by Todd Sentell
For a week, driving a bus with six big tires our special school rented for us, I’m traveling with some of my favorite kids on Earth, who pretty much have any number of learning, behavior, and emotional disorders, including Asperger’s disorder; pathological narcissism; Angelman syndrome; rhinotillexomania; mucophagy; bipolar disorder; autism; dyslexia; attention deficit disorder (ADD); attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; “Ring of Fire” attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; electronics addiction; work avoidance; disorganized-type schizophrenia; Tourette syndrome; dyscalculia; dysgraphia; dyspraxia; dysphasia; dyssemia in all of its forms; aphasia; auditory processing disorder; visual processing disorder; hyperactivity; over stimulation; low, or slow, functioning; eating disorders; trichotillomania; dermatillomania; self-injury disorders; fetal alcohol syndrome; obsessive-compulsive disorder; generalized anxiety disorder; social anxiety disorder; school refusal; articulation disorders; receptive and expressive language disorders; nonverbal learning disability; disruptive behavior disorders, which include oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder; fragile X syndrome; Rett’s syndrome; selective mutism; and ear wax eating. I don’t know the scientific word for ear wax eating. I don’t think there is one yet. I looked on the internet.
Gary, the math teacher, is my co-adult. We’re heading south from Atlanta to Macon, and then on to Savannah … and then, westward ho! … across the state of adventure and chickens and pecans and peanuts and people who smoke a lot of cigarettes to the childhood home of Jimmy Carter and then to Americus and Columbus and Fort Benning. It’s the week after we come back from Christmas break, officially called “Winter Learning.” In the halls and bathrooms and sidewalks and lunchrooms and play fields it’s called “Winter Squirming” by the students and the teachers who understand these things.
“Do you know where you’re going?” she said.
“Not exactly. Lewis does. Somewhere up in the northeast part of the state, where he’s been fishing. If everything goes off OK, we ought to be back late Sunday.”
“Why wouldn’t it go off OK?”
—Deliverance, by James Dickey
It’s sort of scary what you can come up with, when you should be acting like an adult, and when you want to set a certain tone on the first morning of a week-long overnight history tour of far-flung parts of Georgia with four eighth grade boys and two seventh grade boys. So I did what any teacher would do: I put on my Shirt of Happiness.
It’s a linen, long sleeve, camp collar-style shirt with checks of blues and aquas and yellows and greens and oranges that can only be described as being deeply inspiring to this particular age group of young knowledge seekers.
When Gary and I got them settled in The Cozy Room of Learning before we set out for Macon, I made sure they saw The Shirt of Happiness, and they all seemed thrilled that I would be wearing such a special tunic.
I explained: when I’m wearing The Shirt of Happiness, like I’m doing now, it means I’m happy and pleased with you attitudes and behaviors. And I am perfectly fine wearing The Shirt of Happiness all week and every day. It’s fine with me if it’s okay with you.
They all smiled and we clapped a little bit about it and no one said you really are nuts. So I assumed it really was okay with them because they’ll tell you if you’re nuts.
I bought the shirt out of a catalogue where most of the clothes look like they’d appeal to mobsters … but not this shirt. It’s so bright and obnoxious it’s a crime all by itself.
I further explained that if I switch to a black t-shirt, which I brought with me, which is called The Shirt of Unhappiness, then that means I’m not happy and that they need to do things that would instantly make me want to put The Shirt of Happiness back on.
They were really nodding at each other and mushing up their lips as they appraised me. I’m their Georgia history teacher.
We get to Macon and we’re really looking forward to the first part of our learning experience when we pull up to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.
Which is closed on Mondays.
The scholars start to eye me sideways.
Plus, I can’t seem to get the bus alarm to turn off. This is extremely embarrassing when you’re in such a nice town as Macon.
Gary laughs a certain laugh that you can direct at another teacher without the idiot teacher in question getting all mad. Believe me. I understand.
Gary calls the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame which is across the street to see if they’re open. Which is also closed on Mondays.
So Boog said … Why don’t we go eat.
I said, that’s a great idea … Gary had us a good bar-b-que joint picked out … but before we started for the bar-b-que joint, I said, I have a plan C, and that was to go by the Big House on Vineville Street, which was where the Allman Brothers Band members used to live and now it’s a museum in their honor.
Which is also closed on Mondays.
The bar-b-que was real good.
