Two things I'd like to bring up about my stories:
- These narratives are written to be spoken. Being a very nervous introvert, I try to use language that feels favorite-Chuck Taylor comfy.
- I always, ALWAYS change the names of the people in my stories. Do I really have to say that? I changed the name of a high school mean girl in a story at TenX9 to "Darlene Gaddis" and heard from a few people who swore they knew her and she was soooo mean to them, too. Oh, goodness. So just to clarify, all of the names have been changed to protect the guilty, the innocent, and everyone in between.
That Presentation? It Had...Heart!
I got an email from Faith. Faith has been my friend for, wow, over twenty years. We went to undergraduate anthropology school together and now she teaches anth at a largish state university. In her email she talked about the flailing security measures in case the worst happens and she wrote about the usual march to finals, with its parade of exhibits of anger, begging, and denial that make the lines in front of instructors’ offices look like a BFA thesis show based on the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.
She wrote: “My early morning intro class has not one, but four WKWDLs in it.”
WKWDL means White Kid With Dread Locks.
Anyone who has ever taken a Womens' studies class or an African American Studies class or any class in a department that ends with “Studies” has encountered this academic archetype. He or she is usually someone who comes from a relatively privileged back ground. Their clothing palettes are limited to earth tones, their hairstyles taken from Rastafarians, their tattoos from the Maori, their religion straight from the opening pages (but no further than that) of the holy books of Robert Graves and Silver Ravenwolf. They smell like a mixture of Subway and patchouli. And they love, love the anthropology department until they don’t, which is usually when they’re required to read history and theory and figure out it’s not all about the beauty of being an astronaut on Spaceship Earth.
And Faith... Faith had four of them in one class. My goodness.
"Do you remember that girl, the one in our cultural geography class? I can’t remember her name."
To be fair, that girl couldn't seem to remember her name, either.
The rolls said she was “Shannon”. At the start of nearly every class she corrected Dr. Mitchell about what she wanted to be called. At first, he was game and tried to remember to call her Artemis, but the next class it was Astarte, then Athena, then Hera, then Boudicca, and he finally gave up and just called her Shannon, to which she would answer with a sigh and an eyeroll.
At first blush, Shannon had all the hangtags of a WKWDL minus the dreads. Over the weeks it was easy to see this was not quite her story. She didn’t have many clothes. Her wardrobe that Army Surplus/thrift store look, but they were all a bit cleaner and fussier than the louche mall shabbiness of the cool kids who inhaled their oneness with Jah in the basement bone lab. There was also the fact that she and the WKWDLs never seemed to connect.
What she did have in common with them was the frustrating habit of assuming that everyone else in the room just did not get the true spirit of the people we studied, the Hutterites, or the Kalahari Bushmen, or the Romany…She always had a deeper understanding. She was an empath. She was different.
So three weeks before midterms, Dr. Mitchell uttered the two words I (and maybe some of y’all) hate to hear: Group Project. We were to divide into groups of five, pick a geographic region, and each present a paper about a cultural aspect of that place based on geographic, ethnic, and religious identification. What he wanted to do was give us the experience of presenting a paper at a mock conference.
He picked the five people with… I don’t know. Highest grades? Most enthusiasm for anthropology? We were the first five in the room that day? We were to select the region and then pick our teams based on their expressed interest. I chose Mexico, Faith raised her hand so I picked her. Someone else declared their turf was new Guinea and ten people, including Shannon/Astarte/Athena/WonderWoman raised their hands. She was not picked. The next person selected the Arctic Circle and eight people raised their hand, including Shannon/Bastet/Kali/Beelzebub and she was not picked, and so on.
By the third round more people had an idea what they were going to do and the only person still raising their hand for every group was Shannon. My turn came around. I saw Shannon raise her hand but keep her gaze on the library book she had open on her desk. I picked her. Faith closed her eyes and exhaled. She knew I would do this, but I think she was holding out hope someone would take this strange little soul into their group and we could have the pleasure of worry-free social science geeking out for three weeks.
For the rest of the class time, we were required to create a list of topics and presenters to turn in:
I would do Posadas, a Mexican Catholic traditional Christmas drama.
Faith would do a material study of the pharmacopias of curanderos.
Anna would do the academic acceptance of street and mural art
Dave picked street food.
That left Shannon.
“I want to recreate the Aztec Ritual of the Five Suns.”
“Oh, I mean just in words. I wouldn’t kill anyone!”
Well, that was a relief.
I explained to her how we had to pick things that were happening right now, things that were being done by people who were alive to talk about them.
"So what do you want to talk about, Shannon?"
“The Aztec Ritual of the Five Suns.”
I could not get her to change her mind.
I took the list to Dr. Mitchell, who called Shannon to his desk and tried to explain the difference between archaeology and cultural anthropology. She nodded, smiled, and insisted on the Aztec ritual.
A couple of times during the weeks that followed, Dr. Mitchell asked me how things were going.
I admitted Shannon was still plowing ahead with her description of Aztec priests raising a still-beating heart to the sun.
“You’re supposed to be leading.” He said. “If she’s inappropriate, it comes off of your grade.”
When our day of the five-class miniconference arrived, I got up to tell everyone what we were going to learn so we could learn it. When I read Shannon’s paper title, Dr. Mitchell stopped me and ask if I was okay with that.
Faith gave a quick head shake and mouthed, “Tell him no.”
I looked at Shannon, who was seated with and yet still slightly away from the rest of our group. She wore jeans, Chuck knock offs, a men’s white shirt cinched with a wide belt with metal embellishments on it. She’d taken out her attempts at dreadlocks and had her hair brushed back in a neat pony tail. On her desk were her notes and a papier mache tecpatlixquala, which we would learn was the blade used for sacrifices.
For a moment I was mad at both her and Dr. Mitchell for putting me in this position. I was changing my major from theatre to anthropology and this could cost me. I nodded. I was okay with it. Faith shook her head. May Quettzlcotl the feathered serpent god have mercy on my soul.
We gave our papers. Shannon’s was…It was painful. She was breathless, did not seem to be able to finish her sentences, and what sentences she did finish were punctuated with, “And this is really cool!” This was mostly when she was describing the ritual sacrifice in excruciating detail. When she was done, Dr. Mitchell asked her about the informants for the source material she used.
She looked confused and shook her head. There was no source material. Well, actually she spoke to them. In here. Inside. She channeled ancient Aztecs and wrote down what they told her.
I felt sick. Faith squeezed my shoulder and then put her head down on her desk, embarrassed for all of us.
Why did I do it? Emotion, and sentiment. I saw that weird little person and realized that she was more important than my big ideas about science and global village and kumbaya by way of fieldwork. Even though it wasn’t the case right then, I have been the odd person out in the room before. I think we all have. We all go through days, weeks, months, years, when everyone seems to be a part of a happy tribe and we are alone and we feel radioactive. By nature I am not some kind of heroic iconoclast who always bucks the system, but, at least at that moment, I wasn’t going to be the person to declare someone else was on their own when they didn’t have to be. So the kid stayed in the picture.
My grade for that midterm project was an A slash B. My posada paper got me the A, my professional standards got me the B. My final grade was an A minus. I could live with that.
copyright 2016 JasFaulkner/Zen Dixie