What Mississippi taught me

By Brooklynn Edwards (Mississippi Delta '09)

*Bolded words in quotations are sung

I love, love. I am obsessed with the idea that people have the potential to heal every wound, every hurt, every infraction with an ounce of love. That love, be it unconditional, can create abundant life where there is none, and change hearts and minds and even reverse hate’s history. Having no concept of what that meant for me personally, I would settle with my heart jumping out of my chest and attempting to create meaning with simple words on lined paper in this make-shift room upstairs that my roommates called the dungeon. In Clarksdale, MS, where rows of corn and cotton lined our small city of 15,000, I would sit in my room and plan and work and sing and write songs of hope, freedom and love. For example,“I really want to fall in love, want to feel your arms around me, the affection in your touch. I want to know, what it’s like to do me without being judged, I want to know, what it feels when all of me will be enough.” Nobody heard me, and I don’t think I knew it then, but I was singing to Mississippi, so eager to love, be loved, and bring about change.

Mississippi opened her arms to me - a fast-walking, fast-talking foreigner, and forced me to believe that I really belonged.

She taught me to slow down. 5 minutes late to work almost every day, I would rush out of the house for a 20 minute 75 mph dash to school down the one-lane Highway #3. Though I thought I was invincible, the occasional police officer’s siren let me know that I absolutely was not. After a few sweet talking conversations like, “I’m sorry officer, I’m a new teacher in the area and we don't know how to drive slow in California. But um, I’ll practice.” I’d drive 71 mph to school. Those days, I was 15 minutes late. On my drive, I’d see black men, women, and children on their grind, washing the asphalt at the tire store, mopping the gas station tile, launching the daily newspaper from their bike baskets. The Mississippi world knew hard work, and contrary to how she had been depicted in books that I’d read, her early morning rises and late night conversations gave me a sense of what she valued and offered to the rest of the world, and especially this country. Early morning rise. Late night conversations. They taught me not to rush. Slow down.  

“I really want to tell you, everything about me, all that I’ve been through. Want you to know me, like really know me, think before I think it, speak but don’t speak for me.”

In the middle of one of our arts units on exposure, I asked my students about the obvious and seldom-noticed differences between our school, Quitman County High School, and the white, high achieving, privileged high school down the road, Delta Academy. We uncovered that the main differences between our schools revolved around skin color and opportunity. When I asked my kids, “What does this make you feel and think?” I was surprised to hear silence. One of my boldest, most courageous and charismatic students, Kentavius Wright, attempted to end the conversation with, “Ms. Edwards, it has always been like this and it always will be. This is just the way it is.”

“It’s been a long, a long time coming but I know a change is gon' come. Oh yes it is.” Sam Cooke was put on repeat that night in the dungeon upstairs. Mmm and I was fired up and pissed off, pissed off enough to try to prove to myself, my students, Delta Academy, and anybody else that tried to tell me that this would always be the same, that they were dead wrong.

I decided to take my kids abroad to Paris. I had a master plan to change their lives and get everybody to see how valuable my students were. After $18,000 was raised in months from ridiculously generous donations, car washes, donation letters, candy sales, Facebook posts, church events, speaking engagements, and French lessons, on June 4, 2011, Shalia, Keirra, Tae, Vicky, Lee, Vanessa, and I got on a plane to Paris, France.

We did it big! We climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower. We walked through the Palace of Versailles. We went to the burial site of Napoleon. We window shopped on the Champs Elysses. We saw the awkwardly small Mona Lisa. We looked at Frank Gehry architecture. We ate ham and cheese crepes. We floated down Le Seine river on a boat. We did it all! On an all time high, I asked my students if they were having fun and Vanessa cried, “Ms. Edwards, you’ve ignored us since we got here.”

I was trying so hard to give them opportunity when I missed what they were asking of me. “I promise I’ll be faithful, true, patient, kind.”

The rest of the day, we did what people in Mississippi do: we talked. They showed me that I missed the opportunity to hold their hands when they crossed the street, to laugh when they mispronounced "Oui" and "Au revoir," to listen to them when their feet hurt and they didn’t want to go into another museum that day.  So we abandoned my agenda and walked, slowly, through the park.

What did we do in Paris? We did not what mattered to most, but what mattered to us, and what mattered more was the walk across the cobblestone street that didn’t have a name, a walk that we made hand-in-hand. What do they remember? They remember the goofy dance they did with a man playing the mandolin in a street market, pointing and laughing and dancing for what felt like a perfect moment. That moment I think Mississippi showed Paris how to relax a little bit.

When we returned home, when I hugged their moms, when I saw the bright pink sign with big block letters that wrote, “Welcome Back Keirra,” I knew about love. Love was holding their hand in a foreign country when we crossed the street.

“I was made to give my love, put on the earth to show you love, love, love, love, love.”

And she did. She taught me how to slow down: Conversations. She taught me how to be fired up and pissed off: Opportunity. She taught me how to fall on my face: Teaching. She taught me how to want more for someone else by showing them without forcing it on them: Critical Hope. She taught me how to listen: hand hold. Most importantly, Mississippi taught me how to love: Shalia, Keirra, Tae, Vicky, Lee, Vanessa.

Brooklynn performed this story at our first ever Story Slam. You can watch her slam hereIf you're interested in sharing your story with the TFA-LA alumni community here on Alumni Voices, contact Helen Hong, Associate of Alumni Leadership & Engagement.