Thursday, December 6, 2007

A Researcher at Heart

So we did great work together at USM -- what a wonderful day. In the morning, 350 students from surrounding areas: Gulfport, Macomb, Miselle, Hattiesburg, and more. How gratifying to see the response to this first invitation from the de Grummond Collection folks and the University to the public schools to come meet an author.

Students ranged from third through seventh grade. Each group had read an age-appropriate Deborah Wiles book. They knew their characters! They knew the stories. And I was so pleased to make their acquaintance. Thank you, teachers, for preparing your students, and thank you, students, for your glowing presence!

We had a good hour together, after which (and after a fun lunchtime full of good food), I spent two hours in the McCain Library and Archive, reading through letters, diaries, notes, memos, of Freedom Summer workers in 1964 Hattiesburg and Holly Springs. I read through ledger books and letters, recipes and photographs... I was totally blown over to hold these original items in my hands. I have never done official research in a primary source archive, so I depended on archivists Diane Ross and Danielle Bishop to see me through. And they did -- what knowledgeable, friendly, helpful folks.

My cart was just inside the door when I arrived at the Cleanth Brooks Reading Room just outside the archives. I surrendered my coat and bags and took my laptop and notebook and a pen to the table I'd selected by the windows. Here's the sign that was on my cart. It's official: I'm an official researcher.

Here's Diane with my research, all together on a cart, in boxes, pulled from the archive, and waiting for me to sit down, one box at a time, and go through these treasures.

Primary sources! If I had had access to this sort of archive as a kid in school trying to learn about primary and secondary sources, I would have "gotten it" immediately. What a great field trip this would be for kids who are learning about history and how we gather it, catalog it, care for it. It's amazing to sit down with one of these boxes, open it, pull out Folder 1, and see, right in front of you, the actual handout that was given to students on campuses across the country about the Freedom Summer Initiative, the flyer that brought students to meetings on campus, that lead them to sign up for training, and to be sent to Mississippi to work for the summer. In my book FREEDOM SUMMER, I write about 1964 Mississippi, about the year the pool was closed so it wouldn't be integrated after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. I write about my memories. Now I have more stories of 1964 to share as I write the first book in a trilogy of novels about the 1960s for young readers.

Here's Danielle, patiently watching me put one box at a time back so I can take another to my table.

I barely got started on this research -- I will be back. My Sixties Trilogy will be so much richer for my having spent time with real stories of real people doing real work in 1960s Mississippi.

I skipped dinner in favor of research (I was always this way) and had to rush to be at the auditorium in time to give my speech to the honors forum.

Here are David Davies, Dean of the Honors College at USM and Ellen Ruffin, Curator of the de Grummond Collection, and moi in the middle. We are celebrating after my speech -- a successful first collaboration between the Honors College and the de Grummond Collection, and the first time a children's book author has spoken at the honors forum. I was honored to be asked and delighted to be there. Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who made this day possible.

As readers know, I tend to leave things in my wake on my travels. I've been mostly on the road since September 6. But now -- I'm home. Still, I left my phone charger in the hotel room in Hattiesburg. It's the last thing I'll leave somewhere this year, as my travels are over. Over! The tour time is officially over, and I can't believe I managed to chronicle it. I can't believe I actually did all the things I did, met all the wonderful people I met, gained all the weight I gained, and learned all the things I learned -- I'll need to process for a while. Folks on the road took great good care of me -- I can scroll down the pages of this blog and remember them all, all those stories...

I woke up yesterday in Hattiesburg, however, with a scratchy, growly voice, and aches all over. Big aches. I'm still coughing. I'm wondering if my body held on for Dec. 5, when it knew I would be Done. I got up and drove to New Orleans yesterday. Hugged Coleen goodbye. She was dealing with the delivery of a ten-foot Christmas tree AND she was heating me soup! I took a taxi to the airport. Flew home to Atlanta. And there was Jim. There was my husband. Smiling. Hugging me home. It was perfect.

I'm submerging for a few days. Sleeeeeeeeep, Deb. It's okay. Your work out there is done. It was good work. And now is the time for dreaming.