Eighth-Grade Boys or “The Goot of God” (Rated PG-13)

To live as an eighth-grader is to see yourself as inferior to almost all who look your way. Despite the bravado and swagger displayed by many, eighth-graders are, deep down inside, quaveringly unsure of themselves. This is true for girls as well as boys. The only difference between them lies in their responses. I won’t speak for girls, except to say that in my experience they deal with their insecurity more quietly, less mischievously.

Eighth-grade boys tend to nurse an angry fire.  And why shouldn’t they, when every day is a series of passing back and forth from one system of control to another and then another? You go from home to school to sports or church or wherever, and always there stands “The Man,” a controlling authority wagging his finger, looking down on you: “Do this! Do that! What are you doing? That’s not right! What’s wrong with you?”

And let’s be clear: The Man is not gender-specific. For an eighth-grade boy The Man may be—and at school, often is—a woman. The Man is that collection of adults—including your parents—who flippantly wield their power over you.

Thus there grows an increasing anger at The Man. And that anger has to go somewhere.  “It in him and gotta get out,” to quote John Lee Hooker in “Boogie Chillen.”  And the anger often gets out by way of retaliation at The Man.

But this is tricky business, for The Man possesses all the power. Therefore, you can’t go full-frontal assault. You must go guerilla warfare, as in some variation of sneaking up on The Man and plunging a thumbtack into his ass. If you’re lucky, you get away before The Man turns around. This will bring you a fleeting thrill, a foretaste of some future freedom. This has been true as long as there have been eighth-grade boys.

Half a century ago, I was an eighth-grade boy. In my day “goot drawing” was the preferred retaliation. In case you don’t know, the goot was, in the parlance of those days, the male member, anatomically speaking, and the rendering of it was more stylistic than graphic or accurate. It was much less about sex than it was about eye-popping scandal. I would put such a drawing here in the blog, but Miss Moore, my eighth-grade teacher, might burst from the grave to destroy me with all the fury of The Man. So I’ll describe it in words.

Picture a curvy outline of a mouse head in which the ears are rounded (sort of like Mickey’s) and the snout is elongated horizontally from beneath them. Now, turn this drawing upside down so that the “ears” hang pendulously like, well, balls, and the snout extends left or right from above them.  That is how one draws a goot.

With pencil, pen, or marker, the goot can be applied surreptitiously in one continuous stroke to walls, stalls, and other flat surfaces.  A favored place was the wooden surface of a desk occupied by another student.  This way, you stuck it to The Man by shoving one of your classmates toward him. (You’ll recognize this as “throwing someone under the bus.” We were masters at it.)

Invariably teachers’ eyes would fall upon a goot and go wide in horror. “WHO DREW THIS?” And invariably, the question would be met with a silent ripple of shrugs. Such was (and is) the eighth-grade code of solidarity.

The goot looms vividly in my memory especially because of a classmate called “Whitey” on account of his pale skin and toe-headed hair. Despite those features, Whitey didn’t stand out especially. He wasn’t among the verbose kids who made C’s, D’s, or F’s in Conduct. He seemed to go along peacefully, occasionally smiling and giggling at others’ jokes. But soon we would learn that beneath Whitey’s placid veneer, there raged a powerful storm against The Man.

One night, when his parents were deep in sleep, Whitey rose from his bed, dressed himself, tip-toed into the garage, and very quietly opened its door. Then, he stuffed into his back pocket a screwdriver, a wide paintbrush, and a stirring stick. Next, he crouched down and snaked a skinny arm between the middle rungs of an extension ladder as he clasped the handle of a nearly-full gallon can of paint on the floor. Then, very quietly, he rose from his crouch, the ladder on his shoulder, the paint hanging from his hand.

I imagine him silhouetted by moonlight, marching the block or so to the school. Don’t hate me for this, but a decade later, while in seminary, I read a short story depicting Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha, and there came into my mind the image of Whitey and the ladder and the paint.

Our school sat atop a hill, one side of which declined a great distance into a valley. From classrooms on that side of the school you could look out across the valley and see the old mines of Red Mountain which were at least five or six miles away.  Also on this side of the school a new addition had been built and left with a façade of whitewashed concrete block.  It was on that wall that Whitey painted, under cover of darkness, the biggest goot the world had ever seen, a goot for the ages, or, as one classmate gasped in admiration, “the Goot of God.”

And on that morning , after sunrise, from many kitchen windows of many houses that checkered the slope down into the valley, many mothers stood, mouths agape, eyes lifted upward to Whitey’s art.  Phone calls were made—to neighbors, to teachers, to principals, to the Board of Education, to police. Frenzy ensued.

