Famous for being the front line of the civil rights movement, and infamous for being the setting to The First 48, Birmingham taught me everything I know about lines.
Birmingham is situated within the flat land of Jones Valley, one of the southernmost valleys of the Appalachian Mountains. It is flanked by the long parallel ridges of the tail end of the mountain chain. “The Magic City” is the only place in the world where the raw materials to make iron – coal, limestone and iron ore, occur naturally within a ten-mile radius of one another.
When it was founded in 1871, Birmingham promised to prosper as the iron, coal, and steel industry expanded, and it did until it didn’t. Just south of the city, there is a long ridge that runs southwest to the northeast that separates Shades Valley from Jones Valley- called Red Mountain. Affluent all-whites-only neighborhoods were built “over the mountain” on the Shades Valley side in the early 1900’s to protect families from the harsh effects of pollution. This was, and still is, a bold line. It is marked by the connotation of class and denoted by median income, property value, and public school rankings.
Both of my parents are from the side of the ridge where the pollution settled. By the time I was born, segregation had been over, but my mother had no interest in driving all the way out there, and for most of my young life I didn’t know what was over the mountain ridgeline. When I got my driver’s license at 16, I’d drive myself to the Galleria and to Target to shop. My friends and I never really spoke about the line, but we were all determined to perforate it. In high school, a few of us used the libraries to get our senior papers done. We didn’t have access to library cards, so we waited in the queue for copies.
The summer of my sophomore year in college, my best girlfriend and I got retail jobs at different department stores over the mountain. After work, she’d kidnap me in her Daewoo; we’d get some food, and look at houses. We’d ride through Mountain Brook, Greystone, or wherever her whims took her. The houses were immaculate! I fancied the big brick homes with bay windows and driveways that led right up to the front door. While this activity fueled her creativity, it physically pained me. It made me aware of what I didn’t have, and I knew how hard it would be to get it. After all, I am a numbers girl. I had run the numbers, and they didn’t look good. I figured I needed to be making about $115K a year to live that life, but I was majoring in English. Plus, I had racked up several rejection letters from literary agents, and things were not looking up for me.
Things were problematic on our side of Birmingham, but it wasn’t all bad all the time. One of the things I love about my mother’s house is it’s always filled with life. On the weekends, she and her brothers and sisters set up the fish fryer, my cousins break out the card tables and the coolers, while the kids throw footballs, eat popsicles and compete in dance contests for dollars. It didn’t feel like that sort of thing happened over the mountain. Sometimes my mother would be too tired to clean up after her family left, and we’d leave it till the next morning. On any given day you could see played-in yards, and the remnants of celebration in so many of the neighborhoods on our side. I never saw pieces of that kind of fun over the mountain.
There were nice neighborhoods on our side of the Birmingham, yet over the mountain was the bar for me. It was a bright indicator of success, and I wanted it even if it wasn’t perfect. For a short while, I dated the kind of guys that weren’t afraid to show me they could afford to help move me over there, but it was so frustrating; they always came with court cases. They figured they’d toe the line and take their chances, and they almost always lost their freedom.
I was trying to finish college, raise a son, and live off of financial aid. I took up substitute teaching. It literally paid $50.00 a day. I thought I was struggling. Some days it felt like the walls were closing in on me, but I was wrong. I had the privilege of living in a house owned by my father and his siblings, a healthy support system, and of a real chance at finishing college.
Once I started substitute teaching, I was astounded by the number of students confessed they hadn’t ever been over the mountain. Many of them had only ever been to the Galleria and out to eat at one of the restaurants on the perimeter of the parking lot. Most of my students had no idea of what the parks, schools, and libraries looked like. They knew that had been short-changed, even if they hadn’t rolled through their neighborhoods and examined the quality of the air, the beauty of the landscape or the smoothness of their streets. I felt like they needed to see the unfairness of it all, but I didn’t think the Birmingham Public School System would have approved that type of sociological field trip.
Hayes High School was months from being closed down, the days were hard, and the students needed so much. There were weeks when gang fights, lockdowns, and excessive prank bomb threats filled our days and instruction was just not possible. Those days were about healing, cohort building, and making up late or missing assignments. I’d get vulnerable with my students, and they’d get vulnerable with me. They’d share stories of homelessness, hunger, abuse, abandonment, and HIV positive test results. My students had their sights on a dividing line much like I had my eye over the mountain. The line they were obsessed with was different. It was close, thick, and uneven– the line of survival.
It was why my students would break out their phones in my class, clap back if my approach was off, and would not be bothered with trying if my grading system felt like a setup. They had real life shit, some of the same kinds of things my 20 something-year-old friends and I were going through. Some were things my 20 something-year-old friends and I would never have to go through. Realists, they had run the numbers too. Unsatisfactory test scores, low graduation rates and below living wage jobs are just some of the costs of being black and poor on the other side of the mountain.
In every single high school class I have ever taught, there were quite a few students who had become accustomed breaking the law in order to stay on the living side of the survival line. At least two or three of my students were always going through court cases – suspended license, aggravated assault, possession, failure to appear, armed robbery, you name it. In almost all the cases, these young people would admit to me they’d done the crime, and wanted to know if I would miss them. I’d listen quietly as they explain how they didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt, and the reason why they had done whatever it was they had done. It was almost always about getting out of, or over, some dire situation.
Eventually, the school year ended, and I realized I hadn’t thought much more about going over the mountain. That line seemed faint and immaterial; my students had been like splotches of paint coloring in the lines of the bigger picture for me. Why would I live over the mountain, when my heart was already at home?
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