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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

 

Interview with Millie Gore Lancaster, 2nd Place Winner in the Summer 2015 Flash Fiction Contest.

Millie Gore Lancaster, Professor Emeritus of Midwestern State University, has written several books for parents and teachers and presented papers across the US and Western Europe, including academic papers on the Harry Potter canon. She has studied in the archives of Westminster Abbey, served as an Earthwatch volunteer at the Chimpazee and Human Communication Institute, and spent summers as a professional horse wrangler. Her finest hour as a teenager was having the sheriff pay a visit to her father to complain that she was being friends with the African American students at school. Her finest moment as an adult was serving as a plaintiff and expert witness on multicultural issues in a book-banning lawsuit against the city of Wichita Falls (Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate), an act that earned her a spot on the No Fly List as a subversive. She shares her musings on a blog aptly named Considerable Opinions http://considerableopinions.blogspot.com/. If you think Millie sounds like a fun person to know, just wait until you meet Madeline in An Adventuresome Sort of Person, Millie’s winning entry in the Summer 2015 Flash Fiction Contest! Really-- pop on over and read about Madeline, then grab your pretzel and come back to meet Millie (you’ll understand the pretzel thing when you read the story)!

WOW: Hi Millie, congratulations and welcome to The Muffin! I have to ask you, do you know Dr. Indy Jones? I think the two of you would get along famously! With kidding aside, your bio does read a bit more colorfully than that of the average college professor. So, tell us…was An Adventuresome Sort of Person biographically prompted—perhaps by your recent retirement?

Millie: I've never picked up a street musician, but the idea is delicious. Let me talk to my husband and get back to you on that...

As for the pretzel? I had an eight-hour train-to-plane layover in a village in Germany when I was nearly sixty. I decided to wander around the village until I smelled bread. Then I would follow the smell until I found the town’s bakery. My plan worked, and while I was eating my pastry, I saw the baker tie a giant pretzel on a red ribbon around a little girl's neck. When I was writing about Madeline, I was delighted when she followed her nose to the bakery and demanded her own pretzel-on-a-ribbon. I didn’t know she was going to do that.

I’ve been an adventuresome sort of person ever since my junior high band director taught me to be brave enough to live life on my own terms--to grow a pair.

WOW: In your story, Madeline is about to embark on a new adventure. What has been your biggest adventure so far?

Millie: My answer to this question is my answer to your next question.

But I’ll tell you the biggest adventure of my teenage years.

My senior year of high school, I was elected Senior Attendant to the band queen. Arthur, one of my friends who was an African American, was elected Senior Attendant to the band king.

A few weeks later, the yearbook sponsor called me into his office. I thought I was in trouble.

He said, “Millie, I’ve talked to the principal, the assistant principal, and the school counselor because I don’t know what to do.”

My heart pounded. I said, “About what? Have I done something wrong?”

He said, “No. But you know how the yearbook always has a picture of the band’s king and queen together, and a picture of the band’s senior male and female attendant together?”

“Of course.”

“Well, we’ve never had a white girl and a black boy in a photo together in the high school yearbook unless they were just part of a large group photo. Never as a royal couple. Never just a white girl and a black boy in one photo.”

“So?”

“So we’ve decided that you can choose to have your and Arthur’s photos separate instead of together, or you can choose to have both of your photos omitted altogether.”

I blinked and frowned. My temperature began to rise. I said, “Sir, I want our photo in the yearbook just like every other band royalty boy and girl ever has.”

He leaned back in his chair. “You realize there could be serious consequences,” he said.

“I do.”

The next night at dinner, my father said, “I understand that you and Arthur will have your photo in the yearbook together as the senior band attendants. Why didn’t you tell your mother and me?”

I smiled, took a bite of green beans, and said, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?”

In the coming weeks, I began to understand what we now call White Privilege: why I alone was allowed to make this decision that would affect both Arthur and me, rather than our being asked to make the decision together. The consequences for Arthur could have been far, far worse than the consequences for me, yet he wasn’t asked what he wanted.

But like me, Arthur wasn’t afraid to look fear in the face, and I think he would have told the yearbook sponsor exactly what I did.

I never told Arthur about my meeting with the yearbook sponsor, and as I waited the weeks until the yearbook came out, I wondered what might happen on the big day. Turned out, nothing did. It was a nonevent. Nobody cared.

Notwithstanding the nonevent outcome, that was the greatest adventure of my high school years.

WOW: Many writers wonder if they will find themselves “blacklisted” because of all the strange searches they do on the Internet. You found yourself on “the list,” but not for searching--for speaking up. Will you tell us more about this experience?

