What do I tell? Do I tell about the time I came to Mississippi as an intern in the summer of 2008? Do I tell about my longing to return while I was at St. John’s College? Do I tell about feeling called to the Mississippi Delta by God? and about my confusion just before graduating from college? about my decision to stay on this path because it made financial sense? about my increased conviction once I felt the heat of the Mississippi sun again? Do I tell about how the world changes color when one feels not only “called” but also “sent”? Do I tell about the pain and anger that comes with repeated failure? about being stained by worldliness and then watching faith overcome the world? Do I tell about going through the motions of writing blogs and attending classes, just so that I could have a classroom of my own? about the fatuousness, vanity, utter stupidity of American universities and departments of education? Do I tell you about my unwavering plan to remain in the Delta for a third year?
That is one way of summing things up, even if I now wish to answer to all of those questions, “No, I do not wish to tell it.”
I have no desire to turn these last two years, of which the Mississippi Teacher Corps was a part, into a form as untrustworthy as a novel. Rather, I will offer a stranger kind of narrative, far less readable, but less deceitful, too.
In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities,* Marco Polo, acting as an entertainer and fabulist for Kublai Khan, describes one of his parabolic cities:
. . . Nothing said of Aglaura is true, and yet these accounts create a solid and compact image . . . whereas the haphazard opinions which might be inferred from living there have less substance. . . . You would like to say what it is, but everything previously said of Aglaura imprisons your words and obliges you to repeat rather than say.
Now, read that again, but in place of Aglaura read the Mississippi Delta
When I shared the account of Aglaura with my teacher comrades, I heard an emphatic yes. Yes, life in the Delta escapes description. We believe this place is composed of the atoms of an ineffable element, less and less substantial when they are approached with increasingly microscopic observation. For us, the Delta has a subtle and rare existence. For others, who know it from afar only by approximation and rumor, they see a crude form unlike what we have seen. By analogy, the gross mind sees silver and supposes it to be composed of little hard silver globs, but when the physicist speaks of the particles within, there is nothing silvery at all, nothing globular, and certainly nothing hard, as the particles show themselves less and less particulate; something must be wrong, the gross mind thinks, for how does silver come from something unsilvery, and how does solidity come from a void? How does the world’s Mississippi arise out of our Mississippi, the one composed of our peculiar memories and experiences? When we try to describe it, no one hears us, or as Marco Polo puts it, we fail to say anything. Because we wish to be heard, we fall rather into repetition, into the patterns, pretenses, and prejudices within our listeners and within ourselves. We could take photographs or write thousands of words, but these descriptions would fail—simply because everyone already knows about this place, this Mississippi Delta, this royal seat of the Cotton Kingdom, this Deepest South.
One might be suspicious of this last claim, believing instead that Marco Polo’s insight about Aglaura is true of all places: substitute anywhere for the name Aglaura, same difference. But I hesitate to agree. The dramatic incommensurability between the image and the subtler substance of the Mississippi Delta is not like what I encountered growing up in New York, attending college in Maryland, or even touring Europe as a teenager. Rather, it is much like what is reported by those who have come back from war, by missionaries writing from overseas, by prisoners released into society: there is something ineffable about it, and whenever one attempts to say something about it, one fails and speaks only to oneself—or else surrenders to the facile interpretation, the oversimplification, the poetic decoy, or the lie. I believe that my life in the Delta belongs to a special class of experiences always escaping disclosure and instead fleeing into the massive swarm of public assumption. I suppose this is a long, poeticized version of “you had to be there”—with added weight: I am trying to describe my life for the past two years, not snickering about some inside joke.
Maybe this is why I stopped my “official” (graded) blogging this year. Although I love to write, about myself even, I grew to despise the monthly task of 400 words, 400 vain iterations that either mean nothing to a reader or mean everything and are false. The only times I felt like a successful writer were in my most poetic moments, where I would try to cast the ineffable in an image or vignette.** But it is all artifice—not a lie, just a distracting substitute for a genuine account. These poetic moments are all about teaching in the Mississippi Delta, but what makes them poetic is that they reveal my interior, not the Delta; were they to describe the Delta itself, they would be false,—they would be unrecognizable as my experiences,—they would be just what everyone already knows.
