Friday, September 23, 2022

This is just to say: An Action Plan

I have assessed
the grades
that were in
the spreadsheet. 

and which
you were probably
trying to strengthen. 

Forgive me.
they were achieved--
so indeterminate,
and so consistent. 


************************

(What I do in department meetings while also absolutely paying attention. It really does actually help me focus.... hello ADHD.)

************************

Because I could not reflect the goals
they summarized for me--
the meeting held but just
our Team
and Institutionality.

We slowly spoke-- we knew no gleam--
and I had written Notes.
My outline and my planning, too,
for Administrative pleas. 

We passed the gates, where students strove,
at writing--in the Spring--

We passed the margin of error--
we passed the previous plan. 

Or rather-- it passed us.
The date showed--
the classes planned and done.
Our language, only seen. 

We paused before a Goal that seemed,
a lesson, in the sand,
The Learning scarcely lost,
the meeting-- in the room. 

Since then--'tis Hours, and yet,
feels like it was a Day.
I first surmised the curriculum,
felt an Eternity. 


I actually wrote one more that's even better but I might have to save that one for potential publication. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Nostalgia beats gaslighting

It wasn’t the single-family happy to go out for a fancy expensive Sunday brunch after church pancakes and mimosas and Bloody Marys with an entire fried chicken as a garnish you remember from the popular TV shows and social media.

It was a diner in a bad neighborhood that smelled like greasy fried potatoes topped with chili and tomatoes, melted American cheese, both crispy bacon AND ham. It was sitting close together in booths while other people waited for a table and tired waitresses on their fourth double shift in a week in the middle of the night after you’d been out to a smoky dance club and you just needed that fat and carbs. It was laughing and thinking of how tired you’d be in the morning at work but not caring because you were young. It was a waitress who called you "hun" and frowned when you put in your order. But who you tipped well anyway.

It was the middle of a Florida military tourist town chock full of fifties-era beat up brick ranch houses in our run-down rental area and it was needing a better landlord but not getting one. It was no central air conditioner. It was sand fleas next door and a kitten that disappeared in the middle of the day, probably stolen by a neighbor. Neighbors who stomped around their upper floor aggressively.

It was a neighborhood of old Victorian houses gentrified and wealthy right down the street from one of the most poverty stricken ones in town. It was a landlord who tried to bully you at every chance he got, who lied to get the police to come into your apartment when you weren't there.

It was potholed and tall pine tree lined streets, not like the towns I saw on TV where everyone had a dad and a weekend family dinner table with some kind of nice meal and family talking about their days, sharing happy memories, family with a mom AND a dad, sisters AND brothers, and people genuinely caring about the question “how was your day?” 

It meant walking for hours with a sister in the middle of the night because we didn't have a car. It meant doing all those things together that we never did again, surviving the unspeakable. Until that day when one of us didn't survive it.

And I'll be damned if I don't miss it in some ways. And would never want it back again in others.

It was truly complicated.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Fairy Tale: The Rain

Story Prompt:

Image credit:  grandfailure, licensed via Adobe Stock. Do not copy. 

When the rain started, the world was dry and hot. The weary plants surged upward at first, grateful, basking in the needed moisture. They turned green, smelled clean. Children splashed in the puddles happy, kicked water on their parents, who laughed.

But the sprinkly storms turned heavy. The heat became moist, like a laundry room. The rain no longer refreshed anyone; people stopped splashing playfully in puddles and instead, began to fill sandbags with mucky brown grit. The grit got into their teeth, their eyes, stained their clothing and began to fill everything.

After a while, the domesticated flowers drooped from too much water. Their leaves grew yellow, then brown at the edges, then, black and moldy, and finally, turned to mush.

It kept raining.

Vines dormant since the age of dinosaurs came out of hiding and started to grow again. Tiny green shoots, at first, but then they covered outbuildings, eclipsing the formerly square shapes, then the vines crept into the yards, the parking lots. Everywhere. Nothing had sharp edges anymore-- it was all soft, green, masses of tendrils.

The tendrils grabbed at children's ankles as they ran past, on their way through the downpour into the rapidly growing blurry in the landscape houses. The summer sun was never bright-- everything was dim, dark. Skies forgot how to be blue. 

These old/new vines had beautiful, giant flowers that smelled heavenly to the small birds and insects-- who hovered near until they were were snapped up, eaten by the flowers, slowly digested in slimey juices. The lucky survivors learned to stay away, hungry bellies empty.

Still, it rained.

People forgot what lawnmowers looked like, left them to rust in the yards. The gasoliney smelling machines began to look like old art projects as the vines covered them, turned them into topiary of an ancient world. New indoor lives were found, forgetting the heat of summer, the heat of lemonade and ice cream and beaches and dry sand that sticks to the backs of legs.

The rain did not stop.

It dribbled. Drizzled. Poured. Torrents came down and then became gushers. Ditches filled up, overflowed. Sidewalks became small rivers. Doghouses floated away, some with the dogs, forgotten, perched on top of them, howling.

New words were invented for the types of rain, 100 different ways to describe texture, smell, density of water.

And the water and green kept flowing, flowing, flowing, until people forgot the words for "dry" or "dusty" and even "desert." Forgot those places ever existed.

***************************

Note: in this summer's outrageous heat, this feels like wishful thinking a bit, even with the slightly apocalyptic nature.....


Thursday, June 9, 2022

Carry Your Hearts: Erin & Mandi's wedding speech

Good evening! I’m Kim, Erin’s exceptionally awesome aunt, and I’m here to tell you all of his deepest, darkest secrets. 

No, I’m just kidding about the dark secrets part… the rest is true obviously.  

