Reflections from a Former Mississippi Delta Teacher

By Julie Wilkens

I lived in Mississippi for 5 years in the late ‘90s. I taught high school for four years in the Delta and in north Mississippi, then attended Ole Miss and worked at Square Books for another year. My husband, whom I met at a potluck on a dark road halfway between Indianola and Scottsville, taught at a different Delta high school for three years. 

Living in Mississippi, particularly the Delta, was definitely a shock to the system at first, but that was confounded with being a recent graduate with my first full-time teaching job and having never been further south than North Carolina. I lived in my Delta town for three years and taught French at the high school. There are a thousand issues I could discuss--from the comments, both outwardly racist and more subtly so, that came from some white people I met; the fact that the AP English class some of my seniors were in was only sporadically attended by the teacher, who was also the head of the district's English department; "free" Fridays, during which teachers required no work of their students because, you know, it's Friday!; that the pool in the neighborhood where I lived for two years stated in its rules that it was whites-only; that my students--and at least one teacher--had never met a Jewish person before and thought I might possibly be the devil; that a guidance counselor who was taking money for passing summer school grades was reassigned to the behavior alternative school rather than being fired.

Some of what struck both my husband and me the most were a) the nearly universal low expectations for behavior and academics; b) the crushing poverty; and c) the way most everyone just figured this was how things were. 

This included many, many students with babies--some with more than one--because it was "God's plan," in the words of one student; that people spent money on nice shoes and their cars but had holes in their front porches, because appearances matter when you're very, very poor; that the families of my students kept all their money, in cash, in their houses, rather than in a bank; that one of my husband’s students got into Ole Miss but would not sign off on a very generous student work-study agreement because the idea of owing anyone that much money was terrifying.

But I adored living in the Delta, in part because it was challenging. Maybe because it was challenging. And every time I read or see anything about the place, I still claim it as mine.

I did find northern Mississippi to be very different from the Delta, and while I adored Oxford, it felt very special to live in the Delta and get to know it well. We thought about moving back, but after visiting Mississippi friends with kids the same age as ours, we decided that raising kids in the Delta was a battle we were not willing to fight. However, living and teaching in Mississippi changed the trajectory of both our lives. After teaching there, I have chosen to work over and over again with students in poverty and students in need, from Alaska to   an urban charter school in Boston to several non-profits in Rochester, NY. My husband, a professor at a SUNY school, does research on educational equity issues in special education.

As might be expected, living in a relatively tony suburb outside of Rochester means that there is not a huge amount of economic or ethnic or racial diversity in our town or in our children's school. Most of the kids of color that we know are adopted kids in white families. We try to make an effort to make sure our kids have chances to interact with a wide variety of kids from a wide variety of backgrounds. This may or may not have been easier if we had raised them in the Delta.

About a week ago, someone dropped fliers on driveways in neighborhoods near ours advertising a white supremacist group's website, "Make Rochester Great Again." For our own kids, it's shocking, but also unbelievable. At a community meeting, though, people began to speak up, particularly those whose spouses and kids are mixed-race or non-white. As it turns out, many of them have experienced subtle racism in our fancy little town—side comments, looks, confusion over which family members belong in the same family. This incident, though reprehensible, has brought issues of race into daily conversation in our town and reminds us that we need to constantly address these issues with our kids. Living in a place like the Delta, where race is often on the forefront of everyone's minds might have made these conversations happen sooner, but I’m not sure they would have been any easier.

Note: This is an entry we received from a reader who had first-hand experience in the Delta.