Posted in Encouragement, Throwback Thursday, Neal’s Post from the Past

Neal’s Post from the Past: “Top Ten Happiness Questions”

Here’s an old post from my blog back in 2014, when I was semi-retired, teaching as an adjunct at Savannah College of Art and Design. I recently looked at it as 2022 made its way into our lives. May these questions be an encouragement to you.

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This past fall term at SCAD (the Savannah College of Art and Design), where I teach composition to international students, my course topic was Happiness Studies.

Each week, I introduced a new question, which I told the students had the potential to make them happier–IF they took the time to ask and then answer the question.

Here are the ten questions.  I challenge you to ask them to yourself whenever you need a dose of joy.

Dr. Saye’s Top Ten Happiness Questions

1.  Just how important is it?

2.  Do I realize that I can choose to think a thought that feels better?

3.  Why do I sometimes try to control other people? That’s really not my job.

4.  What do I see RIGHT NOW that is beautiful?

5.  Who has helped me recently?

6.  What is a good holiday memory?

7.  What do I really, really love?

8.  Do I realize that I can take three deep breaths right now and center myself? My breath is my life.

9.  Who can I be a blessing to in the next hour or so? How can I do that? 

10.  Am I paying attention to NOW (and not wasting time regretting the past or worrying about the future)?

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I encourage you to print these questions, put them up some place where you can easily see them, and start asking.

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Posted in Life Experiences

Remembering Peter this Teacher Appreciation Week

It never fails.  And I’m glad it doesn’t.  Whenever I see yellow gladioli, I think of Peter.  I saw some today.

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Peter Christopher taught creative writing in the Department of Writing and Linguistics up at Georgia Southern University (where I taught for twenty-four years).  He was a colleague and a friend and the fiction person on my dissertation committee when I got my doctorate.

And Peter died far too early in 2008 of liver cancer.

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After his passing, I reminisced about Peter’s impact on my life.  Here’s that remembrance:

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Peter, “Something Blooming, Something Found” and the Glorious Gladioli

Somehow, yin-yangishly I suppose, Peter’s smile carries both playful humor and serious authority as he says to me, “Here’s what I want you to do, Neal.”

“Take all that,”  Peter points at the pages and pages of text I have been rather proudly producing for weeks before asking/begging him to be the fiction person on my dissertation committee, “and put it aside–or throw it away.”

My dissertation is going to be an examination of how fiction can be used as a type of educational research, as a way of knowing.  And as part of my work, I want to write a novella which illustrates, through the characters and plot, various educational stances I have studied and enjoyed.  But I’m not a fiction writer, and I don’t really know how to get there.  I want Peter to sort of help quickly guide me through the process, tell me I can do it, be a cheerleader of sorts.

“Uh, well, you mean I’m not going to be able to use this?”

“Maybe.  We’ll see.  But for now I want you to forget everything you’ve written and have planned so far.  Here’s your homework.”  Again the smile–the smile that is beginning to get on my nerves just a little.  “For two weeks and for about an hour or so a day, I want you to freewrite.”

“You mean, just write about this novella idea I have?”

“No, Neal, freewrite about you.  About your life, what’s going on, what’s been, what’s to come.  About your inside life.  Your outside life.  Your family.  Work.  Friends.  Faith.  Anything that comes to mind.  Don’t stop for an hour–just write.”

My thoughts at this moment:  “Peter, are you CRAZY?  I am teaching full time.  I am on a deadline.  I do not have the time or interest to play your little freewriting game.  I just want to get this thing finished.  So no, I CAN’T and I WON’T do that.  And by the way, you’re supposed to just ENCOURAGE me, be my CHEERLEADER.”

My words at this moment:  “Oh, okay.”

