By Cyndie Sebourn
She was The Thurmanator; she was Judy Thurman. And there will never be another English teacher worthy of this status.
Thurman pulled onto the campus in her long Cadillac and entered the halls of England High School each morning with power. Her long hair secured high on her head with bobby pins, her eyes sparkling with enthusiasm, and her beautiful legs strutting down the hall with the click-click sound of her heals told the story: Thurman had it going on. It all commanded respect.
“Out, out damned spot! Out I say!” She roared like thunder. The blood seemed to ooze from under her classroom door. Her eyes would then twinkle, knowing that their full attention was hers. She flashed her sassy smile. MacBeth had begun.
She loved a cigarette and a glass of wine. She – and only she – could get away with smoking in her classroom during her lunch break. She just locked the door with a look that dared anyone to disturb her and smoked a couple. She sprayed a little air freshener that never really took away the odor – unlocked – and welcomed the students back. They never dared to say a word. But they knew.
When in a social mood, she grabbed me, her protégé who also smoked, and we headed to the janitors’ closet. This closet had an outside entrance and was approximately 6’ x 4’. Among the supplies, tools, and paint, we would sit and smoke. How we did not cause an explosion, I will never know, but it was there that Thurman did her best teaching.
Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar was the topic of conversation one day. Thurman was in charge as she reminisced about how she and Plath’s Esther had a commonality. She arched an eyebrow. “We were both from an era of the bridge,” she explained. “We crossed a bridge that other people were intimidated by. We were different. We were the sixties.” I – a younger, less experienced teacher – absorbed each word in admiration.
One afternoon, this master teacher – in her literary exhaustion – gathered some papers, left the building, and drove home. As she sat back in her favorite chair, most likely with her cherished glass of wine and cigarette, she reflected on the day. She glanced at the clock. Nonchalantly, she dialed the telephone.
When the receptionist answered, “England High School,” Thurman calmly informed: “This is Judy Thurman. I accidentally left school an hour early. Would you please have someone go and sit with my students?” There was no need. Her students were quietly studying. And the principal? He never dared to say a word. When one has a teacher who doesn’t bother you with disciplinary problems because she is in control of the classroom, you appreciate her… even when she makes a mistake.
On the last day of school, seniors arrived to pick up their final grades for their research papers. Those horrid papers were tirelessly long, contained absolutely no passive voice, and were thoroughly documented in MLA format. Voices proclaimed throughout the halls, “I’ve got a C!” And so immensely proud of a C they were.
One graduating class honored Thurman in the best of ways. They picked up their research papers while wearing matching T-Shirts. The T-Shirts? Well, they said it all: I survived The Thurmanator. She was honored. What is in a name? Absolutely everything.
I exited the halls of England High School many years ago. At that time, Thurman made the statement, “I created a fine little English teacher out of that girl, and she left me.” While that may have been true, she never left me. In the classroom, my students occasionally saw a little smile flicker on my face. I – with my hair pulled up – with my active voice emphasis – with my dramatic portrayal of characters – I thought, “I am becoming just like her.” And I felt so proud.
I am now retired, and Judy has passed. There is not one day that goes by that I do not think of her: her beautiful smile, her heart of love, her lack of fear, her passion for education.
And me? I am what I am… because of The Thurmanator.
Flippin' My Bic
By Cyndie Sebourn
I scared myself to death.
Teaching in the 80s was a different kind of era. The faculty even had a smoking lounge. Imagine that. On your breaks or at lunch you could head to the lounge and light it up. I was a new teacher, and I was a smoker. We thought nothing of it. The students walking down the hall knew that it was a smoking lounge. Who wouldn’t? Each time the door opened, pillowy clouds slithered out of the lounge into their lungs. I bet some students lingered in the hallway waiting just to get a good ole whiff of secondhand smoke.
As things progressed through the years regarding smoking laws, our high school proudly progressed. I could say we got fancy; we graduated to two faculty lounges: smoking and nonsmoking…side by side. Both had doors that led to the hall. I guess you know where I hung out?
As a new English instructor, I had a lot to learn that no university had ever taught me, but my colleagues, who were smokers, taught me a lot in our nicotine-infected lounge. I should have received a whole other degree for all the wisdom they imparted to me. My favorite colleague was my mentor, who was also a smoker. She coached me on teaching strategies for grammar, writing, and literature. Formal education had taught me the subject matter but had failed to teach me strategies for engaging students to learn.
Anxious to pique my students’ interest in a novel, my new strategies and I walked into my classroom one fateful day to continue a study of Dickens’ Great Expectations. This quiet group of ninth graders was a small class of what I called the “do gooders.” They were respectful and wanted to make the best grades possible. No one was a problem. Except for me…one day.
