The Alphabet, The Girl, and The Bulletin Board: An Expose

Karina Shipps

Dr. Sean Meehan

English 599-10-Final Project

06 May 2013


When this project began, I wanted to write about the bulletin board as essay, and I believed that essay would be the one I would write. I expected to finish it, especially since the blog felt unfinished. As I mulled over ideas I already had and re-read some of the essayists to gain a few more, sparks of of understanding would ignite, then fade moments later for lack of development. For once, I took my own advice and decided to just write, then discovered the stories around the bulletin boards could not be hid; they developed their own personas and unbidden, they exposed themselves. I only acquiesced to their demands. Initially the stories seemed unrelated; however, as I continued to write them, the stories eventually revealed a common element; each story either came from reading a bulletin board reading or led to reading a bulletin board. Either way, they stories reveal how bulletin boards became a gateways to several of my life’s greatest joys: reading, imagining, understanding, and belonging. In this discovery I unexpectedly, but quite pleasantly followed Montaigne’s footsteps. I took a stroll, essaying my way toward understanding how a girl, the alphabet, some bulletin boards, and a diversion of billboards built a persona, a life, and and the heart of a writer. This essay may not present as structurally focused as Montaigne might design, but at its core, this essay desires to explore one girl’s compulsive reading of extraneous information to consider how this habit propelled her forward.

I have not given up on the bulletin board as essay, and I still believe bulletin boards are great examples of Monson’s idea of essay as interruption. How could I think otherwise? The bulletin boards in my stories most certainly interrupted me. I could not help but wonder, “What is interruption if not diversion?” Interruption is diversion. I sought out bulletin boards to interrupt my days; they became ways to alleviate boredom, to gain random knowledge, and to get out of class. ( In high school, I capitalized on my restroom passes to avoid being in certain classes, particularly Math related, and would stroll by every bulletin board in every hallway “on my way back to class,” which I do not mention in the essay.) Bulletin Board essays perpetually evolve through peer editing and seasonal change; they are communally written, and reflect the communities in which they reside as well as the role in the community of each person who reads or posts on it. Additionally, bulletin boards offer each passerby, reader, or poster a chance to learn more about himself, herself, or the community through its themes. One day I will focus on that topic; but for now, the bulletin boards called me, and I answered. I Stopped; Took Notice; Reflected, and Considered how bulletin board’s ubiquitous presence and the voices it presented used letters, then words to unify strands and pieces of my life–and still do.

 As for publication, I might tack this essay to my favorite bulletin board–an obvious fit. I would be most honored; however, if this essay or a version of it, landed a gig on a blog entitled Baltimore Fishbowl.

The Alphabet, The Girl, and The Bulletin Board: An Expose

I love to read. All the time. Everywhere. Everywhere includes reading all information on signs explaining museum exhibits, signs on street corners, signs on highways, brochures at the doctor’s office, and every word embossed on plaques affixed to homes in historic districts. My history of reading includes reading myself into oblivion. I read nose down, oblivious to streetlamps and curbs, stumbling into, onto, and eventually around. I read oblivious to my mother, who frequently resorted to yelling in order to get my attention, at least she tells me I was oblivious. I never heard her. I also read, oblivious to eighth grade Mathematics, which seemed, at least to me, a period of time more suited to reading Gone with the Wind than learning equations. (I regretted that stint of reading oblivion in ninth grade Algebra.) I even read car manuals, which is how I learned to drive a stick shift. In the fall of 1992, I bought a new car with a manual transmission; I did not test drive it because I did not know how to drive a manual transmission. After purchasing the car, I had to ask a friend to drive it to my house and park it in my driveway. Sticker price drove my decision. The standard shift model of the 1992 Nissan Sentra was the least expensive car on the lot with cruise control and an AM/FM stereo with cassette player, my two diehard requirements beside cup holders. Since I had a class to attend later that night, I figured I better learn how to drive the car. So I read the manual. A little jolting, stalling, and backward rolling later, I arrived on time and in one piece (the car, too).