After the frustratingly productive freewriting, which ends up changing in wonderful ways the entire story I will tell, Peter and I begin three months of tortuous joy.  I learn from a master.  Our weekly schedule goes something like this:

1.  Neal spends hours and hours and hours writing for a week.  Usually trying to get one scene done.
2.  Neal puts his folder of work (pretty good work in Neal’s mind) into Peter’s mailbox at the end of the day.
3.  The next afternoon Neal gets up from his desk and walks halfway across the hall towards Peter’s office, changes his mind and walks back to his own office and sits down.
4.  Neal feels silly at this childish behavior, gets up again and walks three-forths the way to Peter’s office, then returns to his own office once again.
5.  Neal calls himself all sorts of shaming names and finally walks all the way into Peter’s office, often simply because Peter has seen him walking back and forth, and tells him to COME IN.
6.  Peter smiles.
7.  Peter speaks:  “I can tell you put a lot of work into this, Neal.  But….”
8.  Neal revises.  And revises.  And revises.
9.  Neal realizes Peter is gifted beyond measure.

When we approach the end of the novella work, and I am fretting over a title for it, Peter tells me with a laugh, “Don’t worry about that.  I’m good with titles.  I’ll come up with one.  My gift.”

One of the young characters in my story, Kellie, LOVES flowers, grows them everywhere she can.  Her favorite is the yellow gladiolus.  (“It stands up in a garden.  It’s not afraid to be seen.”)  And since my tale shows a small group of high school students who come to realize that they have viable voices which are important and should/must be heard, Peter names my novella, “Something Blooming, Something Found.”

I am nervous as the dissertation defense begins.  I have foolishly invited folks from across campus to attend and quite a few are here.  Days before, when I asked Peter his advice about defending, he said that I should forget the negative concept of defense and just let my novella’s characters speak.  So that’s what I do.

I look at all those gathered in the Dean’s Conference Room in the College of Ed, take a deep breath, and begin my defenseless defense.  As I start, I see and sense Peter (“rock” in Greek) confer upon me three things: his trademark encouraging smile; a subtle and hidden to all but me “you-can-do-it!” thumbs up; and the realization, as my characters begin to breathe and speak, that something is blooming in me, and I am finding something, something I have not really grasped or undertsood until this moment in this room: I am a writer, not just a teacher of writing.

The next day, I walk into Peter’s office (without the ridiculous false starts) and present him with a bouquet of proud yellow gladioli.  He hoots in delight.  Hours later I hear a tap on my door, look up, and there he stands.

“Neal, I have been sitting at my desk looking at your flowers.  Really looking at them.  Seeing them.  They’re lovely.  They are so intricate, the way they turn and twist,” he says as he makes a circular gesture with one hand.

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“And there’s really only one word to describe them: GLORIOUS.  They are glorious.  Thank You.”

We chat and laugh a while.  Then Peter leaves.

But that’s okay.  He’s just across the hall.

[I write this in present tense for two reasons:  One, Peter has me write my novella in present tense.  And two, in ways that are important, perhaps most important, transcendent, eternal, Peter is with us.  Ever will be.  His smile that you and I came to appreciate so so much.  His always gentle spirit.  His instruction he gave to so many.  His embodiment of encouragement.  His model of living.  And His beautiful closing for each email and note he penned–“All thrive!”]

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Here we are after I defended my dissertation:

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On a whim, right before I published this post a few moments ago, I typed “GSU + Peter Christopher” in a search engine.  A Rate My Professor link from 2008 popped up.  One student wrote:

PC was my mentor.  I took every writing class he taught.  Writing was only a minor when I went to GSU… I would have majored if I could have.  He was a dear friend.  He taught me more than just how to be a good writer, he taught me how to love life — to have a passion for life.  He is gone from this earth, but never from my heart.

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Rest peacefully, Peter.  We remember you with appreciation and love.

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Related Post:  The Viewing & the Circle of Life

Posted in Five Friday Happy Bringers

Five Friday Happy Bringers (3/8/13)

It’s Friday All Day Long! Here’s what I am happy about:

1. My SCAD ENGL 193 (Composition for International Students) classes and I holding an informal drop-in Visual Essay Exhibition on Wednesday. A rousing success! I was/am SO proud of my students: artists showing off their work!

