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When I entered first grade, I was assigned to a special class for people who didn’t speak right. I might have inherited my Missouri drawl from my great grandparents, who, being the children of Oregon pioneers, spoke funny. Nobody in the DeepSouth could have unnerstood ‘em either.

That special class apparently broke me of my infirmity because I now quite convincingly pass as a TV Newscaster American, which means I affect little regional accent at all. The Muse complains that nobody here understands anything she says and she has to ask a couple of times for a repeat before even a crude understanding emerges. Me, too.

I notice that every male I encounter in Alabama speaks in an unusually high, pinched voice, like they’re emotional about something, even if we’re just chattin’ up the weather. I grok about every fifth word, but the body language conveys most of the requisite intended meaning. I smile appreciatively.

Most of my sense of the DeepSouth was shaped by sincerely prejudicial influences, rather like that well-intended special class that tried and pretty much succeeded in homogenizing me. It mostly succeeded in convincing me of the cost of standing out as unique or different; how to hide in plain sight, and also how to judge whether someone had similarly successfully overcome their uniqueness. The folks in the DeepSouth don’t seem to care about this, and leave an embarrassingly awful lot just hanging out, as if unattended.

Rather than experiencing this tendency as simple difference or laudable uniqueness, it mostly feels plain wrong to me; ungrammatical, evidence of ignorance, probable stupidity. Surrounded by supposed stupidity, I get elevated into a certain internal sense of superiority from where I judge, and judge quite harshly. This is prejudice and I am the presiding prejudiciary meting out harsh sentences to the people I meet.

The further south we travel, the more the mouth full of marbles accents become more like mouths full of golf balls. Some, I simply cannot comprehend anything they say, which a fair jury might rightfully conclude means I’m rather stupid compared to the native speaker, but I’m nothing like a fair jury. I can feel the Bozo bit flipping and would swear on a stack of Bibles I was not doing that to myself. But, of course, I am, a clear violation of one of my sacred ethical principles, that I hold the responsibility to make the most generous possible interpretation. I do not.

I catch myself carpetbagging, imposing my values upon this poor backwards place when this place might seem rich and far ahead of me in figuring out how one might thrive here.

I expected to be chasing chickens out of the road in Mississippi, but found a lovely landscape. I could feel my sense of history shading my perception but could not quite take off those anticipatory opposite-of-rose-colored glasses. I’d primed myself to see the short side of this place but the place came up longer than expected. I felt the tension throughout the day, the growing realization that not only was this immersion going to be different than I’d anticipated, but that my anticipator itself was open to question and most probably faulty.

Nobody switches out their anticipator like they would a light bulb. Mine’s got over fifty years of progressive, dedicated development imbedded in it, and I cannot seem to simply turn off the crusty sucker, so I expect to be struggling. This seems like fine, humbling work, and who couldn’t use a taste more humility in their life? I expect to find plenty of opportunities to pinch myself out of habitual reactions to otherwise completely unconscious interactions. Relating will take more attendant energy than usual, and I suppose I should expect to make plenty of mistakes. I’m hopeful I’ll meet people at least half as generous as I say I’m intending to be.

The others hold great power in my life, but power I quite convincingly construct for myself whenever I distance them from me. I could just as easily seek to perceive some similarities we share than the divergences we do not, to catch common humanity instead. This seems a great gift, one that only I could ever bestow, whether or not anyone else reciprocates. This will require dismounting my high horse and pawning more than one useless sword of righteousness, removing the somber black robe and silly horsehair wig, and simply being here rather than judging where I am. I am no tour guide, but a traveler. I came here to learn about the place, not to critique it’s tenacious inability to feel like home.

I might have come to get away from it all, but arriving, I found even my darkest self already here waiting for me with a wry, rather knowing smile.

©2014 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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