Reflections on Mrs. Kirkland, 7th grade

Published 12:10 am Wednesday, January 7, 2015


Mom left a voicemail on the answering machine, yesterday. She is one of only two people that I actually know that make incoming calls my landline, a twentieth century relic that I keep for conference calls. Telemarketers like it too, but they do not leave messages. When the yellow light is blinking, I know it is my mother. I pushed the play button and Mom announced that she was calling with the daily obituary. We had spoken the day before about the unexpected death of a family friend’s son. The holiday festivities seem to be increasingly counterpointed with funerals. This time she had called to let me know that Jeanice Kirkland had died. Mrs. Kirkland was my seventh grade English teacher and a resident of Andalusia, Alabama, for over 40 years. Mom knew that I thought highly of her.

I only went to school in Andalusia for one year, though it is my birthplace and hometown. We moved often as I was growing up, never staying in one town or one school system very long. The reasons for this nomadic lifestyle are numerous and varied, but are mostly due to my mother’s endless search for something better. In the summer of 1984, something better was graduate school at FSU without my older sister and me. Mom moved to Tallahassee with my younger brother. My sister and I lived with my maternal grandmother, Nana, on Dunson Street in Andalusia. I was born in Andalusia, lived there until I was five years old, and returned every Christmas, Spring Break, and summer. My mother and father were both from there and much of my extended family lived there, but I had never been to school there and did not know any of my peer group, except for the kids that lived across the street from Nana. So, on the first day of classes at Andalusia Middle School, I was once again in the familiar role of “the new kid.” I had played this awkward part many times before and I had decided to modify my approach this go-round. Rather than going by my middle name, Savage, which always invited ridicule and curiosity, I decided that I would be known by my more innocuous first name, Russell. That experiment lasted about three days until I realized that I could not convincingly be Russell if I did not respond to that name during roll call.

The teachers at AMS were from another era. They were all white women, trim, well coiffed, made up, kind, but stern, and they wore dresses. They spoke with a southern accent unique to educators and librarians in the South from the 1960s to 1980s. Southern pedagogical. It still survives in the Andalusia School system. I did not have any male teachers. The men were coaches and administrators.

I had been labeled as gifted by watchful men and women with puzzles and flash cards who sat with me in small rooms in Atlanta and Fairfield, Connecticut, so I was placed in the gifted English class, Mrs. Kirkland’s class. She was a tall handsome woman with an open smile and an encouraging nature. She made it known that she knew who I was and who my family was. She knew my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and family history. Such is the case in a small Southern town like Andalusia, but it was unusual for me in that everyone knew about me, but I knew nothing about them. I still feel like this when I am in Andalusia. It must be what it is like to be an amnesiac who awakens one day to discover that strangers are completely and mysteriously familiar with them.

Mrs. Kirkland encouraged creative writing and I recall writing a short piece of science fiction entitled, Nocturnal Herbosapiens, about a group of human explorers landing on a distant planet and encountering bioluminescent, sentient plants that moved and attempted to communicate. I cannot recall if they were carnivorous or if they posed any threat to the humans, but I think it was a friendly meeting. I don’t know what this reflected about my state of mind at the time, if anything. Was I the Nocturnal Herbosapien? Was I the human explorer and the Andalusians the Herbosapiens? I was not yet drinking or doing any drugs at that age, so the creativity was entirely organic. I do recall eating a lot of pizza and drinking a lot of Coke. The Dominos Pizza franchise had just opened in Andalusia and Nana was more than willing to fund pizza delivery on a frequent basis. It was 1984: the cheerleaders did dance routines to Chaka Khan at PE, Reagan was running for reelection, and I busied myself writing computer programs in BASIC on my TRS-80 16K computer from Radio Shack. I stored programs to a cassette recorder that squawked like a fax machine and I printed kids names on long scrolls of paper from my plotter.

I recall making my own Halloween costume that fall. I painted my face blue, put on some of my sister’s red lipstick and wore a faux mink stole from Nana’s closet. There might have been a clip-on earing involved. I was Pimp Smurf to anyone who asked. Why this did not lead to any concern or disciplinary action from the administration of Andalusia Middle School, I do not know. My classmates also found it unremarkable. This was not my first or last adventure in cross-dressing or drag. At seven years old I had purchased some high heels and a wig at a neighbors yard sale and paraded around my father’s yard as Dolly Parton….with a cape. There are pictures. In high school, I doubled down and wore blackface, a wig, and a choir robe to lip synch Respect in a talent show. I am not proud of it, but it happened. I also revisited the pimp theme in a high school pageant called Mr. Mock and received a similarly unconcerned response. To the cheerleader who helped me out with that skit by walking up and handing me a wad of bills, I am truly sorry for the implication. It was obviously a confusing time for me. Surprisingly, no one in the very conservative environment of my youth gave me any negative feedback. I am not sure that would happen today.

Mrs. Kirkland had a sense of humor and always encouraged my creativity, whether it was my choice of Halloween costume, my science fiction essays, or my impression of Mr. Rogers to entertain my classmates. My seventh grade homeroom classmate, James Blue, summed me up in my AMS yearbook when wrote, “To Savage, A very jokey guy. Your Friend, James Blue.” I thought he had made up a word, but years later I saw the adjective “jokey” used in the same context by respected writers and journalists. James was right. I am a jokey guy.

I encountered Mrs. Kirkland several more times since my seventh grade year at Andalusia Middle School. She was the organist at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church that my mother attended and at which I was baptized. I would see her at the Christmas Eve services that I would attend with Mom. She had followed my academic career and always expressed an interest in seeing my student films from FSU Film School. I promised her I would show her my thesis film. It has been over twenty years since I graduated from film school and many years since I last saw Mrs. Kirkland. I don’t think she ever saw my film, but my mother would let me know that she inquired about me, every so often.

I heard an author from Alabama, Kathryn Tucker Windham, read one of her stories on NPR this past Thanksgiving. She had written a book called, 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey, some time ago and it was being reissued. She had been a commentator on NPR for years. She had died in 2011, but her familiar South Alabama voice filled my truck as we drove to Andalusia for dinner at my brother’s house. It reminded me of the same warm, smart, gentile, slightly mischievous voice that reverberated in that 1984 classroom. Farewell, Mrs. Kirkland. I hope you are reunited with your beloved daughter, Susan. Thanks for letting me be a Pimp Smurf, Mr. Rogers, and the new kid that everybody already knew.