Here’s the blurb about the exhibition which I printed out on little programs:

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VISUAL ESSAYS:

A Classroom Exhibition  Habersham Hall 3/6/13 SCAD

For this project, students in Neal Saye’s ENG 193, Composition for International Students, both think “essay” and forget “essay.” They can do that—they’re smart! How is the project like an essay? Well, they compose, they have a focus and thesis, they have structure, they have support. But it does not evolve in traditional essay format. It births as a sculpture, a collage, a scrapbook, a video, a painting, a mobile, a form, a food, fashion, theatrical presentation, etc.

In The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho presents various themes about life and dream following. After reading the incredible text, students choose a theme, a symbol, a character, an idea, etc. and then create.

The visual essay project, then, is a visual representation of one topic narrowed into a clear thesis/point/perspective/idea. The students’ challenge: how to “show” their thesis.

This exhibition reveals their interpretations.

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And some photos from the exhibition:

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And some pics of the visual essays themselves:

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2.  My iPhone (and sense enough to minimally operate it).  Can anybody else remember when a phone was this device you used to call people … and … like, talk?

3.  The expectant thought of fresh, fat, orange-red, Vine-Ripened Tomatoes this summer.  I nearly cried at lunch yesterday at Panera when this pinkish thing pretending to be a tomato slice fell out of my tuna sandwich.  I was so embarrassed I put a napkin over it.

4.  Raw almonds

5.  Our incredible sense of hearing.  It’s so amazing.  (Well, except when, for some reason, I came across the band Screeching Weasel’s song “Bark Like a Dog.”)

*

That does it.  I’m going to start a band, Neal and the Bansheeing TurtlePins.  I’m working on our first really big hit, “Knead Like Julia, Martha and Paula (Before the Weight Loss).”

Have a Beautiful Weekend.  You HEAR me?

Posted in College Teaching

“Blessings”

Each Monday morning up at my old hunting ground, Georgia Southern University, my buddy and former Writing and Linguistics Department colleague Eric Nelson shares a poem on the W & L listserv.  Yesterday’s poem was so joyful and encouraging, I thought I would share it with you, Kind Blog Readers.  It’s called “Blessings”:

 
Blessings
occur.

Some days I find myself
putting my foot in
the same stream twice;
leading a horse to water
and making him drink.
I have a clue.
I can see the forest
for the trees
.

All around me people
are making silk purses
out of sows’ ears,
getting blood from turnips,
building Rome in a day.
There’s a business
like show business.
There’s something new
under the sun.

Some days misery
no longer loves company;
it puts itself out of its.
There’s rest for the weary.
There’s turning back.
There are guarantees.
I can be serious.
I can mean that.
You can quite
put your finger on it.

Some days I know
I am long for this world.
I can go home again.
And when I go
I can
take it with me.

—Ron Wallace from Long for This World
Isn’t that a cool piece of writing?  I LOVE being reminded that … good happens.
Posted in College Teaching, Savannah Joy

Five Friday Happy Bringers (11/2/12)

Okay, I know it’s Saturday. but yesterday was an uberbusy day.  And isn’t today gorgeous?  It’s cool.  It’s Fall.  And it’s time to acknowledge some Happy Bringers.

1.  Enjoying the Savannah Film Festival this week (hosted by SCAD).

2.  Making little Halloween goody bags for my international students, most of whom had never “done” Halloween before.  Then discussing the Day of the Dead (which some of them celebrate) and being grateful for all our relatives and friends who have passed on.

3.  A great-smelling rose.

4.  Attending and enjoying the Taste of the World food festival at SCAD yesterday.  Here’s a little bit about the event from the ISSO (International Student Services Office) newsletter: “Dine thali style and sample more than 80 international dishes. Visit the mixed grill area specializing in tandoori chicken, Thai chicken satay on skewers and Persian beef kebabs. Enjoy live performances inspired by international cultures and Savannah’s own Latin and Merengue sensation, Son del Coqui.”

I ran into some of my colleagues from SCAD’s Language Studio.  Here’s Coordinator of Language Studio/ESL Ana Turner (right after leading a traditional dance).

And here’s the Director of Language Studio/ESL Christina Cavage.

