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Palm Trees Do Not Equal Vacation

Editor Note: This entry was written originally in 2006.

I’m experiencing culture shock. Several people on Thursday and Friday asked me how I like Houma and I don’t know how to respond to this. It is completely impossible to pass judgment on a place within 24 hours and even if I could why would anyone want me to? Nothing good could come of that.

I’ve noticed that I’m coping with the culture shock by imagining that I’m in another country. I wonder if the locals would find that unpatriotic. But come on…there are palm trees here. Minnesotans only see palm trees on vacation. This reality combined with the sub-tropical temperatures led me to believe I was on vacation until I arrived at new teacher orientation (known here as “induction”). Vacations about which I dream do not include sample lesson plans (with a recommendation to use a timer) or a handout detailing the statewide curriculum. So, I guess I’m not on vacation.

It has also come to my attention that there are secret codes here. Secret southern codes. Some people are addressed with a title plus their last names: “Ms. Gillam”. Others are addressed with a title plus their first names: “Ms. Sloane”. And still others are apparently addressed merely by their first names: “Sloane”. As far as I can tell, there is no rhyme or reason to this system. I am sure that I will screw it up and upset someone soon. I feel especially sensitive to this possible gaffe because when I was eighteen years old at my sister’s wedding, I addressed my brother-in-law’s mother incorrectly. I thought we’d had a most delightful interaction and I came to find out much later that I had quite offended her. Such a dynamic would not serve me well in my new professional life. I shared my vexation about this mystery with my new colleague, Marsha (Mrs. Williams? Ms. Marsha?); she smiled knowingly. We agreed that I should just listen carefully to how people introduce themselves or are introduced in order to find out what they want to be called. Ms. Marsha has a very serious manner which intimidated me at first. At one point she lowered her voice and reminded me that there are a lot more black people here in Louisiana than there are up north. I was momentarily paralyzed; I had expected racism in Louisiana, but not from professional, experienced educators. But then next thing that she said was merely that black people in the area usually seemed to prefer the title plus the last name over the title plus the first name. I relaxed but remained alert to any other surprising notions.

I believe Ms. Marsha is a bit of a rabble rouser and I’m looking forward to finding out more about that. She has promised to invite my boyfriend and I over to a boiled crab dinner with her and her husband so we can learn how to eat it properly. I suspect I will also learn more about the region’s racial politics from her. She made another reference to “another sassy black” on Friday and I nearly choked. I’m working on perfecting my smile-and-nod technique until I can pinpoint whom to trust.

As for my surroundings, Houma has one main commercial street. My entire life occurs along this stretch of pavement. My boyfriend and I live in an apartment complex in a northern section of this avenue, known at this juncture as Martin Luther King Boulevard. When we emerge from our little gated piece of heaven, we turn right and head south. We are greeted on both sides by almost any big box retailer one could hope for. As a result, I currently live closer to a Target than I ever have in my life. It simultaneously disturbs and comforts me.

In order for you to get a proper picture of Martin Luther King Boulevard, you must picture a five-lane busy road (I invite my college girlfriends to picture Joliet, Illinois, but with palm trees). Drivers in the outer four lanes are invited to drive as fast as 50 miles per hour, but I keep forgetting to do so, since I never know exactly when it is time to turn into one of the numerous parking lots.

The middle lane is a curious no man’s land where one is meant to hover before attempting to turn across the oncoming traffic. As a result, if you enter this lane too soon, you may find yourself face-to-face with another vehicle and driver coming from the opposite direction. When I was in this position earlier today, I gave the other driver priority, since I clearly had no idea what I was doing.

It appears that Houma is located in a climate that enjoys two seasons: rainy and steamy. They appear to alternate at random intervals, and sometimes there are multiples of each of those seasons in the same day. About an hour ago we were in the rainy season, but judging from the sound of things growing and buzzing outside my window, it appears that steamy season is back in full swing.

Regardless, in spite of palm-looking trees lurking outside, I have to begin teaching on Tuesday; so back to work I go.