July 3rd, 2012A Secret Southern Weaponby Dena Hunt

 

Many years ago, I taught English at a high school in a rural town in Georgia. The town wasn’t just rural: Situated in the Okefenokee basin, it was isolated and insulated from the rest of the world. Every day, when I drove the hour-long commute to work, I passed through a time warp; 1988 became 1958. (How warped? Well, one example: There was one doctor in town and his waiting room was segregated. Ignorant, I inadvertently sat down in the wrong place and was promptly ousted by a very large black woman who pointed to the sign “Colored Waiting Area” and asked, “Can’t you read?” Rosa Parks had it easy.)

I will change names to protect not the innocent nor the guilty, but myself. This was, then, Jonesville, okay? Almost the entire faculty were women who were themselves graduates of that same high school and daughters of its retired teachers. The only men on the faculty taught the “boys’ classes,” like Ag and Shop, and of course, the coaches, who had to teach at least one academic class in order to justify their hiring; usually, that was Social Studies. The ruling faculty were all women.

A new teacher joined the faculty one year when an unplanned pregnancy prevented the science teacher from returning. She was from Someplace Else. I watched to see what would happen. There was, of course, the expected gush of welcome—as though she were some visiting celebrity and everyone wanted her autograph. This is intended to throw the Interloper off-guard, and it works (I remembered too well). Ms. Unsuspecting believed she was an answered prayer and actually thought everybody liked her. 

It didn’t take long. Louise (Home Ec) said to me in the lounge one day: 

“You wouldn’t believe what Ms. U said to Jo-Ellen! (Word Processing).”

“What?”

“Well, Jo-Ellen was worried about how Bobby [Jo-Ellen’s son] would do in her class, you know? I mean, Ms. U’s hard, you know? So, Jo-Ellen just thought she’d ask—she didn’t mean anything by it—she was just concerned, you know? And Ms. U said she didn’t think science was Bobby’s ‘strong place!’ Can you believe that? I mean, it hurt Jo-Ellen’s feelings!” Other “incidents” followed.

It was all over then, and I knew it. Ms. Unsuspecting confided in me a few months later: “I don’t understand.” She didn’t need to tell me what she didn’t understand. She was a pariah. She’d done a good job teaching science; she’d attended all PTO meetings, faculty meetings and even football games—what happened?

Gush is a weapon that may be countered only by greater gush. Otherwise, it’s lethal. She didn’t know to respond to Jo-Ellen with: “Oh, Bobby will do just fine. I honestly think he may be the brightest student in that class—but don’t tell anybody I said so—please! I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, you know?”

That’s the script. If you’re from Someplace Else, you don’t know the script.  Not knowing the script gets you killed. And that was the idea. Her contract wasn’t renewed for the following year, so the new mother returned to her post as the science teacher. A friend explained it to me thus: Look, you give somebody enough rope and they’ll hang themselves just tripping over it. That’s how it works in Jonesville. Still does, so I hear.

 

 

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  • July 4 2012 | by jedesto

    Ms. Hunt, you are not suggesting, are you?, that it's only in the South that folks carry on like those in Jonesville, Georgia? You might have a look around upstate New York where such behavior is all too common.
  • July 5 2012 | by Kevin O'Brien

    Well, Dena, that is especially a Southern thing. "Artificial Southern Hospitality" is one of the sweeteners added to the receipe, and it confuses folk, even big city folk from the South.

    Here in the Mid-West, the new teacher would not have been gushed over. She would have taught for five to ten years before her cohorts would have begun opening up to her and tentatively trutsting her.

    On the East Coast, the newcomer would know exactly how everybody felt about her from the word go. No hospitality per se, but if she won them over or ticked them off, she'd know it as they'd show it and wear it on their sleeves.

    On the West Coast, everyone would be quite kind to the newcomer and would treat her exactly like they treated the teachers who had been there forever. Of course when she herself had been there forever she might begin to suspect that this superficial casual acceptance is based upon the notion that everyone is entirely self-sufficient and no real friendship is necessary.

    So take your pick, it's never easy.
  • July 5 2012 | by Dena Hunt

    Jedesto,
    It's likely everywhere but it's a fine art here. Most people never know what hit them.