New full-time prof Curt Klinghoffer.  (I wish my last name cool like Curt’s.  I mean, Saye?  Really?)

Officemate Emily Gung.

Oldtimer–I mean “experienced”–ESL prof (and my mentor) Todd Nemanic.

I appreciate the appropriateness and truthfulness of this affirmation:

And I loved seeing some of my students at the festival.  Here’s Sonali.

And Juliana.

Andrea (with a friend).

Raquel and Juli.

And some other people I met.  Juwan, for example–I took his picture because of that cool blue hair.  I’m thinking about green for mine.  Yes?

And Devyn wins my prize for hippest necklace and pants.

I really had a ball there.  So much fun.

Now let’s play a game.  It’s called Oh Saye, Can You See?

I ran into my buddy Mangue Banzima with his gorgeous daughter.

Mangue writes/photographs a beautiful blog about fashion in Savannah, Qui Style in SavannahCheck it out sometime.  Okay, check it out RIGHT NOW because I’m in it for the second time!  Keep scolling down, past all the really cool and hip-looking people, until you get to the Taste of the World pictures–then, again, scroll past those young, stylish folks till you find … me!  [First post from a while back about fashion: I’m a Famous Fashion Model]

What a fun couple of hours in the fall beauty of Savannah.

5.  Seeing smiles as the most significant means of communication between people.

Joyful, Smiling Weekend!

Posted in Holiday Joy, Savannah Joy

Oh My Golly! My First Diwali!

My new adjunct professorship at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) in Language Studio/ESL comes with some very cool perks.  One is enjoying the beauty and history of SCAD’s many restored and repurposed buildings scattered across the Historic District of Savannah.  (Most of SCAD’s buildings are not new–more often than not, they were derelict or ready to be torn down before SCAD came to the rescue.)  My office, for example, is in Habersham Hall, part of the old Savannah jail.  (No more comments about finally being where I belong, please.)

Another perk is being exposed to so many unique cultural opportunities (for example, the Savannah Film Festival started this weekend).  On Friday night, I ventured over to the Habersham courtyard to celebrate Diwali, or the Indian “Festival of Lights.”  Diwali, or Deepavali, is a major Hindu festival that celebrates the triumph and victory of good over evil, specifically when the Hindu God Rama defeated the demon Ravana.  Celebrations incorporate the lighting of lamps and fireworks to symbolize hope, restoration and joy.  That’s right up my blog’s alley!

Turning the corner at the end of that mysteriously dark walk, I was amazed to see what looked like an Indian street festival in full swing.  Just look!

A large group of folks, many in traditional Indian garb, hovered around the food area.  And for good reason–the aromas were enticing.  The music was body-swaying.  Of course, I wanted to make a bee line directly to the grub, but I saw two of my students from ENGL 193 (Composition for International Students) and felt I had to pretend to be mature and say hello.  Here’s Kathrine and Stefanie:

But oh gosh, the food!  I can’t remember any of the specific names, except for naan (the bread), but here’s my plate:

 

After stuffing myself to an embarrassing degree, I finally came back to my other nongastronomic senses and saw on the other side of the courtyard in the stage area another of my students, Aakash Mani (aka Cash Money!  Really!).  I made my way toward him, stopping to say hi to some of these folks along the way:

I finally made it to Aakash …

… and discovered that he was one of the stars of the entertainment part of the evening!  Here he is dancing up a storm!

After the performance, I asked Aakash what made him happy about Diwali and the festival.  He explained that the festival itself, because of its recognition of the triumph of good, is reason to celebrate, that it’s all about happiness, and that the very smile on his face (which is almost ALWAYS present) is there because of the joy of life.  He also said that dance shows happiness.  (That sounds like an A+ answer to me.)

Other entertainers:

(Should I take up belly dancing?)

I was amazed at the beautiful orchestration of the evening.  So much fun!

I didn’t want to leave.

I love this place!

 

 

 

Posted in Life Experiences

Berry Rome-ing

I drove up to North Georgia last weekend to visit my undergraduate alma mater, Berry College and the city of Rome.