When I arrived at school, the custodian was on a ladder taping butcher paper over the goot. But Whitey’s work was thick and many-coated, and so the custodian’s efforts worked like onion-skin on a stop sign. The goot was too mighty to obscure.

By now principal and teachers were frantically corralling students from the playground, where we normally waited for the opening bell, and where the goot was most clearly visible, around to the opposite side of the school where it was not.  The principal was shouting, teachers were shrieking, and we eighth-grade boys were exchanging gleeful glances, barely able to contain our elation. One of our arrows had finally found Achilles’ heel!  The Man was in full panic, rattled more than we’d ever seen him! Victory!

But, of course, The Man eventually prevailed. Whitey was found out. My memory is gauzy. I don’t recall if he was ratted out, or if, as I would like to believe, he surrendered himself to the authorities as Jesus did in Gethsemane. I believe he was expelled. I know that, by noon, workman had arrived from the Board of Education and had painted over the goot.

But I must confess that the episode still stands in my memory as a most glorious moment. By God, through Whitey, we eighth-grade boys had really stuck it to The Man!

Epilogue

Some four decades later, as if to prove He has a wicked sense of humor, God made me an eighth-grade teacher!

That’s right. God made me The man.

My school has a tradition in which teachers spend the first three days of the academic year reviewing rules and the consequences for breaking them. As I lead my students through relentless slide-shows and videos depicting proper and improper behavior, I see the boys exchanging furtive glances, eyes gleaming with mischief.

This always leads me to think of Whitey and the Goot of God, and I’m reminded that the eighth-grade boy is still very much alive in me. Occasionally I’ll catch some boys throwing mischievous glances at one another, and they’ll see that I’m looking, and as I scan their eyes, I try to send a silent message with mine:

“You go, guys!  Stick it to the Man!  Even if The Man is Me.”

The Politics of Teaching Children

Decades ago, an old preacher friend offered me this pearl of wisdom. Purposefully perverting Jesus’ oft-quoted words in Matthew, the preacher said, “For where two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name, there is politics.”

Experience has taught me that the two or three don’t even need to be gathered in Christ’s name. They could be gathered to rob a bank, or unclog a commode. And, really, it just takes two to make politics. And by politics I mean very simply: the possession of power and the use of it to control others.

Because politics is unavoidable, we have hierarchies on which we agree (or say we do) that some will possess more power than others. And this brings me to the topic of public schooling.

A school makes for an intriguing study of the ways and means of power-wielding, because teachers and administrators possess all of the power in a school. This is by necessity, I’m told, for children and adolescents are not mature enough to wield power. So all of it must rest in the hands of the educators.

This sounds reasonable until one considers the wise words of Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

I can tell you from experience that the power I wield over my classrooms will—if I’m not on guard—seduce and corrupt me into believing that I’m somehow more valuable, more intelligent, and more deserving than my students. And, if I’m not on guard, I start to see my students as little minions who must have my permission to speak and move.

Consequently, my students are inclined to beseech me—for good grades, for mercy, for advantage over other students, for access to the restroom. And, as a result, they become disturbingly compliant, almost to the point of addressing me, “I prithee, Lord. What dost thou demand of me?”

I’ve been teaching long enough to see that this power-laden model creates considerable danger to our society—in at least two ways.

First, a system that spends such great energy indoctrinating its students to comply with whoever holds power is practically guaranteeing that its students will not think for themselves, which means that they won’t take the risks necessary to challenge existing ideas or to create new ones. In short, such a system is a surefire way to prevent society from advancing.

Second, consider what this teaches young people about how power should be used. The hierarchies won’t go away, and some of our students, by whatever means, will get their hands on the control knobs. Are we not modeling that once you grab hold of power, then you must use it to demand that everyone comply with you? Doesn’t our example send the message: Don’t dare let anyone challenge you! Haven’t the politics of government and business given us enough of that crap already? Do we really want to train upcoming generations to do the same?

I don’t have a detailed solution to these problems, but I’ll pitch three suggestions.

First, teachers need to erase the idea that they’re the unchallengeable bosses, and instead ask students about their own lives, about their aspirations and frustrations, and then listen when students answer. Doing this has taught me that “I ain’t all that,” that I’m usually not the smartest guy in the room. Sure, because I have half a century of experience on my students, I may be the most knowledgeable. But rarely am I the most intelligent. Listening to my students also shows me that those whom the system labels as “low” (as in IQ) are often among the wisest.