This compulsive habit of reading every word I saw began the very second I realized reading words provided access to information; and I, a budding information junkie, sincerely believed reading held the keys to Heaven. The first time I understood the importance of letters, I was in Kindergarten. The tall, black alphabet letters with coordinating pictures were stapled to a long, rectangular shaped bulletin board that stretched across the entire length of wall above the chalkboard. The letter charts were as tall as the bulletin board on which they were stapled. Every picture began with the showcased letter: Aa stood tall next to an apple. Bb stood next to Banana. I remember being annoyed because Xx stood next to a picture whose name did not begin with X, but I cannot remember the picture. The letter charts partnered with the chalk board to dominate one half of the Kindergarten classroom. (Our classroom was large but divided: one half for learning, the other for torturing…I mean napping.) Every day Mrs. Klotz pointed to a letter, and we dutifully identified the letter and the sound of that letter in words she repeated to us. (This process seems simple and slow compared to how my children learned to read.)

Once I learned the purpose of the alphabet, I took the letters and words surrounding me as serious business. I pestered my mother with “what does that word mean?” “Do those letters spell a word?” “What word do those letters spell?” Since my mother’s answers were not always forthcoming, I quickly tuned into tone and attitude and noticed her answers often reflected her level of patience, her mood, or whether or not she thought I needed to know the answer to my questions.

The letter charts stapled to the bulletin board above the length of the chalk board also appeared in my first grade classroom. The Xx chart still pictured something that did not begin with X. I was still annoyed. However, we had a new bulletin board! This one had combinations of letters on charts. We began to learn phonics and the letter combinations made reading a reality. (I vaguely remember a sheet of paper for listing the names of students talking out of turn pinned to the same bulletin board; it is a fuzzy memory…) As my learning progressed from letters to phonics, I wasted no time practicing my newly acquired skills. I sounded out every letter combination I encountered. By second grade, Xx stood next to a picture of a Xylophone, and the keys to Heaven fell into my lap. I have a clear memory of finally understanding the meaning of some words on a particular billboard we passed on the way home from school and thinking, “Wow! I can read that.”

Not long after I had mastered reading the one or two words on the billboards, I discovered bulletin boards. Not only did bulletin boards have letter charts pinned to them, some bulletin boards were covered with felt. Felt was safer than pins. Teachers used these daily to chart the weather, (everyone wants to stick the little felt suns to the board!), list classroom jobs (like banging erasers and wiping down desks) for those of us in need of some discipline or desiring to earn favor. Bulletin boards in the hallways contained announcements for parents. (The tiny print clearly identified these boards for parents and teachers.) I noticed bulletin boards in grocery stores and in the hallways of the department stores, usually found because they are near the restrooms. Bulletin boards contained many levels of reading material, and could occupy me for long periods of time. In truth, I did not understand most of what I read, but I read it anyway. I did not really understand all of the billboards either; the comprehension of irony and humor had not yet formed; but I could read the words.

So excited was I over this new ability to decode my world that I became a never-ending source of information. “Mom, did you know ‘the Surgeon General has determined that smoking is dangerous to your health’?” “Yes,” she replied. I asked her, “Is smoking really bad for you?” “Yes.” “Why is it dangerous?” “It can cause lung cancer.” “Then, why do you smoke?” “I started when I was younger.” “Why don’t you quit?” It’s a habit.” “Are you going to stop?” “Sometime.” That conversation repeated itself several times over the next few months with some variation incorporating further questions: “Who is the Surgeon General” and “What is ‘your health’?” and “Why is it dangerous?” and “What happens to your health?” Eventually I retreated from questioning my mother’s attachment to Virginia Slims as her attitude toward my questions had eventually progressed from indulging my curiosity to a hostile order: “Stop asking questions!”

