Mississippi Teacher Corps

Thursday, July 06, 2006

thoughts on LaLee's kin

Yesterday, we had our first class after the long weekend. I knew that we were watching some kind of movie and then hearing Reggie Barnes, a former superintedent, give some kind of talk to us. I sort of walked into the classroom expecting it to be a really light day; after all, how could watching a movie and listening to a speaker not seem low-key after teaching summer school?
I was wrong, in a manner of speaking. The movie we saw, LaLee's Kin, made a major emotional impact on me that I couldn't have anticipated. For the benefit of those reading this blog who don't know what I'm talking about, LaLee's Kin is a documentary that follows a woman who lives in Tallahatchie County (for those of you who still don't know what I'm talking about, that's a county in the Mississippi Delta) named LaLee, mother of 11 kids, grandmother of 20-some kids, and great-grandmother of 30-some kids, and several of the grandkids and great-grandkids that are (permanently, temporarily or indefinitely) in her care. The movie also follows the efforts of the local school district, where Reggie Barnes was the superintendent at the time of filming, as it tries to raise test scores in order to get off probation by the state of Mississippi.

After watching the movie and listening to Reggie Barnes speak, I thought about what it was about that day that made me experience really powerful emotions in a way that an average day at summer school didn't come close to. I think that LaLee's Kin made me realize more than any of the other experiences I've had so far what life is like day to day for a very poor family in the Delta. On an intellectual level, I knew that Mississippi was the poorest state in the country, and the Delta was the poorest part of the state, and I could probably spit out a few statistics about unemployment rate, percentages of families living below the povery line, etc. I've heard stories from other people in the program about the things they've seen that we all wish no one had to see or experience. I had the general idea that the students I taught at summer school came from underpriveleged backgrounds and had difficult home lives, and once in a while I'd even see a small piece of evidence confirming this. But how could I really know what life was like for any single one of my students outside of the hours of 7:45 to 12:20? I never saw them outside of school, and even if I had, I wouldn't be hanging around their houses long enough to figure out what their lives were like. When I visited the town where I'll teach in the fall, I drove through town and saw how quickly the landscape changed from nice two-story houses to dilapidated trailers and shacks. So yes, I was aware of the effects of poverty in the Delta. After all that, though, I still hadn't seen what day-to-day existence looked like for any of the students I knew or have heard about through the stories of other MTC folk.

Well, LaLee's Kin really cemented that for me. At the beginning of the movie, LaLee is looking outside from a trailer with excitement as a truck delivers the new trailer that will become her home. Part of what made a strong impact on me was the story of Granny, one of LaLee's granddaughters. At the start of the film, Granny is living with LaLee and is trying to attend the sixth grade while LaLee forces her to shoulder the huge responsibility of looking after and helping to raise two of LaLee's great-grandkids. LaLee cares about the kids getting their schooling, but feels that she needs Granny to help her with the younger children. Eventually, Granny goes to Memphis to live with relatives of her father, and is able to excel in school. She proudly tells the camera that her school in Memphis told her that when she graduated from high school, she could have a scholarship to the University of Tennessee and study to be a nurse. Then, she gets called back to live with LaLee and help out with the chores and childcare. After the film, Reggie Barnes informed us that Granny had a baby while she was in high school, managed to finish high school, never made it to college, and is now raising the child on her own. That story was really tragic to me because Granny seemed as though she could break out of the poverty cycle, but never quite did.

Leaving me with at least as strong an impression, though, were the small details of the documentary that revealed the realities of life for a poor family in the Delta. For instance, LaLee didn't have running water in her trailer, and would send the children to collect water in jugs from the state penitentiary. Granny bathed the younger children in buckets.

After we watched the film, Reggie Barnes commented that the Mississippi Delta is really just as bad as a Third World country on some levels. My dad grew up in a developing country, and after class, I found myself comparing his life to the lives of LaLee and her family. Dad is one of six children, and he and his siblings were raised singlehandedly by their mother after their father died of a heart attack. Some of the kids were pretty close to grown-up by the time that happened, but my grandmother still had to work full-time to support the kids and bring them up at the same time. I always thought that was an amazing feat for one person to accomplish, and then I thought of how LaLee raised 11 kids on her own, and took responsibility for many grandkids and great-grandkids! Dad's family was middle-class in their country, and several years ago, Dad showed me the place where he grew up. Dad's family's first apartment was a far cry from luxurious. It had a kitchen, and at most 3 additional rooms, all to be shared among 10 people. He and his siblings often slept on shelves or boards. It was in a crowded area, and the whole complex was rather run-down. Here's the crazy thing, though: by my estimation, Dad's family was much better off than LaLee's family. Dad's family was able to access running water and plumbing, even if it was shared with at least 2 other large families in the complex, and they never went hungry. My grandmother pinched enough pennies to send Dad and all of his siblings to school, and every single one of them made it through college! Of course, a lot of that had to do with cultural values and the importance that my family puts on education. Even so, it just blows my mind that there are families living in the Delta, in the country with the highest GDP in the world (I could use this to go on a rant about how this is an example of why we shouldn't use GDP as the standard measuring tool for development... but I'll leave that for another time and place), families whose children I will teach in school, who have worse living conditions than an average family in a developing country, and have poor odds of achieving the kind of success that Dad and his siblings did.

I've never seen anyone dedicate a blog entry before, but it seems appropriate here to dedicate this blog entry to the memory of Mimi, Dad's mother, who passed away just over a month ago.


  • At 7:15 AM, Blogger Matthew said…

    Powerful entry, wow.

    I wonder if I can find a copy of that documentary...


  • At 4:07 PM, Blogger Long skirt, blue jacket said…

    For Matthew and anyone else who's curious, LaLee's Kin is available at Movie Gallery, though I'm not sure if all store locations have it.

  • At 11:21 PM, Blogger Miss Nikki, PhD said…

    This is a great documentary, and the situation of Tallahatchie County should be exposed. Economic development and federal investment is desparately needed. The end of slavery created a class of useless people who have not means (jobs, training, education) of accomplishing anything for themselves.

  • At 8:51 PM, Blogger alliknowishustlin said…

    i am from tallahatchie county it is hardtimes here we need help out here. there is no place for our youth.

  • At 5:36 PM, Blogger Tosha said…

    I would love to know how Lalee's family is doing now. I wonder if the grandchildren made it out of poverty. I read that Granny didnt, I heard she had a baby in high school and is now raising the child alone. If you have any information on how the Family is especially Lalee I would appreciate it. When I saw the documentary it was so moving and I have been wondering ever since if the family is okay..

  • At 9:09 PM, Blogger Mary D said…

    What has happened to Lalee's Kin?
    How are the children and Lalee?

  • At 2:00 PM, Blogger Shalonda said…

    Can you tell me how i can get a copy of the Documentary.


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