgetfulness mark. Simon Smith, 2 forgetfulness marks…..Bad marks for the day: “Josephine Madison, 1 bad mark. Dicken Henry, 4 bad marks.”

And when Miss Kate heard of a student who had received anything more than two bad or forgetfulness marks, she would make someone like poor Dicken, who was always getting bad marks, stand before the rest of us and the entire faculty and her own merciless gaze, stand there hands clasped in front of him like Oliver Twist bereft of his empty gruel bowl, and attempt to explain himself.

“How do you account for your four bad marks yesterday, Dicken? I understand you stole a classmate’s pencil and called him a very bad word!”

Dicken would inevitably stammer out in a fearful soprano, “I don’t know Miss!  I don’t know why I did that!”

Oh! How I felt for Dicken!  How I was horrified that I might ever have a mark read against me!  I was never in league of pencil-stealers, nor did I know any bad words yet, but I might have gotten a forgetfulness mark, as I had neglected to put away a coloring book once, and I had left my sweater outside on a bench at lunch time. Oh — to have one’s name spoken in the monotone of obloquy of chapel first thing in the day! What could be worse, I thought?

At five, I could not have imagined the shamelessness of Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader from Kentucky, who is determined to commit an act of perfidy against Americans, worse than stealing a pencil, very much worth the utterance of bad words. He has orchestrated a legislative process in the shadows to remove healthcare from over twenty million Americans in order to give the richest one percent of Americans a hefty tax break. Instead of an open debate with public hearings in the light of day about a bill that will materially change one-sixth of the American economy, he and a few nefarious co-conspirators are behind closed doors, marking up a bill that will remove coverage for birth control (though it would seem Viagra will remain covered), mental health, hospital births, and many other needed treatments.  Rather than allowing a full airing of their activities with a fulsome debate about their merits, this dirty dozen Republican senators, under McConnell’s bulging and watchful eye, will execute the bill with no meaningful debate, ripping care away from poor children, the elderly, and the working poor.

How many bad marks would Mitchell McConnell receive, Miss Kate? I would like to think you would have made your face as flint in light of his misdeeds.

Senator cassidy and senator collins

Senator Dr. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), is perhaps the only doctor in America who is willing to endorse the Republican plan to leave tens of millions of Americans without health insurance.  The AMA, hospitals, AARP, nursing associations — they think his ideas are irresponsible.

Meanwhile, senators are claiming that their phones aren’t ringing about this. I find that hard to believe, as I know many people who have called Bill Cassidy, the senior senator from Louisiana, the Dr. Mengele of this healthcare, or as political commentator Jon Favreau calls it, wealthcare regression, has had his Washington office on voicemail only for days. At my other senator, John Kennedy (no, alas, not that John Kennedy, and not a worthy namesake) had a chipper intern answering calls one day recently, but yesterday, his phone went to voicemail as well.  We have been calling, and they have “forgotten” to pick up the line.  Is it because they want to “forget” to cover 23,000,000 Americans, close to half a million of whom reside in their state?

How many forgetfulness marks is that, Miss Kate?  Half a million? What kind of paddling or detention would that get the Senators from Louisiana?  Why are they not worried about the blood on their hands if this bill passes?

As Danesfield taught me so young, non progredi est regredi —  in 2010, Congress wisely established a national healthcare system as almost every single industrialized country has done, an imperfect system, but one that has at least improved upon the no-system system, where the shoe-shine guys in front of Grand Central Station could only get healthcare in the emergency room at Bellevue Hospital, where people lost their homes because they couldn’t afford cancer treatments for their mothers, where children when without needed visits to the doctor so that the family could eat. What the Republicans have been lobbied to do by the insurance industry, big pharma, and sundry billionaires with pathological greed, is to eliminate even this imperfect system so that the billionaire class pays an even lower percentage of their gains than the workers for minimum wage.

Non progredi est regredi — not to go forward with better coverage is to go backwards, fatally for many.

So what can we do? We must make them know we will hold them accountable, be the Miss Kate of their five year-old consciences, surely the last time that they felt them keenly in some cases.  Call the Senate switchboard twice today and every day for the next couple of weeks to get connected to your two senators, wherever you live in the country.  Their telephone number is (202) 224-3121.  Tell them that all Americans need healthcare and deserve full coverage from a healthcare system.  If you know somebody who may die from their schemes to enrich the already-rich, let them know all about that.  Read their bad marks aloud. Do not let them forget who they work for — you.