We sped through Savannah and out to Tybee Island and found a little side street where we parked the bus and walked out to the Atlantic Ocean, which is one of the most extremely historic places on Earth. The ocean. So there.
Our principal, Lurlene, who hovers and helicopters and is very much in charge and very much from north Georgia, had asked for a couple of updates a day since we were out traveling the state of adventure in a state of confusion with children of tuition-paying parents who deeply care about the happiness and safety of their chill-ren (her pronunciation), and this is where I decided to call her and to confess about the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame awfulness … as I gazed at the Atlantic Ocean in The Shirt of Happiness. I wasn’t going to mention the Big House awfulness, however. Why pile on?
Lurlene said … Way-yell, aren’t you lame.
Hap and Boog and Albert and Elmo were chasing seagulls and laughing. Sheldon and Percy weren’t chasing seagulls. They were happily watching.
Gary was snapping pictures of the seagull chasers.
Lurlene huffed a little bit again and asked me … Well … are the chill-ren at least having fun?
I turned around and watched them for a moment. I said to Lurlene … Listen … can you hear the ocean?
The sun was shining just over the tops of the wooden beach houses. Sea shells and seagull footprints were everywhere. No one had caught a seagull. Not even come close. But four of them were really trying to.
Lurlene said she heard the ocean. She seemed real happy to have a teacher call her and allow her to hear the ocean.
I could tell. I told Lurlene that fun was being had and that we’d go observe Georgia’s first capital tomorrow. I told her that as far as I knew, Savannah was open.
There were columns at the front of it and in between each column there was an eyeless stone woman holding a pot on her head. A concrete band was over the columns and the letters, MVSEVM, were cut into it. Enoch was afraid to pronounce the word again.
—Wise Blood, by Flannery O’Connor
You might expect a cemetery with such a diverse population of people to contain a really interesting number of ghosts. According to local residents, it does.
—Haunted Georgia, by Alan Brown
The Shirt of Happiness … check. None of the scholars ripped their rooms apart or snuck out last night and roamed the ancient streets as far as Gary and I know, and we really don’t want to know … check. Sunny, blue-sky morning in the city of live oaks, and lots of dead people … check.
I have always known this but now I will profess my belief that Savannah, Georgia is the most beautiful and intriguing city in America. It’s all historic. Every inch of it. There are Georgia historical markers every two or three feet. There are historical markers about historical markers.
This hideous bus we’re using might go fast, but it’s too big for the parking deck underneath the hotel, so I had to park it in an open lot last night three blocks down Bay Street. On the way to the bus this morning we walk by the spot where Oglethorpe had pitched his field tent while he made Savannah and Georgia. Now there’s a stone and marble bench marking the spot. The bench has been there itself for over one hundred years. You wouldn’t notice it unless you knew about it. Now we know about it. We look at each other. We look around. Here’s where Georgia began. It’s a wonderful moment. Students and teachers. The students trust us to make sure they don’t miss anything. They’re interested.
Trucks rumble by on Bay Street. Cars zip past. Horns honk. Scooter horns chirp and beep. You can hear the alien automated voice of a cross walk safety system counting down … thirteen, twelve, eleven, ten …
I lose count of the historical markers we see in three blocks. I think the scholars are getting it. They’re starting to understand where we are. In a special city in a state where they live. Maybe where they were born. Do you think it’s pretty cool, I ask.
History’s close and around us.
We go to Wright Square and pay tribute to Oglethorpe’s buddy, Tomo-chi-chi, who’s not buried under the granite boulder set there in his honor, but under the monument in the middle of the square. Sunlight streams through the Spanish moss and the leaves and limbs of the square’s live oaks. It’s blinding. Nearby, a couple of locals sitting on a bench are smoking cigarettes and the bright white smoke wafts up and around and filters the light every puff. The only thing I’m wondering is how long do you stand there and contemplate and pay tribute and wonder what the man was like and what he looked like.
As long as you want.
I’m discovering the scholars are in no hurry. Their attention span is getting longer … maybe between fifteen to twenty minutes a site now. They’re better in museums because Gary and I hang back and take our time. Gary and I love museums, too. There’s so much to look at, but I’m wondering how much the boys retain, and what means the most to them. They won’t say … they won’t get sentimental … unless you ask them. As I gaze at the boulder, the only thing I hear is the sound of a jackhammer.
We took them to Fort Jackson, just down the Savannah River from the city.
