Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Show-Me State

I am in Independence, Missouri, the home of Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the U.S. Indeed, I am staying at this wonderful place called the Inn at Ophelia’s, across the street from Clinton’s Soda Shop where Harry, as a young teenager, was a soda jerk. This is my second visit to Independence and the greater Kansas City metropolitan area to teach writing workshops, and I can’t get enough of the Midwest.

A different sensibility exists here, which reminds me of Ysleta, the colonia on the outskirts of El Paso where I grew up. It’s a genteel quality, without the naiveté of the small town. People open doors for each other. Seldom are voices raised. And there is a preoccupation with chatting about life and neighbors, the ordinary and everyday, which I believe strengthens that invisible social fabric that communicates ‘we belong together on these plains.’ Of course, here ‘la hora social’ is not in Spanish, as it is on my parents’ porch in Ysleta, but in a deadpan, measured, humorously ironic version of English.

My friends who have invited me to Missouri warn me the other side of this genteel friendliness is that people will talk behind your back. In New York, I counter, people say whether or not they like you to your face. I’m not sure which is better, but I do know both are façades. The forced smile goes away, and becomes easy, once you initiate a conversation and volunteer a bit about yourself to a stranger in Missouri. On the Upper Westside, or anywhere in New York, the hard outer shell might soften too, once you show people you don’t want anything, you will gladly help them, yet you’re not a dupe.

I also noticed that my slow-talking, which aggravates my wife in New York, is not slow at all in Missouri. Perhaps this is a function of growing up in a semi-rural corner of Texas, where you weigh your words carefully before saying anything. Too much talk reveals too much of who you are, and I prefer to keep some of my self to myself. Who I am is not revealed by blabbing. I prefer to listen, absorb the situation and the people, and understand them. That internal life reveals as much, or more, about who I am as whatever comes out of my mouth. Is that a small town mentality? A Western one? Or the shyness of being an outsider in the world?

The reason I came to Independence, Missouri was Ron Clemons. I met Mr. Clemons in 1978 when I was a teenager at the Blair Summer School for Journalism. It was a seminal trip for me, because it was the first time I lived away from home. Pearl Crouch, my journalism teacher at Ysleta High, had encouraged me to apply for a scholarship to Blair, and I won it from Gannett and The El Paso Times. I was terrified, but I also wanted to become a writer, maybe even a journalist.

At Blair, I met this funny and tough man, the assistant director at Blair, Mr. Clemons. I didn’t have him for a teacher, but I listened to his stories, the humor as well as the lessons about life. When I was accepted to Harvard College a year later, he sent me an inscribed hardback copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, which I still have on my shelf.

Thirty years later, I had dinner with Mr. Clemons again. Molly Clemons, his wife and a great educator herself, was also with us. Mr. Clemons was still telling stories.

One he told tonight was about a woman who wrote to him years after she had had Mr. Clemons as a journalism teacher in Independence, Missouri. He taught at Truman High for thirty-seven years and is a legend in high school journalism. Mr. Clemons recounted how one day he received this letter. The writer wrote about how Mr. Clemons had singled out and read an excellent lead she had written to the class. It was a small thing, Mr. Clemons said at the dinner table, the kind of thing you don’t think about as a teacher. He remembered the woman as a good writer who was exceptionally quiet.

It was the first time, the woman continued in the letter, someone had singled her out in school. It made all the difference in the world to her. Meanwhile at home, this woman had been abused. She escaped her troubles, earned a college education, and became a mother. As she wrote to Mr. Clemons, “I’m not one of your famous students. I’m just a mom and I have a job, but I’m happy. You may have forgotten me, but I have never forgotten you, Mr. Clemons.”

As Mr. Clemons retold this story tonight, he took off his glasses and wiped the tears from his eyes. “This letter got to me. It was such a small thing I did. . . .” he said, his voice trailing off, and turned away. What I thought over dinner was why don’t we have more high school journalism teachers like Ron Clemons.