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Learning The Ways Of A New Land

Wishes for a good new year continue to trickle in and, as always, the digit change fails to feel like a time of new beginnings. That door for me always opened in September with the first day of a new year in a new grade with a new teacher.

A grade change was the time of stepping into a year of possibilities. Buckling up shiny shoes, wearing a freshly pressed dress and carrying an assortment of sharp pencils, a schoolgirl opens a door each year on a fresh start.

I clearly remember my excitement the year I learned to read, another year I conquered fractions and the lovely year in a new school with something called music appreciation when I heard Mozart for the first time.

There was the year I balanced on a two-wheel bicycle and another when I turned a corner, maintaining speed on my roller-skates. And there was fourth grade and that memorable first kiss. 

His name was Martin Merry and his father was the principal. Martin wore rusty freckles across his nose and shyly used his pencil stub to move my decimal points into the right place before he kissed me quickly on the cheek.

Grade school transitions and a first kiss are far behind me. However, the glitter of a dropping ball never stepped up to mark new beginnings; it always fell while I was in the middle of something, not at the opening gun.

My current calendar turns over on July 15th, the day my delayed and tired furniture finally arrived at 62 Lafayette Street and I stepped into the different world of North Mississippi. An unknown kind of year, an untried way of learning began on that day.

Here the whole small rural town is the classroom. Its streets and alleys, its bandstands and parks, its porches and church pews, all are places of something new to me. At city hall, local government gathers around a big table to explain in barely audible tones the ins and outs of frequent elections and sealed construction bids. The fields of cotton, the trailers of sweet potatoes, the colors of winter greens—like pages in a textbook, each has a lesson to impart.

Careful observation is, though, like the backdrop on a stage and provides only so much knowledge. It is the stories and the cadence of the telling voice that act as teacher, fleshing out the comings and goings of tornadoes, the code of manners, the quirky lack of conformity that brings the lessons of a small town to life. 

Long-time residents take on the role of narrator. Men and women both pull up beside me on a park bench and start right in telling a newcomer tales of a long ago Miss Dixie who owned a Ford dealership and a Miss Ludie who set her own speed limit driving through town. The dedication of local doctors, the perseverance of cotton farmers, the descriptive term for spent old men lounging under the big magnolia tree enrich my studies. These dramas paint a human picture of this classroom called Water Valley. 

Learning the ways of a new land, like any year-round work, has its moments of enlightenment, as well as bewilderment and quiet tedium.

But as William Faulkner reportedly said, “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” Ignoring fireworks and raucous cheers on January 1st, I wait for July 15th to start my calendar year, to look anew for deepening insight into a place like Mississippi.

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