I bought a fake Confederate soldier’s cap.
Elmo and Hap bought brass bugles. Which they began blowing as soon as they walked out of the gift shop.
We went to the Colonial Park Cemetery. The history is all very dead, but overwhelming. You can’t take it all in. Boog asked why can’t Atlanta be this pretty.
We walk over to Chippewa Square to see the statue of Oglethorpe. When we walk up to the base, Elmo screams … He’s on the cover of our textbook!
Elmo’s right. A photograph of Oglethorpe’s bronze head is on the cover of our textbook, but not this bronze head. The bronze Oglethorpe head photograph on our textbook is from a statue of him in Augusta. But I don’t say a word. I’m just glad they know who the fellow is.
Hap and Elmo blow their bugles at the statue of James Oglethorpe while other visitors to Savannah stare. Some point. Some take pictures of us.
“The day has never dawned that I couldn’t find something to laugh at.”
“Not since she married me anyways,” Claude said with a comical straight face.
Everybody laughed except for the girl and the white-trash.
—“Revelation” by Flannery O’Connor
To this day, road crews and utility companies occasionally exhume the bodies of the city’s earliest settlers. Savannah is truly a city built upon its dead.
—Haunted Georgia, by Alan Brown
I was wondering when we’d do the truly tourist thing … and today was the day we took them to a buffet lunch at the Pirate’s House on East Broad Street. If the place really wasn’t haunted before today, as they’ve been claiming for two hundred or so years, then it was haunted the moment we busted in. There was a guy dressed up just like a pirate standing at the maître d desk. He wasn’t embarrassed at all. I poked him in the arm to check if he was real and not a ghost. And then I asked him, do dumb rednecks like me walk in here and poke him like that, too.
The pirate said, the Yankees do.
While we were eating our buffet lunch our waitress said that the pirate gives private tours of the restaurant and all the haunted parts if you’d like him to.
I said sure. I asked her what his name was.
She said she didn’t know.
I asked her was the tour with the pirate part of the meal charge or did we need to tip him.
She said the pirate loves tips.
Underneath all his pirate get-up, the pirate looked like a hippy. He was a really nice hippy, and he had real long brown hair and a little beard on his chin, and his teeth had not been cared for in real life one bit. His teeth were long and pointed and there were a few gaps.
I remember the waitress said the pirate also drives tourists around Savannah at night in a hearse.
Right before the pirate started his tour, I asked him what his name was.
He said his name.
I asked him to spell it.
As it turned out, the pirate’s name was Phineas Boggins.
I looked at the boys. They seemed pleased. This was some real history here … hosted by a pirate named Phineas Boggins.
For the next twenty minutes Phineas told us things about ghosts that were hard to believe, but I was respectfully giving him my most willing suspension of disbelief like crazy. The most fascinating bit of information Phineas told us was that one time he was in the rum cellar with his camera down there, attempting to take pictures of ghosts. He said on the other side of a brick wall down there, he heard a voice from the other side of the wall say, We don’t want you here, now.
We were standing at the steps to the old rum cellar they won’t let you go see because some old woman fell down the steps and broke her wrist a while back. That part’s true.
Then, Phineas said he just kept snapping pictures because he wasn’t afraid of ghosts at all … and that he actually invites ghosts into his life to communicate with him, and then Phineas said in the rum cellar he was shoved real hard in the back.
The boys were star-struck at this point with Phineas. You should have seen the look on their faces. I felt for a moment that Gary and I were not their heroes any more.
I figure Phineas really did get shoved real hard one time down there in the dark rum cellar in the famous Pirates’ House restaurant in Savannah, Georgia … but probably by a live waitress he lured down there in an effort to give her some of his green-toothed pirate love. Good for Phineas.
The cock stopped suddenly and curving his neck backwards, he raised his tail and spread it with a shimmering timbrous noise. Tiers of pregnant suns floated in a green-gold haze over his head. The priest stood transfixed, his jaw slack. Mrs. McIntyre wondered where she had ever seen such an idiotic old man. “Christ will come like that!” he said in a loud gay voice and wiped his hand over his mouth and stood there gaping.
—“The Displaced Person,” by Flannery O’Connor
While you study history, be prepared for what it does to you emotionally. We visited Camp Sumter today in Andersonville, the Civil War prison camp. It’s a place of death. Nothing but death.
