In Search of Symbols

by on November 29, 2011

Essays Issue 1 Nonfiction

I am a teacher.

For the past two years, I taught 11th-grade English in the Mississippi Delta, in Helena, Arkansas. What I found in the Delta was bleak yet gorgeous, largely significant yet unknown.Regardless of the art, of the music, of the oral and written narratives, most people remain unaware of the truths that make up one of our country’s forgotten regions. People are unaware of the ground-level struggles that the citizens and communities here face, of the ground-level problems that hinder and devalue our rural educational system.

I begin at the end, so that you can meet Helena as I saw it after living there for two years rather than as I first saw it. It’s only fair to Helena.

These past two years I reflected a lot about the school, about what preconceptions and motivations I had coming to the Delta, about how I have changed.

After leaving the Delta, my experiences there seemed rather thematic, not only because the place lends itself so easily to literary and artistic associations but also because I turned out to be a cliche.

I would like to say I came to the South with an open mind and few misconceptions. I saw myself as such: a gutsy pioneer leaving her comfort zone, a do-gooder bringing education and worldly insight to the impoverished children, a humble student ready to accept whatever lessons the South had to teach her. Nine months after crossing the Mason-Dixon line, however, I realized that I came to the Delta in a spirit of pretense. All of it—modesty, selflessness, open-mindedness—was a facade.

Over the course of my four years studying history and literature in college, most of my favorite authors were Southern: O’Connor, Twain, Warren, Welty, and Faulkner. I ranked the Delta as my top preference for my Teach for America regional placement because of these writers, whom I wholeheartedly believed had captured the deepest and truest nuances of the South. I was eager to explore these nuances in person. One might say I came to the Delta in search of symbols.

Perhaps my disappointment when I arrived in Helena is most telling. Others might have been disheartened upon arriving because Helena is in many ways a typical rural town, left practically a ghost with the end of industry. But I was disappointed because Helena was not abandoned or decrepit enough. When I was placed in the Delta, I looked up pictures of possible homes. They usually involved sheds with uneven front stoops and tin roofs set in the middle of a field—places along the lines of what Dorothea Lange documented with her camera in the 1930s. So when I saw that Helena not only had a Walmart, but also a Sonic, a McDonald’s, and a Wendy’s, plus a handful of suburban neighborhoods, I felt swindled. What had happened to the Southern experience I had signed up for?

It took me the better part of the first year to get over my conviction that the South of my favorite literature existed and just had to be found. Once I got over this conviction, I did find out a couple of crucial truths:

1. There is nothing romantic or beautiful about poverty in the Delta. This is not the poverty of the frontier where there was a nobility in people’s strife to eke out an existence from the land. Delta poverty is point-blank ugly. People exploit government aid programs; children consume malnutritious diets and often turn to petty crime, violence, and drugs as an antidote to boredom; casinos draw people out of their homes to play hopefully and frenetically with money that they cannot afford to lose and that in some cases is not theirs to lose in the first place. Some women break their backs to raise four generations within a household, while some men never grow up.

2. Conversely, there is so much that is good that is preserved and that perseveres in the Delta. Only in the Delta have I found a deep and secure sense of religion. There, I met people who have overcome hardships greater than what I will ever know. There, I came to know what strength a family can provide. There, I discovered what contentment can come with slowing down. And only there did I begin to learn the lesson of true generosity: of looking for and finding merit in everything and everyone.

What follows are stories from my first year of teaching in the Delta; they demonstrate the way these opposing but inseparable truths held sway in my own experience of the region. These stories were originally written as emails to my friends and family; they were attempts to convey my few triumphs and my many defeats, my burgeoning sense of this world, with its wondrous beauty and its dispiriting challenges.

I do not pretend to be an expert on education, nor do I pretend to be an expert on the Delta. I do not speak for my students or colleagues, and I do not speak for the members of the community about which I will be writing. I speak only to my own experiences and perceptions as a novice teacher in a struggling community. I refer to students by pseudonyms to protect their identities.



Many people think the education gap is, in fact, simply a literacy gap. Literacy is essential to living a productive life. The fact is, if a student can’t fill out a simple job application form, they can’t even get a job at McDonald’s. I came to the Delta uncertain about a lot of things—about how I was supposed to manage a classroom, how I was supposed to maintain discipline, about the most effective methods of instruction—but certain that my mission was to produce young adults who could effectively communicate, both by speech and by pen.

