Amarillo, Texas. I had to fight the wind for my breath from the time I was born. The wind deposited grit in my eyes and lip corners and hair. It swept encouragement and elegance, inspiration and creativity eastward, not even giving them time to touch down. Bouncing tumbleweeds, bent trees, leaning fences. Wind. Always.
“I don’t think they have mirrors up there,” says a friend, also from Amarillo, recently returned from a visit to her mother. “If they did, nobody would ever leave their houses.”
“The people in Amarillo make me feel skinny.” This from an ample-waisted woman who was in the panhandle last year. In Amarillo every four-cornered intersection has three fast-food restaurants.
Here’s a story that gives an idea of the Amarillo mindset:
After I graduated from Tech and returned to Amarillo, I taught private flute lessons for a while. Private lessons are expensive, and I quickly learned that most kids, considering the cost to their parents, took the outlay lightly. The majority of them seldom practiced. Many times they simply didn’t show.
I had a student, Sarah—not charming, not attractive, not outgoing, not bright. She struggled to pass her classes. English, science, math—all the core subjects overwhelmed her. But, because of her dedication to her flute, she had a place in my heart. Her lessons were a pleasure for both of us. Playing the flute was the only thing she did well, and band gave her a place to shine. Every other avenue offered by the school caused her anxiety, but sitting first chair in the flute section gave her confidence.
Unfortunately, her parents’ response to her subpar classroom performance was to take her flute away. Failed an algebra test? No flute for a week. Doing poorly in English? Three days without the flute. They handled her other infractions—a fight with her sister, slacking in her chores, smarting off to her dad—in the same way.
I was young and inexperienced. I had yet to learn that Amarillo minds are firmly fixed and impenetrable, impervious to any ideas other than their own. I’d had friendly conversations with Sarah’s mother in the past, and naively thought our shallow relationship gave me the right to voice an opinion.
“Sarah’s a good flute player,” I told Sarah’s mom. “Is there a way to improve her grades and discipline her without taking away the thing she loves most?”
“First of all, Jenny, this is none of your business. Secondly, she practices instead of doing her homework.”
“Maybe what she needs is tutoring in the subjects where she’s weak, instead of punishment. Also, don’t you think she should be encouraged in the area where she excels?”
“I’m teaching her accountability. It’s called good parenting.”
To me it seemed like her parenting technique was more about power and control than guiding and nurturing, but as she pointed out, it was none of my business.
The next year, Sarah’s brother became jealous because Sarah was the best in school at something. So he put her flute in the street and it got run over. Sarah’s mother assured me that the brother would be punished. And, yes, I was told, they’d probably buy Sarah a new flute, as soon as she got her grades up. Lessons suspended, obviously. I moved to Cairo soon after.
A few years later, when I was in Amarillo visiting my family, I ran into Sarah’s mom at the mall.
“How’s Sarah’s music going?” I asked. Sarah would be a junior. I had happy visions of her comfortably ensconced in her high school band, sitting at the top of the flute section, giggling through football games, surrounded by friends in uniforms with instruments in their hands.
“Oh, she quit band years ago.” The way she said it, I knew they'd never replaced the one that had been run over. “She dropped out of school and is working the drive-through window at the Burger King on Western.”
“And you’re okay with that?” I was horrified. Sarah might not have been a genius, but she’d had some talent. She’d had heart.
“She’s got a job. She’s not on drugs. She’s not pregnant. What more could a mother ask?”
Low expectations result in low achievement. Was it right that working at a BK was all this mother wanted for her child? Was it even moral? Where did this bovine acceptance of mediocrity come from? I blame Amarillo, where imagination and a sense of possibility are carried away by the relentless wind, only to be replaced by insular inertia.
Amarillo in my rearview mirror. Thank God.