River Deep, Mountain High

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Nov 22 2011

Where the Grass is Greener on the Other Side

Around this time last year, I was back home in Maine merely trying to recover from four months of teaching in a public middle school in the Mississippi Delta. Man, “recover” is a major understatement. I went back to Cambridge for Harvard-Yale, which was like being in an alternative universe. I then took a bus from Boston to Maine, where my loving mother helped recuperate her youngest son back to form.

Things are different now. I wouldn’t let my family visit me last year; I figured I’d be too tempted to go back home with them! Moreover, I didn’t think my mom would let me stay in the Delta if she saw were TFA had placed me. Probably true. For this Thanksgiving, my family came to visit me and when I get a chance I’m blogging about our travels around the Delta.

The first leg of our trip was the strip of towns along Route 82. I drove us along US Route 82 stopping in Greenville, Leland, Indianola, and Greenwood. I have friends teaching in each town and stayed in Indianola when I visited on an Alternative Spring Break trip back in 2009. As we progressed through each town, I wanted to show my mom the charm of each community but also the stark contrast of the divisions economically, racially, and educationally. This meant going through the downtown areas (old and new), the schools (public and private), the neighborhoods (both sides of the tracks), and one or two perennial TFA houses. It was also intriguing for me to see the sites each community promoted as tourist attractions and to do a scavenger hunt for any sign on industry and economic stability (not a lot). As my mother observed: “someone’s getting a pretty penny from all those fields, but, clearly, it’s not everyone.” Is this an unjust shame, or a shameful injustice? Discuss amongst yourselves.

Greenville: Gville has a storied past of missed opportunity, bad luck, and promise gone unfulfilled. Back in the day, Greenville was one of the five largest cities in Mississippi. The Great Flood of 1927 destroyed the downtown area once and it never really returned to its glory days from what I understand. Its peak population topped 50,000 but has dipped below 40,000 in just the past decade as citizens move to greener pastures elsewhere. It is still by far the largest city in the Delta, which contributes to the unique challenges of its school system.

It’s notable to see the divide in the city as you cross train tracks and Martin Luther King Boulevard. You’ll have tiny shotgun houses and a dilapidated downtown area full of abandoned storefronts near the school I teach at, while there’s a thriving commercial area near the other public middle school and Wal-Mart. At the same time, my mother was amazed and disturbed by the showy country homes in the reclusive, semi-gated neighborhoods near the Catholic and private schools. Everyone in Mississippi is not poor. Clearly, there is a population doing very well for themselves. Also of note are the three casinos lining the river on the other side of the levees down town. I’m not sure where all that money goes…

Leland: I’m nostalgic for Leland because I taught there during institute and it has much tighter community feel to it. Many CM’s choose to live here instead of Greenville for that reason. My mother and I actually took pictures of Leland’s public schools when I first arrived for Induction not realizing I would soon teach there. Deer Creek, “Home of Kermit the Frog” and the houses lining it are an intriguing attraction here.  Like Greenville, there’s a stark contrast in infrastructure on either side of the railroad tracks.

Indianola: I’m also nostalgic for Indianola because it was one of the places I visited on an Alternative Spring Break Trip in 2009 and I lived here for two weeks after Institute. From Betty’s Place and the Blue Biscuit, to the B.B. King Museum and the Pecan House, this town has a lot of charm. It’s roughly three times smaller than Greenville but considered “large” for the Delta since it has a Wal-Mart, downtown area, museums, and is also divided by train tracks. Seeing a pattern here? I recall a neighbor of my friends’ flying a Confederate Flag regularly while I was staying at their house. You must have some strong feelings to do that down here since the Mississippi flag is very similar to the Confederate Flag in it’s own right.

Greenwood: I won’t say much about Greenwood. I first stopped by here in 2010 when I needed to replace my broken GPS. After seeing its highly regarded Grand Boulevard, I decided it didn’t count as truly Delta. There are red “successful school district” signs on lawns and storefronts everywhere you look, so this town is doing fine. Some Greenwood folk may look down on Greenville, but we have Tabb’s and they don’t. I’ll take the delicious barbecue of Tabb’s over Greenwood’s aesthetic appeal any day of the week.

The role of rural poverty often goes overlooked in the world of education reform, but I’m sure this will be a cause I champion as I get older. NYC and New Orleans already have enough advocates. Right, Wendy? Next stop, Graceland…

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