Early on, I noticed that, in general, my students did better on vocabulary quizzes than grammar quizzes. I would have thought that my vocabulary quizzes were more difficult, because the students had to respond to prompts using all their vocabulary words from memory. In comparison, their grammar quizzes only required them to correct or diagram sentences. Then I began to notice how often my students incorporated their new vocabulary into everyday speech. For example, I now heard:

In the hallway and in the cafeteria:

• Rather than saying, “Say that again, boy. I’m gonna whoop you,” my students began to say, “Say that again, boy, I’m gonna assail you.”

• Instead of calling Juwan, a massive senior, by his nickname “Disaster,” students now called him “Fiasco.”

•When coming on to females, instead of saying, “Girl, hey, you want to be wit me?” it was now “Girl, hey, me and you should get ardent and affectionate.”


In the classroom:

• Rather than, “Ms. Wang, he be messin’ with me,” it was now, “Ms. Wang, he being a nuisance.“

• When the gentlemen were asked to pull their sagging pants up from around their ankles, “Mane(insert attitudinal sucking of teeth), why you want to mess up my swag?” it was sometimes, “why you want to mess up my sashay?”

• When I passed out a quiz, “Why you be doing me like that, Ms. Wang? This just wrong,” they now complained, “Why you be doing me like that? This be malicious.”

What is odd about the whole thing is that even as they were (usually correctly) incorporating higher-level vocabulary, my students were completely ungrammatical. What is more, they strove to use as much vocabulary as they can, but they were not in the least disturbed by double negatives, inconsistent verb tenses, the gaping absence of auxiliary and linking verbs, or subject-verb disagreement. They were capable of grammatical speaking; they simply placed little import upon it.

John, a young man in my first period class, shed some light on the whole conundrum. John never participated in class. When I cold-called on him, he usually responded with, “I’m not feeling good today,” and put his head down. Sometime during second quarter, he came after school and sat quietly at a desk until I had finished tutoring all my other students. Then he came up to me shyly.

“Ms. Wang,” he said, already apologetic, “when you ask me to read, I don’t really be feeling sick.”

“I know, Mr. _____,” I said.

“I got a stutter,” he explained.

“Thank you for telling me,” I replied. “But the only way you are going to get over that stutter is if you practice talking.”

“I know that,” John said, “but you got to help me. I want to learn to talk good, like you.”

“You want to learn how to talk well,” I said, promptly beginning the lesson and hiding my excitement.

“Yeah, but not like that,” promptly throwing the pail of cold water, “I don’t be caring about saying things right,” John said, “just about saying things good. So I don’t be embarrassing myself when I be talking to girls on the phone. And you know, like, if I go to a restaurant. You know how to talk in a restaurant, Ms. Wang?”

“I talk about the same as I do in class when I go out to eat,” I said.

“I’m gonna be a model, Ms. Wang, because they be earning good money,” John told me frankly. “And I’m gonna be rich. So I need to know how to talk in restaurants and stuff.”

John’s distinction between saying things right and saying things good summed up the philosophy of my students. Saying things “right” meant speaking grammatically, properly, conventionally, correctly. Saying things “good” meant adding verbal communication to one’s swag.

Swag is an odd word to define. In Helena-speak, it encompassed style, charisma, and a general sense of being cool. Style, charisma, and being cool were, in turn, all determined by flamboyance. Just as wearing grills, colossal costume-jewelry crosses, and faux diamond earrings the size of eggs was considered “fly” or “clean,” big vocabulary words added the same kind of sparkle and show to their language. Grammar was a pittance that required a finely tuned ear—or an ear that had been trained to hear grammatical speech—to recognize the education latent in a person’s speech. Vocabulary, on the other hand, just screamed, “Look at how smart and well-educated I am!”

Most of my students were living below the poverty line. Everybody knew that he, his best friend, his neighbor, and his classmate was poor. Yet everyone still strove to create the facade of wealth. And in the Delta, it seemed that wealth was just about money. There were no old money/nouveau riche/established professional distinctions about it. Perhaps that is why my students wore “bling,” or why it wasn’t important to be educated, as long as they could speak well in fancy restaurants.