Non progredi est regredi — we won’t go back to a Dickensian era where the young heroine dies in the poorhouse, no doctor to help. Americans deserve better.

August 23, 2016

What to Do When the Waters Rise: Southeastern Louisiana University’s Heroic Response to Crisis

Yesterday was the first day of classes at Southeastern Louisiana University, although classes were supposed to begin last week.  The flash floods that destroyed so many homes in the region caused the shift in schedule, along with many other emergency management strategies that were put in place by the state of Louisiana.  People have talked about the flood down here in the media as if it were happening to somebody else, a bunch of hicks, perhaps — not people who get much news coverage at all, unless there are reports of Klan activity in the region. It happened, though, to my colleagues and my students, not to a group in white sheets but young people and their parents, people of every background, and my heart is full as I write about their courage and commitment to what John Henry Newman famously described as “the idea of a university.” I am inspired by their undaunted optimism.

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Southeastern Louisiana underwater — Photo by Southeastern Louisiana University English Instructor Chris Genre of what it looks like outside his house.

One of my colleagues came in for our meeting late last week laughing about how she had had to carry her cat in her purse when the rescue boat reached her flooded house.  Another colleague told me that she was lucky — only her bedroom floor was destroyed, no other part of her house was ruined. The photo you see here was taken by another colleague right outside his house; he had to direct traffic away from near his property, as when cars sped by, they caused waves of water to enter through his front door.  One of my colleagues, a guardsman, rescued his neighbors with a helicopter, and he was in a fine mood as well. Coming as I do from New York City, where complaining is actually competitive — “You think you have problems? Well, let me tell you” or “All your life, you should have such problems as this man” — I was struck by the stoicism of my new colleagues at Southeastern in the face of such tragedy.  They told me over and over again that it wasn’t as bad a problem as Katrina — but truly, if only 20,000 homes were destroyed, compared to the over 800,000 homes destroyed by that disaster, can one call the floods of last week a minor episode?

The English department faculty meeting I attended to prepare for this week was unlike any other I have ever been to. While I wouldn’t call other departments where I have worked heartless, I got the impression from certain institutions where I have worked that while I wasn’t outright forbidden from serving the personal needs, rather than the academic needs, of my students, there was no encouragement to do so. One department head where I adjuncted lamented that so many students wanted the professors to be “Jesus to them.” For me, that remark was problematic, largely because I am called by my faith to be Jesus to anyone in my midst and beyond who needs an ambassador from Jesus. The Southeastern Louisiana University English department has a philosophy of holistic problem-solving with the student body.  After all, how can one expect good academic results from students who have overwhelming crises in their personal lives?

The chair of the department encouraged us to reach out to students and tell them the resources the university was prepared to put at their disposal. Students who couldn’t make it to class would be excused for the first month if necessary for flood-recovery-related reasons. Students who couldn’t get textbooks or whose textbooks were destroyed could have electronic copies where necessary.  Students without computers because of the flood could check out laptops from the university. Psychological counseling was available for trauma. And he said that he felt that our discipline was particularly well placed to help people answer the question of how one overcomes obstacles and remains hopeful in the face of tragedy. What else, after all, is literature for?

Indeed, my students were more subdued than other nervous first-day-of-school undergraduates. I asked how many people had either lost a home or knew someone who did, how many of them knew someone in emotional crisis — about a quarter of them raised their hands.

I was prepared for that response.  Out of 16,000 students at Southeastern Louisiana University, about 7,000 live in parishes where the flooding destroyed many homes.  I had already gotten emails from a number of students explaining that they had lost everything in the flood, but their parents were determined to get them to school. I congratulated them on making it to campus in a manner I would not have normally done had they not left melted plaster, murky carpets, and dangerous electrical boxes to get to campus.

I told them about the resources available on campus and saw a sea of grim faces, none of the typical feigned nonchalance of freshmen who want to appear cool but are still scared children.  I decided to tell them about the opportunities that surviving a grown-up community problem presents. I talked about September 11th, which like so many other New Yorkers I did not watch on television but through a window, my friends who nearly died, the people the city lost, the sense of shallow mirth and false security the city lost in those days.  I told them that I had learned in that crisis that a disaster like that allows an individual to prioritize — what really matters? It allows one to better become the person one intends to become, if one is willing to face the grief of the situation bravely. I could tell they were listening really intently to these words.  They are, after all, already in the process of discovering who they will become as mature adults.