This particular day I had chosen to read aloud to them from a chapter. They were attentive and followed in their books, and we stopped and discussed different elements of the novel. It was toward the end of class, and my voice was feeling tired, so I assigned the last few pages of the chapter as a home assignment. I then added, “But…you have time to finish it before the dismissal bell and not have to read tonight.” They liked my idea.
I, too, wanted to reread the last few pages. Who doesn’t love the story of Pip’s sad childhood and his growing, sadder love for Estella? Who hasn’t wondered why Miss Havisham never left her cob webby, dilapidated house where an ancient wedding cake was lying on a table? So I settled into my chair and into the remainder of the chapter.
Enthralled. A great book can take me away to another era and other people. I was not conscious of where I was or probably even who I was. As my right hand turned a page, my left hand reached into my bag that was sitting on the floor beside me. It found a cigarette and a lighter. I flipped my Bic and then? After one succulent inhale of nicotine, I looked up and realized what I had done. I reentered reality.
I had to think, and I had to think quickly.
With shocked eyes watching me, I threw the cigarette on the floor and stomped it with my foot, and looked at them and said, “I did that to preface something that happened to me.”
Expectant eyes waited, and I began my story.
Last year, I was told that I had a new student enrolling in my class. He arrived as an 18-year-old in Freshman English. His name was Billy. During his first week of class, I looked over to him and saw that he had lit and was smoking a cigarette. I said, “Billy, what are you doing?” He shrugged his shoulders and sardonically replied, “Smoking a cigarette.” I gave the class instructions and asked him to go to the principal’s office with me. As we walked to the office, he smoked the entire way. When Mr. King, my principal and one of my smoking buddies saw us, the look of astonishment on his face was hilarious. He took this young man into his office, and as I headed back to class, a dismissal bell began ringing. Billy was expelled – never to be seen again at our district.
Me? I was scared shitless and was praying that I had pulled off a creative genius strategy for teaching. I grabbed my purse from my classroom and a smoking friend from hers, and we lit up. She laughed as I fretted. I just knew that I would be fired. She proclaimed I would not be.
She was correct. In fact, nothing was ever mentioned about this. Talking about monitoring and adjusting (teacher lingo), I had done it and done it well.
Our sins do come back to haunt us, however. Years later, I moved to another town and school district. I was invited to a Bunko game and was so excited to meet my new colleagues. Arriving at this teacher’s home and excited to meet new friends, the first words that I heard were, “Are you the one who once lit a cigarette in class?”
This memory is now laughable to me; however, I have learned something important: reputations can be a bitch that you will never outrun; they hauntingly follow you everywhere.
By Cyndie Sebourn
Grab the broom of anger and drive off the beast of fear.
– Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road
My mother’s family seems infamous for designating nicknames upon birth: May, Peanut, Jack Rabbit, Bootsie, Tootie and Dit. The most ironic of nicknames belong to my sister and me: Pug Nose and Pee Wee, respectively. Aunt Ester, with all her eye rolling and verbal exclamations, is nicknamed Dit. Out of courtesy and respect for my elders, I coined her Aunt Dit, and Aunt Dit is a hoot.
When I was a child, Aunt Dit pampered me. She would take me home with her for a week and cook me mounds of fudge, thereby eliminating any possibility of the “Pee Wee” nickname making sense. Once, Aunt Dit stopped by to see me at recess. We second graders were playing among the trees on the swing sets and see saws, and when I saw Aunt Dit and her years of fudge mounds heave out of her car and heard her call my name, I hid. As children, we always think that if we can’t see them, they can’t see us. Though my face was hidden behind a tree, I’m sure that my love for that fudge kept me from being totally hidden. My aunt’s heart was broken as she shoved her source of my shame back into her car and drove away.
Back in the day, this woman was a beauty with big, brown eyes, a perfect smile, and a slim figure. People often told her that she looked like Elizabeth Taylor.
There is southern and there is country. Southerners are well-educated, yet often say “y’all” and can cook up anything – as long as it’s fried. Their long, drawn out accents can charm the booger out of a bear. But country? Country is loud noise, incorrect grammar, self-created vocabulary, and is sometimes uncouth. But country is often “good people.” They are just never taught any differently. Aunt Dit is good people.