Second, students need to know that it’s okay to challenge a teacher. It’s okay to ask some form of “Why the hell are we doing this, anyway?” And if the teacher can’t give a solid, reasonable answer, he or she needs to ask the student what ought to be done. Teachers are not obliged to agree with or do what a student suggests, but, by respectfully listening and considering, teachers will model that it’s okay to challenge authority, and it’s okay for authority to let itself be challenged. God knows our society desperately needs this lesson.

Third, I make a plea to John Q. and Jane Q. Taxpayer to demand of city councils, state and federal governments that their dollars be used to HIRE MORE (good) TEACHERS, so that teacher-student ratio will look like ten students and a teacher gathered around a table. This will create give-and-take dialogue among students and teacher in which each person at the table (including the teacher) is a learner, and in which all may know they’re in the presence of humans of equal value. To the contrary, when teachers are faced with 20+ kids in a classroom, they’re tempted to turn tyrant—simply to survive—and that benefits no one. (I know. I’ve been there.)

Thus, the politics of teaching children is greatly in need of reform. But we can make that reform if we set our minds to it. After all, we love to extol democracy, don’t we?  And is not the essence of democracy the sharing of power?

Confederately Confused (Pt. 3)

[Conclusion of a 3-part post that begins here.]

Most rebel-flag waving Southerners never stop to examine how blessed they are that the South got its ass kicked in the Civil War. Please allow me to show why they should.

Let’s start in 1830 when Michael Tuomey, a young Irishman, immigrates to America and finds his way to Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York. He studies geology. Then, equipped with diploma and insatiable curiosity for rocks and soil, he takes jobs in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and finally, in 1842, is appointed geologist of the State of Alabama.

Tuomey’s first objective is to carry out a geological survey of the relatively new state. But to do this, he must calm the concerns of the slave-owning powerful, or, as author Michael Fazio refers to them in his history of Birmingham, Landscape of Transformations (p. 19), “…those agriculture-minded Black Belt planters…who had little or no interest in industrialization or were opposed to it.” [The Black Belt is a massive swath of dark fertile soil stretching from northeast Mississippi through central and parts of southern Alabama. In other words, cotton plantation country.]

Tuomey did convince them, arguing that geological discovery will aid farming, too. So he goes to work, but the plantation farmers’ fears are confirmed. What Tuomey finds as he roams around north-central Alabama’s Jones Valley is a series of mountains “capped by red hermatite” that stretch a distance of 150 miles. This seam will prove to be iron ore, a coveted component in the budding American iron and steel industry, which plantation owners regard as a filthy, perverted Yankee business, not befitting a Southern gentleman.

Soon, however, the Civil War will create the Confederate army’s immediate need for iron-based industry that can produce cannons, guns, bullets as well as the expansion of railroad capacity. But the iron mills that pop up in the South are small and geared almost exclusively to the war.  Few moneyed Southerners seem to be paying attention to the long-range potential of industrialization. Why would they? Plantation owners have little incentive to look long-range so long as they’re living in literal and proverbial high cotton.

As I said in my previous post, these plantation elite are the people who created an economy that in 1860 had trapped 3,953,761 black people in slavery, and millions of white folk, like my ancestors, on hard-scrabble dirt farms where they battled against starvation. These rich families started the Civil War to protect a closed economy that offered no upward mobility, no opportunities for poor folks to improve themselves. These people sent our ancestors off to war.

And so the best thing that could have happened for us, the descendants of slaves and of those whom slave-owners called “poor white trash,” is that the North whip the South’s ass.

Why? Because that defeat blew open the door—a huge, gaping door—to Southern industrialization. Step by rapid step, the plantation owners’ complete control of the Southern economy was loosed.   Within six years of the war’s end, Michael Tuomey’s discovery of iron ore brought far-sighted entrepreneurial industrialists to Jones Valley, where they began to build a city which they named after England’s industrial powerhouse—Birmingham.

Into Birmingham will stream former slaves and poor white folks (like each one of my grandparents), and while some may rightly question how fairly these folks were treated by the new industrial barons, one cannot deny that, for the first time in hundreds of years, these families have a shot—however long it may be—at upward mobility, of bettering their lives and the lives of their descendants—of gaining dignity. And this isn’t just Birmingham. All over Alabama, all over the South, big factories pop up in need of employees, most of whom are drawn out of what otherwise would’ve been inescapable poverty. [As just one example among millions, read my grandfather’s story here.]

Again I’ll say it: the South needed to lose the war. Some have argued, “Even if the South had won the war, slavery would’ve eventually collapsed.” That’s probably true. History shows that, at least since the fall of the Roman Empire, slave-based economies always collapse because they keep wage-earners from the job market. But, for the sake of argument, let’s imagine the U.S. had a lesser leader than Lincoln who withstood pressure from many Northern politicians to accept the Confederacy’s plea for a truce. Let’s say Andrew Johnson, instead, was president, and his administration accepted the truce, so that the Confederate States were able to continue as an agrarian nation. And, for the sake of argument, let’s say the Confederacy did eventually eradicate slavery, maybe by 1920 or so, and that slowly but surely the Confederacy began to build an industrial base.

