The day students from my Massachusetts college came to my Alabama hometown, we drove through the near-mile-wide gash left by The Tornado. Near the church of my youth, students gawked at plains of denuded trees, half-gone houses, and bare foundations. Then we emerged on the far side of the disaster zone and parked on the campus of my alma mater.
Assumption College, where I teach, is as small and Catholic as the University of Alabama is sprawling and secular. My students chattered about how "wicked big" everything was, from the campus quadrangle to the stadium that seats 101,000. By sheer chance, we walked by the place where the segregationist governor George Wallace made his racist "stand in the schoolhouse door" against those Massachusetts Kennedys. "I remember this from Forrest Gump!" one student exclaimed. A few minutes later, we passed a building that the college president's wife supposedly talked Union troops out of burning down.
I was the "local liaison" for a town I hadn't lived in since 1983. As fraudulent as my role seemed, I tried my best. Ever the professor, I turned each stop into an educational moment, relaying what little I remembered. And in at least one way, I made an impression: "Wow, Professor," one student said, "your Southern accent is funny enough when we're at Assumption, but down here, it's totally out of control!"
"Wait until y'all meet my mother," I said.
That night, when my mother arrived at the students' lodging, she was greeted by 13 New Englanders staring expectantly. "Why, hi there!" she said. They laughed as if it were the funniest joke they had ever heard.
Thus was the first day of a week in which I managed to bridge a divide that I had long since given up on spanning. Almost two decades ago, I had left newspapers and the South for academe and the North. In the process I had become bottled up in my profession's inevitable silos, both geographical and institutional.
The old joke goes that Ph.D.'s are like missionaries: They go where they are called. In my case, I felt lucky to wind up on the tenure track in Worcester, Mass., a city of about 180,000, perfectly positioned between the Boston metropolitan area and gorgeous rural Massachusetts scenery. True, Worcester was more than 1,200 miles from my folks, but being far from home just came with the academic territory.
On my campus, I soon figured out which co-workers mattered most in my quest for tenure: other faculty members and their bosses. Even though I utilized community service to push my students into the world off the campus, I rarely reached out to people doing similar work in student life or campus ministry. In fact, when I heard the word "colleague," I always assumed it meant professor (or a boss of professors).
To change that, all it took was a lethal tornado with 190 m.p.h. winds. Part of the fourth deadliest day in American tornado history, the storm mowed through my hometown on April 27, 2011, killing 54 people in Tuscaloosa and, by one count, 249 in my home state.
I, of course, was oblivious up in Massachusetts. That evening I felt the cellphone vibrate in my pocket, but I was more intent on the microphone, which I was using to emcee a dinner for senior English majors—at that point, the most anxious moment of a busy late-semester week.
Once home, I found a voicemail from my sister and returned her call. We watched the Weather Channel together, her in her Florida home, me in my Massachusetts apartment. "Our hometown is gone, Mike," Nancy said.
But I found myself thinking that many of the damaged buildings actually weren't from my hometown at all—at least not the landscape I remembered from my youth. Staring at the random videos piling up on television and online, I realized that while current Tuscaloosans could juxtapose the post-tornado scene with what was there just one hour earlier, I could no longer conjure the "before" to contrast with the "after."
Still, even a stranger could tell it was horrifying. Within an hour of viewing, realization dawned: My quiet inland hometown—so far removed from tidal waves, hurricanes, and earthquakes—had become the kind of disaster area to which colleges sent volunteer groups.
Sure enough, for a few weeks, Tuscaloosa was mentioned with the same long sighs and sympathetic tones as New Orleans. I decided to take advantage of the outpouring to do the only thing I could do for the time being. I asked members of the campus ministry program to consider Tuscaloosa as a candidate for one of Assumption's many weeklong mission trips.
Unfortunately, the schedule was already locked in. So instead I decided to get involved on my own and help out in Tuscaloosa during the few days I could break away between campus obligations.
While my primary goal was just to somehow lend a hand, I also figured the experience would help me reconnect with a town I hadn't lived in for almost three decades. It didn't quite work out that way. I helped lift, drag, and roll debris in a neighborhood close to my childhood church, but I worked alongside a group of volunteers who were also from out of state. I was probably more disappointing to them: Even though I was from Tuscaloosa, I couldn't thank them with the credibility of someone who had lived through the storm.
