Friday, January 30, 2015

SOMETIMES CHILDHOOD STINKS

When you enter the home of Suzi Thornton near City Park in New Iberia, you may be greeted with a song...or a rhyming poem...even whistling. Last evening, we enjoyed a dinner Suzi had prepared for us in her newly-renovated kitchen and spent several hours being entertained by her renditions of poems from her book, Sometimes Childhood Stinks and songs from her play, Celebrate the Wetlands. For the finale of the evening, she sat down at the piano, played and sang the only love song she says she ever wrote for her husband (at his request), "You Never Say the Words." Don, a man of few words who died from cancer several years ago, was pleased with the song but "never said the words" according to Suzi.

Suzi's mother would have been proud of her had she lived to see Suzi's accomplishments as a teacher, writer, musician, and environmentalist. She had despaired of Suzi becoming a "lady" when she grew up because Suzi would more frequently climb trees and mimic the behavior of her brother. When Suzi became a teenager, her mother sent her to Mr. Nance's Charm School to learn how to do deep curtsies and sit erect in a chair with a cup of coffee in hand. Suzi is still expert at showing visitors how to curtsy, sit in a chair with legs crossed at the ankles, and perform other acts of courtesy to amuse her company.

Suzi, a native of Vivian, Louisiana and daughter of former State Representative Jasper Smith, married Don Thornton from Winnboro, who liked to relate that he was born in a sharecropper's shack. However, Don became an artist, sculptor, teacher, and poet who influenced Suzi to develop aspirations to teach and write, and he encouraged her to finish her education with a Master's in Elementary Education after she attended "a lot of colleges," she says—LSU, ULL, College of the Mainland in Texas City, and the University of Houston at Clear Lake City. "I had trouble taking tests and would panic until Don taught me guided imagery, and my grades shot up," she explains.

Suzi and Don were a good team, teaching gifted and talented children in Iberia and St. Martin parishes and publishing the creative writing of young writers and artists in books like Mindscape, Fantasy and Other Joys, B Sharp, Hypethral, Whiffle, and other works of outstanding students. Suzi considers her environmental work, culminating in Celebrate the Wetlands, which was written for fourth graders, her real achievement. When she was awarded an Acadiana Educational Endowment grant to produce, perform, and distribute a play and songs about the wetlands to schools in Iberia Parish, she said that she felt like she was teaching the students to "leave as their legacy the hope of the universe and the vision to know what to do."

I think that Suzi's forte is rhyming poetry, perhaps because I write free verse and am always impressed by rhyming poets. I especially like her limericks; e.g., this one entitled "What's Her Name?"

Lot's wife would have gotten much older
if she had behaved as God told her.
   It was her own fault
   she was turned into salt
for looking back over her shoulder.

However, Suzi's husband Don preferred those poems and songs in Sometimes Childhood Stinks, which recorded Suzi's joys and sorrows growing up. He wrote that "those joys and sorrows and the reinforcement of the idea that childhood is precious and can be survived, even the stinking part, is preserved in every poem and song...there is a universal quality about the works that gives them the marrow of wit and the phrasing of angels." I think Don really "said the words" in that introduction.

I was at the debut signing of this book and heard Suzi sing my favorite, the title poem, "Sometimes Childhood Stinks":

I think I'd like to run away
'cause sometimes childhood stinks.
My brother says that's stupid,
but who cares what he thinks!           

He's not the one in trouble.
I took his stupid dare.
Now Mama's gonna spank me
for cutting off my hair.

I just got tired of pigtails.
So, what was I to do?
My brother had a crew cut,
and now I have one too.

You can imagine the delightful evening we enjoyed, sharing a meal (complete with freshly-baked bread) and listening to Suzi's humorous renditions! 

Suzi, whose wit carried her through a recent bout with cancer, is now retired from teaching, creates stained glass art, makes water fountains out of old lamps, collects fossils, sews, and tends two great-grandchildren in her spare time. I got the idea that she doesn't want any of her descendants to feel that "sometimes childhood stinks"... that is, if she has anything to do with their upbringing.


Photograph by Vickie Sullivan
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