Aunt Dit and her 300 lbs. of fudge fat had one of the first “fat surgeries” in our area. Having suffered from years of marital abuse, I am sure that she thought a thinner body would make a happier marriage; it didn’t. That husband of hers was a Northerner, which my Southern family blamed for his meanness. He had the worst manners. The last time I saw him was at a wedding; we chit-chatted a little, and then, he had the audacity to tell me that I had a big nose like my daddy. I was shocked speechless and that does not happen to me often. To top it off, he had a big honker of a nose. I just did not get it. Asininity!
Once, a doctor told Aunt Dit that if a cyst did not burst on its own, she would need surgery to remove it. The Northerner claimed bragging rights to the fact that she would not need the surgery. He would take care of it. And he did. He beat the hell out of her, and the cyst burst. Neither fat nor skinny can stand up to mean. Skinny Aunt Dit was miserable. Unfortunately, good people sometimes make bad choices. Meanness was her first bad choice. Three kids and a divorce later, he and his bragging rights hit the road.
Some women can’t go long without a man. The females in my maternal family were like that. Someone, somewhere along the way, had impressed upon these women the need for a man. “Get married young!” seemed to be our family motto. With each generation, the cycle repeated. The dependency repeated. The misery often repeated as well.
Aunt Dit then married The Alcoholic. She had, however, risen on the marital ladder; he was not mean. Neither was he attractive, and he was pretty much worthless. He, however, had a sexual proclivity that he desired, and she abhorred. Another child later and the ability to say goodbye a little easier, she left him as well.
A New Zealander who charmed her while she was waiting tables at Waffle House was her number three. A truck driver with several missing teeth and an accent, he was a little different, but ok, yet he was ugly, too. They paid rent on a trailer lot and parked their single wide there. They also shared the payments and the use of one pickup truck. Aunt Dit had moved up on the pecking order.
Of course, everything eventually went to hell in a hand basket. Aunt Dit had never been guilty of perpetual health. Since her fat surgery a few decades earlier, it seemed that she was constantly sick with one thing or another. The family often blamed this on the ill effects of fat surgery and adamantly believed that Dit had never been right since her surgery. As her four kids became adults, they experienced hospital after hospital visit, regarding first one thing and then another. Some of her children soon became bitter and even phobic of hospitals.
On the night that Aunt Dit received a phone call that her youngest – and truthfully, her favorite – daughter had been in a serious car accident, there was no one who would drive her to the hospital. My aunt had to rely on her brother, Jack Rabbit, to drive her. When she arrived, she witnessed the results of the brain swelling and the eventual death of her daughter. Understandably, Aunt Dit was never the same.
Amongst the wailing and the perpetually lit cigarette, Aunt Dit sometimes forgot to turn off the oxygen tank before she flicked her lighter. She would later call her sister, May, to report minor fires and subsequent injuries. In essence, she grieved an unending grief. She never recovered any shred of happiness, and her health continually declined.
This all occurred while she was married to that New Zealander. I understandingly realize that he had finally had enough; Aunt Dit had told him she no longer desired sex. They say that there is someone for everyone; evidently, someone was attracted to his snaggle-toothed face because it packed up and left – with their pickup truck.
Aunt Dit had a momentary wailing and gnashing of teeth; I suspect more so for the truck than for her husband. She, however, pulled her body off the couch and pulled her oxygen tank toward the phone, and placed a call to a lawyer. She took his advice and yet another plan was in motion.
Without transportation, she had to depend on others to take her to doctors’ visits and to have her prescriptions refilled. She called and begged her estranged husband to take her to a doctor’s appointment. Finally persuaded, he picked her up and gave her a “blessed out cussin’’ that began a ride to remember.
After the doctor’s appointment, she appealed to her husband’s mercy one last time and begged him to stop and have her prescription filled. Telling Dit it was the last time he would ever do this or anything else for her, he pulled in on two wheels and parked. Pulling the keys out of the ignition, bitching because she did not have any money for the Medicare co-pay, and refusing to pay the two dollars himself, he slammed the truck door with the intention of only dropping the RX off. She would have to find someone else to pick it up and to pay for it.
With the door slam still ringing in her ears, Dit probably looked peculiar to anyone who happened to be observing her. Her right hand slid down her blouse and under her bra, and extracted something more valuable than her emaciated, withered breasts. Aunt Dit’s right hand was holding the world in her opinion. It was holding her spare key to their pickup truck.
COPD-ridden and hell bound and determined, she slid over. With her oxygen mask by her side, she inserted the key, started the engine, and roared with laughter. She drove.
Nearing the onset of rush hour traffic, Dit was a woman in charge on the interstate. She pulled her cell phone from her jacket, flipped it open, and called her best friend and sister, May.
I got the truck, and I am on my way!
