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‘To Understand the World …’

– Senior Oration by Ava Petrash (’11)

Ava Petrash

William Faulkner once said, “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”

I’m not sure if any of you have ever been to the Mississippi Delta, but once you set foot on its soil, it seeps into your blood and changes the way in which your eyes look out at the world. It is a place of immense contradictions. Fields of cotton, soybeans, and corn grow in lush rows out of the darkest and most fertile land in the nation. And yet, malnourishment ravages the people of the Delta: its small, rural towns lack conventional groceries, forcing the residents to purchase chips and soda at convenience stores to feed their families. Mississippi is a land of history – the birthplace of James Meredith, Fannie Lou Hamer, Tennessee Williams, and Muddy Waters. And yet, most schools in the Delta can only afford one history textbook for every two students. Home to some of the friendliest human beings on the planet, it still takes years, if not decades, for outsiders to gain entry into the real world of Mississippi. Roots there run as deep as its western-bounding river is long. It is one state but it will change your view of the world.

I spent the summer leading up to my senior year in Mississippi. I arrived in the small Delta town of Clarksdale on a hot afternoon in May, knowing one person in the entire state and feeling small in every sense of the word. The sky in the Delta is so big it looks like it could swallow you up – it humbles you every time you step outside. I was in the Deep South to do sociology research on a grant from the college’s Research Fellowship program and had heard countless stories about Mississippi in many books and classes. Painted as the land of the cotton, catfish and the KKK, a place so brutal and harsh that the Blues could hardly do justice to the struggles of its people, this liberal girl from the suburbs of Washington, D.C was simultaneously fascinated and terrified of what I would see there.

Armed with seventy-five surveys on food access for poor, rural residents of the Delta and almost no knowledge of what I was getting myself into, I drove out into the never-ending fields of corn and cotton. Parking on the road outside of Tutwiler, a town in Tallahatchie County known most famously as the site of Emmett Till’s murder, I walked up to a small house. An old woman sat in a chair on the porch. I wondered if she could hear how loudly my heart was pounding, as my mind raced through all the possible negative things she would think about the white girl walking up to her stoop. But from the second she opened her mouth, greeting me with, “Hi baby, how you doin’ today?” I knew that every single one of my pre-conceived notions about the state and the people had been wrong. She filled out each question of my survey with a smile on her face, asked me if I wanted a glass of lemonade, and proceeded to tell me about every one of the eighty-two years she had spent in the Delta.

Miss Loretta Mae was my first interview, but almost every one that followed involved the same kindness and hospitality. I sat on porches, couches, and lawn chairs at family barbecues. I ate ribs and collards and the best baked beans I had ever tasted. I heard stories of struggle, sharecropping, cotton picking, and juke joints bursting at the seams with the most authentic Blues music you could imagine. My textbooks and discussions from history classes came alive with stories of the Civil Rights movement. One old, grizzled man I met had worked alongside the three murdered Civil Rights workers James Cheney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. Long debates in Sociology classes took on new meaning when Crystal, a twenty-two year old mother of three, gritted her teeth as she told me how two jobs and food stamps still didn’t put enough food on the table for her children. This was the real Mississippi. Nothing I had read in any book could have adequately prepared me for the stories I heard.

At first, these stories overwhelmed me. I went home at night wondering how I could even begin to process the information these interviews heaped on my heavy heart. I felt guilty, complacent, and overwhelmed, yet so extremely honored that people would share such personal stories with an outsider who, every time I opened my mouth to speak, made it clear that I was from nowhere even remotely close to the South.

And then one day, as I was driving out to Friar’s Point, a historically all-Black town at the foot of the levee on the banks of the Mississippi River, it hit me: I was finally getting my real education. It was not that my hundreds of class hours in Tribble and Carswell were not an education. I had learned more in my three years at Wake than I had in my entire life. But these two-hour long conversations under the hot Mississippi sun were the culmination of what I really was meant to learn in college.

You see, in my mind there are two parts to learning: there are the thousands of pages of class notes, the long hours spent cramming for exam after exam, the countless books checked out of ZSR. And then, there is the invaluable education of experiencing in the flesh, all of those things you have learned in books. Wake Forest did more than bolster my resume or prepare me for the job market: it taught me how to see the world. As a college, it did not simply supply an academic experience: it supplied a life experience. William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” While I respect his position, I have to wonder why it cannot be both. Wake Forest filled my pail through the efforts of the most wonderful and knowledgeable professors I could have dreamed of. It filled my pail with classes, debates, and conversations that I will carry and reflect upon for the rest of my life. But the university also lit a fire in my soul. After all, it sent me all the way to Mississippi, a place which was culturally the furthest I had ever been from home.

Reflecting on my almost four years here in Winston-Salem, I have come to realize that the “Wake Forest bubble” is a myth. This place catapulted me out into society. It challenged me to create my own path and supported me as I shaped my worldview. As I prepare to spend the next year teaching in a low-income charter school in inner-city Boston, I am fully aware of the numerous gifts that my education has given me. But more than anything else I treasure from my time here, I know one thing to be true. Wake Forest taught me, through academics and experience, to understand a place like Mississippi. Now, as I get ready to graduate, it is challenging me to understand the world. According to Mr. Faulkner at least, I think I’m ready.