Millie: A Wichita Falls preacher held up the public library's copies of Daddy's Roommate and Heather Has Two Mommies during a sermon in 1998 and declared that he wasn't going to return them to the library. The entire town sat up and took notice.

In response, a group of freedom-lovers immediately formed the Wichita Falls Coalition Against Censorship (WFCAC) to fight what we all knew was coming. I joined the group.

Under the preacher's influence, the city council passed The Altman Resolution that required the library to remove any book from the children's section within 24 hours if 300 registered voters signed a petition objecting to it.

WFCAC immediately asked the ACLU of Texas to represent us in suing the city for violation of the First Amendment (See Sund v. The City of Wichita Falls.), and the ACLU agreed.

First, I became one of nineteen plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Then I was appointed as an Expert Witness because the issues in question were within my field of expertise as a Multicultural Education professor.

Colleagues said my career would be over if I didn't withdraw from the suit, but I said, "If I back down, I'll never be able to respect the person I see in the mirror." My husband feared that some fanatic book-burner would assassinate me. I was scared for my job and my life, but my commitment to the First Amendment, my religious faith as a liberal Episcopalian, and Eleanor Roosevelt's quote on my bulletin board sustained me: You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face.

I ended up spending two hours on my 47th birthday on the witness stand in Federal Court. I had jammed two brown paper bags with banned books, and I looked like a bag lady as I toted them up the long aisle to the witness stand.

When I held up A Day No Pigs Would Die, the judge told me it was one of his favorite books and asked why anyone would want to censor it.

I was on the witness stand so long that I finally had to tell the judge that I had to use the toilet, so he called recess.

Of course, the First Amendment is non-negotiable, so we won the lawsuit.

A few years later, in appreciation for the ACLU’s service to WFCAC, I ran for, and was elected to, the ACLU of Texas State Board.

Apparently, that made me an enemy of the state under the George W. Bush administration.

Soon thereafter, I could no longer check my baggage at airport kiosks, and I kept being pulled out of line for extended pat downs and intensive luggage searches. I knew that my being “one of two people per plane randomly selected for further security searches” on three out of three trips was highly statistically improbable, but I shrugged it off. Statistical anomalies do happen.

Then on the next trip, a pugnacious colleague caused a scene at the airport kiosk when the skycap took his luggage but wouldn’t take mine. The kiosk supervisor looked my colleague straight in the eye and told him point-blank, “She’s on the No Fly List.” My colleague dropped his jaw. I laughed until I wet myself.

I soon heard that other members of the ACLU state board were also being “randomly selected” at astounding rates.

Several years later on a February 14 when I, a white-haired, saggy-boobed, senior citizen was once again “randomly selected” for further security checks, I asked the sixty-something man who was searching for explosives in my luggage, “I’m still on the No Fly List, aren’t I?”

He looked up from my suitcase, grinned, winked at me, and said, “Happy Valentine’s Day, Mrs. Lancaster!”

WOW: I was checking out your blog, Considerable Opinions. Your post on “What is the most important question anyone ever asked you?” intrigued me. As a play on that post, I would like to ask you this, “What is the most important answer you’ve been waiting to share.”

Millie: Grow a pair.

I’m a feminist, but Grow a pair is the most memorable way I know to say Learn to be brave. Each of us is born with a genetic tendency to be either more brave or less brave, but regardless of our genetic makeup, we can become braver today than we were yesterday. We can either learn to be brave, or live as cowards.

We learn bravery a little at a time by being brave when faced with increasingly fearful situations. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face.”

My father, who called himself “just an old country lawyer,” taught me by his words and deeds that good people have a duty to stand up for what’s right. But in order to stand up for what’s right, you have to be brave, and Daddy didn’t teach me how to be brave.

Then along came the junior-high band director who became like a second father to me. He taught me how to be brave. By giving me big responsibilities. By showing me that failure wouldn’t kill me. By telling me that if I failed, I’d darn well better dust myself off and get back in the fight. And I learned from those experiences that bravery begets bravery. The braver I was, the braver I became.

Now that I’m old, I can look back and say, “Damn, but I lived life the way I wanted to. And I made the world a better place.”

Because I grew a pair.

WOW: We’ve just begun a brand new year! What are your goals for 2016?

Millie:

1. Finish polishing my collection of interwoven short stories about adventuresome sorts of old persons living at The Mansion at Two-And-Twenty in Academia, Arkansas. Feisty, sexy old people who aren’t afraid to go after what (or who) they want. People like Madeline.

2. Grow a pair by submitting it to an agent.

3. Pick up a street musician…

WOW: Millie, it has been delightful chatting with you! We hope to see you here again, perhaps with your finished short story collection (feel free to bring along the musician).

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