“Karina talks too much in class.” –Her teachers


 [Before reading further, you should know more about me. Apparently I have some speech patterns identifying me as GRITS, or Girl Raised In The South, but not so many patterns that I am immediately identified as “Southern,” a term including Louisiana, but not completely accurate for person from New Orleans (famous for activities both reviled and frequented by Baptists hailing from the Bible Belt, including, but not limited to the State of Mississippi). I learned the term GRITS from expatriate Southern women after moving to Maryland, the type who actually tell me, then realize their ill-mannered comment mid-stream of consciousness and try to rescue the moment with a seemingly polite question at the end: “You’re not from around here; are you?” and immediately follow that comment/question with “Where are you from?” Anyway, according to these expatriate women who are true Southerners, this term explains some lexical habits of mine such as using terms like “fixin’ to” and “might could.”  I also spell coke (referred to as pop, soda, soda-pop, or a term I particularly like, tonic, by citizens in other regions of the United States) with a lowercase c; unless of course, I am discussing Coke, a beverage first bottled in Vicksburg, Mississippi.]

I never liked grits because they are inherently void of taste.

I know Coke was bottled first in Vicksburg because sometimes Mom would drive me to McComb, Mississippi for horse shows in which I competed, or our family would cross the Louisiana/Mississippi state line on the way to Florida. Regardless, we always made a “pit stop” at the Mississippi Welcome Center. We used the necessary facilities as expected, but only because the rule was “if we stop, you go.” The hospitality offered by the State of Mississippi Welcome Center attracted us more than the necessary facilities and served by two or three well mannered ladies standing behind a counter top displaying an array of brochures stacked neatly in rows according to tourism subject and beneath letters on a sign declaring “Welcome to Mississippi!” Each lady’s cardigan sported a carnation bedecked badge marked VOLUNTEER, pinned just below the right shoulder. I never saw their legs, but I am pretty sure if I had, I would have seen panty hose and pumps. The hospitality began only seconds after walking through the glass doors: “Welcome to Mississippi. Would ya’ll like some Coke? Come and have some Coke.” I knew to say “Yes, Ma’am. Thank you, Ma’am.” I really wanted two cups of Coke, but happily accepted the one offered. Occasionally, whether from thirst or a need to overcome authority and even though I knew good and well I should be seen and not heard as well as thankful, I would politely and sometimes boldly attempt to request, convince, or weasel the well mannered VOLUNTEERS into offering a second cup of Coke to me, but never successfully. Those ladies were too well mannered to indulge a child. (Florida greeted visitors similarly, but offered orange juice, and often offered two cups. I really liked Florida, but not orange juice.) While holding a small Dixie cup under the fountain spigot, the VOLUNTEER would tell us that Coca Cola was first bottled by a drugstore owner in Vicksburg, Mississippi, which is why the state of Mississippi served Coke at the Welcome Center. (You can read all about that at the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum website.) Every visit I learned about Mr. Biedenharn, but I always I looked forward to the hospitality offered in the Dixie cup of Coke served by well mannered ladies. I thought Mississippi was nice to give everyone a Coke, even a small one. (At that time, I had no idea Dixie cups were manufactured in Baltimore, and I cannot help but appreciate, from a futuristic point of view, the irony.)]

Yes, I have digressed, but only to chart a course back to the beginning.

Just as interesting as the VOLUNTEERS serving Coke at the Welcome Center was reading the bulletin board. Especially, the map. I have always enjoyed reading maps and charting the distance from home to a destination. Maps posted on welcome center bulletin boards are the best maps. They are far easier to read since they are stretched smoothly across the bulletin board, without the lines and creases of folded maps (another favorite welcome center gift) and covered in Plexiglas to preserve it from the elements and people like me. I would trace the line with my fingers between home and destination, noting the symbols and colors, not always knowing what they meant. For just a few seconds, as my finger traced the lines exiting the main highway, I would lay suspended between the past and the future and think “which one I would take if I were driving…” open to the possibilities and opportunities promised by those lines. I always looked for schools and airports, two places in which my imagination convinced me I could reside indefinitely. I read too many Nancy Drew mysteries, but I also saw Rhoda and Mary Tyler Moore on television, so I knew those roads on the map at the welcome center lead somewhere. The maps displayed on bulletin boards at welcome centers proved I could travel to other places, and television shows like Rhoda and Mary Tyler Moore allowed me to imagine what living in other places might be like.