With that, I told them that I knew it was important for them to learn the subjects we would cover, as words are a form of power.  Words may not control the weather, but they frame how we respond to storms of every kind. Would Britain have survived the  Blitz without Churchill’s speeches? We will never know, but it would be impossible to imagine the crisis without the balm of his resolve. We need never know, thank God. Words are power.  We build with them.  Three holy book religions tell us the King of the universe creates with them, not with hammers and bulldozers — with words well-placed, and the material tools follow.

When I drove back to New Orleans, I saw that the receding flood waters had moved into Tangipahoa Parish near Manchac, making houses already on stilts look unstilted. There was an enormous rainbow in the sky over Lake Pontchartrain, vivid against a gray sky, and I was reminded of Genesis 6:13-16 — “I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.”

Indeed, Southeastern Louisiana University’s community is not destroyed.  Some there lost houses but not hope.  Others there are gaining purpose in lieu of trivia. Others still are taking up the call to serve others without complaint.

 

 

October 17, 2015

Blood, bodies and Flags on the Ole Miss Campus

At a recent rally to take down the Confederate-emblematic-Mississippi-State-Flag from the University of Mississippi’s campus, the student newspaper The Daily Mississippian quoted a counter-protester Shaun Winkler, who came with swastika tattoos and a Stars-And-Bars banner to say, “Black lives don’t matter.  We are the blood of conquerors.”

The students on campus generally want to take the state flag down, but the outside community staged counter-protests. Thank you DAILY MISSISSIPPIAN for the image.

The students on campus generally want to take the state flag down, but the outside community staged counter-protests. Thank you DAILY MISSISSIPPIAN for the image.

Conquerors?  Really?  That’s funny.  I recall my Yankee ancestors conquering yours in the battles where that flag in your hands was waved unanachronistically.

And Black lives do matter.  So do the protests of  black students, who have every right, while trodding on ground where men like Mr. Winkler threatened to shed James Meredith’s blood fifty years ago for having the audacity to enroll there, to feel that the last contemporary bastion of institutional racism’s symbolism is embodied in the Mississippi State Flag, the last flag in the Union still emblazoned with the Confederate symbol.

Mr. Winkler gave the impression in his interview and in his choice of tattoo of not having a college education.  He and the counter-protesters came from other places, no doubt from under Tallahatchie river rocks next to newts and insects, to protest the removal of a flag from a place that wouldn’t have let his conquering blood matriculate because of low test scores.  Certainly Mr. Winkler flunked history, at least.

But Mr. Winkler needn’t have protested if his objective in doing so was to keep a Confederate heritage alive at The University of  Mississippi.  Indeed, the history of the college is such that it can hardly be doubted that it will retain its past symbols of conquered Confederates.  And while I abhor the politics of racism, I think the Left enters dangerous and anti-intellectual territory where it wishes to deface monuments longstanding to racist regimes, for if we do not remember the past, we are doomed to repeat it.  It is the contemporary symbols, like the contemporary flag, which must go — but it would be nearly impossible to imagine that the University of Mississippi could divide itself from the Confederacy in history, even if it wanted to.

This is a monument to the Confederate Dead on the Ole Miss Campus.

This is a monument to the Confederate Dead on the Ole Miss Campus.

When one enters the campus of Ole Miss from University Avenue, headed toward the administration building, one passes a monument to the Confederate dead.  Indeed, if seen in a vacuum, the story of the deaths of students at Ole Miss at the Battle of Shiloh and elsewhere are tragic — entire graduating classes perished in grey uniforms under fire from the Union army.  Next to the Confederate monument is a building that was used as a hospital for the dying Confederacy.  In it, one sees a stained-glass monument of the high-melodramatic style of the late Victorian era.  If one enters the campus from Highway 6, and one looks for parking away from the football stadium, which is often restricted, one may park behind the basketball stadium, where a cemetery for those soldiers who died in the hospital building on campus got buried.  On Confederacy memorial days, women of this era show up in hoop skirts, and men in grey reenactment uniforms arrive, and they place wreaths here for unknown soldiers of their conquered cause.

Mississippi ought to stop insulting the African-American descendants of slaves with the symbol that was used to oppress them during the war, then terrify them in the hands of Klan terrorists after the Civil War was over and the Yankees had packed up and moved back North.  Nobody deserves to go to school in an environment where some ignorant idiot would actually tell them that their lives didn’t matter.

