“A picture’s worth a thousand words,
But you can’t see what those shades of gray keep covered–
You should have seen it in color.”
Jamey Johnson, “In Color”
“I bleed Orange and Blue. Auburn University made me what I am today–and I never turn my back on family.” Dr. Privett-Duren
My heart is broken. And this is a really, really good thing.
As a little girl, I knew the difference between a skinned knee and real sorrow. Loss of blood had nothing on the latter. From the moment I entered your world, I grieved the impending death of my Grandma. At four. At ten. At thirty. At forty-two. Knowing that she would die became the foundation I grew upon, red and sundown yellow against whatever innocence I should have understood. Something in me knew she loved me better, harder, deeper than anyone ever would again. And so, I suppose, it was selfish from the beginning.
She broke my little girl Southern heart, from the moment I breathed air. And she was worth it. Some things, and some folks, just are.
I fell in love with Auburn University while she was still alive. For this, I am so grateful. I remember her, rocking back and forth on the porch and chewing her nails, trying to grasp the difference between being a doctor and holding a doctorate. Not that it made any nevermind to her: I had made it. The little girl she had taken in, over and over, since 1966. Her taterhead. Her baby had survived—and she was so proud of me. The feel of her rough country hand on my shoulder, her finger tracing my eyebrows that she was so fond of from birth, her voice in my ear . . . these things are all I have left now. They now whisper in the wind, just memories I’m imparting to you on a computer. But, laws. You should have seen them in color.
I’ve never been loved like that since, and I expect, I never will. It made me fearless. It made me impenetrable. It made me witch.
And now, even though some might think they knew her better, I know she grieves with me. Grandma knew what it was to hide herself from the public eye—and she knew that what might seem, at first glance, to be evil can be very, very good. I promised to hold her secrets. And forever I shall. But I can still hear her, I still can taste her bravery in my mouth and I still know where she stood on “what tweren’t right,” and let me tell you: there wasn’t any gray area for that woman. She told me stories of bigotry in Alabama and how she subverted its spread, tales of love so wrenching there were not words for their demise and spun stories of “heavenly” grace that most Southerners would only comprehend in the abstract. We agreed. On everything that mattered.
But here I am. Without her. Struggling to stand again.
My story is about to be released in the news, and I suppose, that was inevitable. But before it does, let me say:
I loved teaching. It made me high. My students loved me and I loved them—and something truly magical happened in those rooms, cornered against Fitzgerald and Matheson and grappling with old dead white men. We . . . found our voices, albeit them innocuous to academia and the numbers on standardized tests. I loved them: Christians, football players, Muslims, sorority girls, outcasts, hippies, every one. We forged forts and valleys and ideas and memories. Sometimes, they would go on to be teachers, themselves. Sometimes, they went on to be lawyers. Always, they looked back and said: “It was Camelot.” Every single class.
And while this should have been enough, shoved up against my impeccable annual reviews, it wasn’t. Not when they found out that I was, am, a country witch. No one has bothered to ask what this means—although none of my students seem to care. After all, folks like me are in the Bible, advising and prophesizing and generally decorating the whole shebang. Either way, they knew me to be “good.” And this, in their estimation, was all that mattered. Well, that and teaching my arse off.
And they came damn smart close to loving me as much as Grandma did.
I remember one review, about five years ago, in which my supervisor lamented: “I wish we could take whatever you have and bottle it.” Ironic, really, when you finally understand that “whatever [I] had” was of a magical nature. Although, I suppose that in the end, they did try to bottle it.
My grandma would have their hide for that. After all, I had done my best, had won awards, had incited multiple students to go on for their graduate degrees and had overall sweated over their fields and prayed for rain. In the end?
Here’s what I remember: desks scooting closer, books adorned with scribbles of thoughts and questions, eyes brimming with pain over a love over two-hundred years-old, arguments fueled by ancient rhetoric, frat boys grappling with concepts of justice, football players saddling up next to Dickens, ESL students following me to the elevator with hope. I can draw this for you, all day.
But you should have seen it in color.
I was Dr. PD. And it was Camelot. You will read a bit about what happened in the news soon, and for those of you who didn’t know, I’m so sorry if this upsets you in any way. What you need to know, if you find yourselves angry or confused, is really simple.
Yes, my darlings. I am, have always been, a country witch. And everything anyone has ever told you about what that means should have also told you that we love you. That we love a “Great Spirit/aka God/aka Goddess” just like you, honey. That we have ethical boundaries, believe in the power of love, count on faith and walk on dirt just like you. I may burn because of your confusion, but know this:
While I do, I will be blessing you. The “me” you loved is still here. Being a witch does not mean that I am evil, or bad, or vengeful. It just means that the sky blessed me once with a little extra something. And somewhere, deep inside you, the truth is there.
For Auburn University: You broke my heart. And you were worth it.
For my readers, I promise you: I am back. Being outed on this level was the impetus to my healing, finally, of my identity. I am no longer in the closet. I am the Southern Fried Witch, turning and spinning and loving out in the backwoods of Alabama. And I am, also and indelibly,
Dr. Katharyn Privett-Duren (Seba)