“Wanted” posters also hung on the bulletin board at the Welcome Center. They scared me. I had a father who was a policeman. I knew those pictures were real people who hurt real people. Seeing the “Wanted” posters on the bulletin boards of welcome centers added a new habit to my reading repertoire: “Wanted” and “Missing” posters. The “Wanted” adults were scary and threatening. The “Missing” children were evidence that scary people have power even if they are caught. For several years, I read every notice of a missing child, whether on the milk carton at school or on a bulletin board because if I missed a posting, I felt I had neglected an opportunity to help the child pictured. What if I saw that kid? I would not know him or her if I did not read his or her poster. Eventually, after I got older and encountered missing children signs papering bulletin boards ten or more feet in length on display in the vestibules of Target and Wal-Mart, I had to make a rule: I read all or none, depending on time available; otherwise, reading posters wreaked havoc on my time management and my psyche. Technology morphed my habit for reading “Wanted” and “Missing” persons posters into a habit of searching Internet databases for sex offenders located near prospective neighborhoods or periodically searching for updated information. Once my husband and I decided not to rent a house because an Internet search of sex offenders showed four recently and repetitively convicted child predators living within a two block radius of the house.

And so we have reached the digital age of bulletin boards.

Traditional bulletin boards are still pretty common, and my current favorite is located at the 7-11 situated at the intersection of Maryland’s state highways Route 50 and Route 213, approximately three miles from my home. I go in about three or four times a week to buy a coke. I always carry my own cup to 7-11 since long ago the guilt of excess trash forced me to abandon purchasing a new cup every day. Ironically, I rarely finish the coke. I throw out at least a third to half, especially as the weather warms into Spring and Summer, because I am not a believer in walking around with a Big Gulp attached to my hand. Invariably, the cup sits in the cup holder of my SUV until the ice and coke, (I confess; my coke is usually Pepsi), melt into layers, becoming a liquid trifle of syrup, soda water, and mostly melted ice cubes. I find comfort in the 7-11 ritual. I buy a coke, one liter Deer Park water bottles, if they are on sale 2 for $2, and assess the seasonal progress of the daisies growing in the garden surrounding the entrance walks leading to the front doors. I enjoy the daisies, but often wonder if they are physical metonymy for metaphysical memory of my grandmother’s home since Shasta Daisies occupied a large patch of garden in front of Mere’s house. These particular daisies are white with yellow button centers, much like the Shasta Daisies, but not as tall.

Inside the vestibule of this particular 7-11 (the only 7-11 I have seen with a vestibule) hangs a community bulletin board. The bulletin board in the vestibule fascinates me. I read the entire board about once a week. I have noticed that as the seasons change, so does the bulletin board. Over the past year I have become conscious that ironically, this 7-11 has connected me to my new community though I expected the 7-11 to connect me to my past. I began to seek out the bulletin board for that connection. I could learn about the people who lived around me even though I had not met them.


[Riddle: What is an object held in common by every community, an object that frequently forms the hub of community information, and on which micro-communities may wholly depend to relay information?

Hint #1: This object, first encountered in pre-school, plays a central role in elementary classrooms, particularly from Kindergarten to second grade, lines the hallways of high schools, and post secondary students encounter them within the halls of every building on campus from dormitories to labs to administrative offices and even at bus stops.

Hint #2: On this object hang the hopes and dreams of auditioning actors and dancers from amateur productions to Broadway productions as well as notices of required labor practices and safety procedures.

Hint #3: In digital form, this object achieves an envious efficiency allowing access across the country to services rendered, goods sold, and relationships; yet its traditional form of wood frame around sheets of cork remains relevant and loved, if often ignored for the repetitious nature of its contents.

Hint #4: These objects are in every school, every church, every post office; every government office, every state park, every national park,

Hint #5: and most homes.]

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