My students keep asking me why I am here.
It is a good question. I am an anomaly at Greenville-Weston High School. I am white in a school where most teachers, and nearly all students, are black. My race fascinated my tenth graders for the first few days of school. One student asked if I found the term “white” offensive, and if I would prefer that he refer to me as “Caucasian.” Several students asked to touch my hair.
But my background is more astounding to my students than my whiteness. The real questions start when I announce that I am from New York City. My students do not understand why I would pack my bags and move halfway across the country to live in the Mississippi Delta.
“You go to college here, Miss Barkhorn?”
No, I went to school in New Jersey.
“You got family here, Miss Barkhorn?”
No, they’re all in New York.
“Then why you here?”
Good questions do not always have satisfying answers. The standard Teach for America response, the one my roommate uses on her eleventh graders, goes something like this: “I am here because I heard that the kids in Greenville, Mississippi are the smartest kids in the whole country.” The truth, of course, is the exact opposite. I am here – Teach for America is here – because the kids in Greenville, Mississippi have dangerously poor reading and math skills. I am here because even my best student writes sentences like: “It important to use punctuation because it give emotions and separation between what you are trying to say.”
I cannot articulate those reasons to my students, however. At the end of the second week of school, I told them, in a feeble attempt at a “pep talk,” “I am here to make you work harder than you have ever worked in your entire life.”
Even that statement is not quite true, though. My decision to join Teach for America had very little to do with my dedication to educational equality. My motivation for joining Teach for America was largely selfish. I wanted to live somewhere else, somewhere outside of New York and its sphere of influence. I have always had the sense that New York is not a “real” place. As Joan Didion wrote in her ode to New York City, “Goodbye to All That”: “New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. To think of ‘living’ there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not ‘live’ at Xanadu.”
I have long suspected that I could not become a fully developed person if I spent my whole life in an “infinitely romantic notion,” in a skewed bubble where people spend eleven dollars on a movie and 1,800 dollars on rent, and you can live your first eighteen years without ever meeting a bona fide Republican. Four years at Princeton did not provide the dose of “reality” I thought I needed. Though I may have encountered my fair share of red staters during college, everything else about Princeton – from its castle-like Gothic architecture to the dearth of Friday classes – contributed to a sense that I was “living” instead of living.
The Mississippi Delta, in contrast, struck me as a real place. People live in houses instead of apartments; the economy depends on cotton and soybeans rather than stocks and mutual funds; you can buy a gallon of gas for $2.19. So, when I received an e-mail notifying me that I was selected to teach high school English in Greenville, MS, I replied, YES!
I do not share this with my students, mainly because they wouldn’t understand it. Each and every student in my 16-person homeroom wants to leave Greenville after graduating from high school. No one from Greenville wants to stay in Greenville. Why would anyone who grew up elsewhere want to move here? One day in my final weeks at Princeton, I wandered into Micawber in the hopes of finding something written about the Mississippi Delta. I looked in the “Travel Writing and Travelogues” section, and there was nothing. I looked in the guidebooks section, and there was also nothing. There were, however, two shelves devoted to books about New York City. I have exchanged a place where everyone wants to go for a place everyone wants to leave.
And for all my dreams of a “realer” existence in the world outside New York, almost every decision I have made here reflects a desire to recreate my Northeast existence here. I chose to live with Laura, a self-proclaimed “radical feminist” from New Jersey who attended Wesleyan. We don’t eat catfish; we cook in olive oil; we eat Starbucks ice cream. On Saturday nights, we go to a local restaurant with a group of other teachers (graduates of Georgetown, Yale, Cornell) and watch college football and drink Sam Adams.
Last weekend was the Delta Blues and Heritage Fest, a perfect opportunity for me to “experience” the culture of the Delta. Instead of driving to the field outside of town to hear Mel Waiters and Big Bill Morganfield sing the blues, I hopped into my Escort and sped a half hour in the opposite direction. My destination: a coffee shop in Cleveland, MS (one of the few coffee shops in the Delta) to meet a fellow New Yorker.