Riding the South

The blog of Scott and Jenny Morris

Execution takes me

back to Georgia

Sept. 30, 2015

By Jenny Morris

This morning on my drive to work, I heard British accents tease a story from Georgia—the state, not the country. If the journalist had waited another moment, he wouldn’t have had to make the distinction. The newsfeed made it obvious.  

 Twelve years ago, I lived in Georgia and taught a year of high school in a county school. The principal didn’t know I lacked an education degree when he offered the job, and I didn’t know it mattered.

 So for 180 days, I played it by ear, winged it, faked it till I made it, and every other cliché I forbid in my writing classes. And one day I found myself in a dilemma. It was personal narrative day in my ninth-grade English class. I wasn’t about to share mine. My story has changed in the years since then, but at the time it wasn’t one I enjoyed telling.  And I didn’t want to grade theirs. 

 Instead I had the students complete the assignment out loud. I called them “oral histories,” and with the exception of the student who tried to pass off the plot of “American Pie” as his summer vacation experience, my assignment opened a flood gate of grief.  

 When I thought there was nothing left to share, could be nothing left to share, a student raised her hand and joined the confederacy of sorrows with these words: “My mother is the only woman on death row in the state of Georgia.”

 I had no reason to doubt her then. I had no reason to doubt her a few months ago when I saw the details in the local paper of the coming execution and read the names of the children from the marriage that ended so violently.

 And I thought of her this morning as I listened to the BBC take me back to Georgia, a place I now only drive through on my way to somewhere else.

 I’ve heard it said that when a son goes to prison, his mother goes with him. What happens when the roles are reversed, but it’s a daughter who is left behind?

 Georgia executed its first female convict in 70 years yesterday. It seems just yesterday, I heard my student’s story.

 I’ve been on my way to somewhere else for a while now. I like to think Georgia’s fading in my rearview mirror. My former student started a new journey this morning, one I honored by turning off the radio as the details of her mother’s death filled the air. Whatever else her mother was, she was a person, and some part of her story should be hers alone. But I find myself wondering, if I could meet my student again, what would her new story be?