Yesterday I did something I never imagined I'd have the courage to do. I participated in a ceremony honoring my mother for having been one of the founders of a school in Baldwin County, Alabama in the late 60's. Much is always made, and rightly so, of the reasons for these schools popping up all over the south, and yet my mother was not one who would have started a school so that children would be able to learn in a segregated society. Far from it. She had already lived a life of joining in a different culture than her own. When she consented to marry my father, she put herself in the midst of some pretty strong elitists -- my grandmother being the queen - and she made many compromises in order to "keep the peace" in the family.
Starting with marrying my father. Raised Southern Baptist, my mother and father got married in the Opelika Baptist Church with my father's uncle, an Episcopal Priest, officiating. How's that for starters?
What she and my father had in common, really, was that they were both children and granddchildren of immigrant families who settled in Alabama and eked out an identity however they could. Both my grandfathers were farmers. One in Mobile, Alabama and one in Opelika. And they were both sons of farmers. My Mobile great-grandfather was known as the Cabbage King of America. My Opelika great-grandfather had two occupations - farming in Camp Hill, and Shoe Repair. One survived the depression and one did not.
My Mobile great grandfather died when my father was 15. His father's farm had gone from being the cabbage king of America one year to losing the farm altogether in the depression. Something about the price of cabbage, I suppose. And a war.
To bring this up to yesterday, I have to jump over quite a bit. But marry they did, in 1948, and my father, in his charming way, seduced my mother into moving to the coastal town of Fairhope to reside near the beloved childhood home he remembered perhaps more fondly than it should have been. Because when my grandpapa "lost the farm" and had to move to Mississippi to work in a canning plant, my father spent his school days in the town of
Columbia, Mississippi, which is the county seat and not much else. I think the railroad goes through Columbia, but not much else does. '
My parents loved each other so much that when my mother died of cancer in 1968, my father for all intents and purposes was lost to me as well. He never regained his footing, really. He lived in the shadow of a woman who was so well loved that an entire school grew up in her memory. Her friend Jeanne Yancey and Mrs. Norwood, Marilyn Cummings, along with Virigina Stallings and many, many other people put their hands in and helped bring the school along, raise money, find a new location and keep it going. But the impetus, the idea itself - I was reminded Friday at that ceremony that it was Beverly who imagined it in the beginning.
She must have been flying under my radar, though. I don't have many memories of the 1966 beginnings as a kindergarten in our basement. But apparently that's where it began. The only thing I noticed was that my mother was not doing what I'd depended on her to do, which was have my dinner ready, make sure I had clean clothes to wear, and run interference with my father, who was scraping out a living after the closure of
Brookley Field sapped all the growth out of the area where we had lived such a wonderful life until 1963. After that, especially after the assassination of Kennedy (an event that happened on my 14th birthday) the impact that Lyndon Johnson had on our area was not just about the civil rights legislation. Johnson closed Brookley for reasons I'm not really clear on, but it's impact is still being felt 50 years later.
And my mother had reason to be concerned. The quality of education in Baldwin County Schools was not the best. My results on National Merit Scholarship tests (I flunked) might have been one of the things that she was concerned about. I was smart enough, but there were other things going on besides my innate ability. I did better on the ACT. I tested out with high IQ even then, and yet I was not prepared for college. Part of THAT, however, was due more to PTSD than ADD or ADHD, because my mother died halfway through my senior year.
Whole industries can spring up from a memory of someone dearly loved. My mother was such a person. Yesterday, an honorary award was presented in her name, and accepted by me as her oldest daughter, for Academic and Professional Achievement She was instrumental, or her memory was, in motivating the many people who really did put their hands in and helped build what became Bayside Academy.
Standing beside a podium facing the upper form of Bayside Academy and accepted an honorary award for my mother, Beverly Langley Warley was, for me, a mostly healing experience in so many ways. I learned a great deal about my mother and my father who died in 1991. In preparation for this experience, I attempted to piece together an image of my mother that I could share with the assembled students and teachers. In the audience were my two sons, who never knew her, of course, and I married someone not acquainted with either my home town or my mother and her friends.
No one can deny that the year 1968 was full of tragic events. It was a time of tumultuous changes in our culture, no more so than here in Alabama.
And I couldn't handle it at all. I told the students yesterday that I don't actually remember what my mother was doing in our basement in 1966 when she was reportedly starting to develop the kindergarten that would evolve into St. James Day School, and then Bayside.
I had friends whose boyfriends and brothers in law were in VietNam and others who were heading to California or Canada. My own high school sweetheart was in the Coast Guard and I knew many who had already died. And then there was all the other stuff happening in Alabama.
I left. I was gone for 30 years. I became a flight attendant eventually but first I tried to go to college which was what my mother "would have wanted." It was a mistake. One of many.
So when I came home more than 30 years later and learned that the school my mother had been involved with was a thriving independent school with a prominent crop of graduates each year, I was not particularly interested in being involved. My years as a flight stewardess for Delta, my travels through the south in the ensuing years had not given me much of diversity, which had come to be something I looked for in a community, A sense of place, yes, but a place were all thrived. Not just the few and the talented, the well-born and the ones with the right name or the legacy. My struggles with this legacy persisted long after I moved over the bay to Mobile to attend USA, and most recently became part of my experience of Barton Academy when I walked through it's hallways envisioning my grandmother Susie as a student there.
I had seen the school from a distance, a stunningly beautiful location on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. I had come back once to a family reunion at Dauphin Island and while we were there we drove over to Fairhope. I was moved by the incredible vitality and beauty of the area, but had no idea how to earn a living in such a place as this. Without a degree and with a checkered career path myself, from Delta Air Lines to Honda automobile sales, it never seemed possible for me to come back to this area until and unless I could find a job. I searched the Mobile papers when I could (this was before the web of course) and never found anything remotely close to what I saw myself as doing.
