I cannot seem to leave the Bronx behind me.
My New York accent and a deviated septum are beginning to make me feel like a pilgrim in my native land. It seems that almost everywhere I speak children ask, “Where are you from?” Southerners are particularly sensitive to the tone and cadence of my voice. A young boy in Alabama listened to me order a burger and fries in a fast food restaurant and then remarked, “Y’all talk funny.”
I realize the National Teacher of the Year should be able to recite Dixie and The Battle Hymn of the Republic with equal gusto, but it’s awkward to say y’all with a New York City accent.
I am dwelling upon my accent because I am preparing to dine with a lovely Southern family. I have been invited by the Williams family to enjoy a home cooked meal and a heaping of Southern hospitality at their Huntsville home. The Williams family is a member of the Du Midi club, a civic organization that hosts educators attending the U.S. Space & Rocket Center Space Camp. For the last 11 years, Du Midi members have taken teachers out of their dorm rooms at the University of Alabama in Huntsville to introduce them to delicious Southern food. The kindness of these good will ambassadors cannot be overstated because I have been eating cafeteria food for the past four days. Tonight I get to eat local cuisine and enjoy the company of native Alabamians and some fellow state teachers of the year, including Bob Williams from Alaska, Susan Elliott from Colorado, Derek Olson from Minnesota, Christine Gleason from Texas, Edney Freeman from the Virgin Islands, and Alice King from Wyoming.
The matriarch of the family, Ramsey Williams, speaks with a soft and soothing voice. She greets me at the door and makes me feel comfortable in her beautiful house. The Williams family has lived in Huntsville for countless generations and they are very proud of their small city. Ramsey and her guests treat me to an oral history of Huntsville, including sharing stories not likely to be included in the town’s official history. I learn that Huntsville was once the state capital, has more antebellum houses than Birmingham or Mobile, was a busy hub for cotton merchants before “that unpleasant business with the North,” and helped to build the Saturn rockets that sent men to the moon. I also learn that a charitable madam who once boasted she had the most beautiful prostitutes “north of New Orleans” is responsible for the state-of-the-art medical center located in the heart of the city. Nineteenth century etiquette prohibited the madam’s girls from mingling with polite society or working Sundays, but the wages of their sins provided the land and building that eventually became a premier adult and children hospital.
After finishing a delicious meal we relocate to a large and cozy living room. The Du Midi Club guests begin to exchange stories about their family genealogies; the newcomer in the Huntsville group is an elderly gentleman whose family arrived in Alabama over 200 years ago. His wife chided him for being a “Johnny-come-lately.”
What a stark contrast to my family’s tenure in America. Most New Yorkers are considered “old blood” if they are fortunate enough to be able to trace their family history back to Ellis Island.
“How long has your family lived in New York?” a retired Saturn rocket engineer asked.
“My mother came here in 1954,”I replied. (Insert the sound of crickets.)
And then the subject of teaching took center stage. My gracious dinner companions praised the teachers in the room and wanted to know all about my experiences traveling throughout the country. A retired army officer stood up and spoke about the time he played teacher for one day. He had been serving the first of two tours of duty in Vietnam, gathering intelligence information during the early days of the war. A South Vietnamese army official took him to a remote village filled with small bamboo houses but no school. He asked the escort permission to give the Vietnamese children some paper and pencils and books; small tokens to help educate smiling children who could not read or write. The South Vietnamese official thought it was a good idea for Americans to help educate poor rural children and he gathered them together in a one-room bamboo hut. The tall and rugged-looking ex-army officer described feeling so much joy being able to give children books and to play “teacher for one day.”
He then left the village to gather intelligence about local Vietcong activity in the region.
Later in the day, the South Vietnamese escort began shouting “Vietcong! Vietcong!” and the American officer took cover behind a large tree. But the escort was pointing back toward the direction of the village. Smoke could be seen rising above the tree canopy and the sounds of women wailing pierced the humid air. The Vietcong had thrown grenades into the makeshift schoolhouse, killing all the children. The killers did not want Vietnamese children to accept any gifts from American soldiers; including the gift of an education.
I then watched tears swell in the eyes of a masculine and compassionate man. He is still haunted by the ghosts of children he once tried to teach. And then my eyes began to swell.
I may talk funny, but we all share the same tears
The opinions expressed in Road Diaries: 2009 Teacher of the Year are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.