The truth of those monuments — that the boys who enrolled in 1861, white and privileged, arrogant and swaggering, the sons of slave-owners, who all got Gatling-gunned down and got buried here and there where swamp animals didn’t devour their corpses — the truth of the sad melodrama of a society that knew it had been conquered, those things ought not be removed.  I wouldn’t mind, though, seeing a monument somewhere on campus to the people who died in Mississippi from the rigors of plantation life in dirty shacks, with insufficient food, backs scarred from whippings.  My instinct would be to put it right next to that Confederate soldier statue, though it would ruin the symmetry of the rotunda.  My instinct would be to make it at least as large as the nineteenth-century monument, and why?  Because black lives do matter.  Confederates did not conquer. And those privileged white boys, their lives were extinguished to defend an indefensible institution, one that brutalized the many for the pleasures of a few.

This is literally where the Confederate bodies are buried on the Ole Miss Campus.

This is literally where the Confederate bodies are buried on the Ole Miss Campus.

But I would tear nothing down.  The ghosts of Confederate soldiers will continue to haunt Ole Miss, especially on nights like the night of November 6, 2012, where a young man got filmed for Youtube, naked all but for an American flag diapering his frat-boy bottom, drunk in the flatbed of a friend’s trunk, angry because Obama won again, shouting “F#ck the N%ggers!” over and over again, just yards away from that Confederate Soldier statue, the true son in the political spirit and overbloated privilege of a small class of white men in Mississippi over the hardworking aspirations of people of color who did him no wrong and over even Mr. Winkler, who needs a real history lesson, as he assumes the cause of that spoiled rich boy somehow reflects his own interests, when in fact it does not.  If he were not so defined by his hatred, literally scarred with swastikas of his own selection, I would call him a victim here.  I think he has been horribly conned.  I would tell him he should clamor for something that acknowledges the total and wasteful loss of white lives in the service of an elitist Confederacy which held the lives of  his ancestors at an even lower price than the lives of the slaves they owned and might exploit in peace time.

There is blood on the campus  of Ole Miss, but it is not the blood of conquerors.  There is dried blood of wasted lives.  And there is new blood of hopeful members of the New South, and they want to take down a flag that insults the humanity of many students there and the intelligence of absolutely anyone.  We don’t believe in myths any more.  We want to explore the truth in greater clarity. We want our lives, all our lives, to matter, to be spent in pursuit of worthy causes, ones that serve our interests collectively and individually. Take that accursed flag down!

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.

December 13, 2011

Measuring change one school hallway at a time

The founders of my step-daughters non-racist school were Klan in all but name and sheet

My stepdaughter’s school is a quiet Christian private school with good teachers and affirmative values of the kind that most any member of the political Left today could embrace, but its founders intended it to be a white supremacist enclave.  My husband and I sent her there because she is bright, and the local public school is run like a prison,  not a place to imagine a future.  The place where we have sent her is simple, with a building whose roof often leaks, no  state-of-the-art technology, but with instruction that emphasizes critical thinking, core academics — the very thing that makes some people going to school in dirt-floor school houses in the third world better prepared for American universities than our own students in schools with smart boards and WiFi.  It is now integrated, at least as much as most private schools in the country are integrated.  This means that there are a few African-American students on campus.  The school does nothing whatsoever explicitly to foster a spirit of racism in the community today.

However, the school used to be called a Council School, one of the schools founded immediately after Brown v. Board of Education was decided, by the White Citizens’ Council of Mississippi — you know, by those people who thought that something horrible would happen to white girls if they learned multiplication tables sitting at desks near black boys.  The White Citizens’ Council was secretly funded by a scary J. Edgar Hoover-ish organization that used to spy on pro-integration citizens in Mississippi — the Sovereignty Commission.  It was a horrible chapter of this state’s history, one that should cause any thinking person to shudder.  The school used to send out racist propaganda to school parents out of the PTA.  The current principal there tells me that the school at that time was Klan in all but the white sheets.

Today, however, the school is run by Christians who formally reject notions of racism as an anathema to their system of belief, whatever pockets of cultural bias they may still individually foster.  I could wish for more African-American history in the US History class, but that would also be true if we sent my stepdaughter to a Catholic school in Yonkers, New York.  I could wish for more titles by African-American authors in her English class, but the English teacher is fantastic, and she is focusing on good literary American classics, so I can provide perhaps a greater rainbow in the curriculum.  There are surely racists who attend the school, racist parents who send their children there because there are more black students at the public school.  However, the school’s mission teaches a spirit of service to the community, the imperative of putting character before career, principle before profit.