Where would this have left our American history as we know it? Without Southern industrial plants augmenting those in the North, would the United States have been ready to play its pivotal role in the victories of World War 1 and especially World War 2? Absolutely not. If the Confederacy had survived the Civil War, we would likely be dealing with a strong legacy of Nazism in Europe today. And we would not, by any scenario, be the world’s most powerful nation.

So, what in the hell is up with all this Confederate-flag-waving nonsense?  What’s with admiration of figures like Gen. Nathan Bedford Forest, a slave-owning Klansman—in short, an asshole? Why do we venerate a flag that represents an event in which our ancestors were used and abused by people who called them “white trash”?

I think there are two inter-related reasons. First, most of us white Southerners were, in our youth, subject to an unrelenting indoctrination in which many of us were convinced that our ancestry looked a great deal like the O’Haras in Gone with the Wind.  This indoctrination, passed down from the plantations, convinced us—as it did our ancestors—that “Y’all are just like us,” that “Y’all need to help us defend our sacred land.”

Second, because many of our ancestors (like my great-great grandfather Nevil) did sign up, the propaganda is strengthened by this sentiment: “If you criticize the Southern cause, then you turn your back on your beloved ancestors, which makes you a damn traitor!”

For me, this second reason was the more powerful.  How could I turn my back on Nevil, my grandmama’s granddaddy? And, honestly, if I had not begun to read and think more clearly about the Civil War, I would still be harping that line today.

But somewhere in my twenties, there emerged in my mind an image of Nevil, my felled Confederate ancestor. He’s lying on his back, bleeding out, from his Yankee-inflicted wounds. Greater than his physical pain is his agony that he’ll never again see or hold his wife or his newborn son. Though he doesn’t yet know that his side will lose, he begins to wonder what the hell he was fighting for. Neither he nor anyone he knew ever owned a slave. All he had was a little dirt farm, a little shack, and a little family that no one, especially not a Yankee, ever threatened.

Over the years, I’ve imagined him looking down through a celestial window, watching his grandchildren, whom he never met, move, one by one, to Birmingham where the men take up jobs in steel mills and train yards and the women raise children or become school teachers. He smiles and scratches his head as he watches them build lives in houses with electric lights and indoor plumbing. He continues to watch as his grandchildren’s children and then their children go to school and learn things he never dreamed of. He watches them get even better jobs than their parents had. As I see him, he draws his right hand to his heart, shakes his head in amazement, as tears of joy stream down his face.

I think of him also when I’m driving down Interstate 459 and a pickup truck blows by me with a huge Confederate flag rippling behind.  I watch that flag, and, faintly I hear Nevil’s voice say, “Don’t believe it, my son.  Don’t you believe it for one second.”

Confederately Confused (Pt. 2)

[The second part of a three-part posting that begins here]

 1977 (Home from college):

Me: Frankly, I’m glad the North won the Civil War. They were right and we were wrong.

Them: But your grandmama’s grandaddy fought in the War and was killed by Yankees!

Me: He should’ve never been there in the first place.

Them: [Gasps, followed by silence.]

1967 (A day trip with grandparents to ancestral turf around Vincent, AL)

Me: Hey, where are all the plantations and mansions?

Them: What? There’s never been plantations and mansions ‘round here.

Me: Well what about Gone with the Wind?

Them: What about it?

Mid-1960s

I’m ten years old in a cushiony seat at the ornate Alabama Theater to see Gone with the Wind. Moments before the film starts, the Mighty Wurlitzer emerges magically onto the stage. A slender, bowtie-wearing man flails his arms and legs like a marionette across the organ’s keys and pedals.

Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton!  Old times there are not forgotten!

Hundreds of us sing with lusty, amphetamine-level enthusiasm that makes the place pulse.

Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixieland!

Dixie wraps up in a flourish of foot-stomping, standing applause. Yee-hahs explode here and there like firecrackers. A whiff of righteous rage wafts through the house. The Mighty Wurlitzer and the bowtie man descend now beneath the floor as, above, plush velvet curtains part to expose the screen where appears the image a post-hanging sign that reads, “A Selznick International Picture.” Church chimes sound as the camera pans down to reveal the plantation mansion of Tara in all its gleaming glory.

This isn’t merely a re-showing of a 25-year-old film. No. This is an event of indoctrination, a sort of worship service where the Gospel reads “This is our past. This is what the Yankees did to us.”