Fear gripped her sister’s heart. May knew Dit could barely walk, much less make a forty-five-minute drive down the interstate. She paced and prayed until Dit and the pickup pulled in her driveway.
What must have seemed like a modern-day Lucy and Ethel, Dit and May drove the truck over to Jack Rabbit’s trailer in the country and parked it. I’m sure they had some “splainin’” to do. Months later, there it still sits. The attorney had told Dit that possession was ownership. A plan, a spare key, a bra, and a plea for mercy – that woman had possession.
Aunt Dit should be dead by now, but stubbornness keeps her alive. She knows that if she dies, her husband will have legal possession of the truck.
That ain’t gonna happen.
She lights another cigarette, rolls her big brown eyes for effect, and smiles – another plan made.
Dedicated to Ester Henry, 1944-2010. Recipient of a pickup truck via a divorce decree; she willed it to her youngest son prior to her death. Aunt Dit now rests in peace.
Cyndie and Aunt Dit, January 1964
2020 and Me
By Cyndie Sebourn
“There’s an old song from the 70s… ‘Oh, What a Night.’ All I’ve got to say is ‘Sweet Jesus in the Morning.’”
My grandmother used to say that when I was a child. I didn’t understand it then. I don’t understand it now. Back then, I even thought, “Well, isn’t Jesus sweet in the afternoon and at night, too?" My point is… “Oh, what a year!” 2020 was just full of stupidities.
When the virus was beginning, I chose to end a three-and-a-half-year relationship. He is a wonderful man, but I knew he wanted to be married; I didn’t. I really felt that I was doing him a favor. I should have just asked him to marry me right then and there, you know? At least I would have had someone to cook for and clean up after.
I decided to pretty much be self-quarantined so that I could have my grandsons sleep over a few times a month. I did not want to expose them to the virus. My subdivision’s pool didn’t open until halfway through the summer. Often, we were the only ones there. The boys were used to playing with other kids, so it was boring to them. Our POA did have a wonderful idea to have a Bear Hunt, so at night, we walked the streets looking for stuffed bears in windows, in shrubs, and hanging from trees. I didn’t have a stuffed bear, so one of my grandsons displayed Buzz Lightyear. One night they invited Mr. Bill – that ex-boyfriend I should have married – to come eat pizza with us. He was late. Desperate for entertainment, they went to my driveway with colored chalk and wrote, “YOUR LATE MR. BILL!” Bless their hearts. We need to have a spelling lesson.
Since I seldom left my house, groceries, shopping, everything was ordered online. What did I do? I cooked… Then I realized there was only me to eat it. I don’t like leftovers, so I ordered food delivery, although most restaurants didn’t get my order correct. I watched everything on Netflix and Amazon Prime. I ate. I gained weight.
I needed something to do. I decided to organize outfits. Boy, I worked on that for weeks! I have closets of what tops look good with what pants, with what shoes, and with what jewelry and accessories. I even took pictures! They’re still in my closets, and the pictures are in a folder on my iPhone. Add to that, I’ve now gained so much weight that I can’t wear most of them! Not that I get to go anywhere because I don’t have a boyfriend.
I joined a couple of dating websites. Now, why did I do that? Can you really meet someone during a pandemic? I unsubscribed. They were all ugly anyway, and I was now fatter.
Now when I say I’m now fatter, I’m not thinking in terms of a muffin top. I’m saying that I look like a busted can of biscuits. I’m not sure, but I feel like that I’ve been noticing that whenever I round a corner, my butt doesn’t catch up with me until five minutes later.
There you have it - my outrageous, asinine 2020 stupidity! It was a slap dab mess. All I can say is “Sweet Jesus in the New Year,” and God bless this busted can of biscuits.
By Cyndie Sebourn
As I stare at a black and white photo of my mother in the ’50s, I see a stunning woman. A trim figure and shapely legs accentuate a seemingly timeless facial beauty, and I wonder… Did she have any idea what she possessed?
As my memories move forward, I see her by her sewing machine creating dresses of matching fabric for herself, my sister, and me. I recall how, in the final days before Christmas, she sometimes let me open a present here and there just to ease my pain because she knew that my heart was about to burst with excitement. I can still see the dolls that walked, the dolls that talked, and a Bugs Bunny with a pull-string that said, “What’s up, Doc?”
Then there were summer months of blackberry picking together near the ditches of our farm. The subsequent cobblers satisfied my maternally-inherited sweet tooth. Cookies, candy, ice cream – my rewards for being good and my comfort during distress.
