Monday, May 14, 2007

I am currently in the process of moving from Jackson to a smaller town to the west that is part of my district. I did not decided to move as a result of my experiences in Jackson; I really liked living with my old roommates and being in the middle of the capital city. Rather, I wanted to move because of where I’d be going.

The attractiveness of the house in which I currently reside is what originally peaked my interest; it is beautiful, it is old, and it smells like a large fireplace since there is one in each main room. There are two dogs out here, both black labs. Jack is fat and lazy and he drools on everyone he meets. Truman is athletic and excitable. When you leave the house to go for a walk, Truman will leap over the front fence and follow you, bounding into the woods only to return minutes later. It’s great to drive up to the house and have both of the boys waiting on the front porch, wagging their tales. My parents’ dog did the same, but it was always related to food; these two dogs only want attention and a rub on the head.

The house is framed by old oaks that are covered in Spanish moss. Their branches seem to open up when you travel up the dirt driveway, revealing the front porch where Jack and Truman spend their days. The interior of the house is covered in art from everywhere, no theme unites the décor of any of the rooms. Nearly all the furniture is made of wood, and the plank flooring is only rarely covered by rugs.

The lack of light pollution at night allows for a starry sky to shine between the branches of the trees and a darkness to block the rest of the house. I’ve heard that some visitors find the house creepy at night and suggest the presence of ghosts, but I’ve yet to be visited by any spirits.

Yet, the best part of living out here is the people. I live with the guy who owns the house. He is a number of years my elder, nearly my father’s age, but is certainly one of the coolest baby-boomers I’ve ever met. His view on life is similar to the friend that introduced us in the sense that both men look at the world in a way I have never experienced or considered. The greatest reason for moving was to increase my access to these two guys, both of whom make me want to change around my life.

Whenever people come over the house, we just sit with beers in hand, the radio softly playing country or bluegrass in the background. Sometimes we go for walks with the dogs, but mostly we just sit and talk. Maybe it is because the two guys I always hang out with out here are so interesting, or maybe it is because the house brings something out in you, but we never turn on the tv, we never play games, we never have to come up with any form of entertainment other than talking. And it is perfect and wonderful, the perfect escape from teaching and all the rest. As I said in the last post, a cold beer and a good book can solve most problems. A beautiful house and interesting company can probably do the same.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

I don’t really know how to characterize last summer – that is the summer of training before teaching began. It was exciting in that it was full of meeting new people, discovering new places, and learning entirely new things (most of which were only related to teaching on the surface). My experience was greatly colored by the fact that I arrived in Mississippi less than 24 hours after receiving my diploma. Given that timetable, everything that I did last summer (and perhaps everything that has followed) has been somewhat influenced by that sudden change in lifestyle. Though I am still feel I am mostly walking around Mississippi blindly myself, this is the advice I would impart about that first summer in Oxford…

- Get outside of your dorm room this summer. Take every opportunity to experience Oxford, Lafayette County, and the area in general. If somebody – whether they are a fellow first-year, a second-year, a faculty member, or somebody you randomly met in Oxford – asks you to join them in doing something that seems different and maybe even a little crazy, you should certainly join them.
- Don’t shy away from new experiences. One of the lessons I learned in Teacher Corps classes that I’ve applied to my own life is that the best learning can only take place when you are placed outside your comfort zone.
- Don’t judge too quickly. This rule extends to almost every facet of Mississippi, the Teacher Corps, and teaching in general. You will meet fellow first-years that you do not like at first, but give them time and most of them will end up having personalities from which you can learn, even if they are personalities you may not enjoy. Remember that it’s similar to the first days of college in that everyone is awkward and nervous, and may act against their personality because of the pressures surrounding them. You will meet people at your school when you first visit in the summer whom you may dislike at first, but are also necessary for you to have a successful first year, so don’t immediately dismiss them.
- Take the time to listen to everyone. This means Dr. Mullins, Dr. McConnell, Ben, the second-years, your fellow first-years, other staff at Holly Springs, the bus drivers, bartenders, crazy drunk people in Oxford, etc. Everyone has some kind of wisdom to impart, and you never know when it will end up being helpful.
- Try to get in touch with somebody who teaches at your school (perhaps in your department) and ask them about any quirks the school, district, or administration may display.
- Mentally prepare yourself for teaching by coming to terms with Murphy’s Law: if something bad can happen, it probably will. Even more succinctly: be ready for everything, surprised by nothing.
- Everyone will tell you to make sure you have a life outside of teaching. Similarly, make a concerted effort to have a life outside of Teacher Corps. Call your family and college friends often and talk to them about things that are totally unrelated to teaching and Mississippi. It’s easy to get bogged down in Teacher Corps gossip and politics if Teacher Corps is the only thing you focus on.
- Read. Square Books is over-rated, but the Ole Miss Library isn’t bad and they can always order something for you on Inter-Library Loan.
- Eat a long dinner at Taylor Grocery with other first-years and take that time to get to know the people to your left and right.
- Go to an Ole Miss baseball game.
- Have a cookout and go swimming at Lake Sardis.
- When all else fails, a good book and cold beer can solve a great many problems.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