Only it isn’t.

2018

I’m a fifth-generation Alabaman. Follow the tatters of my ancestry back to the 1750s, and, while you’ll find more than a few closeted skeletons, what you’ll not find is money. My people crossed the Atlantic hungry and empty-pocketed. Having been an economic burden on England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, they were in that mass of poor folks lured away by promises of wealth in the New World.  In other words, they were a bit like today’s urban panhandlers who cause city councils and business leaders to scheme ways to shove them outside city limits.

The American roots of the Confederate soldier Nevil, my grandmother’s grandfather, of whom I wrote in the last post, trace back to around 1750 when it appears that his grandfather arrived in Charleston, South Carolina. From an 1840 census, we know that by 1836, when Nevil was born, his father had arrived in what’s now Shelby County, Alabama.  We also know by oral history related to and from my grandparents that these ancestors were dirt farmers. They lived hand to mouth on what they could eke out of increasingly depleted soil.

I’ve also learned from copious reading and chatting with others that most multi-generation Alabamans have a similar family history. They may root back to continental Europe instead of the British Isles, but their people were also dirt poor when they crossed the ocean and drifted into Alabama. And here they also struggled to stay alive for several generations.

They were still struggling on January 11, 1861, when the Alabama legislature voted 61-39 to become the fourth state to divorce itself from the United States of America. At that time, barely 35 percent of Alabama families owned slaves. But a betting man who wagered that those 61 winning votes would be cast by legislators from the slave-owning 35 percent would’ve won his bet.

The argument that the Civil War was about states’ rights and not slavery turns out to be half right and half wrong. The truth: The war was about states’ rights to uphold slavery.  You don’t believe me?  Well, here’s another Stephens (no relation, I’m sure, as he was loaded with money and therefore with slaves) to prove my point. Destined to become Vice-President of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens writes,

“The new [Confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us, the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. [Our] foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”  [Source]

Did you catch that line? “This was the immediate cause of the late rupture.” Confederate President Jefferson Davis voiced similar sentiments, as did other politicians from the well-heeled, plantation-owning minority of Southerners. Folks, no getting around it: The Civil War was about protecting slavery. And this would make it “a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight.”

In the South disenfranchised people—first and foremost the slaves, and then folks like my poor white ancestors—were working and/or fighting to prop up an economy that actively suppressed upward mobility. All of the rich, good soil was taken and seemingly forever occupied by a plantation-owning elite.  The hard-scrabble land was tossed to  our ancestors.  Obviously, for the slaves, there was no escape from this closed economy.  And there was little, if any, escape for the dirt farmers, too.  God wasn’t manufacturing more and better land. And the good stuff was taken.

Very strange, because, as Americans, we claim to hold sacred the values of free enterprise and entrepreneurship. We point to these values as the cause of American abundance. But these values were not welcomed by the slave-owning elite because the upward mobility of slaves and poor whites would have destroyed the plantation owners’ closed economy (as it eventually did). To protect what amounted to a country club of aristocrats, the elite incited the poor against the North by demonizing the industrial revolution in which entrepreneurialism was flourishing and providing Northern poor with jobs leading to upward mobility and self-improvement.  Here’s an 1856 segment penned by an Alabama newspaper editor in the pocket of the plantation elite:

Free Society! we sicken at the name. What is it but a conglomeration of greasy mechanics, filthy operatives, small-fisted farmers, and moon-struck theorists? All the Northern men and especially the New England States are devoid of society fitted for well-bred gentlemen. The prevailing class one meet with is that of mechanics struggling to be genteel, and small farmers who do their own drudgery, and yet are hardly fit for association with a Southern gentleman’s body servant. This is your free society which Northern hordes are trying to extend into Kansas. [Source]

The aristocracy sowed the seeds of this fake news among the poor, including my ancestors.  And, apparently it worked.  For on April 11, 1861, when Confederate cannons opened fire on Ft. Sumter, a great many poor white Southerners believed they were under attack and needed to enlist in the Confederate Army. (Dare I mention the well-documented fact that plantation owners enjoyed the option of paying to have their sons exempted from military service.)

So Nevil, my grandmother’s grandfather, laid down his life to protect the lifestyle of men who sipped single-malt scotch, puffed expensive cigars, and called him “white trash.” And somehow they had found the audacity to persuade him to charge onto battlefields—all to protect their wealth.

Poor Nevil. He should’ve never been there in the first place.

[This series will conclude in my next blog post.]