At the end of the year, I was sharply reminded of the startling divide between students’ desire to acquire tokens of success and their lack of investment in acquiring actual (academic or financial) success.

Perhaps the single hardest week of the year was The Week Before Graduation. Many seniors at my school had failed previous English classes and had to repeat and pass them in order to graduate. Hence, the handful of seniors that I had in my junior English classes. Some of them were even still retaking sophomore English. Unfortunately, most of these repeats in my class (usually male) did not make good use of their second chances and failed junior English again, which meant that they could not graduate.

These gentlemen launched a campaign to convince me to change their semester grades from an F to a D. They put more energy into the campaign than they had registered in my class all year. They switched between accusing me of not being fair to admitting that they deserved no better, but couldn’t I find it in my heart to give them a second chance? They begged for extra credit opportunities and alternated between dramatics of woe and anger when I declined. They told me tearjerkers about how they would have been the first in their family to graduate. They waxed poetic about family honor, about the single mother waiting at home still hoping that the son she worked so hard to raise would walk at graduation.

One young man pulled out the baby card. “I have a son,” Keith said. “I want this baby to have a dad who has a high school degree. You can’t do nothing without a high school degree.”

At first, I sent them away and told them I would think about it. Then I would cry in my classroom alone while thinking, What’s so bad about giving them a little extra credit? What are they going to do without that diploma? What about that baby?

Then I would remember that I had already given So-and-So an extra credit assignment and that he had plagiarized the entire paper. I would remember that my school was ranked in the top ten for grade inflation in the entire state and that if such lax grading policies continued, a diploma from the school would soon mean nothing even for the students who did earn it. I would remember that indeed Keith was not even supporting his baby, that I knew this because he spent all his time in second period hitting on Jasmine, while I saw his baby mama Chelsey working at the McDonald’s drive-thru window almost every night to support their child. I hardened my heart and held my ground.

I naturally assumed that the reason for all this drama and heartbreak surrounding graduation was because the students wanted the diploma. After all, a high school diploma means better opportunities, right?

But then one young man came to me and said, “Look, Ms. Wang, can’t you just change my grade to a D just for graduation day and then change it back to an F after graduation? I don’t need a diploma. I just want to walk.”

I was flabbergasted. Who wants to walk in the ceremony knowing that they’re not going to get a diploma? But as I investigated, it seemed that this student was not alone in his sentiments. The value was in the cap and gown rather than in the diploma and the education it represented. Much in the way that students prized a flashy vocabulary over the more modest but vastly more valuable grammatical speech, some students and their families desired graduation’s display of achievement. They wanted to frame that picture of the student crossing the football field in his gown to add to their collection of symbols: bling to symbolize a nonexistent wealth, urban slang to symbolize a cosmopolitanism glaringly absent in Helena, a ritual to symbolize an education that may not be worth much.


To be clear, my students valued success as much as the next person. Nobody pretends merely for the sake of pretense. People put up facades of wealth, of social status, and of power because they believe the appearance of success is the closest that they can get to the real thing. In the Delta, where an entire race has been historically denied access to the means to be successful, the facades had become especially significant.

Out of everyone who has played a part in their narrative, my students were the least to blame for their attachments to facades. They were attached because they have grown up in a community where other people have taught them that actual success is unattainable. They may have learned this from uncaring teachers who ran poor classrooms (that is, if those teachers showed up for work at all); they may have learned it from hardworking parents who still couldn’t make it good; they probably learned a good deal of it from the racial discrimination that, while historical, is not yet history.

Helena’s population is 32% white, but out of the 268 students I taught over two years, there were only four white ones. To generalize, black students attend the dysfunctional public school (which the state took over this past summer due to its continual under-performance) and white students attend the private school. 100% of students at my Title I school were on the free government breakfast and lunch program.

Granted, Helena, along with the rest of the Delta and the South, has made enormous strides in the past 150 years. The Little Rock Nine, the figurehead of educational integration, made their stand only fifty years ago only two hours from Helena. My students had the opportunity to earn in-state scholarships with qualifying ACT scores as low as 19. A state grant put SMART Boards—a luxury even in middle-class suburban schools—in every classroom. Zealous if inexperienced Teach for America corps members often put in hundred-hour workweeks to attempt to improve the education offered. The Arkansas Workforce placed young people in jobs every summer, and the local community college offered free ACT prep classes.

