A Lesson Learned
by Joshua Clements
I live in Tifton, Georgia, the land of cotton and gnats. One is the “fabric of our lives,” while the other is the bane of our existence. If you visit during the summer, you had better know how to do the funky side-blow thing with your mouth or your hands will get tired of swatting. We have a few nice places to eat, mostly chain restaurants or Mexican taquerias. I think we have a record number of car dealerships and hotels, too. Friday night football is the talk of the town, and all public school students get free lunch. In 2002, Tifton held the title of Reading Capital of the World after its residents read one million books. But by Northern standards, it’s the sticks.
Those who are Southern by the grace of God tend to think there is only one way to live and that the land below the Mason-Dixon line is truly Heaven on earth. I once assumed we had a priority on all things that are good: faith, football, and fried chicken. We are the Bible Belt. We have the SEC Football (go Dawgs). We gave birth to Coca-Cola, Chick-fil-A, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. These things were undeniable, just like our disarming Southern charm. Who could argue with a dainty “yes, ma’am” or “no, sir” complete with every vowel elongated?
Even with its rebellious past, a history many long to forget, the South was who I was. It was my southern accent that gave me away in social contexts. It was the love of Lynyrd Skynyrd and fishing for catfish with my grandfather. It was fresh-picked blueberries for pies and figs for preserves or watching the grease sizzle in a cast iron skillet as the cornmeal batter dropped into it for hoecakes with my grandmother. My memories of the South seemed to get shoved aside by media portrayals and on-screen caricatures as I grew older, fueling anger and bitterness toward anything or anyone not Southern. I resented the idea that just because Dixie was my home, I was somehow less intelligent or sophisticated. I never expected nor wanted to have my understanding of the world challenged, much less changed.
Growing up, I’d always heard that we were a rural place, but I didn’t quite know what that meant. As best as I could understand, it had something to do with lives moving at a tractor’s pace and acres of land devoid of concrete and possibly people. To me, the word was simply a synonym for Southern. Thinking a degree in the subject might help me understand it better, I enrolled in Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College’s Rural Studies program. I asked several professors and advisers about the word “rural.” Even with Ph.D.’s, no one could explain it other than as the opposite of urban, a word that, to me, meant crowded, polluted, and filled with arrogance.
I chose the Writing and Communication track of the program. As a young man, I had always thought of journalism as a profession of fibbers and paupers. The ones writing for The New York Times twisted the facts to meet their agenda, and the few journalists I knew locally worked for peanuts at a newspaper or magazine. Why would I choose such a career? It was partly because of the chance to meet new people, but mainly because I liked Professor Grant. One of his classes first exposed me to Tom Phillips, a New Yorker and world journalist who eventually retired from being a CBS Evening News editor for both Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather. He had been Grant’s professor and mentor at Columbia University.
We read Phillips’s memoir, A Beginner’s Life: The Adventures of Tom Phillips. I liked the book until I came to a passage where he specifically described the students at ABAC as “‘the least of these,’ back-country kids who know little of the great world.” I stopped reading. It confirmed what I already knew about people who lived in the big city. They didn’t get us. To them, we were ignorant and backward. What did he know? He was a highfalutin’ city-dweller.
We Skyped with Phillips in one of our classes to discuss his book. Most of us had never met anyone with his prestige or background. I can’t speak for everyone in the room, but I had also never met anyone who lived in New York. I thought he was going to have an annoying, deeply-accented way of speaking. I was surprised when he spoke with a pleasant demeanor and no hint of an accent. Also, no trace of condescension.
After the initial shock of expectancy violation, I refocused on my resentment toward how he had portrayed us. I waited my turn during the question and answer time to demand an apology. I pointedly asked what he meant in his book about us being “the least of these.” I grew up in a Baptist church and was familiar with the reference to Matthew 25:40 where Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Phillips explained to me and the rest of the class that he used the verse to illustrate who Jesus believed were the most important: the least of these. I learned through interacting with Phillips that the phrase embodied a sort of personal code, a manner of how he lived with a sense of duty to help those who were less fortunate, teach those who were willing to learn, and show kindness to everyone, regardless of status in life. As to his comment about back-country kids, he pointed out that he rarely liked working with Ivy League students and preferred to work with regular college kids like us. He cited the regular kids as having more passion for learning instead of just being there to get a degree with a prestigious name on it.
After listening to Phillips explain his choice of words, I felt like my seat had slipped from under me. I had entered the room ready to battle for the honor of my heritage against this would-be crusader of Northern values. But he had just used Scripture against me and said he enjoyed talking with us. I recalled a verse in the Bible about how being nice to your enemy is like heaping coals on his head. There I sat at the back of the room in sackcloth and ashes, mourning the retribution that didn’t come. If only he had been more divisive. I desperately wanted a reason not to like him. After all, he was a representative of New York, the antithesis to my heritage.
