Deep South Trip Reflections

Lauren Barth-Cohen

I don't remember a specific reason why I wanted to go on the trip. It
might have been a whim; it might have sounded cool that particular day Mr.
Schechter brought it up in class. I had a vague notion of civil rights
history, and about learning as aspect of American history, in the area it
effected most, but the main reason I wanted to go was to see a new part of
the country. As stupid as this may sound, I want to have visited all 50
states, and I'm keeping a running tally. After the trip it's up to 22.

I'd had this romanticized image of the Deep South before the trip. I think
It was mostly shaped from a couple books I've read, To Kill a Mocking
Bird, Anne Moody, Huck Finn, and As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner. And,
one movie stands out in my mind, Forest Gump. I've never seen Gone with
the Wind, the traditional southern movie, but I've absorbed its message in
American culture. In Forest Gump there was these great scenes of giant
trees and sweeping green lawns and hot summer nights where the breeze
flowed through the curtains. In many ways I was expecting to see all the
things I had imagined in these media pieces; but I also knew that they
were 'fake' images and that reality was going to hit me.
<DIV></DIV>I wasn't expecting the airport to scream of the south. I've
been in enough by now to realize that air ports all look the same,
unfortunately. The first night, when I went to eat at Chills Restaurant,
(I think) I was a little taken aback. In my mind I had just landed in some
place I had never been before. Well, I wanted food I had never had before
too. However, then I came back to reality and realized that it was late at
night, people were hungry, and most important, chain restaurants livid in
the south too. Some how I had been keeping up a faint glimmer of hope that
chain restaurants didn't live in all parts of this country. I still have
28 states to go.

Over the whole week I found myself acutely aware of the L-S world that
lived inside the bus, and the southern world that existed outside the bus.
When we were stranded on the bus for long periods of time, all the
students would engage in typical teenage activities that were similar to
activities we did at home, gossiping about friends, discussing college
plans, listening to popular music, playing car games etc. Therefore in
some ways it felt as if the bus was an extension of L-S, and our everyday
normal lives. However, when we exited the bus to visit a sight, museum, or
listen to a guest speaker, we were no longer in the familiar world of L-S.
It felt like all these important issues and events involving the civil
rights movement occurred outside the bus, and inside we were just a bunch
of teenagers doing stereotypical self-centered activities. Although, we
did occasionally watch movie clips about the civil rights movement, it was
still a minimalist effect, compared to all the hours of gossiping we
participated in. By the end of the trip I found myself feeling very
fragmented. I'd had seen all these amazing things and was trying
desperately to digest and make sense of it all; but I still found my
friends absorbed in what shoes they were going to wear to the prom.

I think other students were aware of this persistent irony, and may have
dealt with it on their own; I too found a way to deal. Some may have
belittled its effects my talking with their friends about the places and
people we meet, but by the end, I wanted to get out of the bus, and take
public transportation more then I have ever wanted to in my life. (In fact
I don't know if I have ever really wanted to take public transportation
before) On the last full day in the south, Maggie, Emily, Fletcher,
Graham, and I took a walk out of the main tourist section of the Coca-Cola
museum and walked towards the CNN studios and Sentinel Park. While at the
park we joined lots of little inner-city kids playing the water fountains.
The fountains were on a cycle of lots of stronger and then less forceful
amounts of water, that repeated every 5 minutes or so. When the water had
slowed down Maggie ran into the middle of the fountain, she was the only
white girl there, and by far the oldest, as most kids barley came up to
her waist. When the water suddenly came on in a forceful manner she was
trapped with a strong wall of water all around her. After her initial
freaked out reaction, and hoping to avoid getting totally drenched, a
small soaking wet girl standing near by saw Maggie's fright and offered to
step on one of the spouts so Maggie could get out of the fountain semi
dry. Myself and the three other remaining dry L-S students were standing a
distance away, laughing, with our camera aimed at Maggie, and when we shot
our pictures, I don't think we ever expected to capture that simple act of
kindness from a stranger.
<DIV></DIV>Although we came to the south expecting to learn about civil
rights history, this one incident opened my eyes to something I had not
noticed before. I had previously spent lots of time starring out the bus
window, wondering if I would see any racism, but I never thought to look
and see if I would see any actions that would give me the impression that
the southern mannerisms had changed a great deal. I also saw from this
incident that at 18 I could still safely pretend to be a child. However,
as we all know, children see the world differently, that little girl
didn't seem to notice that Maggie was white, and spoke funny. But I do
notice when some is a different color then me, and I am aware of other
accents, so I wonder, can I still be a child? Or have I lost that
indifferent or innocence long ago?