I consider this an air sample to test to show the progress that Mississippi has made over the past decades in terms of racism.  The Sovereignty Commission was de-funded in 1977 by the governor.  The Council School was disbanded and integrated the same year, reconstituted under a Christian board that changed the school’s mission statement and its actual mission.  Most of the people who felt the way the founders of the school felt are dead.  Their children may not have many, or any, African-American friends, but they have few enemies and draw no color lines in public life at least.

At school, my stepdaughter has both white and black friends.  She socializes with both.  She has learned from me and from her father that racism is akin to Satanism in our system of belief.  The pictures still hang on the hallway walls of the old classes of Council School graduating classes.  Like all such photos, they appear dated.  It is good that the kids who walk the hall neither find that history buried, nor do they find it celebrated.  It is a truth, a sad truth, much like the truth of ruins left from the time of Sherman’s march.  Things were one way.  They are that way no more.

Mississippi is changing.  It does not change quickly.  Nothing happens here quickly.  As Dr. King said in his letter from Birmingham Jail, the time is always right to do what is right, and no one should be held back by others’ reluctance to be fair.  However, racism is something that does not only hurt the group that is oppressed directly by it; it hurts the character and the spiritual health of the perpetrators as well.  The only ones who are owed redemption are the oppressed, but the paradoxical truth is that in relenting from racism, a potential opens up for the oppressor to become whole again as well.  Like green shoots from a ruined antebellum mansion, I see this former council school, now a Christian academy, as a reason for Mississippi to hope for better things to come.

April 27, 2011

Shakespeare in the basement

It was a dark and stormy night.

New Yorkers are not scared of muggers, really, but they are unprepared for this.

Actually, the dark was punctuated by bolts of lighting filling up the entire field of clouds directly above my head, not sending a bolt downward but rather knitting electric filaments into a spiderweb pattern above my head with loud thunderclaps.

The sirens sounded, wailing so loudly my skin vibrated.  Not a drop of water was hitting the ground yet.

I found my way to the nearest building with a basement, the student union at Ole Miss.

I am from New York — we don’t have tornado watches, warnings, or witches.  We have muggers, we have terrorists, the occasional small whirlwind, but no such thing as a twister that could drop Dorothy’s house in Munchkinland.  I have learned to walk with my keys clenched outward between my knuckles in a fist when I’m in a neighborhood where a mugger might be.  I have learned to call the police if I see a mysterious package left unattended in the subway.

This tornado stuff is new to me, and it freaks me out.

However, I noticed that the young people who come from this area take it more or less in stride.  A group of young women in the basement posed for a group picture, smiling.  Others sat around and told jokes.  I was sitting next to Loy Scott, an Ole Miss freshman from Hickory Flats.  She told me her mother lived in a trailer, hence no basement, but she shrugged, knowing somehow she would be okay.  We were near the basement entrance to the campus bookstore, and she told me if all nature broke loose on us we could loot the Ole Miss memorabilia.

“Coffee tastes better out of a stolen mug, anyway,” she laughed.

The kids are used to this.  I’m the one worrying about the whereabouts of Toto, who leapt out of my basket as I was following the yellow brick campus path.  For these kids, this is not a perilous era.  This is just a slight inconvenience.  Wi-Fi is not always accessible in the basement, and so it’s only intermittently that we can check to see if the howling funnel is right above our heads.

This morning, the alarms went off again during my 8 am Shakespeare discussion section.  We were in a building with a basement there, too.

The students volunteered, without my asking them to, to recite their assigned Shakespeare monologues in the basement.  We heard scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream while the sirens blared through even layers of concrete, where the thunder was still audible above us.

A girl got up and read Shylock‘s question, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

I wanted to respond, “Yes, and if there is yet another tornado warning, with storms all around us, does the chancellor not cancel class?”

The answer to that one was, “No.”

This is just a day at the office.

In New York, the day after 9/11, the city went back to work, except where the buildings had been destroyed.  So it is here, not with terrorists but with twisters — if your classroom is still standing, you teach in it.  If not, the basement has good enough acoustics for dramatic monologues.  Shakespeare matters more than the flooding, the sirens, and the possibility that somebody is losing a house, a car, a life directly above our heads.

I remember reading how many children who grew up during the Second World War kept their sanity in air raid shelters by reciting poetry.

The sirens stopped sounding.  We eventually dispersed.  The basement had begun to flood, anyway, and there were no twisters in the immediate vicinity.  We were as sane as we were when we descended the stairs an hour or so earlier.

How does anybody get used to this?  Tornadoes distract me from literature, even as literature distracts me from tornadoes.

Ole Miss students in a storm shelter last night waiting in the basement for the storm to pass

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.

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