Some of my colleagues in the Mississippi Teacher Corps have considered their time here—two years—to be a complete “waste.” I have had to listen to them whine—for two years—about their difficulties. When asked what they plan to do after their second year is over, they have little to say except, “To get the hell out of Mississippi!”
(I wonder what has tainted them so? I can only assume that their gangrenous spirits grow out from a wound they had had already, before their sojourn—a wound that suppurated in the Mississippi heat.)
These grumblers are so hostile to the Delta that they refuse to acknowledge its power. So they have learned nothing from it and will not let themselves be blessed through it. While there is nothing I can say about the Delta, these grumblers are in a worse state, for there is nothing they can see in it. They have been here in the same places and in comparable situations, but they have not penetrated that crude form of what they were told to think about Mississippi, have not exposed the repetitions and prejudices, have not seen the light in things. Being blind, they have called two years in Mississippi a waste and now venture forth to tell stories of what they have seen here—nothing more than dim phantasmagoria, the images that were easiest to grasp and least edifying.
It must be obvious that I find their attitude and words obnoxious. I do not feel this way about the majority who are moving away; some of my dearest friends are leaving for reasons I accept and support. But for these grumblers, something different kindles my anger: they are not even leaving—for how can one leave where one has never been? It was clear in the way they spoke, from the beginning, that they had arrived on this soil but were never here among us. Now, when they go off and exclaim how frustrating their administrators were, how huge the achievement gap appeared to be, how unjust this society has always been, how underappreciated and underpaid teachers were, they will sound like expert witnesses. But one cannot be an expert of what one despises, and no one truly knows the thing without seeing the light in it.
My reader, do not listen to them, because they will blind you, too. You will never see more than they saw, will never see the light in things, as long as you let them dictate what the Mississippi Delta is and fall into their repetitions of frustration and reiterations of self-pity.
But I don’t mean to say that these grumblers are lying to you. It is the case that their administrators have been frustrating, the achievement gap is enormous, racism and classism abound, and teachers are treated terribly. Their accounts are all accurate, but they are as accurate as they are unedifying. I could tell you very similar stories. I will not, however, because this seems to be missing the point of a summation of my two years working in the Mississippi Delta. If for them it was “a waste of time,” then let it be a waste of time. Just know that it is also a waste of time for you to read about it. But if for me it was joy in Christ, then let it be so for you as well.
In joy, I came to the Delta firmly believing that I had been set up and prepared for such a place. This place was for me, and I was for this place. God had been calling me here all my life, and how glad I was when I was finally sent!
In joy, I came to the Delta firmly believing that I had good seed to sow into this generation. I did not make this good seed. It does not represent virtue or intelligence or magnanimity. The seed I had to sow was what I was given, what I had gleaned from others along the way—a message of lasting hope in a fading world.
In joy, I came to the Delta firmly believing that human intimacy is the most important and highest work, and that my life would be dedicated to the singular, unique, throbbing souls I would be privileged to meet in my classroom.
In joy, I came to the Delta firmly believing that I am not my own. The kingdom of God is founded on the blood we shed for our neighbor, no matter how alien we are to him or how strange he is to us.
In joy, I came to the Delta firmly believing that Jesus Christ has died for us all, so that we who live might no longer live for ourselves but for him who died and was raised for our sakes.
In joy, I will stay in the Delta believing the same.
In the face of this, my experiences during these two years in the Mississippi Teacher Corps, and the impetus for my decision to remain in Mississippi, are summed up in these words: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”†
* Translated by William Weaver, © 1974 by Harcourt, Inc. All rights reserved; please don’t sue me.
** There was one of my first posts in which I explained the title I chose for my blog, marmor infidum. There was a reflection on biblical parables that helped me to remember why I am in Mississippi at all. In contrast to that was a sermon about my anxieties over misinterpreting my own experiences here. Illustrating all this talk of Aglaura was a letter I wrote, as a second-year in the Corps, to incoming first-years. And my best blog post, which was not written for my “official” blog, was a poeticized but genuine account of God speaking in the midst of this very difficult work.
† Jesus, from John 12.24. Translation: English Standard Version.