Six Years a Southerner

“Looks like Michelangelo is getting a bath,” said the dad, bending over the grate where his offspring had wedged an action figure into a ground sewage stream. “Do y’all understand how this happened?”

One of the funniest scenes during our time in the South played out within the first month of our arrival, some six years ago. Loverpants and I still laugh when we walk by this spot in front of the Tennessee Aquarium, a destination that is the heart of Chattanooga’s renaissance as a Southern city. We think how the aquarium houses pods and plants and all manner of sea and river creatures. It also the little-known bathhouse of ninja turtles.

My own immersion into the South was almost as abrupt as Michelangelo’s. We arrived to our rented ranch house on three acres and felt the distinct awe of our new rural-burbia life, waking up to the sounds of cows mooing when only days prior, we had known only tinkering shopping carts rattling down city blocks, the siren cry of ambulances so familiar we barely noticed. We were soon introduced as newcomers to my workplace. We were awkward and unwieldy. Baby Girl couldn’t find her sleep groove for weeks. I couldn’t find time to lesson plan. Loverpants couldn’t find an office space to lease. Little Man couldn’t find his walking feet.

But then we did. We found ourselves doing life in the South as people who worked and churched and bought Aretha Frankenstein pancake mix to make at home on Sunday mornings. The difference, I think, is that finding a rhythm is not the same as finding a fit, which is how I would classify my time in the South. Just because Michelangelo is placed in the gutter and he stays there doesn’t mean he belongs there.

I have not found belonging in the South. This is not a criticism of the South, just a witness to my experience. Mercifully, though, I have found pockets of being known and that has been the great treasure of my life here.

Belonging in the South, specifically in a more junior city, specifically in a conservative religious community, requires a certain extroversion that eludes me. Small talk is currency in this environment where one mills in small concentric circles of interconnected folks. I am allergic to small talk so I am most likely to enter into conversation with, “I cannot freaking believe I am buying sex ed talk books for my kid already,” rather than preferred pleasantries about the weather. There is also a pervasive lack of directness that is borne of the aforementioned interconnected network. If good fences make good neighbors, then a lack of fencing can lead to a superficial neighborliness. Being authentic, after all, is a liability. And being authentic in one social circle where any misdeeds in one patch might bleed into another can leave us defenseless. The need to “play nice” at the expense of addressing conflict or wrong behavior is something I’ve observed too often. My natural bent is to be as direct as possible, even if it is hard. So whenever I have found others willing to join me to climb the chutes and slide down the ladders of directness, I have desired to call those people my kin.

There are a whole host of other aspects that I have found so foreign about the South (The expression “might could.” The frequent use of styrofoam in restaurants. The lack of sprinkler parks in spite of the heat much of the year). But if I dwell on these things then I fail to see the good and to celebrate the great things about the American Southeast (Publix Grocery Stores, hallelujah! The lushness of spring. Savannah/Tybee Island. Charleston. Birmingham. Nashville. Memphis. Crepe Myrtles. Sitting in the bleachers for Used Car Night at a minor league baseball game in the fall). There is so much to adore about this region that has been our home for six years, this city that has, at turns confused and enchanted us.

We will return to the Northeast from whence we came, with children six years older, with wisdom poured like a fine wine aged six years. And we will be glad for the friends we have made, the places we have served, the houses where we have worshiped.  We will count it all a blessing to not only have gotten wet but to have been fully immersed like Michelangelo in the sewer, with passersby asking if y’all knew how it happened.

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On the first time you learned your student passed away

The Facebook page was eerie, like seeing the faded lettering of an erstwhile business still on the brick storefront. It said, “Remembering Francis Angelo,” and my stomach dropped. I don’t know why this student came across my mind this morning but it occurred to me I hadn’t seen him come up on my feed in recent months. I’d wondered if he had beaten cancer, gotten married, launched his own gubernatorial campaign.

But instead the timeline had ceased and all that was left in its wake were digital artifacts. A video of the thank you speech he gave at a fundraiser his friends must have thrown him before he received his transplant. It was a wonderful speech, casual but sincere-sounding, and then he pivoted and proposed to his girlfriend.

He died just weeks later. He didn’t get to run for office, using his superb writing abilities. He didn’t get to say his vows, in sickness and in health, pinned to all the hopes of  many more years of health with his beloved. I wonder if he got to see his brother come home from the Army before he passed.

I’m sure much has been written and eulogized about Frank already, so I will not heap more platitudes onto the pile. I think the part that feels heaviest to carry, though, is that he was the first student I ever had in the first class I ever taught, and he is now the first student whose death I have learned about. And I learned of his death in such an inorganic way that it was difficult to process. How he was once sitting in my class, reading texts I can no longer remember, but whose Boston accent I surely can, and how he was so young and how this was all so flipping unfair.

As a teacher, you don’t necessarily know your students better than their friends and surely not their parents, but there is something distinct about a teacher’s encounter with the people she teaches. The relationship is an evaluative one, certainly. But it is also one that must be built on trust in order to thrive, to have some measure of success. Simply by virtue of being a student, a student asks of the teacher, Will you treat me fairly, will you challenge me appropriately, will you remember me after the last grades are turned in? In turn, a teacher asks, We are going to read hard texts, will you follow me outside of what is comfortable? Do you respect me enough to listen and receive? Will you remember the things we learn long after the final grades are filed?

