It’s one of those summer afternoons in Helena, Arkansas, where the sun is bright enough to wipe everything out in a glare of white. Even the breeze feels like a hairdryer on my neck.
I am sweating on top of Battery C. The last time I was here, I’d picked my way up an overgrown trail and had only a couple of ornery goats for company. Now, the goats have been supplanted by metal statues of Union soldiers aiming muskets down the kudzu-covered hill. Behind me, a concrete walkway leads to a pristine parking lot where a car is just pulling in. The development of Battery C is a good thing. It’s indicative of a small manufacturing town’s struggle toward economic recovery. But I just miss the damn goats.
“This land, this land … this Delta!” Even Faulkner was reduced to sentence fragments when he wrote about this place. Many great writers have tried, but it is just one of those places too immense for words. When I arrived in Helena after college for a job with Teach for America, my head was filled with romantic notions. My modest goal was to simultaneously teach 11th grade English, pocket some life experience, and write a novel. I relished the knowledge that I was living in Richard Wright’s boyhood town, on the banks of Twain’s mighty Mississippi, and 15 minutes down the road from Moon Lake, where Tennessee Williams drank himself into a stupor and wrote Blanche’s fiancé into a watery suicide.
It took only a couple days at Central High School to make me realize that, while the Delta of prosperous fields and bourbon-swigging literary men was largely imaginary, the inequity and challenges facing my students were very real.
There was nothing beautiful about their poverty. There was no way to glamorize the fact that Ty had no electricity or running water at home, that Jonathan wrestled hogs on the weekend for extra cash, or that Yaya’s relatives fought over custody of her baby to get the extra government check.
My students came to 11th grade reading, on average, at a fourth grade level. Some were cycling back into school after a stint at the juvenile penitentiary. Some were regularly absent on days when their chronic diabetes was just too painful. Some were working night shifts at McDonalds to support a baby at home. Many of them should never have been allowed to graduate from middle school, much less reached the 11th grade.
Becoming an adequate teacher for my students became an all-consuming task. I had no energy to dream up anything but a better next lesson plan. And there was no time to write; there were afterschool tutoring sessions to run and papers to grade.
But life was gorgeous. I was surrounded by human perseverance at its best. My students were creative, brilliant, intense fighters. They had been held back in a million ways—by the history that plagued them, by failing schools, by incompetent leaders, by hunger and malnutrition—and yet they still believed that if they could just finish their education, they could do anything. Our football team was less resourced than most teams in the state, but every year without fail it hopefully fixed its sights on the state championship.
A colleague observed that there was a sense of adventure to everyday life in Helena. All week, we buried ourselves into the challenge of helping our students unlock a little more of their potential. We planned and complained and cried a lot. We let the successes of our students lift us to euphoric heights and their disappointments drag us into deep despair. Every Friday night, we cheered on our football players, joining our voices with the whole town. Some Saturdays, we drove the 30 minutes to dance at Ground Zero or Red’s juke joints in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
I was living a different kind of adventure than I’d imagined when I came to the South. But I felt—maybe for the first time—that I was living a life of real significance. There was a sense of smallness, of being swallowed up in so much space—by cotton, by swamp, by river, by highway, by sky. There was a sense that everything I had ever loved and romanticized in books could not overshadow the living, breathing grandeur of this place and its people.
Therein lies the dilemma.
I came to Helena to be a heroine. But a heroine can’t be a good social advocate, because social advocacy is all about the community—not about being at the center of one's own story. Likewise, a romance that requires a backdrop of continuous strife cannot be a successful social movement, because a successful social movement will eventually eradicate that strife. Nostalgia has no place in progress.
I am continually drawn back to the Delta both because it is a place I love and because it is a place in need. I relish the opportunity to make a difference as an individual, but I know that opportunity exists only because of the enormous dearth in human capital. I was the best high school English teacher my students ever had simply because they'd had permanent substitutes for ninth and tenth grade English.
For the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer, I recently attended a commemorative concert at the Mississippi art museum in Jackson. It was a beautiful summer night. A live band played exultant melodies from the 1960s. Participants from the Freedom Summer had come back from all over the country. The galleries were filled with white and black folks dancing, talking, and drinking cocktails together in their evening attire.
The whole atmosphere of the museum felt joyful and triumphant. I was surrounded by people who had crusaded for an egalitarian South. My awe for them, amplified by a couple old-fashioneds (Four Roses bourbon, Faulkner’s favorite), made me giddy. Someone told me to check out the Norman Rockwell painting on display.
The painting was a startling reminder that the cause we were celebrating had not been romantic. It had been passionate and noble, but it had also been gritty and violent and demanding of sacrifice.
For me, it was also a reminder that I had come to the Delta because the mission of Freedom Summer was still not resolved. More black Mississippians may be registered to vote, but according to a report from the U.S. Department of Education, only 69 percent of black students graduated from public schools in 2012, compared with 82 percent of white students. These numbers are directly tied to the state's income gap (the average black Mississippian earns about two thirds of what the average white Mississippian does), and to the fact that black Mississippians are three times more likely than their white counterparts to be incarcerated.
In the South, it is easy to imbue losing causes with romance. Education in the Delta occupies some middle ground; it has inspired both the rhetoric of a cause that has historically lost and the rhetoric of a cause hopeful of winning tomorrow. In a naive and abashed literary corner of my heart, I still revel in my work because the failures of the past have made it exciting and romantic. But it is the real hope for an equal tomorrow that makes what I do worthwhile.