As the years progressed, I observed her unfaltering unselfishness. She gave my clothes away to girls less fortunate than me, yet I never lacked in my own closet. She made weekly visits to the local nursing home with gifts of home cooking for elderly little ladies of whom she was fond.
Although white hair and arthritic hands replace her youth, my mother takes such joy in her birthdays. She said that Oprah once said that if someone receives at least sixteen birthday cards, she is popular. Each year, my mom displays her cards on the kitchen table for everyone to see. My mom is popular.
My sister and I have noticed strange occurrences lately. We catch ourselves saying things like “Most of the things we worry about don’t come to pass” or “A hundred years from now it won’t matter.” We show our sons we love them by making them peanut butter candy and chocolate gravy. Sometimes we even find ourselves making certain expressions that only we could recognize. And then…well, we elbow each other, giggle, and say, “Mirror Mirror on the Wall – I’m my mother after all.”
I know I must have broken her heart a million times. And although I remember each detail, I truly believe she has forgotten. You see, a woman like her doesn’t remember her children’s failures.
Out of respect, I call the lady who sewed my clothes and curled my hair – who taught me the joy of sugar – who gave to others and denied herself – I call her “Mother.” Oh, but for the lady who sits with me during a migraine, who becomes strong when I am broken, and who doesn’t remember the times that I broke her heart... I call her “Momma.”
By Cyndie Sebourn
Everybody has some special road of thought along which they travel when they are alone to themselves. – Zora Neale Hurston
I close my eyes and, with little effort, travel to a time when in the hot, dry summer, I would walk down a dirt road and feel the warm, soft dirt ooze between my toes – to a time when walking barefooted was habitual, yet well-guarded due to the prickly cockle burrs scattered on the ground.
Turnin' roads. People always laughed when I gave directions to our house: After the bridge, take the first right onto the first turnin' road. These roads were simply dirt road exits from the paved highways that led to some out-of-the-way place that was as lost as the "g" in "turning."
Home was the house that Daddy built. It was 2000 square feet that became the recipient of all of me: shyness, rebellion, intelligence, confusion. Its yard was a jungle of imagination. The pine trees edged the property, keeping imagination secretive. A clipping from my great-grandmother's rose bush had grown monstrous with memories, all prickly with dusty white in our front yard. Blue hydrangeas, real southern living, grew thickly untrimmed at the end of the house, sheltering me from reality as I traveled the world through my books. And I must mention the pump house out back; it was where I had "played school" with my friends – I insisted on being the teacher. I was in training for a platform that chose me as the boss.
Occasionally, I would conquer a barbed-wire fence for solitary walks to the bayou that was a forever half mile from home. Ignoring the accidental and occasional cow patty squish between my toes, I made the bayou my hideaway. I had nothing to hide from. I simply enjoyed my own company best. Still do.
There were evenings of lying on the ground under the pine trees, watching the Fall wind hauntingly blow the leaves and feeling it finger my hair like a lover. I was content to stargaze. I slow danced with the moon.
And there was cotton. I was so happy when crop rotations were in myfavor, and fertile soil gave birth to popping greenery—cotton, cotton everywhere. Fall afternoons, I would step off Mrs. Turnbo’s school bus, notice Daddy’s cotton picker working its work, and see the near full trailers ready for jumping. I would climb up one end and stand tall on the metal structure before making the big leap. I was always amazed at the strange sensation of nothingness when I landed. Then, I would just lie in my fluffy heaven for a while.
Now here I am again. Going home. I drive through this little town and see vague reflections of a time and life that have long since passed. It feels so different and yet so eerily familiar. I wonder… how many loops did my friends and I drive on Friday and Saturday nights? One end of town to the other, turn around at Kroger and go back the same way we had come. Over and over and over. As I now slowly leave this little town and its three red lights behind, I come to the farm. My family left long ago. The house seems smaller, and the yard seems sad – both are lonely for a little girl sitting on the ground picking clovers and saying, "He loves me; he loves me not."
I am a stubborn woman, and I refuse to give up what I love. So, on summer days, I often kick off my shoes, and my toes feel the oozy, warm dirt; on windy nights, I lie under the trees and the entrancing sky and then stand up and give life a big "what for" with my best dance. On autumn afternoons? By gosh, I let my mind take me back to a moment when HER big, yellow school bus would flash its lights and stop at the first turnin’ road to let a thrilled, little girl spring off and run with exhilaration toward an overflowing cotton trailer, climb high, and two heartbeats later - JUMP!!!
I choose the memory, or perhaps it chooses me. And then again, it does not just choose me; it seduces me. And we lie down. Together.
Dedicated to my beautifully sweet bus driver, Mrs. Joann Turnbo