But a narrative is a continuation, and when you’re a teenager, it’s hard to see the positive changes and easy to focus on the negatives that persist. For some students, it was easier to blame racism and poverty for their academic failures than to try to achieve academically. It was especially easy because the people who surrounded them—including school administrators—encouraged this attitude.

During January and February, crucial test-prep months, I had been doing nothing but drilling my 11th graders on how to write comprehensible answers to the free response questions on the ACTAAP (the Arkansas State 11th Grade Literacy Exam). After a month, my students were still struggling to produce semi-decent thesis statements. Of course, writing essays day after day is terribly dull, so I wracked my brains for creative ways to spur the students’ interest in objectively uninteresting material. I jazzed up the curriculum with as many thought-provoking, quirky, or shocking prompts as I could think of.

A few weeks into the new semester, one of my students came to see me after missing class.

“Kim,” I said sternly, “you missed sixth period.”

“That’s what I came to talk to you about,” Kim said. She told me that she had missed sixth period because the administration was pulling several of my students out of class in order to ask them questions about me. “They wanted to know if you were racist and did I feel uncomfortable in your class.”

“Well, do you feel uncomfortable in my class?” I asked.

“No,” she said instantly and contemptuously. “But one of the students complained to the principal and now they’re all asking us about it.”

“Kim, I appreciate that you’re telling me this,” I said, “but you should know that you are under no obligation to tell me anything.”

“I know,” Kim said, and then proceeded to reveal the identity of the young man who had reported me: Scott, who had approached me angrily after school earlier that week when he discovered he was failing my class. Kim said that he was accusing me of only letting the kids read racist literature in class and that I had made them do a lot of other racist assignments. Apparently, the administration was taking this very seriously and interrogating my students in the conference room downstairs.

After school, the principal came to my classroom while I was cleaning my whiteboards and asked if we could sit down and “have a conversation.”

“Ms. Wang,” Mr. ______ said somberly, “I’m concerned that you are not running a racially sensitive classroom.”

“I never thought that I was being insensitive or racist,” I said. “But if that is the case, I would like to know some specific instances so that I can know what to avoid in the future.”

“Ms. Wang,” said he, “did you or did you not ask students to write an essay about how they would feel about being lynched?”

“I most certainly did not, sir,” I said, flabbergasted.

“You did not ask the students to write a prompt about lynching or hanging?”

“No, sir,” I said, thinking that hanging and lynching were not synonymous, but then the thought hit me. “Oh—I did ask them to write a prompt about execution.” The prompt, which was meant as a practice for compare and contrast essays, went as thus: “In medieval Europe, people did not have lethal injection, the electric chair, or even firing squads. If you were a criminal in medieval Europe, would you prefer to be executed by decapitation or hanging?” Childishly morbid, I know, but it had succeeded in piquing my students’ interest in writing that day.

“Ms. Wang,” Mr. ______ said, gravely, “you cannot mention hanging in a Southern classroom. Down in the South, there are connections that students make with the noose. Some of them probably have ancestors who were lynched. It is a sensitive subject.”

I don’t know when the noose became the particular property of Southern history and thus a hands-off topic, especially when I was talking specifically about Medieval Europe. More importantly, I didn’t see the logic of such burying our heads in the sand about lynching, when many of my students face other methods of violence in the present. We weren’t forbidden to discuss guns, drugs, or alcohol—much more relevant problems.

But I held my tongue and apologized and assured Mr. ______ that I had had no intentions of digging up nightmares from the graves of family memory.

“There is also this,” Mr. ______ said, pulling a folded paper out of his pocket and spreading it out on my desk. I recognized it as a copy of my daily lesson plan. Mr. ______ was pointing to a line on the page which he had highlighted. It was the writing prompt from two days ago, and went as such: “Do you feel that the law should prohibit people from using language such as nigger, spick, and chink?”