Confederately Confused (Pt. 1)

For decades Southerners were trained to distrust and dislike Yankees, by which was meant anyone raised anywhere outside the eleven Confederate states. So, like most Southern kids of my generation, I was instructed in the Dixie catechism, which varies only in that each family has its own tale of why the Civil War is personal.  Here’s mine as passed down from my maternal grandmother.

***

Her grandfather, Nevil, fought in the Fourth Alabama Cavalry. Somewhere in Tennessee in 1863, he was commanded to transfer a couple of captured Union officers to Georgia. Along the way, the Yankees got the upper hand. Wresting away Nevil’s gun, they shot and killed him.

But wait, the story doesn’t end there….

Fast-forward to 1908. My grandmother, now seven years old, watches her father, Ben, open an envelope from the mail. As he withdraws a letter, something falls out and clacks across the floor.  Grandmother picks it up—an old ring engraved with a square and compass surrounding the letter “G.”

The letter writer states that he is one of the Union soldiers that Ben’s father was transporting to Georgia, and that it wasn’t until after he had shot him that he noticed the Masonic ring on his finger. He writes that he would never have killed him had he known he was a brother Mason, and that the killing has haunted him every day since. He closes the letter without signature but with great remorse and the desire that, somehow, by God’s grace, Ben will forgive him.

Ben takes the ring from my grandmother, examines it closely, then looks again at the envelope. Grandmother’s mom, Molly, has been watching and listening. She asks if the letter is postmarked.

“Just says it come from Ohio.”

After some silence, Molly asks, “D’ya wish he had signed it?”

“Nope,” says, Ben, “‘cause if he did, I’d have to hunt the sumbitch down and kill ‘im.”

He’s not kidding. A few years later, he will murder a man for insulting his eldest daughter, and, a few years after that, he will be murdered himself.  This is rural Alabama dirt-farmer Southern code, and Yankees, especially, are not exempted from due justice.

***

This story reached me when I was barely older than my grandmother had been when the letter came to her father.  The tale had, however, lost some of its desired effect because I responded with, “That poor Yankee man, feelin’ bad all those years.”  Oops. Error on my part.

I was instructed:

  • That “poor Yankee” [two words that must never be placed side-by-side!] killed Grandmama’s granddaddy. How would I feel if a Yankee killed my granddaddy?
  • This was a war of Northern aggression. We didn’t attack them. They attacked us!
  • Don’t let anyone tell you the Civil War was about slavery. It was about states’ rights.
  • Besides, our slaves were treated well and respectfully. Most of them didn’t want to be freed.
  • Forget, hell! We owe it to our fallen ancestors to stand up for the Confederacy.
  • The South’s gonna rise again!

Thus was I duly corrected in my Dixie ideology, and dutifully did I hold to it until

I started reading lots of history books and learned that what I’d been told and what had happened were often radically different.

Then I made my biggest mistake: I opened my mouth about it—in the South.

[To be continued]

“Agricolae sunt!” (Tribute to Miss Hortenstine)

Occasionally on TV I’ll see a Farmers Insurance commercial featuring the Oscar-winning actor J.K. Simmons who describes the various ways the vaunted insurance company can save us from doom. Always, the commercial ends with the ear-wormy jingle

We are farmers! Bum-bah-bum-bah-bum-bum-bum!

To which I often sing back

Agricolae sunt! Bum-bah-bum-bah-bum-bum-bum!

which is Latin for “They are farmers!”  I’m always thrilled to participate in this little litany even if it’s about all I remember from two years and a summer of Latin at Ensley High School. And yet those twenty months in Miss Hortenstine’s class changed my life. You see, my slog through Latin is one of those life lessons that are 90 percent painful and 10 percent redemptive, but somehow, with time, the redemptive part prevails.

It all began with my naive 13-year-old notion that I was to become a lawyer. So, in eighth grade, when time came to make my ninth-grade course selections, my father said, “You’ve got to take Latin because lawyers deal with Latin terms a lot.” And so I did.

Latin 1 was misery beyond description. The teacher, Miss Hortenstine, was what we indelicately called “an old maid.”  But she did have a lover—Julius Caesar. In great rapture would she effuse the Latin for “All Gaul is divided into three parts!” which, next to “Et tu, Brute,” is apparently J.C’s most famous line.” (Sorry I can’t remember it in Latin.)

How I passed Latin1 remains as mysterious as the whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa. I’ve chalked it up to the grace of God. And so I tried to bail out at the end of ninth grade. I told my dad, “I no longer want to be a lawyer. In fact, I hate lawyers!”  But he said, “No Stephens will be a quitter!”

