Yale Undergrad Interns with MTC
My Summer in the South
by Marissa Sanghvi
When I tell people that I spent this past summer working as an intern at a summer school in rural Mississippi, the most common response I get is, “Why?” I grew up in Chicago, and now go to an Ivy-league on the East Coast, so it wasn’t surprising to me that my friends and family had questions about my decision to spend the summer in the South. In fact, I had questions. Would I be accepted there? Would I enjoy living in a non-urban area? Would I find healthy, vegetarian food? As I drove down to Oxford, MS, I didn’t know the answers to any of these questions and that frightened me. At the same time though, it excited me and made me feel as though I was about to immerse myself in something completely different than anything I’d tried before.
In the first few days, as I started to meet everyone in the Mississippi Teachers Corps – the cohort of first years, the mentor teachers, the administration – it was abundantly clear that they brought a very diverse range of experiences and viewpoints to the classroom. Some people had grown up in Mississippi, attended Ole Miss, and were content to stay there for the foreseeable future. A handful of teachers had joined the Peace Corps after college to broaden their cultural horizons and saw Mississippi as another stop on their world tour. Then there were Northerners like me who were eager to see a part of the country that they’d only ever heard about. Regardless of our backgrounds, however, these people started to feel like my Southern family. They were the first people I saw at 6am every morning when we gathered to wait for the bus. They were the sports fans who huddled onto the couch with me in the afternoons to catch up on World Cup soccer. And they were the competitive scholars who I met up with every Monday for Trivia Night at the Blind Pig. And what I found, very quickly, was that our collective desire to become effective educators in a failing school system, was enough to bridge any inherent differences.
It wasn’t just the people at MTC, however, with whom I made connections this summer. Living in a small, historic town such as Oxford was vastly different from Chicago in many ways, but also unexpectedly charming. I loved walking around the downtown Square and imagining what it would’ve been like a hundred years ago. I became friends with the guy who worked at the bookstore and spent my free time drinking coffee there and reading whatever book he had recommended. When strangers asked me how my day was going, I learned to repress the urge to say, “I’m sorry, we don’t know each other at all,” but instead give them a little insight into my life. So while I had feared that this idea of “Southern hospitality” would be very surface level and insincere, my experiences didn’t reflect that. In fact, I found myself surrounded by people who wanted to improve my day. Sometimes that meant the owner of a restaurant singing for us while we enjoyed her home-cooked food. Or it was one of the other MTC members gifting me an “Ivy-league” scented candle because it made him think of me. And I supposed if you’ve grown up with that level of consideration in your life, what I’m pointing out might seem obvious, but it was new to me. I don’t want to make an overall generalization about Mississippi and the congeniality I experienced there, but I will say that I was struck by how quickly it took for me to felt included and appreciated this summer working with MTC.
That being said, as an intern at MTC, I didn’t have to lesson plan or do homework, and as a result, I found myself with a lot of free time. I’m grateful for that, though, because it led me on some amazing adventures around the state of Mississippi. One memorable one was my trip to the Waverly Mansion in West Point, MS, about a 90-minute trip from Oxford. Driving through the woods on the tiny road that led to the property, I found it hard to imagine a mansion being nestled in somewhere. But then there it was, and I was truly stunned. Not only by the grandeur of the structure, or the precision of the landscaping, but also by the feeling that overwhelmed me as soon as I walked onto the premises of being returned to the antebellum South. Of witnessing the history preserved in this place which only grew clearer as I was toured around the mansion and learned of the births, weddings, and deaths that occurred there.
I know that my knowledge of Southern history has been colored by growing up in Chicago, and I doubt that perspective will ever really change, but for completeness sake, I’m glad I got to glimpse Southern history from the perspective of a Southerner. And now, as I have returned to college and enrolled in a class on Southern literature, I can’t help feel that I am an insider in some way. That the experiences I had this summer have allowed me into a circle of people who want to talk about and trade experiences on their time in the South. So in the end, I left Mississippi not only with a better knowledge of teaching and systems of education, but also with lasting relationships, radiant memories, and a great desire to return soon.