My childhood friend, Robbie, posted “Who are they burying in Watson today?” on his Facebook wall today. A couple of jokesters posted some funny things like a dead person and not me, but they are obviously not native Watsonians, or they are a part of the younger generation where the small town feel has been expunged with the influx of foreigners (Baton Rouge people) that have taken over my hometown. A true Watson native would know that you just answer the damn question so they can get on the phone and call their relatives to find out what happened.
My high school English teacher, Ms. Lester, posted in response, “Your question reminds me of a time in my early years of teaching at LOHS (Live Oak High School). I came from Baton Rouge, so I was not used to knowing everything that went on in town. One day as I was teaching my class (with the windows open because, believe it or not, we had no air conditioning at the time), we heard an ambulance racing down the road beside the school, sirens blaring. My entire class ran to the windows. I was incredulous and thought they had lost their minds. I asked, “Haven’t y’all ever heard an ambulance before?” Someone told me that they did not hear them often and that so and so’s (can’t remember who) elderly relative lived down that road and that s/he had been sick. That was life in Watson. We all knew each other. There were the vanguard families – Easterly, Rushing, Penn, Graves, Chavers, Ott, Underwood, and a few more – that had settled that area right after Adam and Eve were born. Everybody was a descendent of those families in some way. I came from the Graves clan. My grandmother married a King from another small town, but we all settled in Watson. The Graves family was a huge family, and I think all of the siblings lived down our street at some time. In the summer, we’d have softball games, and all of our Graves’ cousins would come over and play.
As we grew up we encountered issues with this whole relative thing. Who were we going to date? Everybody was related. I remember the “new kids” that came into town and their arrival – 30 years later. It was a huge event to have somebody new of the opposite sex in school! The Harrington boys invaded Watson in high school. They were hot, too. It caused quite a stir. The Bowden sisters were another unsuspecting pair that landed into a community where there wasn’t much of an available dating pool, and, if you were beautiful or good-looking (and they were), you were popular……and envied.
Barry was another implant, and I remember he started hanging around by my place a bit – driving by and blowing his horn as he coolly drove around the neighborhood. I asked Barry why he moved to our little community, and he said, “Because the people were friendlier and the fine girls.” When I told him he’d be quoted, he relayed a story about gang fights at his previous school. I’m going with the ‘fine girls’, even though I know his Mama wouldn’t have let him switch schools for better girls. As suddenly as I got used to him coming around, he disappeared. I still saw him all the time because we all hung out together, but no longer was he singling me out. When I saw him at the gumbo cookoff in Watson earlier this year, he told me the story. He asked his Grandmother – unbeknownst to me my Grandmother’s sister – who he could date, and she said, ” Anybody that has moved to Watson recently. If their family is from Watson, you are probably related to them.” Well, that ruled out this curly-haired cousin.
I messaged Ms. Lester to ask about other things she noticed because, to me, it was all so normal. These are the thoughts of my high school English teacher, who, by the way, everybody had for a teacher. That was another thing about school. There was one school in Watson – k-12. The teachers taught every kid in town and all of their siblings.
Ms. Lester’s remembrances:
- When she gave directions to Baton Rouge, everything had to start from Cortana Mall. That’s the only place we all knew.
- When she asked for directions to a party:
- She had to be careful about gossip because we were all related.
- “I remember trying to explain that it was a good thing to have variety in topics for discussion and writing. Boys wrote so much about sports and hunting that I thought I would scream. Girls were better about this. I remember trying to expand horizons. Boys of that time wanted to be truck drivers, and girls wanted to be wives and mothers.”
- “The small rural town Watson used to be had cultural differences. Talking to students about impressions they made on “outsiders” when they used poor grammar in their speech and writing did not mean much to them. Their attitude seemed to be ‘this is what I am, so take it or leave it.’ Not all were like this, of course, but many were.”
- “I remember showing slides of a trip to Europe that I had taken the summer before to my senior class. One student asked me if we drove or flew to England. After I beat my head on the wall a few times, I went across the hall, borrowed Mr. Sykes wall map, hung it up in my classroom, showed the students the blue between the U.S. and England, and asked them, “How do you think I got to England?”
- “And on Fridays during hunting season, my classes were almost empty of boys. And from the excuses I got the next Monday, it seemed that every boy had been sick with the same thing. Yeah, right…coon-hunting syndrome”
- “I remember, as a counselor, going to a class to talk about future plans, college, etc. One of the students ( a senior, no less) asked me how a college knew you wanted to go there. I laughed and then realized she was serious. I then asked her if she had ever heard of an application.”
- “There was a difference in what was acceptable to say and think. Students said “crap” out loud in class. I was upset because, to me, that was a curse word. I can hear you laughing at me, Sharon. :)” Yeah…I was…
I can’t imagine what she must have thought of us, but she cared about us country hicks. I have this image of Ms. Lester, and it’s how I’ve always remembered her. She’s standing next to the brick high school building on duty. I can’t remember the clothes she had on, but I remember the shoes. They were some white wedge sandals that laced up her leg. I thought she looked so hip and so cool. She taught me some of the most important skills I’ve ever learned. She taught me how to write a paragraph and how to write an essay. It doesn’t seem like much, but I ended up becoming an English major, and writing is a major part of who I am. Because I know the technical side of writing, I use it creatively to heal myself, to inspire others and to have fun all at the same time. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. But, even more than that, I remember her standing there that day, and I remember what I thought. “I want that. I want to be smart, stylish, and in charge of my life. I want to be like her.” I don’t even know if that was her story, but that was what this country girl saw, and I followed her lead.
The other day, I posted a picture of my friend Jean Ann and her sister Dena with their little dog. Someone else from my hometown posted, “Is that Dinky?” We remember each other’s childhood dogs. We remember the kind of car they drove. We remember their history, their stories, their hangups. We truly were family. We had our faults and our struggles, but we grew up together no differently than brothers and sisters and cousins, and, in fact, many of us were. Right this minute, there is a saga playing out on Facebook between two of my hometown friends about an incident involving a paddling in high school. We all remember these stories……30 years later.
When I drive through Watson now, I don’t recognize a thing. It’s all strip malls and new buildings that I’ve never seen before. But, in January, when I drove down Highway 16, in the midst of the new construction and unfamiliarity, a familiar movie started rolling…my soul and my heart remembered what my eyes could not. Because you can take a girl out of the country, but you can’t ever…ever...ever take the country out of the girl.