Posted in Life Experiences, Neal's Writing

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.

 

Posted in Joy in Nature, Savannah Joy

Welcome to My Backyard, the Alley of the Angels

Welcome to the alley of the angels

Hey, they say your eyes can gleam

When you can a just tell the truth all night

(And you can chase them dreams all night)

Welcome to the alley of the angels.

 — John Cougar Mellencamp

Places–I love the poetic resonance of that word. Some places are special; you had them growing up, of course you did. And do now. Magical places. Special because of their cocoonishness, or their broad openness. Their smell, or their connection to friends or family. Their lightness, or darkness. Their safety, or risk.

So I was aghast a few years back when I attended a writing conference at the Sea Turtle Inn in Atlantic Beach, FL, and one afternoon decided to skip the meetings and drive down memory lane. I headed south to Jacksonville Beach to find the motel where my family and I vacationed from about the time I was six or seven till I went away to college. It had those wonderful beds where you inserted a quarter into the headboard, and the mattress vibrated! For fifteen minutes! My mother, father and brothers would all hop on. Who needed the Ritz?

I knew exactly where the Horseshoe Motel stood. I had been there SO many times as a kid. But I started to doubt myself when I passed the lifeguard station and came to the ridiculously sharp turn in the road far beyond my memory motel location. I can be dense, so it took me at least three to-and-fro trips before I realized (admitted?) that the place had been demolished for a condo. Sad. A childhood place gone for good.

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I live in beautiful downtown Savannah, smack-dab in the middle of the nation’s largest historic district, to be exact. I can hear the huge freighters blowing their bass notes at night …

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… as well as the clatter of horseshoes as carriages tour past Colonial Park Cemetery across the street.

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I love walking the Savannah streets, breathing history.

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I don’t really have a backyard, in the traditional sense of the word. But, boy, do I have a backyard! It’s really a small alley, which runs behind the building where I live.

Even though it is communal, and somewhat small, there are hidden crannies where one can sit and read, or laptop, or daydream. It exudes a trace of otherwordliness, a fragrance of excursion. I step into my “backyard,” and suddenly I’m in Europe–Florence, Italy perhaps, trying to decide on which trattoria to frequent. I sit to read in its botanical wealth and am lost, not just in the book’s maze, but in the place, the green, the leafyness, the nowness of nature.

This place calls me to look up, to pause and see.

To view from unfamiliar perspectives and angles.

A tremendous perk of having place appreciation is that windows appear, and open (or shut), and allow you to see just what you desire to see. Or simply, and deliciously, to dream.

There’s power in place.

Both growth and potential growth. Both static and kinetic.

Sometimes sitting is all that’s needed in life. To embrace “is-ness,” accept “am-ness.” Breathing in, breathing out.

A sense and celebration of place, our place, they gift us with calm assurance that we are where we are, for good reason. That rhythm and movement take us (or keep us) where we need to be.

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My backyard invites me to …

And such encouragement affirms the heart of this attempt at blogging.

Posted in College Teaching

Final Little Hallway Walk and GSU Retirementville

Office 2225B on the second floor of the Newton Building on the campus of Georgia Southern University.  A second home.  For a long time.

But my office is cleared out now, books all boxed and removed.  Quieter than it has been in eons.  Computer-humming quiet.  My office phone suddenly shy, afraid to ring and disturb emptiness.

I’m retiring from full-time college teaching.

This evening, after my last set of finals is turned in, I will walk out my door and down my little hallway for the final time as a professor at GSU.

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The Walk.

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Goodbye, goodbye little hallway!  Goodbye, goodbye GSU!

Hello, hello ….

Posted in Joy in Nature

Some of My Favorite Trees — Updated

I love trees, always have.

Trees

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

           — Joyce Kilmer
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I’m going to share with you some of my favorite Savannah-area trees.  (I realize that March is probably not the best time to be taking pics of trees.)

1.  The I’m Still Standing Tree.  This is probably my very favorite tree around.
It’s not the most beautiful by any stretch.  It’s not shaped evenly, and it’s not full–there are large openings in the branch coverage.  So why is it my favorite?  Simple.  It’s still standing.  If you take a closer look at the views below, you will notice that the IST tree is still standing in the middle of the paved parking lot at Savannah Centre at the corner of Stephenson and Hodgson-Memorial.  And it’s the only tree around.  It exudes courage, independence, feistyness.  It beat the odds.  It simply IS.  I want its is-ness and its determination.
 
2.  The You’re-Right-Outside-My-Office-Window-and-I’ve-Watched-You-Grow-from-a-Seedling Tree.  You know how sometimes you’re buddies with a person due to geography, because she or he is just THERE,  like Kramer was to Jerry on Seinfeld?  Well, that’s how the tree below and I developed our relationship.  I might not have necessarily chosen it as an in-your-face friend but am now so glad we were put together.
  
3.  The Fake-It Tree.  I like this fake bonsai tree which sits on my desk at work.  A student used it in a class project several years ago, didn’t want it, and I adopted it.  Most folks ooh and aah when they first see it; they think it’s real.  Bonsy has taught me that if you aren’t, act like you are anyway, and most people won’t know the difference.
4.  Slim.  Enough said.
5.  I saw the coolest and tallest Christmas Tree last Christmas in Charleston.  You could walk right inside it!  It told me that I could be a bit more open to people.
6.  And this Lighted Palm Tree (who lights palms?), must have been talking about me with the Christmas tree above because Palmy told me that it’s okay to show off and show out from time to time-and be seen.
7.  And finally The Candler Oak near Forsyth Park in Savannah.  It demands respect due to its age, its continued growth.
 
Ttyl.  I’m gonna climb it.