First, the specs:
I'll be on Clenece Hills' radio show "Timeline" in KLWN radio next Monday, April 8 at 10:00EST (that's 9:00 Central for all my friends back in Kansas), talking with Ted Boyle and Jack Todd. The show can be streamed here, and it's also archived here for anyone who can't hear it when it's aired.
Now, the backstory:
Clence Hills - or Mrs. Hills, as I still can't help calling her - was actually my eighth-grade Mass Media teacher at South Junior High School, where I went to school along with most of the other pre-teens in North Lawrence from the mid Eighties to the early Nineties as part of a social equalization initiative taken by the municipal government in Lawrence, Kansas. I've written quite a lot both about my experience in North Lawrence and my experience at South Junior High, and this will probably be what I talk about most. As a little backgrounder, I'll give a few excerpts from my work. The first is from my essay "The Immortality of the Crab," published in Numero Cinq in 2011:
When I remember growing up in Kansas, many times I think about the catfish. From the age of nine, I waded into the muddy flowing water of the Wakarusa River, or the fathomless depths of the sand quarry, or sometimes, during especially rainy summers, the flooded intersections on the streets of my neighborhood in North Lawrence. My entire neighborhood was underwater less than 50 years before I was born, coming into existence when the levees tamed the Kansas River. The levees have never broken but, because the lowland soil is always moist and the ground itself is several feet below the level of the town across the river, North Lawrence frequently experiences flash flooding whenever rainfall is especially heavy. North Lawrence soil, though, is the richest, most fertile in Douglas County. The combination of flooding and rich soil has given North Lawrence a dualistic nature – most people who originally settled into the shabby little 2- to 3-bedroom houses or trailers on tiny lots were dirt poor (so to speak), but when upper-middle-class Lawrencians from across the river heard about the quality of the soil they started buying up every cheap, empty plot of land they could find for non-residential gardens. Residents of North Lawrence are still called “sand rats” by the rest of the town, a designation many of us took up proudly, holding a River Rat Reunion every summer at Woodlawn Elementary School. The non-residential gardens, far from being an annoyance, were Nature’s Bounty to me and my family. We rarely had to buy produce, as I routinely stole most of our fruits and vegetables from them. I didn’t feel bad about it then, and I don’t now – it was part of their rent.
Walking down 7th Avenue and looking into its coffee shop, bar, and boutique windows on the way to the subway, I’m reminded of being a pre-teen in Lawrence, Kansas and sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night to go downtown. To get there, I had to cross the bridge over the Kaw River, which my mom always said would swallow me up in a giant, devouring whirlpool if I went near it. She reinforced this with stories of drunks staggering out of Johnny’s Tavern determined to swim to the other side, never to be heard from again. When I walked the bridge over the river on my clandestine trips downtown I’d look over the edge, see the dam churning below me, and get dizzy, then I’d run as fast as I could to get across. But getting to Massachusetts Street, the thoroughfare of downtown Lawrence made it all worth it. The dim lights of the streetlamps, the bars with college students bursting out of them, the storefront windows beckoning, like the cheese shop that seemed to be open all night where they’d slice me off fifty cents’ worth of smoked gouda. I ate it slowly, delicately, savoring every bite like it was one of the fine stinky cheeses I now buy from the Brooklyn storefronts on 7th Avenue.
These other excerpts are from an unpublished piece I've so far just called "The List and the Story." Each little story tells a little about North Lawrence, South Junior High School, and of course me.
The town of Lawrence, where I grew up, is considered by most as either the redheaded stepchild of Kansas or the state’s only merit. An abolitionist stronghold after the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 with the streets at the center of town named after the New England states the settlers came from, it was burned to the ground in 1863 by Quantrill’s raiders. After the war, it then secured the University of Kansas (nearby Leavenworth got the federal prison) and is now called variously a progressive bastion and a refuge for aging hippies. Sometime before I started junior high, the Lawrence City Council decided, in the spirit of economic equalization, to bus the residents of lower-income North Lawrence, where I lived, to upper-middle-class Lawrence South Junior High School. My friend Adrian, with whom I used to compare the size of the cockroaches in our respective houses, was permanently scarred. He recently posted on Facebook that he still hates Swatch watches, as that was how the natives separated themselves from the imports. I looked at it differently. That bus commute was my underground railroad.
Perhaps because of the clashing cultures of North and South Lawrence, perhaps because we were acting out what our parents said at home, perhaps because we were junior high boys and needed to throw our out-of-control bodies against each other, a series of race-related fights broke out at South Junior High my ninth-grade year. I wanted in on them. One afternoon in the crowded hallway between classes, Brent ______ pushed me from behind to get me moving. I told him to meet me in the morning, in front of the school, trying to sound ominous. He looked at me, puzzled, and just said, “OK.” I told everyone I knew that I was going to fight him the next morning, thinking of our jostle as the undercard of some professional wrestling bill. He showed up the next morning expressionless, and followed me out to the side of the building with most of the school in our wake shouting, “Fight! Fight! Fight!” When we got there, he asked me, “You really wanna do this?” I lunged at him. He picked me up with surprisingly little effort, and held me in the air. Then he put me down to his left. I lunged again, he held me in the air again, and put me down to his right. “We done.” Later on in high school, when I met my birth father, I found out Brent was my cousin.