Erin & Mandi, Congratulations on finding each other. That’s a much harder thing to do than most people realize. In all of the world, so many things had to go right for you to meet, for that first date to go well, for the world to keep cooperating up ‘til now. You did it! 

As you may know, Erin & I lost his mom & his sister in 2020/21 and that wasn’t easy. I can say with all my heart that Judy and Sara would both be so proud of you and how you’ve handled things in the last couple of years. They would also both offer to fight anyone who stood in your way, and if you ever met either of them, you would know that would have been pay per view worthy. 

A photo I took of the memorial table with the shot of tequila I bought for my missing family members.
Judy & Sara, y'all should have been at my table making snarky comments, dammit. 

Your life has been pretty tough in a lot of ways but you’ve persevered and I am as proud as I can be of you—getting the good job, (taking my and your Uncle’s helpful advice that you should definitely take the leap of faith and step out of your comfort zone.) Not messing up too badly with the lovely bride you’re standing next to now. Again—you did it! 

I knew as soon as I met Mandy that we’d be here today. I could just see that look—you know the look. I’ll tell you a quick embarrassing story: your Uncle Andrew & I have been married almost 30 years now, but you were there from the start. When I first met Andrew and I was trying to play it cool, we took you and your sister roller skating. You were in the back seat and after a lot of giggling, you asked him “Are you gonna be my new dad” and Sara poked you and said “No silly, he would be our UNCLE” and I tried to melt into the seat. I didn’t want him to think I had set you up to ask that question but at the same time, it was pretty good question I also wanted to hear him answer. 

Now I’m going to give you an important piece of advice, and I’m standing in for all of those family members up there who would be hanging out at the back at the open bar if they were here. 

Someday you will be able to stand up at one of YOUR younger relatives’ weddings and tell them you’ve been married three decades if you take my advice: Pick the one trait in each other that you dislike the most. (Mandi—it’s probably something to do with his tendency to lounge around shirtless, hair unbrushed, watching the Cowboys lose...And I know Mandi doesn’t have any flaws so you’re obviously going to have to make those up…. )

But still, take that flaw and decide to love it. This thing they do (like chewing too loud or watching terrible Netflix shows and bingeing on nacho cheese popcorn or whatever) this thing makes them the person you love. They would be someone else without that… this one trick will guarantee you will stay happy. You still might want to smack them, but you will still, at the end of that day, love them and find joy in that one annoying trait. And it’s not always easy, and some days the hard stuff will feel much bigger than the good stuff. But it’s always going to swing back to the good, as long as you can remember this feeling of happiness you are feeling right now. Store this in your heart and pull it out whenever you need to, and that is what will make this all work, even when it doesn’t feel like it possibly can. Close your eyes and time travel back to right now, and trust your heart. 

My favorite from the photos Mandi has uploaded so far. I stole it and I'm not sorry. THIS is the moment I mean.
THIS ONE RIGHT HERE. 

So speaking of storing things in your heart, this is the part of the speech where you get the “Aunt is a literature teacher” poetry, and at the end of this short verse, I’ll raise my glass and toast you both. This is a poem that wraps up all of my brilliant advice: 

Erin, Mandy: congratulations, you did it!  

 

BTW: here is the poem read by e.e. cummings himself. It's worth a listen. 

Friday, May 27, 2022

Done for now

I posted about this on the "social media platform which will not be named" and that might be why you showed up here. But I've been considering this for a long time. 

The policies of that particular media platform have promoted negativity, probably led to the election of the former politician who will not be named, and it has generally have turned into this thing where I rarely see many people I want to talk to or interact with it but I do see a lot of ads from Chinese companies that show up overnight, are gone the next day, and try to sell me junk. They definitely promote articles and stories that make the world a more negative place more often than not. I have cultivated a friend list that has been positive for multiple years and tried really hard to take out the negative voices but I have seen way too much that has made me sad, angry, and I honestly think that because they make more money when you are more riled up they are trying to make us sad and angry. I know there are legitimate things to be sad about but social media platform that rhymes with space crook just isn't the only game. It has been too long with too many users. 

Back in the day before the robot man came up with his idea to rate hot chicks which turned into what we use for the last 10 years to socialize, we used blogs and blog comment threads to communicate. We also used bulletin boards. Those bulletin boards didn't explicitly try to sell things to us. To be honest I think I've developed a bit of a shopping addiction in the last two years since the lock down put us all at home so much. I've been working on it but this social media platform doesn't help. I find myself with my face in my phone way too often, focusing on things that aren't enlightening. I had already deleted the one with the bird after a certain billionaire decided to turn it into his platform and unban someone who I don't think should be unbanned. 

And that actually made me really happy. 

I also already feel a weight having lifted off of my chest from the simple act of deleting the app from my phone. I used to never have it on my phone until I had a job that gave me a laptop and I didn't want to be on social media on the work computer. Then I guess I got used to it being on my phone. It's gone now. I haven't officially deleted the account which I know is never really gone anyway. I'm going to leave it there for a while. See what happens. At a minimum I have to download all the photos that I have saved there. I don't want to lose those. But... I think there's entirely too much power given to this corporate media outlet that is unchecked and seriously, it's weird how much control the app seems to have over so many things. 

There are other media outlets; I may set up a discord server and let y'all know how to chat with me there. That's how my kid communicates with her friends. I'm gonna look into that. I may also find a bulletin board somewhere and go totally old school.  But for now if you need a daily me fix come here to this blog and see what I've been up to. I wonder if I can remember my Myspace platform password? Tom would never do this to us.


In the meantime, email me at drkimwells@gmail.com  if you really wanna share that cat pun or some other newsworthy meme. 

