“Staggerlee said, ‘There ain’t no right or wrong. There ain’t no white or black.” Quoted in “The House You pass on the Way” by Jacqueline Woodson
The main reason Anne Balay’s boss is citing for having recommended that she be denied tenure and promotion is, allegedly, an excessive amount of student complaints, including “racist remarks.” Knowing Anne very well and finding this hard to believe, I looked more closely into the situation and discovered that many of these complaints were because of two books of fiction she used in her Children's Literature course, "Nappy Hair" by Carolivia Herron and "The House You Pass on the Way" by Jacqueline Woodson. Many of her students are Education majors and future teachers who, I feel, should be aware of these excellent books that deal with sensitive subjects, even if they might not wish to use them in the classroom themselves. Both authors have received the Coretta Scott King Book Award, and to imply that Anne had a racist intent in using them is ludicrous. Had I been Anne’s department chair, I’d have recommended that she invite African-American faculty members DeeDee Ige and Lora Bailey to talk to her students about the books.
Jacqueline Woodson’s “The House You Pass on the Way,” which I read cover to cover in one sitting, is a beautiful “young adult” tale of self-discovery. The grandparents of the main character, a 14 year-old biracial girl going through puberty who calls herself Staggerlee, were musicians who performed “Staggerlee” on the Ed Sullivan show shortly before they were murdered in 1969 at a civil rights rally by someone who planted a bomb. Her dad married a white woman and then moved back to the small town of Sweet Gum, South Carolina. Unlike sister Dottie, Staggerlee is a bookish loner ostracized by classmates who claim she is stuck-up and make fun of her lighter skin. She befriends a new girl, Hazel, but after she kisses her in a show of affection, Hazel avoids her. In the summer a distant relative about her age, Trout, stays with her family, and Stagerlee falls in love with her. They snuggled together in bed, and the last time they were together Trout scratched their names in the dirt and wrote: “Staggerlee and Trout were here today. Maybe they will and maybe they won’t be gay.” Then she rubbed it out, and when Staggerlee asked why, said, “I don’t want anyone to find it and get stupid.” They write to each other after summer ends, but Trout, it turns out, has a boyfriend. Entering high school, Staggerlee is much more self-confident than before and open to new experiences.
Staggerlee’s father, Elijah Canan, is a paragon of tolerance. He banters easily with his farmhands, is a doting father, and is blessed with mother wit, realizing that it is natural for young people to have crushes on both girls and boys. At the book’s end Staggerlee is thinking of Trout and wondering: “Who would they become?” In an interview author Woodson said: “Staggerlee knows who she is for the most part, but her friend Trout is struggling, conforming, trying to fit in. I wish I had this book when I was a kid and trying to fit in while being a tomboy and so unfeminine.” Woodson added that she admires books that offer hope, such as Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” rather than totally bleak works such as William H. Armstrong’s “Sounder.”
Looking back, when I was Staggerlee’s age, I had what might be called a crush on my friend Terry Jenkins. It wasn’t sexual, but I got jealous when he’d go play at someone else’s house or if he’d want a third kid to join us. We had a mail route in rural Fort Washington (there was no home delivery in the early 1950s, and the post office let us take mail belonging to a dozen neighbors), and I was disappointed when he suggested we could take turns on alternate days rather than do the deliveries together. Once I felt humiliated when Terry, Sammy Corey, and Penny Roberts went to a fort we’d built in the woods without me to smoke cigarettes. In tenth grade Terry transferred to a private school, and we saw much less of each other, but occasionally we’d shoot hoops together by the side of my garage. We didn’t discuss intimate things like Staggerlee and Trout did, but we’re still best of friends even though separated by 700 miles and give each other man-hugs every year or so when we get together.
I loved Lloyd Price’s 1959 version of “Staggerlee,” which reached the top of the pop charts and earned Price a gold record. When Price appeared on “American Bandstand,” Dick Clark insisted that the lyrics be toned down, but it still told the story of the violent end of a barroom brawl started by a craps game. Like “This Land Is Your Land” the old folk songs had a multitude of diverse versions.
Tuesday Dr. Babb, Dr. Sikora’s daughter, cleaned my teeth. At first I thought Babb might be her first name to distinguish her from her father, but, no, it’s her married name. Wednesday morning Toni and I did a pre-Christmas shopping ($200 worth of coupons made us eligible for a couple more plates – she’s two shy of the 15 she hopes to have by Christmas dinner). I spent the afternoon signing and addressing Christmas cards. I finished Alysia Abbott’s poignant memoir of her gay father Steve, “Fairyland,” knowing it would end withas horrible death, his body ravaged by AIDS. At a memorial service she read his last poem, “Elegy,” where he evokes Alysia’s mother dying:
When I learned my wife’s skull was crushed by a truck, my head
Swam like an hourglass into a tv set. All the channels went crazy.
Crickets sounded like Halloween noisemakers and I remember explaining the event
To our 2 year old daughter with the aid of a Babar book.
Babar’s mother was shot by a mean hunter and that makes Alysia sad even now.
