Belzoni, Miss., is a town remembered only by those with reason to remember it. It's small, even by Mississippi Delta standards. Everything is old, and many things are falling down. I'd be hard pressed to find a single building in town — with the exception of the all-brick high school — that couldn't use a fresh coat of paint.
Still, there is a certain charm in Belzoni. Drive through the crumbling downtown on Silver City Avenue, past the abandoned cotton gins and wearied houses with sagging porches, and you may discover the same magnetic pull that after only a year has begun to exert its force on me.
I came to Belzoni to teach ninth-grade English at Humphreys County High School, the public high school serving all of Humphreys County. Our students come from Belzoni, Isola, Louise, Silver City and the beautifully named Midnight.
Anderson Heston is an English teacher at Humphreys County High School in Belzoni, Miss. Originally from Memphis, Tenn., Heston is a member of the Mississippi Teacher Corps and is completing his master's degree in curriculum and instruction. He is a resident of Indianola, Miss.
The Two Belzonis
Thanks to the persistence of racial segregation in the Delta, Humphreys County High School is about 97 percent black, compared with Belzoni itself, which is only 70 percent black. White families send their kids to Humphreys Academy, a secular private school across the highway.
It's hard to say how much racism there is in Belzoni, but I would imagine this particular phenomenon is indicative: To many people in the Delta, racial segregation is simply a means of diffusing inevitable racial conflict.
No one in Belzoni, white or black, would claim to be a racist, but there are essentially two different societies in Belzoni. There is the white society, the society of the Varsity restaurant and Guaranty Bank and the annual World Catfish Festival, and there is the black society, the society of the Humphreys County School District and Little Wimps Barbecue and Fisk Street. Individuals pass between these worlds, and yet they remain divided.
Abskract Art and Ingenuity
Part of what drew me to Humphreys County was a sense of curiosity about life in the forgotten parts of America. What began as a sense of curiosity, however, is now nothing short of mystery: My students fascinate me. Take a handful of cultural influences (hip-hop music, professional basketball, Southern cooking and the black church), shake them together, and you still can't begin to approximate my students.
The things they say, for example, are impossible to fathom: Never in my life have I heard a stapler referred to as a "staple machine." Never in my life have I heard so many prepositions, as in "Best get that book on up off of my desk." Never in my life have I heard their growling r's, as in "Excurrrse me, I need to aks a qurrrrstion." Never in my life have I heard "street" pronounced as "skreet" or "straight" as "skraight." The list goes on.
Or a favorite anecdote: Quinton is 300 pounds and 15 years old, with a film of sweat always present on his forehead. He is very talented, and his schoolwork comes easily. As a consequence, he is a perpetual behavior problem, always quick to make a class laugh.
As an extra-credit assignment one afternoon, I asked the students to draw a picture representing the Mississippi Delta. He drew a long highway (in perfect perspective and complete with the unmistakably Delta 65-degree-lean telephone poles), then tore his paper into pieces. Taking a second sheet of paper and a roll of Scotch tape, he taped his scene together, but broken: a Cubist vision of Highway 49. Joseph asked Quinton what he was doing. Quinton's response: "That's abskract, n——!"
The Cycle of Illiteracy and Poverty
My students are all very smart. That said, they have been denied access to an equal education. Most of my ninth-graders probably read on a seventh-grade level, and their cultural literacy is somewhere around the level of a somewhat sophisticated 10-year-old.
When held up to a state standard, as happens every year through Mississippi's battery of standardized tests, the students of Humphreys County High School typically fall short of stated achievement levels.
When held up to national standards, the results are even more troubling: For the first year ever, Humphreys County High School is offering Advanced Placement classes to allow the brightest students in the school to obtain college credit while still in high school.
These are the most intelligent, most dedicated, and most capable students in the school, and yet I would be very surprised if a single Humphreys student passes a single AP test.
Ultimately, my students are cheated: They work hard, and their teachers work hard, but there is no compensation for an upbringing in an environment that is, to put it politely, starving for literacy. There is not a single bookstore in Humphreys County.
Poverty breeds illiteracy. Belzoni is poor, and so it is illiterate. This is not meant as a pejorative: What my students lack in academic ability is, at least in my eyes, compensated by a spark and a creativity that I have never seen before in my life.
Failing the Students
As a first-year teacher, I find myself easily moved by my students: to laughter, to rage, to disgust and to tears. Recently, however, I saw something more moving than any of my students: my first former student.
Michael dropped out of the ninth grade in March; I saw him wearing a big black T-shirt and walking down First Street. He still wore the same self-deprecating grin I never saw him without. I wondered about that smile: Could he know what the rest of his life would be like? Could he anticipate his acquiescence to the endless cycle of poverty?
I saw Michael buying the cheapest beer in the convenience store, trying drugs for the first time, getting a job at a catfish plant but not keeping it, turning to crime in desperation, getting caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I don't mean to be a doomsayer, and I don't mean to cast gloom on this boy's future. But I do wonder what life is like without a high school degree. I can't imagine much beyond this bleakness. Michael failed my class for poor attendance and incomplete assignments, but ultimately, I failed him.