Meet and Greet (the) Dawn

Posted by Marty Kelly

Teacher, writer, singer, cyclist, traveler, and newest addition to St. Andrew’s Upper School English department, Dawn Denham is, above all, a storyteller. And an honest one at that. Despite the fact that she had been coming to Mississippi since she was 16, “I didn’t like Mississippi,” she told me. “I had a deeply embedded prejudice against the South.” What Dawn eventually grappled with was the idea that perhaps her prejudice was a more personal one, tied up in family dynamics. Nevertheless, how did she come to fall in love with a home in Mississippi’s Water Valley called the Blue House? And how in the world did she find her way to us at St. Andrew’s? Only one word works to explain these two pieces of her life: serendipity. Okay, I can’t believe I just wrote that; truly I don’t throw that term around lightly (read: ever), especially after the John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale movie, but Dawn’s story is so filled with moments of fortuitousness that it made me think the ancients I teach about really were on to something with their ideas about fate. Dawn is obviously a much better teller of her own story than I, but here is an abridged version of what I gleaned from her fascinating journey so far. 

After the dissolution of a 30-year marriage in 2016, Dawn traveled for nine months, and when her father received a cancer diagnosis, Dawn came to her family’s cabin at Lake Enid to help care for him. She had a plane ticket to leave in a week, but she kept pushing the departure back, and back, and back. After a series of not-so-misfortunate events in seeing an ad for a home to rent called the Blue House in both the waiting room of a hospital and the B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery in Water Valley, Dawn, over all the people on the waiting list to rent this house, got a call from the renter who said, “We want you in Water Valley.” She went back to New Hampshire, packed up, officially filed for divorce, and moved to the Blue House in Water Valley, Mississippi. If you know nothing about Water Valley, you should know it is a little resurging town outside of Oxford brimming now with artists of all kinds, teachers and professors, and characters in general. Dawn was among her people; and as soon as I met her, I assessed her as “groovy” and told her she must live in Belhaven or Fondren when she moved to Jackson. And, now, one more fortuitous story later, she has moved into the perfect house in Belhaven. But I’ll let her tell that story later.

During her time in Water Valley, Dawn got a job teaching in Oxford High School where, she says, despite being “deep in grief,” the relationships with those young people “saved her life.” However, when Covid became a serious threat looming over schools, Dawn resigned to give herself more time to work on her book. Dawn, who refreshingly confesses, “Writing is very hard for me,” is finishing her memoir. After rewriting and reworking and self-reflecting (and at the command of a sticky note on her computer that says, “IT IS TIME”), she had finally come to a place where she had the moment: “I know what the memoir is.” Dawn revealed that her memoir, fittingly titled The Blue House, has much to do with personal transformation and particularly the role Mississippi has played in that transformation. At this time, she has had seven pieces accepted since February! Don’t worry, we will be on watch for publication so that we can celebrate with Dawn as this memoir journey continues to unfold. 

So how did she get here to us? Well, earlier this year, on a Saturday bike ride on the Natchez Trace (I mentioned she’s a cyclist, right?), Dawn and her beau Eddie stopped at the Crafts Center on Rice Road where she picked up a handful of pamphlets to read on the way home. Among those pamphlets was one about St. Andrew’s (shout out to our marketing and communications people!). After perusing the pamphlet, she looked up the school on her phone on the way home and (shall we say serendipitously?) saw on the school’s website the listing for an Upper School English teacher. “This is where I could spend the rest of my teaching years,” she thought. And fortuitously for us and her students, she submitted her application three days later and now here she is! 

After a little over a month here, Dawn has brought so much care and craft to her senior classes in discussing anti-racist pedagogy, doing significiant community-building, and helping them find their voices in personal narratives, which in turn is helping many of them with their college essays. In return, she has been so impressed with the fact that “these young people read and talk to each other” and have a real “facility for communication,” not to mention how “beautiful” their writing skills are. Dawn’s goal in the classroom, she says, like many of us, is “getting me out of the equation.” Unless singing is involved. I told you Dawn’s a singer too right? And I found out that she loves to sing to her students. She told me, “Avery and I are working on a duet,” which I, for one, cannot wait to hear. Also, just this morning, she said she couldn’t get out of her car in the parking lot until she finished singing along with the Waitress song “She Used to be Mine.” So whenever y’all get the opportunity to meet Dawn, ask her to sing for you or tell you a story. Just wait until her personal car concert is over. 

For a peek at Dawn’s writing, visit here:

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