And look at this pretty Roman lady I ran into:

I hadn’t visited Rome in years, but I knew my first stop (since lunch time loomed) had to be the Partridge Restaurant on Broad Street downtown.

I loved this restautant as a student. (Would it still be as good???)

They serve up the southern cooking family style. Well actually Kyra Sedgwick from TNT’s The Closer does! Look!

Not only did she have the physical resemblance, but my incredible waitress sounded just like the Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson character, if not a tad more Southern. Her real name is Wilma Temples, and I LOVED her.  When she asked me if I liked the fried chicken,

(now that’s a piece of fried chicken)

and I told her that yes, it was delicious, she clapped her hands in delight.

What an incredibly tasty meal!

(Wait, look, there she is again, right behind me.)

But on to Berry College I stufflingly (for this post, let’s pretend that’s a word) went. Next stop: Oak Hill, the antebellum family home of Berry Founder Martha Berry.

And the backyard:

My childhood home doesn’t quite look like Martha’s:

What a wonderful feeling to drive through Berry’s main gate again, The Gate of Opportunity.  And at nearly 30,000 acres, Berry College boasts the world’s largest campus.

Ridiculously silly video introducing Dana Hall (toward the end I got distracted by students who yelled at me from their car):

I somehow managed to convince an RA to let me into my former dorm, Dana Hall and found my old room, #235.

I also tried to tell the kids about the cool Sock Hops we used to have, but they looked at me like I was from another century. (Just hush.)

Outside Dana Hall:

The Berry Chapel:

Pausing at Martha Berry’s gravesite. Yes, it’s right there next to Dana Hall beside the chapel.

And on to arguably the most beautiful section of campus, the Ford complex (Henry Ford funded this part of Berry).

I used to eat in the Ford Dining Hall below. (Also the site for yesteryear’s Sock Hops that those baby Berry students knew nothing about.)

Ah, the memories.

Finally, I drove about five miles (yes, still on Berry property) to the old Berry Academy part of campus to see my favorite spot of all, the Old Mill.

Believe it or not, we used to try to (illegally) climb that thing!

But not anymore. Nowadays these boots are just made for walking.  And sitting.

What a great Rome-ing day.

I have been so blessed to be a part of three beautiful and top-notch schools: Berry, Georgia Southern University and now SCAD (the Savannah College of Art and Design).

Other related posts and links:

My GSU Tour

GSU Retirement Post #1

GSU Retirement Post #2

SCAD-ing Outta Retirement

“My Berry”: 

Posted in College Teaching, Humor, Savannah Joy

SCAD-ing Outta Retirement

BFF’s–Blog Follower Friends (or anyone at any restaurant where I’ve eaten for the past two and a half months; or at the Post Office; or at Savannah’s coffee shops) know that on June 21, I retired from Georgia Southern University after teaching English there for twenty-four years.  [First retirement postSecond retirement post.  My final GSU Walking Tour.]  And I had such a fun retiring summer!  Sitting in my backyard, visiting a vineyard, embracing the Savannah Asian Festival, getting put in jail, exploring a fort, going to a Savannah Sand Gnats game, Tybee Island partying, etc.

But then summer started to come to an end, and (as all teachers know) the REAL new year started–the Academic Year.  I grew a bit restless.  And thought about getting a part-time job to keep me off the streets and such, but neither of my Top Five Prospective Second Careers panned out:

1 Tug Boat Operator.

2.  Little Caesars Sign Dancer.  I became interested in this one because the LCSDers at the corner of Montgomery Cross and Waters here in Savannah always seem SO enthusiastic.  So I researched the job a little.  Here’s the description and qualifications from the Little Caesars website:

“Get paid to dance and have FUN!  Part-time Sign Dancer job available!  Are you an outgoing energetic individual looking for work? Are you someone who can attract attention? Do you like having fun at work and staying positive?”  So far, so good.  Work SHOULD be fun!  And I write a happiness blog!  This job seemed right up my alley.

