Georgia on Their Minds

by Ken Rosenberg

When most people hear the song “Georgia on My Mind,” they are very likely to think of Ray Charles’ 1960 rendition but, actually, the song was composed by Howard Hoagland “Hoagy” Carmichael, 30 years earlier. Hoagy played piano and his jazz-influenced pop songs have placed him in the annals of music history. He was a Bloomington native and a graduate of Indiana University, where he studied law. In memory of her beloved son, Bloomington hosts a plaque downtown, as well as a statue next to the IU Auditorium, complete with piano. So, whenever you pass by the bronzed figure of a man intimately playing at the keys and wondered about his story, now you know: Hoagy was a man with great talent – and had a sister named Georgia. His co-author, Stuart Gorrell, wrote the lyrics (Hoagy composed the music) for Carmichael’s sister but, to the public, the ambiguous lyrics quickly linked the sweet sentiments to the state, as well.  In fact it is now the official state song of the state of Georgia.

Telecom building overlooks Hoagy’s statue. This is fitting, as our cohort most certainly has Georgia on their minds. Hundreds of miles away from the state of Georgia, four grad students cheer for the Bulldogs: Teresa Lynch, Mona Malacane, Nic Matthews, and Sade Oshinubi. They have a rare bond, borne of a common set of backgrounds and cultural references. I sat down for some roundtable reminiscing last week with Mona, Nic, and Teresa (and a follow-up phone call to Sade), in order to understand just what their home state means to them.

Mona and Sade are both taking T501 this semester and, during the requisite round of first-class introductions, Sade perked up when she heard that Mona had arrived from the University of Georgia (UGA).  “I remember sitting there,” Sade said. “I couldn’t wait to talk to her about it.” Mona, like Sade before her, was about to find out what it means to be a fellow Georgian at IU. Sade’s sister went to the same college as Teresa, Armstrong Atlantic State University – a small institution of about 3,500 students – and, in Teresa’s experience, “I don’t know anybody outside of Savannah that knows about that college,” she said. Mona got her degree only twenty minutes drive from where Teresa and Nic grew up.

In the beginning many grad students try to return home for each break, “but the longer you’re away,” Nic said, “you realize it’s just not possible. You have to get this new group to share your successes with, because the phone can only do so much.” Every student who moves away from home must adopt a new social circle, but it helps to have friends who know about what things were like ‘back home’ because “there’s this weird disconnect in leaving and coming here, then meeting all these people,” Teresa said. “They’re from all over the world … and that’s great, and it’s an incredible experience but, at the same time, it’s really awesome to get to meet people from a similar area, that get you in that way. You can make references to places that you’ve been, or things that you’ve experienced that are similar.”

(For the full discussion between three-fourths of the cohort that “bleed red and black,” click here: On Georgia: Mona, Nic, and Teresa.)

clockwise, from top left: Nic, Teresa, Mona, and “Hoagy” Carmichael (pictured here in statue form)

What is referenced most often? Sports, since the whole state is apparently dubbed ‘Bulldog Nation’ and everyone – regardless of the school they went to – hangs a flag to honor the University of Georgia’s football team. “I do miss the solidarity of game days,” Mona said. “Those were so much fun; it was a sea of red and black. But, when you’re away from that … where everyone is a Georgia fan – and then you find fans when you move eight, thirteen hours away, it brings back that solidarity. You feel like you’re part of the group, still. It’s pretty great.” Teresa is not a UGA alum, but she still roots for the Bulldogs. According to Nic, “all of Georgia is called ‘the Bulldog Nation.’ It’s everywhere, anywhere you go. On their porch, everybody has a Georgia flag. It’s crazy.”

Besides rooting for the home team, Georgia denizens identify much more with their local background. “I don’t really think of the state as being where I’m from,” Nic said. “I think of Athens and Savannah, because Georgia to me, I think ’Oh, yeah. Sixteen electoral votes …’ Georgia, to me, it’s just a name and a state. It’s the cities that I really think of, because those – that’s what defined me. Where you stay, and who you stay with.”  It is only the tourists who try to unify Georgia’s essence into a feature-defined buzz word. Many have called Atlanta “Hotlanta,” based on an old marketing campaign. (For the record, when you visit: don’t do that.) While those people were wrong to use the pointless amalgam of words, they were right to choose the word “hot” as a primary component.

“If there’s one thing I don’t miss, it’s the weather,” Mona said. “I love Bloomington. The weather here is incredible. I’m wearing a sweater at the end of September – this is awesome.”

“It’s still beach weather, down in Georgia,” Teresa replied. Weather in the south is “one temperature, one humidity, all the time,” she said. “Bloomington is a beautiful place to be outdoors.”

“Talking about home kind of makes me miss it,” Mona said, “but I do not miss that weather. I only applied to schools that were far enough north that they would get me the heck out of that humidity and heat.” Mona equates walking outside to stepping into a sauna – while placing a hot, wet towel over one’s mouth.

“There are parts of the day where you just don’t go outside,” Teresa said. Mona explained that, during the worst months, the pollen and heat indexes are broadcast every ten minutes.

Another “weather” phenomenon: love bug season. “Yeah, that’s its own season,” Nic said.

Despite the harsh climate, there is still plenty to love about Georgia. “Food is a bigger deal,” Nic said. “It just is.” Fortunately, he and his wife both enjoy cooking. “I love to make southern food,” Teresa said, “and, so far, any time I’ve made southern food for people up here, they love it.” Sade loves when people cook good soul food, and even considers that one of Georgia’s best , most defining features. “I could be anywhere at any time,” Sade said, “and the people I was with would always have good food.” This includes cornbread and greens, as well as a dish that both she and Nic made a point to mention:

As they lived near the coast, Nic and Teresa fondly recall the freshness of catch-of-the-day seafood, as well as the lifestyle afforded by a coastline’s beaches. While Teresa misses the live oaks, Mona misses the ‘tree that owns itself’ (seriously, look it up). Mona is more interested in the facts and stories that surround historic locations – like presidents’ houses and Civil War-era landmarks – while Teresa is more enamored by the macabre tone set by Georgia’s plethora of cemeteries. Sade, on the other hand, misses downtown Atlanta and the culture of its museums, art galleries, and music festivals.

Beyond the cultural trappings, though, “I think there’s kind of a similar hospitality to people, in the Midwest,” Teresa said. The Georgia natives stated that it was difficult to decipher the demeanor of Hoosiers, but that the town now feels like a modern and welcoming place. That new feeling of home, while never quite the same, is part of what makes it possible for people to make it through grad school in a sane, emotionally fulfilled fashion. It’s what unites our whole cohort as a family that, while from many different states and countries, will always have a little peace – with (yup, you guessed it) Georgia on its mind.

Play on, Hoagy.

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