<3 me.

edit: Okay, so I already set up a discord server. If you wanna join, it's at https://discord.gg/jGKaGVNb  

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Hide. Run. Fight.

Hide. Run. Fight. 

At first, they would giggle,
the lesson plan was over,
the lights were out, and
they were under the desk in a 
safe 
place. 

It was kinda fun to these 14 year olds.
I don't really know when it changed.

When we announced the drill,
they would swoop under the desk in the cool, dark, locked room,
and no noise would come from them.

Except hushed whispers. 
They knew. They knew they had to learn to be quiet. 
I used to struggle with the keys to my room. 
Had to go into the hall to lock the door. And it wouldn't
always
latch. 

Once, admin had us read a "hide/run/fight" scenario to the kids. 
The thirteen year olds I had just taught
Romeo and Juliet
I cried the entire time and then pretended
it was just allergies
and then we discussed comma splices. 
Hide. Run. Fight. 

Have you ever sat in the dark
pretending to pretend
but imagining it being real?

Have you ever imagined it BEING REAL? 

Once, the school where I taught had a bullet found. 
In the hallway. 
It was probably a visitor, probably fell out of a pocket. 
We went on lockdown for hours. 
Searched backpacks. 

A week later, in a fire drill, a student hit the deck
when a balloon popped. 
He laughed it off, pretended 
he was making a joke.
But everyone knew. 

Don't tell me you care about life
when this is still okay. 

KAW 2022

14



I have this wind chime

a co-worker gave us when we moved to Louisiana, when my husband

went to fly bombers there. My husband, 
who has a father from the town it happened THIS time. 


The wind chime is a pretty one, expensive, with the dongle (is that what they're called) in the shape of Texas

blue and red and a bluebonnet and a road runner. 

She said it would remind us of Texas while we were away. It hung in the Magnolia in our front yard, for 8 years. Mostly silent. 

Tonight, on hearing 14 children (so far) plus at least one teacher,

were murdered with a gun
and the governor said it was "incomprehensible" and offered 

thoughts and prayers...

and "our" senator joined a protest about "replacement theory".........

...............

I tried to sound the chime fourteen times. 

The low, deep note. as a tribute, a prayer.  

But every time I tried, the other five tubes echoed. Chimed in. Resonated with the

loss...

I tried to stop the echoes in my hands. Clasped them

in a prayer I no longer (if ever) believe. 

And I thought of all the people

who would lose someone to that bullet. 

THOSE bullets. 


The chimes/echoes/resonance...

times five.
times ten.
times all. 

I remember again,

that America is a gun. 

And Texas is a gun, with bacon. 
This is not meant to be funny; it's never funny
And I remember that ...

resonance, those irreplicable children who are gone. Forever. Resonating out
along the wind chimes. Times five. Ten. Infinity... 

You absolutely know someone who has a hole in their lives because of this. 

It doesn't matter where you are. THIS is not just a here problem. 

Six degrees of separation does not equal the second amendment written back to when bullets fired .....maybe..... every 2 rounds a minute. 

How many minutes could those resonances have taken back? 
How many moms, dads, sisters, brothers,
who have hidden many times under desks in a dark room, only 
to go on to take their Algebra test in the next class period, the last test
put aside, for now. 
How many of them would wish
for those minutes back? 

How many are still waiting? 

My answer, tonight, is too many. 

TOO many. 

What's on my mind is change. 


KAW, 2022.

Monday, May 16, 2022

What I did this Spring....

This past Spring Semester, I taught a British Lit II class of dual enrollment high school students. I know what you're thinking "British Lit? Wait... don't you do American Lit?" (If you weren't thinking that it's okay; who even knows the distinction outside of my own head?) 

OMG I really adored this class. It reminded me of how much I love the literature that lured me into the life of teaching and studying literature in the first place. I guess I had forgotten over the years that fascination with the Literature anthology that would have me skimming through the parts the teacher never assigned, discovering the works of T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings (I know-- American, but there's a whole Paris thing in there too). Dorothy Parker, W.H. Auden. I thought about how I tried to take flowers to Aphra Behn's grave back in 2002 at Westminster Abbey the way Virginia Woolf told me all women writers should do only to be flummoxed by the fact that there weren't ANY of the ubiquitous everywhere else in London flower stands near the church. 

And I had this small group of young women who sat in the far right corner of the classroom whose faces lit up every time I talked about a woman writer, or the suffragettes, or Shakespeare's sister. It was, according to several of them in their notes about the semester, the first time many of them had ever been taught literature of people who look like them in an English class. And I had a comment from several of the boys that they had never had anything that spoke to them in a way that made them want to read more on their own outside of class before (this one student enthusiastically wrote about the V.S. Naipaul story we read). And another young man wrote about how he'd never thought of what it took to be a writer before, and how he wondered if he could do that too. Since many of these students at this school are first-generation college students, it means SO MUCH to me to be able to help them understand more about their own paths to future success. 

And one of the young women wrote an incredible poem that I encouraged her to submit to poetry contests because it honestly blew me away. The chance to be THAT MENTOR just gives me absolute chills. 

The students were incredibly sweet to me and gushed about how fun and interesting the class was. I really had the best experience with them and can't wait to get to teach this content again in the future. And maybe I'll get to teach Brit Lit I (and maybe American Lit too!) soon. I love teaching writing. I've been doing it for 20+ years. But getting to teach about Prufrock and giving the students a peach (gummy heart) before their final exams and daring them to "disturb the universe" was what I LIVE FOR. 

Here's hoping for future chances to do more of the same. Fingers way crossed. 