I had a good yesterday, spent up in the Delta with a few other Teacher Corps members, attending the Leland Crawfish Festival. First time I've ever had crawfish and it was pretty good, though I (thankfully) didn't suck the heads. There was also a great lineup of local bands playing blues, country, and bluegrass. There were about 200 people there, mostly white (which is surprising given the demographics of the Delta). More interestingly (but perhaps not unexpected) was the de-facto segregation that invaded the open seating; whites sat on one side of the stage, blacks on the other.

After spending a few hours at the festival most of us went to see Spiderman 3. The movie itself was actually pretty disappointing and I think I have come to the decision that Spiderman is a bad superhero. He's too emotional and whiny, and he never makes a solid decision himself. A few friends who were at the movie with me termed Peter Parker the "Emo-superhero." Also, every villain in the film (seemingly like every villain during the entire series) had a "good guy gone bad" backstory, which was really annoying. Why can't we have bad guys that are purely evil?

But I don't mention my movie-going experience in the hope of becoming the new Roger Ebert, but rather because the social factors on display in the theater while we were watching the film. We went to see the movie at a theater in Greenville, in the heart of the Delta. For the 4:00 Saturday afternoon showing, the audience was 90% black and a good 40% of the audience was under the age of 12. We got there about ten minutes before the previews began and found a set of seats in the middle of the theater. We were mostly surrounded by parents who had brought sets of children, most of whom were already restless in their seats.

Instead of being annoying, the kids' comments during the movie added to the fun. "Ohhh he hit a girl!" yelled one at a most opportune time, and I remember being happy that a young kid from the Delta was surprised at the display of semi-domestic violence. Why do I say this? Well, about ten minutes after he said that, I heard a loud "smack" come from my immediate right. A little girl, sitting two seats down from me in between her mother and her mother's female friend, had been hit by the mother (for, I assume, being annoying, or loud, or something, though I don't recall any kind of disturbance). I immediately turned and gave the mother's friend a look that said, "what the hell is the matter with you people?" She caught the fact that I was staring at her and turned to meet my glare. We had this half moment (actually, probably a few seconds) of silent conversation with our eyes, during which she seemed tired or annoyed for me judging her friend.

Later during the movie, the kids in the row in front of me became restless and began moving around. The mother, or whoever she was, fired a look at one of the kids once they had been snooping around in their seats for awhile. "Sit your ass down before I knock your teeth out!" About a half hour later, she stremlined her request: "SHUTUP!"

I think almost everyone has had similar experiences. You're in the supermarket and the woman next to you in the checkout line attempts to quiet their child with a brisk slap on the arm or cheek. I've seen it happen everywhere, but it seems to be more common in the areas in which Teacher Corps sends their recruits, especially the Delta. It also seems to happen more commonly in black families, perhaps it is more common in Southern families in general. White, black, or brown; north, south, east, or west, these moments seem to happen more often amongst lower-class individuals. I have no concrete evidence to backup these suppositions, just what I have witnessed.

It is not really the hitting that specifically bothers me, but rather the attitude in general. My roommates and I commonly joke about parents "smacking around" their kids, but whenever we discuss it there is always a degree of disgust added to the conversation. We don't laugh about the stories of our students getting smacked in Wal-Mart because such tales are actually funny, we laugh at them because it is such a foreign, absurd image.

It seems that the children in the Spiderman 3 movie theater were seen by their parents as burdens, not as joys. As studies have shown, children who are exposed to "phrases of negativity" (such as "shut up," "go away," etc.) are more likely to have social, academic, and economic difficulties as they get older. If that is true, these kids are in big trouble.

The thing that I wonder, sitting here while I type this, is whether this is a social problem or an economic problem. Of course, those two issues are intricately related, but the question is still worth discussing. If my hunch is true and children in the Delta are disciplined using physical punishment more often than their average American counterparts, what is the reason? If my hunch is true and children in the Delta hear more "phrases of negativity" than their average American counterparts, what is the reason? Is it because most are poor? Is it because most are black? Is it because all are Southern, or at least now live in the south?