During the late spring, I visited the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS) in Columbus, Mississippi. It is a public, residential school for students from a very wide range of economic, educational, and racial backgrounds, from all over the state. You can guess from the name that the school has a very strong math, science, and computer curriculum. But as one of the school administrators told me, the humanities program is its "secret weapon." Two days ago I wrote about the school here.
One of the MSMS English teachers, Thomas Easterling, had originally told my husband and me about the school. After I had met some of his students, I asked Easterling if he could ask his students to write short essays about the school and how it fit into their lives in Mississippi. They had a very free rein to discuss whatever was most on their minds. The five essays below, all from seniors, may give you an idea of the role the school plays in this state, and the effect it has had on students who go there. Thanks also to Emma Richardson, the creative writing teacher at MSMS.
The first is by Kimberly Sanford, a senior from Stonewall, near Meridian in east-central Mississippi.
Where I Belong
Sometimes I believe the soul of Mississippi is as dark and bottomless as muddy rivers settling through rolling hills. These contaminated waters seek out the unique and attempt to wash away the scent of rebellion, or the hope for change. My greatest fear is to wander aimlessly into those waters, be molded by conformity, forget my passion, my compassion, and acquiesce to the current of complacency. As I dig my naked feet into the burning red clay on my middle-of-nowhere dirt road, I cannot help but feel the history of Mississippi, rich as the soil, leeching into my skin. Despite the intense heat, I shiver. Turning on my heels to give one fleeting glance to the dancing colors of the fiery sunset, I am sure of only one thing: I do not belong here.
As I grasp the battered storm door of my unleveled mobile home, I envision the scene that awaits me. Sitting at the tiny table overwhelmed by sales papers, dirty dishes, and leftover fried chicken, my twenty-two year old sister, Dorothy, will be nose deep in a GED book or piecing together a jigsaw puzzle on the dirty glass top table. Her eyes will be dull; their light vanished. After her failed attempt at happily-ever-after—a broken marriage and miscarriage at sixteen—she never smiles. Mama is “slaving” over the stove, cupping the phone with her neck, speaking in her fake voice as she nods at the complaints my eldest sister Susan has about her husband, six kids, and college courses. Silent and solemn, my mother’s third husband lies back in his grimy work boots, faded blue jeans, and ancient camouflage cap.
I open the door and rapidly tiptoe down the narrow hallway without bothering to confirm my suspicions. I shut the door as quietly as possible, hoping my presence will remain unknown.
My life overflows with brilliant, beautiful women who played tremendous roles in raising me—brilliant and beautiful women who have abandoned their independence. They are uncomfortably stuck, living complacently, blaming the universe for the “hardships” bestowed upon them at birth: gender, class, culture. I feel as if my life is a cycle, a re-run with the same endings, same mistakes, and same lack of effort. I’ve had to look elsewhere for inspiration, trying to fashion a community of the fictional and the distant: Elizabeth Bennet, fiercely obstinate and undeniably sharp with wit, deep in the pages of Pride and Prejudice; Helen Thomas, a journalist determined to ask the silent question in the room; bell hooks, the woman who sparked my passion for the study of feminism.
Still, I worry that traces of Mississippi embedded inside of me will be my downfall, that I will become my mother and sisters, that femininity equals weakness. The women around me have been victims of misogyny; this is true. However, the real reasons they are stuck are lack of faith in themselves and ignorance of their true capabilities. I may never be able to help them realize their strength, but it’s not too late to find my own and help the next Mississippi girl find her path in life. Understanding will give me that power, and so I am determined to absorb, live and breathe every aspect of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.
Reading about the first wave of the feminist movement always makes me feel a little cheated, I wish I could have been there with every fiber of my being. But then I realize that of course it’s not over, not even close. We still need feminism. I still need it.
Next, by Rachel Jones, a senior from McComb, in the southwestern part of the state.
Journey through the Rain
Raindrops in Mississippi are always fat. They fall from clouds no longer able to hold them and slide through the humidity, making a murky storm soup suspended in the atmosphere. In an early memory, I am standing outside the Boys and Girls Club peering into the soupy haze of this particular storm, waiting for my mother. Our routine is to walk, often hand in hand, through the “old projects” to our home in the “new projects.” Will we walk today? In a soft, rattled voice, I tell Mr. Tony, the counselor, that she’ll be here soon-- and she is. Dainty, and cowering beneath the barrage of wind and rain, she stands behind a tree, pulls her flimsy hood tighter over her face and flicks her wrist, beckoning me to come forward.
My mother feels it is her duty to teach me everything: how to long divide, how to play defense on the soccer field, how to follow through with my backhand, how to control my breathing when I run, how to protect myself, how to make one night’s meal last a week. She force feeds me each lesson with the firmness and sass I’m sure only a Southern woman can. But I ate my most valuable lesson when I saw her standing in the rain, soggy and focused: No matter the severity of the storm, if you have somewhere to go, you will just have to walk.
The little storms of life have left me doused. The wind of my parents’ perennial unemployment has blown away my umbrella. The chill of watching my mother scrape together dollar bills and dirty quarters to pay rent and wash our clothes has frozen me to the bone. The endless drizzle of watching my mother scrape alone, as the convicted felon I call “father” keeps his distance, has soaked through my raincoat.
Still, with no forecast, new days come carrying with them a heavier downpour. Such as the days I’m not sure how to do my Organic Chemistry homework. Such as the days I have ten essays to write. Such as the days I have sore legs from playing soccer and cross country practice at 6:30 the next morning. I can’t think because it’s one o’clock in the morning. I’m running on bland coffee and four hours of sleep and the conversation with my mother that morning informing me that she is unable to pay rent this month as well, so I sit under the humming lamp of my desk, gazing at my Physics textbook and the “C” on last week’s calculus quiz, unaware that tomorrow I’ll be told my father lost yet another job.
Despite the rain, I have a destination that I’m determined to reach. My destination is having a thorough understanding of calculus. It’s having a killer serve. It’s running a marathon. It’s executing a flawless bicycle kick. It’s writing a set of words that thousands of people will digest and want more of. It’s looking into someone’s eyes and knowing I’ve helped. My destination is excellence. I’ve come a step closer to my destination by leaving my mother and brother four hours away to study at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, which simply adds to my worries, but also to my optimism.
Skies grow overcast, but I’ve learned to disregard them since I find the prospect of failure more foreboding. I have places to go, and it’s always going to rain, but as long as my legs can move, I’ll walk if I have to.