Sometimes history can make you happy, and sometimes it can make you sad. If your eyes don’t tear up from time to time from what you see, I think you might not be pursuing and understanding history hard enough because, in your pursuits, you’ll learn pretty quickly that a large part of history involves the cruelty people impose on each other.
I wouldn’t recommend a visit to Camp Sumter unless you can handle feeling pretty roughed up for the rest of the day.
I know we did.
I know we did because this week my official indication of what got to the boys emotionally, and what didn’t, was whether the chit-chat and the jibber-jabber cranked back up the moment we got back into the bus and headed out for the next place on our list. We had toured the National Prisoner of War Museum on the grounds and walked through the Andersonville National Cemetery, too, and when we headed back to Americus to eat bar-b-que for lunch, it was quiet in that bus for a long time.
But it was quiet at Camp Sumter too. Our footsteps and the words of our park guide were the only sounds. A snap or two from Gary’s camera. That was it. For only fourteen months near the end of the Civil War what had happened on the soil we walked on was almost too much to understand … and to attempt to understand no matter how painful history can be is a scholarly pursuit, but the suffering that haunts that great field with an inadequate creek was way too much to comprehend in an hour or so. I think the boys might have asked two or three questions. We were stunned.
Ahead of us with another guide were a group of modern soldiers … about twenty of them. Fit. Young. Alert and respectful, but dressed in casual civilian clothes. Clean shaven. They were soldiers from Fort Rucker in Alabama. Their presence there was oddly striking. I wonder what they were thinking.
Thirteen thousand soldiers died in that stockade … in that incomprehensible squalor and misery and spring and summer and fall heat. Later, in the National Cemetery a few hundred yards away you gaze silently at their thirteen thousand headstones, packed tightly together. Row after row of small, marble headstones. This is a stunning site, too. The headstones glimmer in the bright January light. You instantly feel sad for people you don’t know. Our guide told us the dead were placed shoulder to shoulder, in trenches just three feet deep. Standing in any spot and turning and looking … it’s too much to comprehend. It was too much to comprehend then.
We stopped in Plains on our way to Columbus. Tomorrow morning we’ll visit the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center just outside the main gate of Fort Benning in Columbus. Georgia has produced only one president, and we felt it was our duty to visit where this man came from. You begin the tour, which takes you around town, in the Plains High School building that serves as the visitor center and museum. Matriculation ended a while back and now it’s a national historic site. It’s just like the Carter Center back up in Atlanta where we went last week, but with old wood floors and plaster walls. It’s an old school, but Old School. The floors made wonderful old noises. The lady who was working the reception desk and the gift shop spoke in a southern accent as rich as molasses. I loved listening to her. She was instantly interested in who we were and where we were from and where we were going. After a while of sort of gawking around at everything, I asked her if she had gone to high school here.
She said she did. When we were about to leave, the lady said she wanted to show me something. She actually tugged at the sleeve of my coat. I instantly wondered why she was so excited. Down a long hallway she drew me and Percy to a row of lockers.
These are lockers, she said brightly. Our old lockers.
There were about ten of them, and more across the hall. Each locker, made of wood and painted blue, had two panels left and right and a shelf … and then there was a top shelf, too, where you could put your stuff. The panels on the left and right ended about two feet from the floor and there was no door. The lockers were open, and each locker had two hooks attached to the wall.
The lady was so pleased with this beautiful and simple thing, too, in a building full of rooms of hugely important artifacts of the life of a former president of the United States who had roamed these halls.
For a long moment she would look at the row of lockers and look at me, and I noticed she had not yet dropped her arm … she was still pointing at them as if I had not yet comprehended something.
I almost hugged her as we left but didn’t. I don’t think she would have thought a hug from a visitor was odd in any way. In any way.
Driving out to the west part of town to Jimmy Carter’s boyhood home, a national historic site, too, I finally understood. She was showing me, in her own sweet way, how they trusted each other a long time ago. As my eyes and mind were being mesmerized again by watching the pecan groves and cotton and peanut fields whiz by like the pages of an old movie flip book, I pondered the lockers in our school. They have doors, but no locks. I’m proud of us, too.
At President Carter’s boyhood home site, the site manager pointed to some pecan trees by the house that Jimmy Carter’s mother, Lillian, had planted when they moved there. The trees still produce and before the boys went into the home they scrambled around in the leaves and packed their pockets with pecans. Percy made his way over to me before we walked into the house. I asked him, did he know the significance of those pecans.
