Learning and Teaching from The World’s Smallest Lady

August–the time of year when school bells ring again.  Teachers everywhere commence their incredible annual charge of encouraging students to develop their true sight, their true voices, and their intellectual joy.  School at every level should be a haven where young learners want to be.  And the teacher, though underpaid and overworked, is key.  Some years back, as I spent a summer month participating in the Georgia Southern Writing Project, I was asked to write about what birthed the teacher in me.  I knew immediately the answer: The World’s Smallest Lady.

small fair

The World’s Smallest Lady

As I dialed the telephone recently to check on the condition of the terminally ill father of a childhood friend from my hometown, I kept trying to keep the memory from surfacing.  I hadn’t thought about it in ages.  An incident from several decades ago surely didn’t still have the power to take control of my thoughts, to interrupt my life.  But the truth is, that memory is too powerful to ignore, too embarrassing, too haunting to dismiss.  And as I listened to Ricky’s phone ringing in one ear, the years faded, and the jumbled noises of an old Cherokee County Fair started sounding in the other, accompanied by reminiscent sights and even smells, which are such an integral part of a southern autumn carnival…

…I was thirteen, old enough to know better.  Ricky, Fred, and I had just staggered off The Bullet and found ourselves walking down Freak Show Alley.  Outside one attraction, a hawker was shouting at passersby to “Step inside and see The World’s Smallest Lady!  Only twenty-six inches tall!  For only a quarter!”  So, laughing, into the tent we hurried, just the three of us.

And there, surprisingly close to us on a small black round table, stood what indeed had to be The World’s Smallest Lady.  She was dressed in a little gaudily sequined gypsy outfit.  A short screaming-red skirt revealed two chubby stumps of legs.  But she wasn’t a child, even though she was so tiny.  Her face looked old, and I could see wrinkles beneath the cheap, garish make-up.  It was her very large head, however, topped with a gaudy, shiny gold crown, which really captured my attention.  I couldn’t stop staring, and why should I?  I’d paid my quarter.

So we gawked and snickered, three carefree young teenagers at the fair, secure and even innocent in our youth, our health, our futures, our “normality.”  Then Fred loudly whispered, “Damn, y’all, look at the size of that head compared to the rest of her body.  And her butt is bigger than mine!”

But it was Ricky, the member of our inseparable trio capable of doing and saying anything for a laugh–who, in reckless teenage cruelty, did the unimaginable.  Before anyone had time to react, Ricky stepped over the velvet rope, reached out to The World’s Smallest Lady, and jerked her gypsy skirt down to her ankles.  He ran out of the tent, followed by Fred, giggling and yelling, “Neal, let’s get out of here!”

But I couldn’t.  My feet were glued to the sawdust, and for a second or two, my eyes looked directly into those of The World’s Smallest Lady.  The dimension of time ceased, no one existed except for her and me, and those humiliated, prostituted, tiny eyes took away my innocence and my security.  As I stared, and stared, the plates beneath my small, comfortable, well-defined earth were shifting, ever so slightly, quaking.  Finally, as she reached down, pulling up her skirt to cover her nakedness, The World’s Smallest Lady spoke in a voice that seemed more resigned than angry: “You boys can just go to hell.”

As I hurried out of that tent and away from that sawdust and those piercing eyes, a startling transformation occurred, the full impact of which I wasn’t aware at the time: a sideshow midget, a twenty-five cent carnival attraction, a freak, became a regular human being with regular human feelings in the frightened yet awakening eyes of a thirteen-year-old boy.

guys

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I learned from my encounter with The World’s Smallest Lady the danger and horror of living in a world where we construct walls which establish the category of “other”–with ourselves being the privileged, the truly knowledgeable, the valuable, the ones who really count, the normal…and “other” being defined by gender, race, class, IQ, physical disability, sexual orientation, etc.  I learned that when we cast our dominant “gaze” patronizingly on others, we diminish ourselves as human beings as well as do violence to those we belittle.  I also learned–years later and after much reflection and life experience–that a teacher is one who refuses to allow the binary of “us/them” to operate in (or outside) the classroom.

May the new school year be one of JOY for students and teachers the world over.

 

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mary Ann on August 6, 2012 at 4:16 PM

    Wonderfully said, would’nt it be a nice world if we all learned that lesson!

    Reply

  2. This is a powerful story, and a beautiful post. I’m glad you stopped by my blog, so I could find yours.

    Reply

  3. Thanks Neal 🙂

    Reply

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