Outside, Looking In

The keynote speaker for the 2008 Tennessee Writers Alliance conference last weekend was Estelle Condra. Not only did she give a dramatic and inspirational talk, she did something I’ve not seen anyone else do at a conference. She brought a big box of used books to pass forward. They were old, she didn’t need them any more, so she invited everyone to go through the box and get what they wanted. I couldn’t pass it up and picked out Writing from Within: A Guide to Creativity and Life Story Writing. In a quick read-through I found a statement I thought helpful in deciding where to begin a memoir. “A good method is to establish what the climax of the story is, and then begin just a little before the climax.” It’s about the defining moments of life.

I go to kindergarten at Hill Demonstration School on the college campus five blocks from my house. It’s an old tall and wide building that faces Court Street and is supposed to be a good school because it is where up and coming teachers are taught how to teach. The other boys and girls are in my Sunday School class or they live nearby, and I’m invited to their birthday parties and to play at their houses where there are carports and yards full of toys.

Then when it is time for me to go to first grade, Mama gets a new teaching job in Skene, six miles south of town, so I will be going with her instead of starting elementary school with the friends I’ve already made. Skene has a country store, a Baptist church, a post office, a schoolhouse, and cotton farmers that plant the fields and take their crop to the gin. There are rich planters’ kids and poor white trash who live along the bogue in shacks with wood stoves and no running water. I walk into my first grade classroom and sit at a little round table with Jacqueline and Mary Sue, who wear pretty dresses with sashes and have Shirley Temple curls down their backs. I do not like being the new girl. I ask Jacqueline and Mary Sue if they want to look at my Lady and the Tramp book, and they say no, they do not. But we become best friends anyway. At recess we play jump rope on the sidewalk or jacks on the steps to the boiler room. We take tap dancing and Expression class and play Red Rover and Simon Says.

“Let’s ‘tend we are keeping house,” I say after the mower has cut high grass on the playground.

We make a square outline a few inches high with the grass cuttings, then we outline each room. We have wild onions and clover for our food, one of us gets to be the child, and we make the boys go to work to earn a living.

Jacqueline’s mother is a teacher like mine, but Mary Sue’s mother stays at home all day, so I am invited to her house for playtime and spend-the-nights a lot. Her daddy plants cotton and she has a big house and yard. We go in the side door at the back where there is a tiny room with a small table and chairs by a window for all her games, stacked in towers on shelves, and paper and crayons for her art work. We sit at the table and design clothes for Lennon Sisters paper dolls. Across from the table are three stairs that are used like shelves with stuff stacked on them and then a closed door. On the other side of that door are the rest of the steps to an attic, which is huge and filled with old toys, like baby dolls, a hobby horse, a trike, and also old end tables and knick knacks no longer used.

In fourth grade I have to start all over. Mama gets a new teaching job seventeen miles away, and again, I go with her. The Drew school is two stories and old, located in a neighborhood of old white houses with front porches and tall shade trees and cracked sidewalks. The classroom is big and my feet echo on the hardwood as I walk in, alone, everybody else already seated, looking at me, as I walk to the fourth desk in the fourth row from the right. There’s a cloakroom across the hall, and each student has a cubbyhole to store his stuff. I have never heard of these things before.

The kids are friendly, but they already have close pals to be with at recess. I am the new girl, a teacher’s daughter, so they think I must be smart. They look at me like they don’t know what to do with me. I can hover with this little clique or eat ice cream bars with that one. I can join in the recess games and fads. I take my hula hoop to school like the other girls do, and my autograph dog so I can collect signatures of classmates. But I live too far away to have spend-the-nights or arranged play dates. It’s long distance, so there’s no chatting on the telephone. I am solely a classroom presence, and I slide into that groove where I will stay.

I go inside my own self. I am content watching the others play. I am happy listening to their conversations, the in-things they talk about, the words they choose. I am like the fringe on a rug, and the others are acting out life in the middle of it. My imagination is my best friend. I pretend, I make up stories, I play-like. I live in a world that I create for myself. My mind is never idle. There are always thoughts skittering through it. I can see images of me on a horse, but it’s really a bike, as a majorette in a parade, but it’s really my Ben Franklin Five and Dime baton on my sidewalk, having the starring role and a solo in the school play, but I’m really only a gypsy and Beverly gets to be the princess.

At home I have plenty of time to sit alone behind a hydrangea bush or on the dirt floor of a dark clubhouse or in the walk-in closet of my bedroom and order my thoughts. I think about what it’s like to live in a rich planter’s house with a big attic full of old toys and dolls I’ve outgrown and boxes of ladies’ fine gowns to play dress-up in — a house that has a living room with lots of breakable things, a living room, dark and silent, that we don’t ever go in. I think about what it’s like to live in a shanty on the other side of the tracks in what folks call Colored Town. I am drawn to the latter because it requires more planning for how to get the basic necessities of life, because people are packed in close together so there must always be something to do and someone to do it with, because it takes more of a mind to make a life. Because a person has substance when he has to work and fight for what he needs, rather than if he is handed it on a silver platter.

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