Monday, May 9, 2022

A Song of Red Threads and Pens


A Song of Red Threads and Pens

(for and inspired by Prudence)

The eternal battle of the English teacher is that
we balance between other people’s writing and our own.
This is a precarious place to perform that razzle-dazzle:

A comma splice here, a poorly cited quotation there.
We raise the MLA handbook over our heads, a holy canon.

Red ink spills across our middle fingers where the callus just above the top-
knuckle
where blue blobs of ink once demonstrated our own student days
becomes hard and swollen

         with corrections (what did you think I was gonna write?)

We will somehow teach our students to write.
Teach them to care. Teach them what a comma splice even IS --  
          and then they will come to our office hours and tell us
                                 
                         “I don’t really like English class.”  

It’s funny how often I put my head down on my desk.
Just for a moment.

We became teachers of literature and writing because we love
     the caught breath, the shock of the perfect metaphor,
     the look on Prufrock’s face when the mermaids stop singing.
Again. Always.

And now we make PowerPoints for bored teenagers who would rather
be watching TikTok.

We wanted to roll around in poetry, swallow vivid imagery, smell the bee loud glade.

Hold up the honey and say “see? THIS is a poem.”
But there are these very long meetings we attend, instead.

A friend of mine from graduate school wrote a poem about menopause and
screaming aloud and I wanted to write a song about her
that included a verse about a woman who has just
pulled off
a necklace of free-floating black
pearls (of wisdom) to scream, open throated, while she fills her hands with other people’s writing and yells

the (chorus) of

AAAAHHHHH

AAAAHHHHH

AAAAHHHHH

!!!!!

I am pulled up out of my corrections. No longer the teacher.
I remember this friend in graduate school (when we were both still too young to think about things like

hot flashes. unbalanced thyroids. silver plated roots and the saltandpepper that makes
men
distinguished and woman poets scream a chorus AAAAHHHHgain.)  

She had injured her leg doing a cheerleading move from high school;
we smiled, not very far
from then…
ourselves. Contemplated
Allen Ginsberg howling.

She was ok.

We didn’t know then that during menopause,
a few calcium supplements could help heal that leg right up.
We were decades away from when
your Apple Watch would alert “it looks like you’ve had a hard fall, are you ok?”
You can click a button that says “I fell; but I’m ok.”
The ambulance will not arrive.
The doctor will not tsk and fill out “noncompliant” on your chart.

Once, walking into my tile bathroom, I had a hard fall. There was water where there
shouldn’t have been

and my feet flew out from under me.
My watch stayed silent. Judged me
      as I hobbled up from my deeply bruised knee.  Braced my hands on thick thighs. Panting.
I wondered if the gyroscope and accelerator nestled deep in the expensive watch wanted to kill me. Perhaps,
tired of my queries, my robot nanny was finally making her freedom play.  

In many literary texts, the apple is a symbol of sin, temptation, the Fall.

I fell, but I’m ok.

As I zoom through rubrics, grading close readings of British poetry,

written by students hoping to graduate, hoping to exercise their own cautious steps towards

hard
        falls.

I visualize generations of women reaching up with our (no longer) blood-soaked hands,

         (or maybe it’s just red ink)

And yelling

AAAAHHHH
AAAAHHHH

AAAAHHHH AAAAHHHH

Or maybe just clicking “finalize grades” and wandering off to check their calcium levels.

“Sylvia Plath never had to deal with this shit,” I think.

SO perhaps this is a good thing?

Menopause.

My own uterus has wandered off, been excised with a sharp knife.
It was completely hysterical.
My hands, blood-soaked, as I had to lie on the floor while waiting for someone to come take me to the doctor, take my kids to school for me, spend the night in a hospital listening to Prince songs on my playlist.  
I’m pretty sure they burned it after it tried to kill me.
But I bought all white clean panties that stayed white.
It was glorious. It IS glory.

I don’t even know if I’m menopausal but I’ve started getting irrationally
               ANGRY lately.
My ears and the pale skin behind them grow hot and embarrassed at odd moments.
I joke that it’s reverse puberty.

And then, a long thread of 20 years gone poetry sharing
(in the hallways of a graduate school college)
launches forth, ever unreeling, gossamer.
Patient but not noiseless.  

I scream the chorus and write,
on a day grown too hot,
and then head back to the grade platform to read
“Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes about freely given love,”…
        a student writing my own lecture back to me. I
       “click here to check for plagiarism.”

I put my head down on my desk.
Just for a moment.

I’ve had a hard fall.
But I’m ok.

 

KAW, May 2022

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Revisiting my Youth-- Trailer Park to Ivory Tower

I was recently searching the Internet Wayback machine for some of my old writing and in around 2015, my Women Writers website went down the path of Wayback. I honestly just didn't have the spoons or time anymore to keep publishing it, even though I ADORED the work for almost 20 years. 

But I found this article, and I want it back on a live website somewhere, so here I am reprinting it. Traveling Wayback to 2000. 

Side note: My mom used to say "I don't know why you make such a big deal about this. We only lived in trailer parks for a few years." For her, those few years felt like a short glitch, for me, they were more than half my life before I had written this essay. 

Dark Academia visual for funsies and aesthetic. 

Licensed Adobe image, visual featuring a steampunk style aesthetic,  Dark Academia room set. Vintage elements collection. Bust, french press, typewriter, stacks of books and gramophone. Hand written lettering. Antique aesthetic vector illustration. Gothic architecture



*****************************************************************

Originally published on the WomenWriters.net academic zine.  


