Theresa S. Wants to know: What was your initial impression of Long Beach?
I was not quite 11 when my family moved from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., to a small town on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I say that it was a culture shock, mostly because I think that people expect it to be a culture shock. But for a 10 year old? My world consisted of the couple blocks I walked from my house to my elementary school. Granted SCOTUS Chief Justice Warren Burger used to pass us in the back of his big black car, reading the Washington Post. I knew that was important because the adults in my life referred to it. But it meant nothing much to me.
So my school field trips were to the Smithsonian and Mount Vernon and the White House? It never struck me that that was privileged or even unusual. I was 10. My worldview was very small in spite of the fact that it contained national landmarks.
So when I moved to Long Beach, Mississippi, it didn't feel all that much different from where I came from, at least at first.
It was weird that there were ditches on the side of the roads instead of sidewalks.
In my school in Virginia, the only kids who rode the bus were the ones bussed in from South Arlington for desegregation. But in Mississippi, pretty much everyone rode the bus. Luckily for me, my friend Kim lived at the other end of our road, so she got on before me and I always had a seat.
Our church was different in Mississippi, too. In Virginia, our ward (congregation) was educated, professional, government officials. In Mississippi, the Mormons were...not. In fact, they were not all that different from what you're picturing as Southern evangelicals.
My elementary school was called Green Acres, which sounds like a joke but is 100 percent true. There were three sixth grade classes and they were combined into a single open classroom. That was weird for me. My teacher, Mrs. Dickerson, was married to the local newscaster on WLOX. I often got in trouble for responding to my teachers with "yeah" instead of "yes ma'am." That was very foreign for me. That year we took a field trip to New Orleans to see the King Tut exhibit. It had been in D.C. when we were still there, but the lines were so long we had never been able to go. My parents were thrilled by this opportunity. I attended once with my class and again later with my family.
To get us ready for junior high, Green Acres used to have us switch classrooms with the fifth graders. They came to our class for math and we went to theirs for Language Arts. (That's what we used to call English class in the 70s.) I remember we were studying the different types of poetry and we had to create a poetry journal where you created a haiku and a limerick etc. etc. One of the poems I wrote was about my tennis shoes. (I told you my worldview was small.) I was absent the day Mrs. Lyles returned our poetry journals. The day I came back everyone was whispering to me how they had all failed the project. Only Tracy who sat at the table next to mine had made a B.
I went up to Mrs. Lyles's desk to get my poetry journal. She held it out to me, but then just as I reached for it, she pulled it back. "Did you write all of these yourself?" I stammered because I was shocked and no teacher had ever...accused me? of cheating? before. When she handed me my journal, I had received an A.
The poems were shit, I'm sure. I've never written or read poetry since.