Well, think about it, I said. Those pecan trees were planted by the mother of a president of the United States a long, long time ago. Those are some special pecans, in other words.
Percy had a lot of them in his hands.
I asked him, how do you think they’ll taste.
He said … Sweet!
I told Percy he was probably right. We walked the grounds. It was quiet out on Old Plains Road in Archery, Georgia at the boyhood home of a president. We walked over to the barn. A male peacock strutted out of the barn door. He instantly showed us his plumage, violently shaking it as the feathers fanned out. He was getting it just right for him, and us. We stood in awe for a long time, watching him strut and slowly spin around while a nearby donkey brayed, and some goats sniffed the air. We fed the peacock some of Lillian’s pecans. In a way only a peacock on display can, as no one said a word, the peacock quietly fed our road-funny spirits as the southwest Georgia sun began to set over a president’s boyhood home.
And then, alone, I walked out to the road to get the street view of his home and the grounds. I noticed the mailbox by the road, under a magnolia tree. What was I thinking … but I did it anyway … I walked over there and opened the door to see if Jimmy Carter had any mail. I was sort of shocked at what I saw. I mumbled to myself, like a lunatic, Jimmy Carter ain’t got any mail.
“Lady,” he said in a firm nasal voice, “I’d give a fortune to live where I could see me a sun do that every evening.”
“Does it every evening,” the old woman said and sat back down.
—“The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” by Flannery O’Connor
The boys are becoming predictable. In the best way. They sarcastically chirp from the back of the bus, Are we there yet?
They pile out of the bus quickly because they’re excited about where we’re going and what things they’re going to see. They’re appreciative that Gary and I have worked hard to make each day fun and fresh. They’re especially excited today … especially … because after all the war history we’ve seen and done this week, I now know all seventh and eighth grade boys are fascinated with guns, and today they’re going to get to shoot some dang guns.
We took them to the new National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center near the front gate of Fort Benning. It was just after 9 o’clock and the parking lot was nearly full. People and soldiers in their camouflage uniforms were everywhere. It was starting to feel warm. It was sunny. We found out that it was infantry school graduation day, and the soldiers and their friends and family were walking around to the back of the museum to some bleachers and a parade field. We approached the enormous building. I didn’t have to look behind me to see if the boys were keeping up.
We experienced the most stirring hundred yards in a museum I’ve ever seen. I can’t imagine the time and effort that went into planning this slightly uphill walk of one hundred yards where life-sized figures, beginning with a depiction of a battle scene, left and right of us, of the Revolutionary War, was presented. This place is a study of the history of the American infantry, but it’s also a study in how a modern museum is designed and put together. There’s a real helicopter a few feet above your head, and you don’t notice it until you sense something huge above you. The battle scene depictions, with period battle noises and scenes flashed with modern video, take you all the way to the Iraq war. The boys stood at each section, stunned. Mouths open. If this was the full museum, we’d have been satisfied.
So, boys are fascinated with guns and war. Their noses are inches away from displays of our guns and the guns of the enemy. Captured guns. All kinds of captured things.
Gary eased up to me at a display … after seeing so many of them … so many full of real weapons … and said if you don’t think the United States is serious about defense and winning battles and wars, then you’re deceiving yourself.
I agreed with him. This museum leaves no doubt about our commitment, in hardware and strategies and tactics, to protect ourselves and our allies.
In the parking lot a soldier was standing by a car. He was by himself. It looked like he was waiting on someone. I walked up to him and asked him what he thought about the museum … as a soldier.
He said it was pretty hooked up.
I knew what he meant. I think.
He was eighteen or nineteen. Maybe twenty. I shook his hand and looked him in the eye and said we appreciate what you’re doing for our country.
He said, you’re welcome.
On the way to the bus I looked back at him for an instant. He had lit up a cigarette and was leaning on the hood of the car. I remember there were a couple of displays in the museum about how tobacco was just as much a part of war as anything else. I’m not judging a brave young soldier smoking a cigarette. I won’t do it. Standing outside of the bus, waiting for me, the boys were watching the soldier, too. When I got to them they said that soldier is smoking a cigarette.
I said he sure is. Anybody got a problem with that, I asked.
Percy said his mother smokes a lot of cigarettes, too.
I thought about that for a moment. She should know better. I’ll put on The Shirt of Unhappiness in her honor when I get home.
[Check out Todd Sentell’s back porch advice.]