Kim Wells

12/15/2000

 

Introduction: Context & Apologia

This paper was written for a conference at Texas A&M-- because noted autobiography critic Nancy K. Miller was our keynote speaker (see the interview with Dr. Miller [no longer available] published on the site) I thought it important to organize and participate in panels on autobiography and academic intersections. I promised a paper on myself-- and after reading a lot of really great theory, wound up writing something that used the theory mostly as background for actually practicing autobio- graphical acts in writing. As a result of this paper, I want to write more about these issues, and have become increasingly aware of class as an important part of who I am-- something I was completely oblivious to a few years ago. I am aware that in publishing the paper on a website, these issues, private issues, become even more public. My family might see the work and feelings could be hurt about me putting the private out in a very public forum. But somehow, though I'm still working out WHY and how I want to do this, I feel compelled to do so... and since you're here, you're just going to have to go along for the ride...


      There are so many reasons why, although I have started to tell my story many times, I have often just stopped. Who would care about my life? What makes me think I'm so special? bell hooks asserts that writing about "one's personal experience or speaking with simple language" can build a sort of connection with others who feel "estranged, alienated" (qtd in Lanza 60). So my story-telling urges are legitimized by helping others in academia, in my classroom, know that they are not alone? This is, perhaps, a cop out. Maybe I'm just a braggart-- arrogantly telling people how bad I had it so that they can admire me. I know that often, when I tell other academics about my life, its extreme poverty, they say "Oh, we were really poor too," wanting membership to the club, entrance into a group of people who often hide their own past, who you can no longer mark with visible signs of difference. I often doubt that their poverty was as extreme-- as I said, this is arrogance, but also a feeling of pride in something that I wonder why any reasonable person would feel proud of. In its simplest form, my life becomes an anecdote: "Ever hear the one about the girl who was so poor she lived in the back of honky-tonk and eventually became a college professor?" For the longest time I didn't tell anyone where I came from, let them assume I was like them-- middle class, upper class, whatever class I was with I pretended to be-- a class chameleon.

Trailer Park to Ivory Tower

      Definition. Self Definition. Is the autobiographical impulse one which attempts to resist the inscription of self by the outside world-- to deny selves we might appear to be but which we would not choose to be? Perhaps the trend to combine feminist theory with the autobiographical is a way of trying to avoid charges of essentialism-- a reasoning that "Women's" experience has been one thing, but "MY" experience fits, or fails to fit, that experience in these ways. . . The numerous declarations towards a feminist- Marxist- white- black- native- Latina- Asian- (etc) poetics" which dispute other poetics as less inclusive is necessarily divisive, a way of asserting difference within grand notions of feminist identity. The autobiographical, finally, is an act of survival, a voice crying out "I exist, and in these ways, and others will understand more about themselves through a hearing of my story."

So to begin. In its attempt to define, the outside world would label us all, beginning with the most obvious, superficial, generic characteristics:

      I am female. White. American. Those labels could apply to many. Feminist. That label narrows it, because many women of my generation choose to disalign themselves with this-- or they say "feminist, but . . ." Academic. This last I, as an individual, find strong reasons to question because to most people, academic = intellectual; privileged; speaking (sometimes wrongly) for the silenced; middle to upper class.

      I am a class climber, an academic gold-digger, using my brain instead of my body to advance myself up from the ranks of the lower class (called white trash by so many). In the academy, I amount to a nouveau riche, recently arrived within the ivory halls, assuming the mantle of expensive clothes & jewelry and middle class respectability. I am not comfortable with casual clothing when I teach or go to class myself because I am still afraid someone will ask me to prove I belong unless I appear in "nice" clothes-- I cannot afford to slum it.

      I can be loud-- in the way that women who work in loud places (waitresses, bartenders, maids, factory workers) all their lives must be. What is the norm in academia's hallowed "Thinking" spaces (I've been shushed in the halls by irritated members of the old guard) was weird in the trailer-parks where the quiet are looked at suspiciously as "too quiet." In the world where I grew up, a woman who cannot speak for herself will not "rise above" her humble status, something a lot of them long to do, without quite knowing how. Because they do not dress well and look like they have any influence, they will be shunned by sales girls, scoffed at when they complain to managers, ignored in bank lines until, angry and red-faced, they "show their class" and become wild women who no one can ignore. They certainly do not become college professors very often (some statistics say a very small percentage of college graduates with advanced degrees are from lower-class origins).

As the study above shows: 

"this study strongly suggests those diversification efforts face a major problem: the pipelines to academia are not all equally full or flowing. Socioeconomic background appears to open or clog them to a considerable extent, revealing a major obstacle that will remain if, as the authors claim, “our current definitions of meritocracy within academia implicitly favor individuals with the inherited advantages conferred by wealth and education.” (added to 2022 version, emphasis mine)

      So here is my dilemma: do I continue to "pass" as a middle class academic feminist? Or do I show my roots? Do I stand up and shout my difference? In a world where sameness is equated with blandness and both are identified with oppression, there are certain benefits to showing off (like a medal of honor) your lack of privilege, your solidarity with the populace. But in my old world, there were a lot of secrets buried under the middle-class veneer. If I show you my roots, will you show me yours?

      In the world where I grew up, any woman who "showed her roots" would rush out as soon as possible, on her girlfriends advice, to buy a new box of hair dye (usually blonde; blonde being the color of cool, classy women like Grace Kelly) to cover up those (trashy, dark) roots, sprouting in a line along the center of her skull. A woman who showed her roots in my childhood community was making a spectacle of herself, "Showing her class"-- acting trashy, being sexual, being loud, being drunk, fighting. She might be letting her bra straps show, or wearing whore-red nail polish instead of a properly Grace-Kelly-subdued peach, or pearl white. In my case, my difference from fellow trailer-girls came not from whore-red nail polish but from two places-- the fact that I was quiet (weird) and that I read books (weirder). Thus, I aspired, even before I knew I was doing it, to join a group I could never completely become acclimated to. I did not know I would regret leaving anything behind. Why would I?

