Where in the world can you visit with the United States Marines, find a volcano nacho and learn about the Underground Railroad from the “conductor” herself, Harriet Tubman, all in one afternoon
Only at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.
I visited there this week, meandering through the mass of humanity and receiving an occasional whiff of fresh animal manure.
On the way to Reliant Center, I stopped and visited with several Marines at their booth. According to Gunnery Sergeant Jackson, “The recruits today are stronger, faster, leaner and smarter.” Judging from this group, it was an accurate description.
“Nowadays,” Harriet said to the students, “I see boys wearin’ baggy pants and girls hardly wearin’ any clothes and I say, ‘What’s goin’ on?’ Now if ya’ll would help me, you could turn this whole world around."
Passers-by were invited to participate in various exercises from push ups to “arm hangs.” I watched one, Wendy Todd (visiting from Pittsburgh) break the record that day in the Female Arm Hang. Holding onto the chinning bar for one minute and 35 seconds was probably 94 seconds longer than I could have.
Watching this, I’d worked up an appetite. Entering Reliant Center, I soon sighted, “Texas Size Pizza by the Giant Slice." On the counter, were slices of pizza and a Volcano Nacho, a compilation of chili, cheese, guacamole, sour cream, shredded lettuce, black olives and jalapenos, all topped off with picante sauce.
Mike Tolleson and his daughter Jenica were behind the counter serving them up.
“You can feed a family of four with that,” Mike smiled, “and have some left over!” I wasn’t THAT hungry, so he graciously offered me a slice of pizza (delicious) along with a huge glass of sweet tea, which I hadn’t tasted since I was a kid. Sweet.
Acting Out For Kids
I left Mike and moseyed on down the corridor to a sign that read Buffalo Soldiers National Museum. There, a one-woman show was already in action.
The actress, I later learned was Melissa Waddy-Thibodeaux. Dressed as Harriet Tubman, she was telling the story of the Underground Railroad to a group of elementary students. I stopped to listen and became as enthralled as the kids!
In artful animation, Harriet explained to the kids, “The Underground Railroad wasn’t a train . . . it was people helping other people.”
“You can feed a family of four with that,” Mike smiled, “and have some left over!”
She told the story of a string of safe house stations where runaway slaves were temporarily housed, and eventually helped in finding freedom farther North.
Through Harriet Tubman’s character, Melissa is helping kids find theirs. Her show is singular in message. Read!
“Nowadays,” Harriet said to the students, “I see boys wearin’ baggy pants and girls hardly wearin’ any clothes and I say, ‘What’s goin’ on?’ Now if ya’ll would help me, you could turn this whole world around by makin’ me a promise."
Enthusiastically, the kids raised their hands and repeated after Harriet. "I promise Miss Harriet to read more every day . . . and I promise Miss Harriet to turn around and help somebody to read."
After the show, Harriet was kind enough to step out of character and share more. A native Houstonian, Melissa graduated from Ross Sterling High School in 1972 and received an acting scholarship to Lon Morris College in Jacksonville, Texas. She later married and had four children but explained that, “I was always looking out the window and dreaming of acting.”
She first learned of Harriet Tubman while in elementary school and the story had stayed with her. Now at age 57, she’s making Harriet proud.
She took her story, made it into an hour and a half show and performs it in classrooms and school auditoriums. Melissa believes that the best way she can reach young kids is through theatrics and story telling.
“When I get their attention,” Melissa explained, “then I tell them something important.” Important indeed. She’s taken her message to schools in New York City, even a few in Paris, and hopes to go farther, especially, where the need is greatest.
“I want to hook up with a Literary Program that will sponsor me to visit more schools,” she said. Her message is even emphasized on her business card:
FLYING GEESE PRODUCTIONS
READING IS FUNDMENTAL!!!
After exiting Reliant Center, I hoped to visit with a few bull riders before they entered the stadium. I sat with a group of volunteers wearing handsome vests that read Rodeo Contestant Services on the back. One looked over at my multi-patched jeans and asked if I’d been with a bunch of cats.
We all enjoyed a good laugh and then he asked another, “You ain’t with PETA are you?”
I told him that I wasn’t but that I was a PETA supporter. He stood and moseyed someplace else. Shortly thereafter, so did I.
Feeling grateful for people like Melissa Waddy-Thibodeaux and the diversity of Houston
Editor's note: To learn more about Melissa Waddy-Thibodeaux, visit aflyinggeese.com.