The stop that I think I enjoyed the most was the Cheney grave. Everything
I had seen in the south up till that place had existed on pavement and in
a street corner. Being in the woods, in the field, with the bugs, ticks,
etc, while viewing his grave, gave me a glimpse of nature in the south.
Some who I felt that what I most needed to do was walk in the woods, and
say to myself, I'm no long in New England woods, I'm in Southern woods. I
wonder if I were to close my eyes, and then forget where I was, could I
figure out I was in the south? Or would the woods look the same?

Unfortunately, I didn't greatly enjoy some of the speakers we heard. But
the ones that I found most interesting involved that day in Philadelphia,
and the man who spoke to us at the Cheney grave. Often I find it hard to
connect with speakers; some of the historical events they discuss seem so
far away, in the past, and geographically. But in Philadelphia, I was able
to connect with the guest speakers. I loved hearing them talk of an event,
and then looking out the window, knowing that the three boys, dept.
sheriff, and all the towns' people had been to the same Library. The
realization that the person in the soda fountain has witness a part of
history, or the guy we passed on the street might remember where he was
that day make me feel like I am experiencing something much more alive
then any other experience I have had with history. The man we talked to in
the Library was especially emotional about the event, and all of us could
sense his feelings and pain about that era. However, he was also an old
man, and us, being teenagers, unfortunately can have a hard time
understanding a person who has seen so much more in life, then we have yet
begun to experience.

At one point in the trip, I don't remember when, someone asked our group
if we had experienced much racism in the south. Myself, similar to most of
the students probably shook my head and said 'no,' but Ms. Stewart said
'yes.' At the time I thought about it for a minute, and then forgot,
continuing with my normal thoughts. However, on the morning of the last
full day in the south I asked Ms. Stewart what she had experienced. Her
answer surprised and shocked me I was expecting a very tangible
experience, similar to stories I had heard in history class, and in the
newspaper. She said that she had noticed when we (36 students and 4
adults) were places she had felt looks from southern people. She had felt
that in restaurants and stores that people were looking at her in a
'racist manner.' I did not understand what she meant at the time. Were
people staring funny? Giving her the evil eye? Making her feel
uncomfortable? Like she wasn't welcome? Or was it because she was with a
group of predominantly white kids? Did southern think it was queer to see
an African American teacher with mostly white student? I don't know which,
if any of these things were really occurring. Or was it slight paranoia?

What I have been able to figure out is that I don't know what it feels
like to be made uncomfortable in a public establishment. Sure, a couple of
times I've been made to feel uncomfortable by my embarrassing parents, or
a male who stares to long at a females chest, but those are not the same
things. There is that quote by Emma Goldman that fits in really well with
this idea, (on the wall of the classroom) which I can't remember. But I
think that I do understand that some aspects of the trip and places we
went the civil rights movement and of history in general, I will never be
able to understand as long as I live in my current skin. I can learn all
about them have sympathy, compassion and sorrow for what happened, but I
will never truly understand what it felt like to have it happen to me
because I was not there. With a historical event there are facts, and
places, and people who could teach you all about what happened, but to
feel what they truly felt is near to impossible. I don't know if I will in
time, with more life experiences be able to understand and reflect with
greater clarity and depth, possible. Maybe then I will be able to have a
complete understand on how this trip influenced my life, but I am still
working on it, maybe when I figure it out I'll write another reflection
paper. But, Mr. Schechter, thanks for taking us on the trip, it was a
wonderful experience I will never forget. I hope other students had as
positive time as I did, and I hope future student will experience it to.

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