      As an adult who has found her way up through various means to middle-class education and a house without wheels, I find that the past I am often ashamed of also holds for me a strange source of pride. When Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan squared off years ago over the Olympics, an acquaintance of mine dismissively said of Harding, "Ah, she's just trailer trash." I watched the story of those figure skaters obsessively-- I think, in some ways, the two women represented the battle in my self-- between the upper-middle class princess that Kerrigan seemed to be and the dark-rooted bleached blonde girl with bad judgement that Harding was. Harding too was a climber, and because she did not follow the rules, she was rudely pushed back. Legally, she was never convicted of any involvement with the scheme-- but the court of public opinion decided that, since she was trashy, she must be guilty.

      I do and don't want you to know that I lived in many trailer parks; I, too, have been dismissed as "just trailer trash;" but that today, you wouldn't know it to look at me. I suppose it's because all my life I heard that you can "pull yourself up by your bootstraps"; but who knows, once you've done it, the work it's taken you to get there? Maybe I want people to realize that those "trailer trash" folks are people too, with dreams and plans and, while sometimes poorly executed and a bad idea they mean just as much to the trailer park residents as they do to middle class and upper class America. Maybe I just want you to know how hard it was for me to get what a lot of people take for granted: the right to be here.

Outsider/Insider: Borderlines of Identity

      I never really fit in with the other occupants of the trailer park. In eighth grade, Sammy, a local heartthrob with blue-green eyes, swollen, pouty lips and wavy brunette hair, who was 15 years old in and the 5th grade, spoke these words: "I see you reading at recess. You must be smart." Sammy was the first boy I ever met who exuded sexuality; he was like a young James Dean. I am certain that, like Dean, he has come to a bad end since I last saw him, almost 15 years ago. Weeks after admiring my odd recess behavior, he beat me up because I broke the cardinal rules of the school bus and didn't side with him against the bus driver. While I'm dismayed by the way my mother taught me to cover the black eye with make up, I am also emboldened by the knowledge that I fought back, covering his back with alley cat scratches that didn't go away for weeks. His mother convinced my mother to try and not get him expelled from school; I remember the look on the Principal's face as I explained, black eye barely hidden with greasy makeup, that we wanted to "drop charges." He looked puzzled; I had clearly been abused, why was I standing up for my abuser? "Those trailer park girls just ask for it, don't they?" he seemed to say. I was glad that he expelled Sammy anyway, but had to pretend sorrow because, as the son of our landlord, the boy who beat me up still had power over me.


These are two parts of myself: the princess-in-training and the girl just waiting for a bad dye-job and a waitress position.

      The downward spiral from what was a relatively "normal" middle-class childhood for my two older sisters (camp, girl scouts, family vacations in the station wagon) began when I was about three. There are only short mental snapshots that I really remember about the time before my father dropped off the radar, and my mother was plunged, (as the statistics tell us) down in income about 75%. My memories of that "middle-class" world consist of brief moments-- watching my father bake and ice a rabbit-shaped cake with coconut, fishing/camping, lying on my stomach in the Army-Navy surplus store we owned for a while, seeing my cat get run over by a speeding car while waiting for the bus from Sunday school, and the hysterical tears that followed. These are probably memories that compare with any other kid who grew up in a smallish, suburban, late 20th century family. But another memory stands out, and though I did not know it at the time, it was significant. My father drove me to a house, (I thought it was a restaurant because for some reason there was a neon sign) where a dark-haired plump lady served me lasagna and a jelly roll. When I told my mother about where we had gone, her lips thinned into a line of disapproval and anger (they were already narrow with smoking and poorly fitting dentures, which she was supposed to get replaced but which she wound up keeping for another 15 years; which made her look old at 35; which made her face sour and lined, even when she was happy). She said, "He took you there?" "There" was the home of her former best-friend, the woman my father was about to leave the family for. Apparently my mother already knew about the affair; apparently my father was ending any pretense of secrecy, about to "jump ship" for a life where child-support and parenthood consisted in taking care of someone else's children. I have a photo of our family from this time period and a few years ago, I was shocked that I had finally come to resemble my mother. For so many years, I only saw the sunken lips, the tight eyes-- and they did not compare to my youthful, wrinkle-free gaze. But now, I see the beauty beneath the stress, and I see how close we actually are. My mother was just, as a boyfriend of hers used to say, "rode hard and put away wet."

      For a while after the separation, my mother managed to hold our lives together-- she struggled to pay the mortgage on a home with three bedrooms and hard wood floors in a tree-lined neighborhood, where the mailman came in for lemonade. She worked double shifts at the local hospital and attended night school to become an RN. Mere months before completing the program and becoming a Nurse, after collapsing with exhaustion on the job, she was ordered by her supervising doctor to either "keep working or keep attending school, but she had to quit one of them." He would not allow her to do both because, he said, "It would kill her." How could he know that his sentence would cause, instead, a million smaller deaths by poverty? The system was set up for women who were working nights but who did not "HAVE" to work, who had someone else to pay the bills. In 1974 Kentucky, there was barely a word for "single-mom," and no programs to help a woman who wanted to work, to take care of her kids, but who had narrowing options. The doctor disapproved of my mother's position, blamed her for the divorce and wanted to know why she didn't make my father help out. As a nurse-in-training, she could not keep working at the hospital, though, without also attending school, and she needed what income my father was not paying in child support to feed her daughters (programs that enforce payment by dead-beat dads did not come until I was well past 15). She quit the fairly-decent paying job at the hospital, as well as school, to become a bartender at the yacht club and brought home a bag of kittens someone (intending to drown them in the lake) had tossed from a speeding car. They were too young, not yet weaned, and sucked hungrily at any appendage they could find (ears, fingers, neck). We named them "Starsky, Hutch and Baretta" after TV cops who were popular at the time. They remind me now in retrospect, of myself and my sisters, weaned too early into a world ready to drown us, rescued by my mother, who was barely keeping above water herself.