I spent the next year getting to know Phillips. I read his blogs about music and dance, and we corresponded through email. If there is one thing I have noticed about him, it is that he is always willing to teach, whether formally or informally. He is the kind of person you watch and emulate. I have never witnessed him speak without accuracy or move without a graceful gait. He is a ballet dancer, both literally and figuratively with how carefully his words are chosen and guided to tell a story. His wealth of world knowledge and experience slowly eroded the disdain I had for all things Northern. Early in our interactions, I asked him about his travels and how they shaped his life. He replied, “You shouldn’t be afraid of other people. They may be different, but essentially, we are all the same and have something in common.” As I learned to listen to and write the stories of individuals I covered as a journalist, I started to see inklings of commonality among people. But I wasn’t ready for a total shift in philosophy just yet. Even with the progress I had made with this one Yankee, I needed more time before I could completely accept that the bulk of New York and its sympathizers wouldn’t be better at the bottom of the ocean. After all, I was a journalist in training, and much of the conservative media I consumed at the time wasn’t favorable toward the Big Apple or its political power. They wanted our guns, our free speech, and our beloved rebel flag, with none of which was I ready to part.
Many in my area have seen very little of the world in terms of travel and exposure to other cultures, immigrant farm workers notwithstanding. The local news can be one-sided, a dose of right-wing Republican agenda. Phillips noted the difference in the rhetoric on the radio while riding from Jacksonville to Tifton to attend a writing conference. He heard political candidates and pundits affirm the 2nd Amendment and the right to life for the unborn, in sharp contrast to the talk of New York City. He knew he was in a different part of the country when he saw a magazine headline about hog hunting from a helicopter with high-powered rifles. I explained to him that just like New York has issues with crime and theft, many in the rural South have similar problems, except some of the pickpockets have snouts or four paws, and they work at night stealing crops and chickens. If you aren’t from around here, you might think it outlandish to go to such extremes to protect your crops or your livestock, but for local farmers who run the risk of losing thousands of dollars from overnight looting, it’s big business.
Being Southern, the idea of having anything in common with someone who didn’t look or talk like me was foreign. But a walk down the street in Guangzhou, China, shook my conception of universal human traits. My wife and I adopted our daughter from China when she was four, and when I think back to our time in the country, Phillips’s words echo across our interactions with the people there. Initially, other than the climate, it was another world for us. For the first time in my life, I was a minority. I couldn’t speak the language. It took me two hours to get dinner once because I couldn’t find anyone who spoke enough English to understand why I needed the food to-go. My wife was stuck at the hotel with our newly-adopted daughter, who may as well have been abducted by aliens. We looked nothing like her, and she didn’t understand a word we said. She couldn’t comprehend why she wasn’t going back to the orphanage, the only home she knew, and we had no way of explaining the situation to her. I felt helpless watching her pack her bag, put on her shoes, and stand by the door crying every night for the first week. I had always seen myself as capable of overcoming whatever obstacle stood before me, but this particular barrier was heart-wrenching. I had never been in a place where I was dependent on others to the extent that I felt in China. It opened my eyes to what immigrants live with daily, from getting basic necessities to explaining to their children why families are separated in hopes of a better future, and I only had to endure it for two weeks.
And yet, amid the anxiety and awesomeness of being in China, I witnessed young men on their iPads and young women with their Starbucks lattes. Millions of people rushed to and from work much the same as we do in the United States. I recognized there was nothing to fear. These were average people just like me, hoping to have a good day, make a few dollars, and sleep in their own bed at night. We didn’t meet anyone unkind toward us; most were incredibly giving. In one store with handmade trinkets, the shopkeeper, an elderly Chinese woman, saw us with our daughter. She walked over, smiled at us, and placed an intricately-made doll in my daughter’s hand. When we asked how much, our guide said the woman wanted our daughter to have it as a keepsake from the land of her birth. We met so many wonderful people and let them share in our experience. Now I am almost envious of the everyday opportunities Phillips has in his neighborhood to see a microcosm of the world and listen to their stories. I had to travel thirteen hours on a plane for something he can enjoy down the street.
Any time I talk with Phillips, he offers something useful for me as a writer. On one occasion, he taught me about the “bildungsroman,” a literary term for a coming-of-age story or where a protagonist grows intellectually and morally as he or she progresses from youth to adulthood. Through the interactions I’ve had with Phillips, you might say I had my own bildungsroman. He helped me to realize that I was one of the least of these, longing to learn more about the world.
Phillips once told me, “What you get out of living in New York is there is no one way to live.” While the South is a fantastic place with beautiful scenery, embellished stories, and some of the best food on the planet, it is just one drop in an ocean full of beautiful people and amazing stories. Take Phillips’s advice and travel a bit. Maybe strike up a conversation with someone who is otherwise unlike yourself, one of the “least of these.”
Joshua Clements is a freelance journalist and occasional writer of essays. He has written for the Tifton Gazette, the Tifton Scene, My Georgia Hometown magazine and South Georgia Today. He also works with the tutoring center at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College and teaches martial arts at the local YMCA. When he is not writing or working with students, he spends time with his wife and kids and plays guitar on occasion. You can follow him on Twitter @joshuaclements1.