I came to know my students in all the ways a teacher does: discussions and tests and groveling e-mails to excuse their tardies. These are not necessarily singular to the profession of teaching, but they are privileges I enjoyed.

I want to dig up a paper Frank wrote and send it to his parents, offer them one more tactile artifact of his originality and accomplishment. But then I remember that they are his parents and their treasures are unique to the unending bond of love they have for their son.

I? Was only his teacher. What I’ve learned over many semesters in college classrooms is that this is sacred, too, in a way that maybe only a teacher can know.

nye desk 2

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On being a grumpy protester in the Easter pageant

My pastor has asked me to lead a scene in our Easter pageant and I am grumpy about it. It’s not that I don’t like Easter pageants or directing. I’m just ill-equipped to direct this one. Work is kicking my tail, my husband has been traveling, and my kitchen is a revolving door of kindergarten shoebox dioramas. I am exhaustion covered in glitter glue.

The pastor has recruited dozens of people to take part in a silent motion stage performance of modern day resurrection scenes. The enthusiasm surrounding this Easter pageant is infectious and the opening scenes are always very powerful. But when I get an e-mail with our rehearsal schedule, I just want to drop out. I want to stay home and watch “The Great British Baking Show” on Netflix, even though I know how every season ends.

Alas, my kids are gunning hard to be in the pageant this year. Every other year I demurred thinking the day would be too long for them. My son has campaigned very hard for the last month to play the part of “Bearded Guy.” He settles for a Syrian refugee boy, but continues to ask when he is going to get to wear the beard every 4 minutes. My husband can only make part of the rehearsals due to his work schedule. This does not help my grumpiness. Nothing can help it.
Not even our pastor who is is all of a twitter about this Easter pageant.

The pastor and his family are the saltiest salt of the earth and I will follow them to the ends of the earth. But this play rehearsal, y’all. It is feeling a little extra. When we arrive at rehearsal, the pastor sells the idea of each scene to us. He is especially excited about scenes reminiscent of the recently released “Hacksaw Ridge,” the trailer from which he pulled the music for the opening.

We divide into groups and try to figure out how to portray the action. We’ve been given a skeletal script, basic notions of what we’re trying to represent. I know a few of the other actors in my scene, but I’m not entirely sure what we are supposed to accomplish and how this is supposed to play out in the seconds we’re given. The basic plot is that we are a bunch of political protesters holding signs with pithy political messages. We square off in two formations, showing angry, violent opposition to the other formation of political protesters.

Some of the actors have a vision of how we can assemble and I defer to them. Others don’t know where to enter; others are concerned that they won’t be seen. My son keeps wandering out of his scene to tug my shirt and ask me when he’s going to get his beard. For three nights in a row, I am somewhere between Syria and Washington DC, surrounded by soldiers being lowered down Hacksaw Ridge on Okinawa. None of this makes sense–especially our political scene which ends when two angels appear. Enter: cherubs. Then, the protesters throw down our political signs, hoist a huge American flag, and hug one another. Two teenage girls even snap a selfie, political opponents no more! I glance at the other scenes and I can recognize the true beauty that rises from the ashes of refugee camps and tragic school bus crashes and wartime heroics. But our scene just feels hokey.

At the end of practice, I make sure the American flag we use as a prop isn’t left on the ground. I drape the flag over a church pew. As I arrive at rehearsal each successive night, the flag has been folded neatly and lovingly into a triangular formation. It becomes my obsession, keeping the flag lifted and not falling on the stage where it can be trampled.

As the final rehearsal finishes, I am proud of my little group of protesters. We have worked hard to get our scene right. As the angels emerge from out of the darkness, we’re all in position and the flag is where it needs to be. The “Hacksaw Ridge” trailer music queues like nightmare on loop. I don’t know how we are going to do this for 13 consecutive performances. I text our pastor and his wife. “When do we get to debrief about this?” The pastor replies that the best part of this is not the performance but the chance to build community. I feel bad for being one more grumpy church lady he has to deal with.

We are up at 6a the day of the pageant for makeup. My hubby and kids are sponged and dusted with cocoa powder and make for convincing refugees. My pack of protesters are outfitted in our best patriotic garb: tattoos, bandanas, red trucker hats that say “Make America Great Again.” In between scenes, I get to know the protesters who are students of nursing and psychology; single mothers and new drivers; socially liberal singers; former members of the police reserves who just like to carry guns.

I am barely awake for the first few performances but by 11a.m., the church is packed to standing room only. Cheers cry out for Desmond Doss as he climbs Hacksaw Ridge to save “just one more,” and it all comes crashing down on me and the tears come and they just keep coming. The flag that we raise and the ladder that the soldier climbs are not mutually exclusive as symbols go. In fact, they are the same. This is not mixing religion and politics–trust.


Christ came to save us all: the tattooed and the trucker hatted; the schoolbus driver and the new teen driver; the gun-toting soldier and the refugee. He would not let one fall to the ground without regarding it as precious. Not a sparrow falls without his notice. In the same vein, this flag that we revere, the one we cannot let fall to the ground, is one for which blood was shed so that all could enjoy freedom. What could be freer than love? Freedom and love are regularly compromised and trampled on the battlefield for our hearts, but the war has already been won by the One.

We throw down our signs as we throw down our crowns. And his name shall be Emmanuel, God with us.

photos by Andy Nash.

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