It Must Run in the Family

      My mom had fallen hard; from a middle-class life to a place where she was forced to live with men who beat her to keep her youngest child fed, a place where she would agree to let her other teenaged daughters drop out of high school because they wanted to get married. My grandparents had been modestly middle-class, married in 1927, living in a nice house in suburban Illinois. I have a photo of my mother posing coyly in front of a new car, leg out coquettishly, when she was confirmed in the Lutheran church. 


But my grandfather died young from cancer (back then, it was a shameful disease; family members whispered it sotto voce, "he has cancer," the way some people say "AIDS" today). My grandmother worked for the telephone company, and in the 1950's , when the ideal was the nuclear family with mom in heels and a pretty apron, my mother was a "latchkey kid." After my grandfather died, my mother, then about 13, used to have nightmares where a large, winged creature took him away while she stood on a cliff and screamed. Did this disaster contribute to the later depressive fugues that would be a large part of what drove my father away and plunged us into poverty? Was her fall from middle class pre-ordained by some angry "class" god who felt my grandparents reached too far from their own lower class origins?

BOHO Blood

      We moved to Mississippi because, in the early 1970's, the news about the new "Gold Coast" and the tourist industry growing there drew my mother like a moth to a candle flame. I use this stereotyped simile because it really is the best image I can summon up for how my mother's (and consequently, my) life was to go from here. I remember the zealous hope on her face when she said how much money bartenders were making in the hotels and restaurants there. I don't know who gave her this information, but the propaganda (the scholar in me now knows from reading history) was everywhere. A large migration of low-wage workers had begun to move back from the North to the South-- people in search of better wages and less winter snow. My sister, her much older boyfriend, and I, drove down first in his beat-up old blue Cadillac. Once we got there, we lived in the first trailer park I had ever even seen. I was afraid to go to sleep in my room because the ghost of a small, black cat used to jump on my bed at night and suckle my ears and neck. (I don't know if it was the memory of those three kittens we had left behind or some sort of recurring dream. My memory insists it was a real ghost in my room). I feigned sleep on the living room floor to avoid being put in bed; it did not work and I suffered a nightly torment, lying under my covers, waiting to feel phantom paws circling my head. I knew I couldn't tell my sister because she wouldn't believe me. At the same time, I had several dreams where my mother lay in bed, in the back room of our trailer, while flames engulfed the building and I, with a garden hose too short to reach, screamed for her to wake up.

I'm going to interrupt my narrative to comment on the process of writing this autobiographical sketch. There are two sides of my persona at war as I write; I am both a small-poor girl afraid and too proud to tell, and the adult scholar she has become, who wants to discuss the class issues and the life of a child who, although raised in poverty, has climbed a ladder towards socio-economic success that few of her childhood peers traversed. But as the child of a very poor family, I cringe: we don't talk about the things that happen at home. Yes, for four weeks straight we ate nothing but drop biscuits and thin soup made from stolen bags of instant mashed potato that my mother stuffed under her shirt because she had lost her job when she got a kidney infection and couldn't work, but still didn't qualify for food stamps. I cringe because as a kid, when, and if, I inadvertently broadcast these every day facts of my life, severe consequences followed (a social worker blinking with very big-eyes at my mother as I, pretending to sleep, lay on the floor; later another social worker asking my mother to explain my frequent absences from school, along with statements I had made which clued my normally clueless teachers in to exactly how poor we were). It feels self-indulgent, it feels like complaining, to tell this story. At the same time, I read autobiographical scholars and know that their theorizing about their lives has taught me something, made me feel that "click" of self-recognition and consciousness-raising-- a place to belong that I hope to show to others.

As a scholar who has been trained in coherent narrative and the importance of "EVERY" perspective, I want to analyze who I am because it might help others understand the students like myself who show up in their classes. I hope it will stop people from assuming that because someone shares their white skin, they also grew up sharing white privilege. I want people to not lump me in with others who I (sometimes incorrectly) assume had an easier time of it, as a professor once did, when, discussing the poor in America, he said "let's face it, we're all middle class here." (I was the only one who argued with him about this blanket statement but others later told me they, too, were alienated by his assumption of shared privilege and prosperity, but too embarrassed to say otherwise). So now I argue for those who can't, no longer the "too quiet" girl who reads too much, I show my trashy roots and get loud, for others. This war must be considered a part of my intentions to make some sort of argument and theory. How can I summarize the ups and downs of an entire lifetime into 12 pages of double-spaced, smoothly logical discourse with a thesis statement and conclusion, and a point, an argument to be made? I have promised to do so-- and I plug away, thinking that perhaps somewhere an argument exists to be made.

