Wednesday, August 11, 2004
Back in the '70s when I was at Neshoba Central, a gawky girl from a trailer park bursting with ideas that I didn't know where to put, two women saved my life. Mrs. Oneida Hodges and Mrs. Alline Salter gave me permission to find my voice, to reach deep inside myself and say, "I have something to say, and I'm going to say it." Those two English teachers, my mentors, not only told me it was OK to express myself, they also taught me that expressing alone is not enough. You have to observe, research, think, ponder, rewrite, think more, question, consider, adjust.
Coming from a home completely devoid of formal education, I didn't have a foundation for knowing how to learn to think critically, nor the confidence to be wrong and to change my mind as I processed new information. I wanted to write, but I didn't know that writing was a craft to be learned and honed like any other—that you must write first (and second) drafts full of holes that need to be filled. These women helped me understand that learning is life-long, that education never ends, that it is the difference between a job and a career, that it's about so much more than passing a multiple-choice test.
Mrs. Hodges was unusual for Neshoba County: the petite wife of the basketball coach who wore little black suits and wielded vicious red Flair pens. She piled her dark hair up and wore kohl eyeliner. She was exotic, from somewhere else.
She wanted more than anything to expose us country kids to a bit of culture. And she went far, far beyond her job description, and undoubtedly spent money out of her own pocketbook to do it. She'd take busloads of kids to plays at the Meridian Little Theater and at Mississippi State. She taught us mythology. She asked for our opinions and listened to them. I didn't know it then, but she was showing me the value of a larger "frame of reference"—the need to know what was going on in the world outside the sovereign state of Mississippi. Even when I just wanted to go drink Miller Ponies and circle the Sonic on the weekend, she was prying my mind open.
Mrs. Hodges loved journalism, the analytical, in-depth kind (what is often called "alternative" in today's world because the usual kind is so surface and dull). We didn't have a high-school newspaper, but she set it up so that we could publish the NCHS Countdown (we were The Rockets; get it?) in the local Neshoba Democrat. It wasn't exactly investigative journalism, but we shook a few trees along the way.
With her guidance, I wrote sassy columns about race relations, equal rights for women, why watching too much television melts the brain. (Maybe I didn't use those words then. Maybe I did). I wrote a scathing piece about people who want "something for nothing" (thinking back, I think she instilled a touch of libertarianism and a lot of Puritan work ethic in me). My pal Joey and I wrote pro-con columns that got me in trouble: Even though I worked near full-time at a restaurant during school, I wrote the con side in a debate over "Should high school students work after school?" The shop teacher (who coordinated one of those school-to-work programs) called me to his classroom to berate me in front of his students. I'm happy to report that, after Mrs. Hodges briefed me on what to say, I stood by my right to write what I wanted. I calmed down irate cafeteria ladies after one of my writers dissed the hamburgers. I became a confidante to my principal after school board members told him they didn't want to see five black basketball players on the court at the same time.
But Mrs. Hodges wasn't the only teacher who saved me: so did Mrs. Salter, the mother of Clarion-Ledger columnist Sid Salter. Today, when I write a piece challenging weak media coverage of an important issue, Sid can blame his mama. She told me to speak up—and she taught me, simply, that you cannot write well if you do not read good writing, and a lot of it.
Mrs. Salter was softer in appearance than Mrs. Hodges; I don't remember her ever wearing black. The daughter of a poor sharecropper herself, she believed in me. She knew my home life was rough: divorces and alcoholism and not much money. She knew when I came to homeroom late that I might have been scrubbing pizza pans until midnight at Pasquale's to help my mama pay the house note. Like Mrs. Hodges, she came up with all sorts of affirmative actions to help me believe in myself and my abilities, to help me catch up. She loaned me books and helped me research colleges. She helped me apply for the Stennis Scholarship in Political Science that would help me afford Mississippi State—the same one that had paid for Sid's education at MSU.
Like some of the young people I meet now, she and Mrs. Hodges knew that I was at a crossroads. I could pursue education by any means necessary, or I could end up in a dead-end job, bitter because I couldn't exercise my brain or have the confidence to reach for my dreams.
These two women were not the only great mentors of my life: There has been a series since them—probably because those women taught me to seek out the magical power of mentoring and being mentored. They also taught me that you have to show up in order to be helped—that is, hard work is not a curse; it is a blessing, and it will always pay off if you allow it to. They taught me to prefer essay questions, to have compassion for others, that writing well attracts people who like good writing, that respect begets respect, not to under-estimate Mississippians, to ignore mean people and negativity, to be willing to change my mind, the nobility in scrubbing pizza pans, and to treat others as I would like them to treat me. That is, they taught me good morals, and if I haven't always heeded the lessons, I always come back to them.
The greatest lesson, though, that Mrs. Hodges and Mrs. Salter taught me was rather subversive, especially in today's world: Support public education at any and all costs. Both these women have moved on to that special place in heaven reserved for teachers, but I will do whatever I can to ensure that their work lives on. It's the best way I know to repay my debt.
Donna: That article was superb.... It was so positive and heart touching. I'm going to find out for sure, but I believe Mrs. Salter is still alive. If so, I'll send a copy to her. She would love to read it. Sincerely, Lisa Kennedy Perkins
- Lisa Kennedy Perkins
Thanks, Lisa. Actually Mrs. Salter is afflicted with Alzheimer's and has very little memory, her family says. She is living in an assisted-living facility and can no longer read or comprehend. You could say the dear woman has gone on to that special place a little ahead of schedule.