Until I went to the Arts & Crafts fair. I recall my encounter with my childhood friend Lucy Hunnicutt, who had just SOLD OUT at her booth, her acrylic paintings of fish on rustic wood. Her work has evolved to other more amazing work now, and I am and have always been in awe of her, but I had to find my own way back home. I finally just chucked it all and came home without a job, without any hope of a job, and planted myself back in the place where I had left so many memories behind.
My friends have been wonderful throughout the last few legs of my journey, and they know how difficult this day at Bayside Academy was for me. To stand in front of the ninth through twelfth grades and accept an honorary award for the woman whose idea the entire school was cannot be understated. It was amazing. The images I have of children going to and from classrooms, laughing and hugging one another, giggling or coolly walking so as to be thought uninterested in the person one is most definitely interested in impressing, to see the Early Childhood Development Center and imagine the growth a young mind could experience in such a place, to think about my own sons being there with me to witness and experience this moment, was truly AWESOME. That too often used word fits more than any other I can think of as I was in awe, as one must be when you see something happening in front of you that was begun so many years earlier by your own mother's concept of what a child needed to have to grow into a healthy, capable, and fully integrated into the society adult.
I watched part of Melissa Harris-Perry this morning. I was glad to see them discussing this issue of private vs. public schools and the re segregation of the south. Nowhere is that more obvious than the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, and I was not surprised to hear the ensuing arguments on both sides. One of the more fascinating things I discovered when I was researching the artwork for Barton Academy summer before last was the images of the black schools before integration. I was astonished to see some of the photographs of those days.
The following words were part of the "notes" I had on my KindleFire that I never got around to saying because I mortified my sons by letting the Kindle accidentally "go off" with hip-hop from Dr. Dolittle in the middle of the presentation...
Watching Gabby Giffords testify in front of congress the other day, I couldn't help but think that my mother would have done the same, said the same, felt the same. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz summed up the challenge this way: We have to go Toe- to Toe with the NRA.
What does that mean, exactly? Going toe – to – toe. Interesting metaphor. That's what Debbie said it's going to take to reduce gun violence. Does that mean we have to “dance” with them? Do we have to play basketball with them? Do we have to play games with them? What does toe to toe mean? That's a concept – saying the words “toe – to – toe” does not mean much unless we have a context for the image. Concept imagery is the most important part of “reading” - and you can't read another person's intent unless you come face to face with them, listen to them, give them a fair hearing. That's why gun violence is not a productive means of communication. Right? It's not okay to shoot first and ask questions later..
Words can also kill. Or heal. The wrong words can kill an idea. Evaporate a dream. Put the genie back in the bottle.
Toe to toe – means face to face. Eye to eye. You cannot learn by listening alone. You must have an understanding of what the words mean. You cannot understand a person's intent if you can't see their body language. If you can't know their intent then you might mis-interpret what they are saying. You might be able to tell by the volume of their voice what they want you to hear. But more often than not you won't get far unless you have a conversation. Somehow you must come to a mutual understanding.
That's why it's called the art of conversation.
Toe to toe. Looking someone else in the eye – hearing exactly what they say. Speaking to one another, rather than about one another, back to back. Toe to toe. Let's do more of that.
Let's do more of that.
Face to face. Toe to toe. Listening. Hearing. Cogitating on what is being said. Thinking about what it being said. And then responding. Digesting. Ruminating. Let me give you an example.
My mother once told me that to hate someone was to wish something bad would happen to them. I was shocked to think of hate in that way. I'd not meant that at all.
Of course I didn't want anything bad to happen to anyone. I don't want anything bad to happen to Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA. I wouldn't want anything bad to happen to anyone on this earth, any human being, regardless of who they are. But when you live in community, you care about each member of the community. You want them to grow up, grow strong, grow into their potential, and grow out of all the things that life presents. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes they don't make it past whatever obstacle is in their way.
Sometimes they don't allow their own talents to flourish. Sometimes they aren't seen. Arent' heard. Are not acknowledged. Not given a chance to speak.
The goal of educating a child, should be to give that child a chance to speak, to hear himself or herself, to reach whatever goal he or she can aspire to. If you have not learned how to say what you think, I challenge you to try to write your words somehow. Paint your pictures, live your passion. Take that first step. Go toe-to-toe with life. Look it in the eye.
I came back to Baldwin County after my children were grown. My son Brandon has come to love this area almost as much as I do. For a number of reasons...
My mother was a basketball player in high school. She was a cheerleader for the Opelika Bulldogs She was also a WAC or a WAVE – I don't know the difference. After attending Mary Waschington College in Lynchburg, VA, she transferred to Auburn where she met a young ATO at Toomer's Drug Store, who promised her moonlight sailing on Mobile Bay.
And she was a leader. A listener. A wonderful mother. A great friend. Incredibly creative, I didn't really know all the talents she possessed until after she died at age 39, six months after St. James Day School had begun. Her death was a shock to the entire community of Fairhope.
My own personal odyssey has taken me across the bay, to Mobile, where my father grew up, to attend the University of South Alabama. There I finished my art degree that I began in 1968.
I then completed a Masters in English by writing a book of creative non-fiction. My work can be found on my Facebook page, or here. Google Doublygifted and you'll find me.
TS Eliot once wrote these words:
We shall not cease from exploration
and at the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.
Those words encapsulate what I've been trying to do all my life. To see where I've come from, to turn around and look back, to realize who I am. And I think I see in your faces, in your honoring of my mother, who I am. Thank you.