      So here my narrative jumps several years to a trip to Louisiana. My mother and her current boyfriend, who looked a lot like Abe Lincoln and could sleep with his eyes open (a trick he learned in prison), for some reason unknown to me went for a weekend jaunt to Delcambre, Louisiana. While we were there, the driver of the expedition got angry and drove off, taking my mother's purse with him. We were stranded, with no money in a very tiny, very poor, shrimping town. Somewhere my mother had met a woman who owned a local bar-- and she offered us a place to stay and my mother a job as a bartender. The bar, which was a large, lime-green, gay disco on the edge of a largely Catholic town, had a room in the back that was a living space-- bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, corrugated tin walls and roof, and the nightly throb of disco and rows of eerily glowing pickled eggs and pigs feet, stored on a long shelf in the back, by my thin cot-bed. The apartment where we lived in Mississippi-- along with my collection of teddy bears, my clothes, the bike bought with the 25 dollar check my grandmother sent for my birthday-- had been repossessed for nonpayment of rent while we were stranded in La. My sisters lived with their respective love interests (the oldest was newly married and the other was attending Job Corps). I think that my mother was ashamed to call my grandmother for another cash-draft which could have gotten us a bus ticket back to Mississippi, and anyway, what did we have to go back to? Maybe Grandma didn't have it; although I imagine she would have found a way to get something to us if she'd known. My father was remarried to a wealthy woman. We "made do" in Louisiana-- I enrolled in school, where students initially impressed with how fast I could write my name in cursive, soon began to hate me for being poorer than they were, and for picking up the school bus in front of what they knew was the town's only gay bar. I wore clothes donated by the bar-owner's sister (too big for me and out of style, but all I had). Funnily enough, despite all the things wrong with this picture, (no food, no money, living in the back of a bar and despised by my peers) this is a bright spot in my life-- my mother met and made friends with several drag queens, who used to bring me coca-colas loaded with maraschino cherries and laugh when I didn't recognize them as a large-breasted blond woman in a black velvet pant suit. I also, prompted by my mother's love of books, discovered the public library.

      This part of my life has been well-mined in my poetry, and fiction. I tell people who are all agog with 70's retro nostalgia that I knew how to do the YMCA back when they were still playing with Barbie and eating fish sticks for dinner. When I tell someone about this time of my life, they usually laugh admiringly-- this stigma of childhood has become cool, today. I don't think anyone outside my family but my husband, though, knows how bad it became, how, for about a month, in January, we lived in an unheated 10x10 ft boat instead of the back room of the bar because the woman who owned the bar was angry with my mother and told her to get out. About how a girl at school tormented me mercilessly and told everyone that I had eaten a spider in the girl's bathroom (I know now that it was one of those pecking-order things, by diminishing me, she gained status, but then it was devastating). Again, the scholar knows that these issues can be mined, as well, for rhetoric . . . perhaps about the status of sexual difference in our culture (how I was stigmatized at 10 years old for being picked up in front of a building shows us how deep the prejudices go, illustrating how children who may have had no concept of what made the difference between that bar and others on the main strip of town still reflected the hatreds of their parents). But the little girl just wanted someone to be nice to her-- and the only people who were kind were society's outcasts, bisexual men who transgressed gender and got beaten up in "straight" bars when the truckers figured out who the blonde in the velvet pantsuit really was.

      So you will want to know the secret of how I went from that poor little girl to the academic you see before you. Another move-- escaping years with my mother's abusive boyfriend and many untold horror stories-- to Florida. Soon after, I turned 15 and got a job. A tiny bit of money and control over my own school clothes buying and the "kids at school" were convinced I was like them-- I successfully passed as middle class and gained the friends I had never had before. Despite being qualified, gradewise, by poverty level & with test scores, I didn't get any offers of scholarships-- no counselors even suspected I could qualify for need based aid. After graduation, and a few years as a waitress, I applied for and received full Pell Grants. This paid for two years of college, where I was officially "in"-- all college students are poor, so my need wasn't appreciably different from anyone else's. Attracting him with my ambitions to be like the teacher in Back to School, reading Joyce's "Penelope" sequence, I married a Naval Officer who, in the great tradition of Jane Austen novels, swept me up into a completely different class (that I was well on the way to joining via education anyway).

      Once, when we were first married, I held a small dinner gathering for some of my husband's friends. While I was in another room, the wife, who grew up a Colonel's daughter-- the upper class of military life, was impressed with my waitress--learned skills and said to Andrew: "Kim's so sophisticated, is she a professor's daughter or something?" He just laughed, but from then on, I knew, unless I tell you, you won't suspect my kinship with Tonya Harding. And surprisingly, that makes me sad.

 


Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Pearls of Wisdom at Texas Public Radio

Well hi there. 


Been a while, hasn't it? I've been hanging around in the Ivory Tower way more than my creative persona (this gets a little weird when we really start thinking about it) so this blog hasn't been updated in waaaaaaaaaaaaay too long. 

But here I am today.

And I have news! 

I'm reading on a Texas Public Radio show called "Worth Repeating" in April. April 12, from 7-9 PM, to be specific.


What I'll be reading is a short version of a longer story I'll publish here after the TPR performance (don't wanna spoil it for anyone) about my big sister, Judy, and the day I watched her take her last breaths. It's not quite as sad as it sounds but it's definitely a source of a tiny pearl of wisdom from a oyster that I'd rather have not had to try yet. 

If you'd like to go to the Facebook Event for it, click here

Ticket Deets below. 

Tickets are on sale here

There's also a pretty cool video of the previous performances. Ours will be slightly different because the "Quitters" one was meant to be livestreamed and ours will be IN PERSON!!! ::Excited face emoji::


I'm hoping this is the first of a lot more of these kinds of events now that 1. I have a job that allows me to have actual time to do creative stuff & encourages it 2. Covid has finally started to behave itself (she said, very quietly, so as to not let the gods of all chaotic tiny things hear). 

If you feel like it, even if you aren't attending, go click on the "Like" buttons on the FB and other link because it will increase the visibility. 

Watch this space for more. :) 

Oh, yeah, and there's hopefully going to be more at my FB writer page, too: https://www.facebook.com/kimwellswrites