To put that particular situation in context, my students loved to talk about racism—and mainly how they were perpetual victims of a racist society. There was nothing that piqued their interest more than a discussion of the problem that they viewed as central to any discontentment in their lives—whether it stemmed from poverty, school lunches, or a failing grade in English class. So, reason one for this prompt: I knew it would interest my kids. Reason two: I thought it would be an effective means of dealing with the—not hateful, but still present—racism that I encountered in the classroom.

Many of my students were fascinated with my Asian-ness. Whenever they shook my hand before entering the classroom, my students—especially the males—always tried to “cop a feel,” although what they were attempting to stroke was not any of my lady parts but my hair. It was more interesting to them than blonde or brown hair, which they saw quite frequently on the white citizens in Helena, because my hair was the same color as theirs without being “nappy.” Curious about me, but with no real knowledge about Asian people they tended to rely on politically incorrect stereotypes extracted from pop culture.


• I called on Marcus who rarely participated, but whose hand was waving frantically in the air. “Ms. Wang, can you twist your hair up really fast with a stick?” Marcus asked, staring at me. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, “and we’re learning about sentence fragments right now.” “I know, I know,” Marcus replied, “but can you put your hair up with a stick like that Chinese girl in Rush Hour?”

• The prompt for the day was: In a fight, would Ms. Wang or Ms. Carney win? Annie Carney had probably nine inches on me. She was also clearly athletic and I was clearly not. As they began to write, my students all shrugged it off as no contest; clearly, Ms. Wang would win. “What? Ms. Carney would clearly beat me,” I said. “Naw, Ms. Wang,” my kids said, rolling their eyes, “she bigger, but you know karate.”

I was already different from my students in so many ways, and because I didn’t want to create an immediate rift by making their treatment of my ethnicity as an issue, I didn’t directly deal with little episodes like the above. I shrugged it off and later, I’d do something like have my kids read a piece about discrimination against blacks immediately followed by a narrative by a Japanese-American in an internment camp. My kids were sensitive enough to come up with parallels between the two pieces on their own. I found that these methods of dealing with my kids’ mostly benign racism caused less distractions from class material and were more effective in the long run.

When I explained all of this to Mr. ______, he did not seem particularly disturbed at the discrimination that I had experienced at the hands of my students. Rather, he shook his head and sighed heavily.

“Ms. Wang, I realize that white people are not the only people who are racist. I’m just saying that you’re in an almost all-black school, so you have to be careful, Ms. Wang.”

“Okay,” I said. “I can do that.”

“Do you have anything else you want to add?” Mr. Smith asked.

“Yes, sir,” I said. “I’m not white. I’m Asian.”



It took me a long time to move past the themes and symbols for which I moved to the South and which ultimately limited me from discovering the Delta as itself. Though I see Helena and the Delta much more clearly than I did two years ago, though I have fallen in love with the people and the land, and though I made a true home there, I will always be somewhat of an outsider and will always retain some of that outsider’s perspective. I still search sometimes for Faulkner’s virile land and decaying houses and O’Connor’s Christian icons, and I still unwittingly package events and people in terms of stereotypes.

My students have been more successful in escaping their cultural mindset. Perhaps it is because they are younger and more open-minded. Perhaps it is because they have always been ready jump on an opportunity and they only needed a little encouragement that now opportunities do in fact exist.

In April, I finally received the scores for the Arkansas 11th Grade Literacy Exam. I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves. In 2008, 17% of 11th grade students at my school scored proficient. In 2009, that number increased to 25%. That first year, 45% of my students scored proficient. We still had a lot of work cut out—that meant 55% of the students scored below proficient—but it was a solid start and my students could not be more proud of themselves. It was particularly exciting to see my students rejoice and take pride in an academic success.

This past summer, two of my students were accepted to Arkansas Governor’s School, a prestigious state-funded academic summer program. Two more won full scholarships to attend a seven-week summer school at Princeton University. Twenty students decided to enroll in the ACT prep program at the community college. Seventy-seven percent of my Teach for America colleague’s students passed the AP Literature exam, a watermark in a state in which only one African American scored a 5 in 2010.

For those students who have succeeded, they brushed off the expectations of their peer group, shook themselves free of the facades, and moved past the limitations of their culture and history. In their ability to persevere in this land full of constraints and baggage, these young people really do encompass the stirring beauty, promise, and romance of the Delta.