So—on to Latin 2 which was, frankly, unbearable. You may have heard the phrase “Latin is a dead language,” unspoken for centuries. Well, that memo didn’t find its way to Miss Hortenstine’s desk, for in Latin 2 she spoke Latin almost exclusively and demanded the same of us. I felt as if I were trapped in a kennel of ceaselessly barking dogs—albeit dogs considerably smarter than I.

I flunked Latin 2.

This, of course, meant summer school, which meant two more months in the kennel. Here I’ll admit something I wouldn’t have then: I cried, I sobbed. I begged my parents to get me out of this hell. But there would be no turning back, I had come too far down the Appian Way to jump track now.

So summer school it was.  But contrary to my expectation, there awaited an altogether different Miss Hortenstine. With only five of us flunkies in her charge (from both Latin I and II), she sat us not in those impersonal student desks but around a table with herself, now and then taking one or another of us aside to her desk or the chalkboard where she would explain things slower and with added detail. Our main task was to translate the writings of her loverboy, Julius Caesar.

And, to my own amazement, I was actually getting it done!  What’s more: I was freakin’ having fun doing it!. The noun declensions, the verb conjugations, the syntax were suddenly making sense. This was more fun than puzzle-solving!  For the very first time, I saw how language worked—its architecture, mechanics, the whys and wherefores of grammar.  Epiphany!

And here’s the great part: this stuff applied in one way or another to EVERY language—including English. Within weeks of passing (yay!) summer Latin 2, I was in an eleventh-grade English class with a teacher who made us diagram sentences on the chalkboard, a task that, until now, had humiliated me. Suddenly, though, I was a kick-ass diagrammer.

And though I didn’t know then, I would eventually study four more languages—Spanish (in college), biblical Hebrew and Greek (in seminary) and finally French (on the African mission field).   In every case, even if my Latin vocabulary had faded from the rearview mirror, I had Miss Hortenstine riding in the backseat calling out. “Gerald, of course you remember what the future perfect tense is!  Son, you know the subjunctive mood!” And I did—and do.

Miss Hortenstine has since shuffled off this mortal coil. Still I think of her often, especially when I’m futzing around with these Legos we call words, trying to build something with them, for it was she who lit the fire of my passion for language, for painting pictures with words.  And. most importantly, it was she who showed me—now a language teacher myself—that individual attention to a struggling student can change everything.

Thank you, Miss H.  Hope you and Julius Caesar are having a blast up there!

Lemme ‘splain to you about my back-up ball

Where I was born, every boy was supposed to become an athlete. This was terribly unfair to the few of us who weren’t equipped for the task.  But there was no begging off. It was unthinkable to face your father and say, “Look, Dad, I’m really more of the bookish type.”  No, you had to play ball. And to do that, you had to have the balls to play ball—a department in which I was sorely lacking.  Still I tried.

I tried little league baseball which amped up my prayer life, as I would stand be-gloved and bewildered in right field, mumbling, “Please, God, don’t let him hit it to me.” Or bat-gripping and sweat-dripping at home plate, praying, “Please, God, don’t let him hit me.”

I tried YMCA football where the coach—a father fueled by lingering frustration that he didn’t get the football scholarship to Bama he truly deserved—pointed at me and said, “You’re chubby. You’re an offensive guard.” He taught me the three-point stance and put me next to the ball-snapper where my prayer life continued.  I got in the first four downs of the first game and was benched the rest of the season. (God is good!)

I noticed, however, that there were other, lesser balls in play. The basketball, for example, but this involved too much running. The tennis ball (ditto). The golf ball—too outdoorsy. (I was an indoor enthusiast.)

Then, one Saturday morning after the cartoons had finished, I stumbled on an amazing TV show: Professional Bowlers Tour.  I watched the greats—Dick Weber, Don Carter, and others—battle it out on the lanes.

Geez, here was the sport for me! No running. No outdoors. No human suffering. Not long after, I found myself for the first time standing about 65 feet from a triangle of white bowling pins, my feet stuffed into size 7 red-and-green bowling shoes, my trembling hands cradling something like a ten-pound cannonball.

My first foray wasn’t pretty.  My ball, like a sleepy wino, kept falling into the gutters. My prayer life gave way to cursing. But, thank God, the bowling alley was loaded with balls. I hunted the racks and found a much lighter and more sober ball—one I could keep from the gutters.

Turning to my dad who was watching from the seats behind me, I exclaimed, “This is the perfect ball!”

“Yeah, it’s a woman’s ball,” he replied.

Which embarrassed me for a few seconds until I said to myself (silently, of course), “Who gives a shit?”