The New York Review of Books that Ron Cohen passed on to me contains a full-page U. of North Carolina Press ad on the back cover. Two books whose subjects I know nothing about are Carole Haber’s “The Trials of Laura Fair: Sex, Murder and Insanity in the Victorian West” and Pamela M. Kane’s “Sister Thorn and Catholic Mysticism in Modern America.” They sound intriguing. I look forward to finding the brilliant cover of Anne Balay’s “Steel Closets” in a future ad of theirs. At Anne’s office to pick up “Nappy Hair” and “The House You Pass on the Way,” I ran into two students, Beth and Debbie, now friends from her Gender Studies class.
Time chose the new pope, Francis, as its person of the year, in part because of his criticism of gay-bashing clergy. Runner-up: NSA secret stealer Edward Snowden, our age’s “man without a country,” now hunkered down in Russia.
An old poker buddy and lefty friend, Rudy Schneider, passed away. He lived in Miller on top of a sand dune and had the steepest driveway I’ve ever encountered. He put out the best spread of any of our poker hosts. I heard Al Samter lecture on the history of jazz at his place and recall dancing there with Janet Bayer at a memorable New Year's Eve party.
Ray Smock watched the 1953 movie “Trouble Along the Way,” starring John Wayne and Donne Reed. He writes: “John Wayne is a down on his luck football coach hired to save a small Catholic school from going under by bringing big time football to the school. So Wayne pulls out all the stops, and goes out and recruits ringers, creates a syndicate to charge for everything, including pay toilets at the stadium, parking fees, concession fees, etc. As Wayne describes the system, one of his cronies asks: ‘Ain’t this socialism?’ And another of his pals, played by Chuck Connors, says: ‘Yeah it’s socialism, unless you’re in on it.’ What a great line. Medicare and Social Security are not socialism to the millions of Americans who are in on it.”
At the memorial service for Nelson Mandela a schizophrenic somehow managed to pose as the sign language interpreter, standing right next to President Obama and other speakers, making gestures that were unintelligible. It’s hilarious but deaf activists are outraged. It is pretty scary to realize how close a potentially dangerous man got to the assembled world leaders. Thinking of Madiba, I listened to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” or “Wimoweh,” originally recorded by South African Solomon Linda and titled “Mbube,” the IsiZulu name for lion.
Driving to the post office, the recorded temperature in my car quickly dropped from 23 leaving the garage to 4 degrees. Mailing letters was a cute young mother with adorable twin 13 month-old girls. It must have taken her an hour to dress them for the trip, put them in the car, and then transfer them to a double stroller.
The annual Holiday Reception has devolved from a sumptuous meal with a variety of entertainment in Savannah gym to light refreshments and a sing-a-long in the conference center. Nonetheless, it was nice, and it’s amazing how much finger food one can get on those tiny plates. For the sixth year in a row I was one of the first two in line. Leroy Peterson was one of only a handful of retirees in attendance, all looking rather lonely and out of place. I think I saw Bob Andre and Dave Holland but couldn’t be sure. I missed seeing Joanne Hurak and Peter Kesheimer; the top of the head of someone in the food line resembled Kesheimer’s, but it turned out to be SPEA prof Sam Flint.
Mingling, I talked with SPEA recorder Suzanne Green, Education instructor Meg DeMakas, and History colleagues Chris Young and Dave Parnell. Jon Briggs was in Pennsylvania visiting Jerry Pierce, unfairly denied tenure a few years ago. I congratulated Chuck Gallmeier on being named a super-professor and praised Kathy Malone and Anna Rominger on how well the musical numbers went. DeeDee Ige was snapping a bunch of pictures. I resisted the temptation to jump in one with Mark Hoyert, Cynthia O’Dell, and Chris Young. Sandra Hall Smith organized group participation for the song “Twelve Days of Christmas.” On the way in everyone had been given a piece of paper with a number on it. Mine was nine, so I was supposed to join a group of other nines to sing and act out “Nine ladies dancing.” I never found the others but did do a little jig on the last verse.
Beth LaDuke, above left,, recently transferred to the Office of Academic Success and Achievement, introduced me to some of her co-workers. Her boss, Cathy Hall is a good friend who 20 years ago, when her last name was Iovanella, wrote a paper about Anne and Virgil Hokanson that I published in my Fifties Shavings. He ran a lumber supply business in Chesterton, and she took care of the home and kids. Cathy wrote:
Anne and Virgil liked to go square dancing together but belonged to their own clubs. Anne joined a sorority and Virgil the Lions. The Lions Club put on an annual minstrel show, with the men blackening their faces. Some of them would dress up as women.
Soon after all the kids were in school, Anne started substituting, and then in 1958 accepted a full-time teaching position at Yost Elementary. A hired woman helped out at home; but because she wasn’t a good cook, Anne still prepared the evening meal. The other lady did the dishes.
Virgil had to deal with a couple minor crises while Anne was teaching. Once their son Rick hurt his arm, and Virgil had to take him to the doctor to see if it was broken. Another time Rick called his father to report that a dog had peed on his lunch at the bus stop. Virgil told him to eat lunch at Aunt Marge’s.
Phil worked hard on his PBS station's annual Vespers show and afterwards posted a photo of him (on right) and his staff.