Worse, I found that a dozen years in New England weather had left me almost defenseless against the dizzying effects of a near 100-degree cloudless Alabama day, especially one spent in a tornado zone stripped of shade. Mind addled from the heat, eyes stinging from perspiration, and glasses coated with dirt and sweat, I became a danger to myself and others as I slung boards studded with rusty nails.
When the first day's work was done, I trudged a mile or so along the tornado's path until I popped out into the parking lot of a surreally pristine mall and stumbled into a Starbucks inside a Barnes & Noble. I might as well have been back in Worcester. As I downed an overpriced water, I got a call from a conference director in California, wanting to confirm the title of the talk I was giving there in two weeks.
My mission to reconnect with my roots had failed, and I returned to Massachusetts.
Summer passed into fall, and reports from my hometown continued to concern me. Then in November a college mission trip to New Orleans fell through. Our trip coordinator, Vinnie Sullivan-Jacques, managed to quickly plan a Tuscaloosa trip instead. Our students would work with the local Habitat for Humanity to build a home for a tornado victim—a project that was also sponsored, coincidentally, by the church my family attends. My role would be local liaison, although no one was sure what that meant.
Several weeks later, we arrived in Tuscaloosa. Besides community service, mission trips are supposed to have a cultural immersion component, and it was my job to provide it. How could I distill the Deep South into an essence digestible for New Englanders born a decade after I'd blown town? The experience gap was so wide, the challenge wasn't just a matter of guessing what they would be interested in; I would have to suggest what they should be interested in.
As I grappled with the pedagogical problem, I felt my old culture and my new profession merge in powerful ways. The result was a formula of civil rights, Alabama football, and barbecue.
Two of those merged: After touring the moving Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham—walking through the history of segregation, and standing outside 16th Street Baptist where four girls were killed by a white-supremacist bomb—we wound up back at Dreamland Bar-B-Que, a black-owned business in a black neighborhood, patronized by a substantial white customer base. During nightly reflection, students asked the right questions as they juxtaposed then and now, wondering what social injustices today will be looked back upon with astonishment in another 50 years.
In the process, students asked deep questions about my own experiences growing up in the 60s—and even though the tail end of the 60s for me was kindergarten, I found myself revealing more of both the state's story and my own. I mentioned how, at the institute earlier, I'd been moved to see a photo of Johnnie Carr, who helped found Martin Luther King Jr.'s Montgomery Improvement Association and, oddly enough, a Habitat for Humanity chapter in which I'd become involved back in the 1980s. Now here we were, working for yet another Habitat, up the road in Tuscaloosa. At every turn, my academic persona seemed to merge with my Southern pre-academic self, lending new insight and shape to old experiences.
Less profound but still important in that neck of the woods, our trip coincided with the Crimson Tide's quest for a national football championship. On game night, a local restaurant owner set aside a table where we watched Alabama win the championship. The only person at our table not wearing Crimson Tide gear was, oddly enough, me.
Yet the next night was the most moving for me. Students came to my mom's to feast on barbecue provided by my dad, who had taken painstaking care with the order. The students surprised both our local Habitat supervisor and me with posters, each featuring their photos and autographs.
The posters also featured the longest acronym I'd ever seen. Despite having grown up in Tuscaloosa, I didn't know the letters of the city's name also stood for "Together Using Service, Care, And Love, Offering Our Support to Alabama." But it made sense—particularly "Together." The next day, after the students left, my mother and I went through a small paper bag marked "Land Family," containing notes students had left for us. My father read them later. Both were moved nearly to tears. In those moments, surely they could see why I loved my job.
"I just love those kids," said Mom, who had hugged each of them goodbye.
A few weeks later, one of the students stopped by my office, and spotted the poster, now nicely framed, hanging on my wall.
"Hey, your mother e-mailed me," she said.
"Well," I said, "my mother hasn't e-mailed me."
I didn't want to push my luck by lobbying for a second trip, but the campus ministry decided a repeat performance was in order. So in a few weeks, another wave of Assumption students will wander the streets and campus of my youth, meet my parents, soak in the Deep South. Once again Alabama will play for a national championship while we're there. This year it'll be against the University of Notre Dame, another Roman Catholic school, coached by an Assumption graduate. (Students may need to show some restraint in their cheering.)
I'm the local liaison. Only this time, I feel local enough to bear the title.