Over time, I made my way into a bowling groove. As I’ve said in an earlier post, I’m pretty much a maverick in most things. Bowling was no exception, for I noticed that while my right-handed bowling heroes on TV approached the lane from the far right side and rolled a left-curving ball, I, also a right-hander, was doing just the opposite—approaching the line from the far left and rolling a right-curving ball.

Yet it was working for me. I found that if I started my approach with my right shoe between the first and second foot-markers and then released the ball so it rolled slightly to the right of the second-from-left triangle arrow on the lane, the ball would curve right into the pocket between the 1 and 2 pins! More and more was I making strikes. And with more practice, I was finding the various positions for picking up spares.

Damn, I was good! I began to bowl consistently in the 160s-to-180s, and, occasionally, when visited by the bowling gods, I could pop 200. My highest game was 226.  In high school, I got great thrill bowling against jock friends and kicking their butts.

A few years later, in my senior year of college, I was paging through the course catalog in search of an easy elective.  Imagine my thrill at finding “Bowling 101”!

Reporting to the lanes for the first class, I pulsed with pride. The instructor—a football graduate assistant—was barely older than I and reminded me of the jocks I used to crush back home. Though I had to admit, watching his opening demonstration, he had fine form—typical of my heroes: right-handed, rightward approach, silent smooth-as-silk delivery, left-curving ball.  But it took him about seven balls to roll a strike. (I would’ve done better.)

Now it was our turn.  He divided us into four student practice teams. I rolled a strike with my first ball.  We bowled on, four against four. I was putting distance between myself and everyone else when the instructor began shouting, “Hey you! Yeah, you right there!” He was pointing at me, and he wasn’t gleeful.

“You’re rolling a back-up ball!” he said, stepping onto the platform. “Didn’t you see how I told you to release? Like you’re shaking a hand!” He extended his right hand to me. An awkward moment. Was I supposed to shake it? Mercifully he withdrew it.

“You’re twisting the palm of your hand outward, away from your body!”  He mimicked the move and shook his head in disgust, then lowered his voice. “You’re bowling limp-wristed, like a fag.”  He picked up a ball and said, “Watch me.”  Lucky bastard rolled a strike. “That’s how you do it!” he said, panning his gaze over the throng that had gathered to enjoy my humiliation.  “Now! You do it right!” He stood there waiting.

I picked up my ball, moved rightward, made my approach, and dutifully released in the holy hand-shake mode.  But my ball departed in a nervous flutter down the right edge of the lane. It refused to break left, moving straight down the lane’s edge, like a novice on a tightrope, for which I felt such empathy that I started leaning my own upper body leftward as if to nudge the ball in that direction.  But—no avail. About a foot from the pins, it fell pitifully into the gutter.

“You just need to practice correctly,” said the instructor. “You’ll get there.” And he walked way.

But soon as he turned his back, I resumed my maverick way. Sadly, this course, which I’d expected to be filled with fun, degenerated into an angry game of cat-and-mouse between Jocky McJockface and me.  When I knew he was watching, I would bowl his way, but otherwise I Sinatra-ed him: I did it my way. He kept catching me, though, and finally took to hovering about whichever lane I bowled on.

I did my best to behave, despite the damage this was inflicting on my game.  Then, one day toward the end of the course, as I was en route to barely breaking 100, a raging voice in my head shouted, “Screw this guy!”

Brazenly I bowled my limp-wristed fag ball over and over.   And though I was hitting strikes and spares, the Great One went nuts. “Stephens!” He knew my name by now.  “On the final, I swear to God, I’ll flunk you for bowling a back-up ball!”

Yes. There is a final exam in bowling. You sign up for a time, and then bowl solo an entire game in front of the instructor.  I considered defying this doofus, taking the F, and then appealing to administration, until I learned this would be the Athletics Director.  When I imagined myself walking into the office of the boss of all the coaches at the University of Tennessee, and saying, “Mr. Woodruff, lemme ‘splain to you about my back-up ball….”  Well, that imagined scenario didn’t play out well for me.

So I bowled “correctly” in the presence of Mr. Smarty Jock.  I rolled a 126 and got a low “B” for the course.  But there was value in this, for it revealed to me a painful truth about the world I was entering: Orthodoxy—that is, doing things the “right way”—is regarded by powerful people as far more important than positive results.  This was the deeper meaning behind Andre Agassi’s pitch line in the Canon camera commercials decades ago, “Image is everything.” In other words, how it comes out doesn’t matter nearly as much as how you look while you’re doing it.

P.S. I don’t bowl much anymore.  But I’ve not forgotten my boyhood roots. I know I must play ball. So I traded my bowling ball for a much, much smaller ball—the one at the tip of this ballpoint pen.  Writing is my sport now. I’m still an amateur.  But, hell, I’m having fun.