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.