Since Green Forest was rumored to be a hornets' nest of Klan activity and my colleague was a young man from Shanghai. I fretted about what might befall us on the trip in his rickety Chevy Vega into the miasmatic jungles of Arkansas, fears that loomed even larger when we got a flat in the back country.
But there were no hooded boys on the stretch of road those days, and the greatest terror I livedthrough was listening to a tape of Neil Diamond clunk through its endless loop on CJ's 8-track player, a relic even then.
The students' reaction to our PITS team drew from events unfolding a world away in CJ's homeland. Suddenly, for them, there stood before them a Chinese student, like those they had been seeing via satellite since April, protesting as part of the Chinese democracy movement in the streets of Beijing.
With the teacher's blessing, we quickly dropped our careful lesson plan for the two days, since the kids would have nothing of simile and metaphor when they had a living symbol to explain the images they had been seeing on television. I don't remember what we ended up having them write; what I recall is seeing their faces in full attention as CJ, who was sympathetic to the democracy movement but no rebel himself, patiently speak about the hopes of those back home and of the way they had drawn from American culture.
That Goddess of Liberty particularly intrigued them, and CJ held back his hopeful tears as he did the work of translating his own passions and country's aspirations into his second language.
Witnessing the shared vision of the students in that classroom in Green Forest made the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests twenty years ago today seem like a punch straight to the gut.
My second job beside being a teaching assistant in the U of A English Department was working as publicist for The University of Arkansas Press, directed at the time by press founder and noted poet Miller WIlliams. Graduate students from China approached him with the notion of publishing a translation of articles from the Ming Pao News, along with 200 photographs; he accepted, and the race to translate and publish June 4: A Chronicle of the Chinese Democratic Uprising by September was on.
The students worked at lightning speed, their pace quickened by demands by the Chinese government that they be sent back to their country as further crackdowns were leveled back home. Press staff shuddered inwardly inwardly at what horrors Chinese prisons might, for like the rest of the world, we had seen what the Chinese government was willing to do to its citizens with the cameras rolling,
The speed led to one of the unintentional hilarity as the press's editors poured over the translations.
Debbie paused at a phrase: "purse cushion." The manuscript reported that someone feared purse cushion. What could that be? An arcane Chinese torture device, she wondered aloud. Fiction writer Dixon Boyles, another creative writing student then working at the press, translated it with his delciate writer's ear.
"I think she means 'persecution'," he said in his slow, sweet Texarkana drawl.
The book made its September deadline, a remarkable feat in those pre-World Wide Web, pre-online-crowdsourced days. I didn't make history--that was the job of the Chinese students--but I did flack for it.
Naturally, the twenty-year anniversary has prompted me to reflect on those days back in Fayetteville, of the raw physical and political courage I witnessed in the Green Forest classroom and at the press. I had ringside seat for those seeking to create a document of their peers' struggles and defeat. I enjoyed all of the security of American spectator, while they faced recall home to their oppressive homeland--and possibiliy worse--all for documenting history before it was erased.
We live in post-modern times where PhotoShop has replaced the heavy-handed airbrushing that Stalin and his cohorts used to delete their purged comrades. The stakes in remembering and telling the truthful past in Minnesota are surely less dangerous than the risks those brave Chinese students took so many years ago and the motives of those who delete the past surely less totalitian than those of the Chinese govenrment that literally crushed its own citizens.
This week the simple prairie roses opened again and I causght my first glimpse of this beloved, five-petalled flower as I biked along the Luce Line Trail. It's almost as if I'm handed a bouquet of coutner-symbols those my Chinese colleague picked twenty years ago. The five-petalled rose is the emblem and namesake for sub-rosa, for confidential confessions, covert operations, and silence. In the West, this signs has roots in the ancient world.
And yet those prairie roses are beautiful and smell pretty good. So which path should a writer take, when beckoned by two symbols in early June?
A graduate of Hamline and the University of Arkansas, Sally Jo Sorensen edits Bluestem Prairie.
Photo: Prairie roses along the Luce Line Trail.