“If so, this is the job for you! We are looking for a part-time Sign Dancer who can hold a sign and have fun at the same time. We are not just looking for your average sign holder. We are looking for someone who can dance with a sign and attract attention.”  Again, surely I could HOLD a sign and have fun in a non-average way.

Requirements:

  • You must be very ENERGETIC and get people’s ATTENTION!!!
  • You must be in decent health. You will be outside.
  • You must be able to wave at passing cars while on duty.  I’m friendly!
  • You must be able to stand the entire shift.  I’m a teacher.  I stand all the time!
  • You must have reliable transportation and arrive on time.
  • You must be able to pass a drug test.  What about Allegra or Tums?
  • You must be at least 18 years old.  I’m SO over 18!  This job is MINE, I thought!

But alas, after hours practicing with a broom in the backyard, I came to find out that Little Caesars wants sign dancers who are not quite so OVER 18.

3.  Quality Control Praline Taster at River Street Sweets(Pure pralines, NOT turtles!)  Jen, can you HELP ME OUT HERE??!!

4.  Famous Italian singer. 

5.  Part-time CEO of Apple.  Afterall, I HAVE read the Steve Jobs biography, I have an iPhone, and I realize that Jobs and I have a whole lot in common, well except for the LSD, and the no-deoderant issue, and the need for absolute control (okay, maybe we have that one a little bit in common).

Anyway, recently I started seeing all those pencils and notebooks and protractors (is there really such a need for those things nowadays?) and composition books (does anybody else out there like to smell, really smell, composition books?) at just about every store I entered.  And, still frustrated and pouting with hurt feelings over the Little Caesars debacle, I decided to go to Craig’s List to see what kind of jobs were available.  Bad idea.  I won’t even begin to tell you what kinds of “job opportunities” I saw there.  So after an hour and a half, I left that site.

Then, after Googling “part-time job” + “$250,000 per year” + “low-to-no work requirement” and only getting hits for “U.S. Vice President” and “Ostrich Feather Fanner for the Kardashians,” I got down to business and Googled “part-time job” + “Savannah” + “education,” and an adjunct position posting at SCAD came up.  SCAD is the Savannah College of Art and Design, an incredibly beautiful and innovative art school scattered primarily throughout the historic district of my city.  Thrilled, I looked into the requirements, and soon after was asked to come do a teaching demonstration.

Initially terrified that I COULD NOT TEACH ART (well, actually I can do some cool little foam-board pictures with macaroni, dried pinto beans, glitter and Elmer’s Glue), I stopped hyperventilating and realized I would be teaching composition (my old stomping ground).  The demo and subsequent interview process went well, and they offered me the job!  (I figure I can work in the macaroni pics eventually.)

Doing a tad of research about SCAD faculty, I discovered on the college website that SCAD faculty include:

  • Emmy® Award winners
  • Academy Award® winners
  • Fulbright scholars
  • Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize winner
  • National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship recipient
  • British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award nominee
  • LEED-accredited professionals
  • U.S. patent holders
  • Scholars published in academic journals
  • Best-selling authors
  • AIGA Award winners
  • Character animators for Beowulf, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chronicles of Narnia
  • Illustrators for The New Yorker, Time, Disney and NASA
  • Visual effects artists for Titanic and Jurassic Park
  • Sequential artists for Dark Horse, DC Comics, Marvel, Cartoon Network and Warner Bros.
  • Producer of Fried Green Tomatoes and The Breakfast Club
  • Writer for The Cosby Show and As the World Turns
  • Script Supervisor for Driving Miss Daisy

WOW!

I felt a bit overwhelmed.  But then I checked back a while later, and lo and behold, something about Yours Truly was added!

  • Finalist, Eighth Grade Spelling Bee  (perhaps would have gone further but spelled “Georgia” as “Jeorgia” due to nerves)

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I am thrilled, THRILLED to be a part of the SCAD faculty on a part-time basis.  I will be teaching international students English composition.  I’m looking forward to this next phase of my teaching career and life.

Here’s the building where I teach:

It used to be the old Savannah jail.

I put retirement in jail.

Later.

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.