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Midnight in the Garden of Rural Poverty

The first school I taught at when I entered the classroom at a few years ago

was Big Creek High School. You may remember the movie the school featured

prominently in: October


I taught home ec as a long term substitute for about two months.

It had a parenting class, a careers class in social services, a personal

adjustment class for freshmen, and cooking (which was no biggie since I like to

cook). Fortunately the sewing curriculum had been done during the first semester

or I might have bled to death…

The county is slowly getting new schools. There was a time when almost every

little bottom and hollow had a small K-8 school with a few dozen students. I now

work in one of the last of those. My school has 90 or so kids in pre-K to fifth

grade. Our middle schoolers were moved a few years ago to a larger school.

When I think about what our schools need in my county it is very hard to

prioritize the things that come to mind. Many of our buildings date back to FDR

or before. And yet replacing them with larger, more modern centralized schools

seems to tear at the fabric of local society.

Education is not high on the community agenda. Why should it be in a county

where the real unemployment rate (the percentage of working aged adults who

don’t have regular jobs) hovers at around 50%? Elementary schools serve a

community function. But many in the community don’t see much benefit to going to

school beyond high school.

I suppose I’m a hillbilly, though many of my friends and neighbors aren’t

sure I qualify. My father was in the Army and I grew up outside of Appalachia.

But on both my mother’s and my father’s sides, many of my ancestors have lived

in an area between Knoxville, Tenn., and Christiansburg, Va., since before the

Revolutionary War. A little over a decade ago, I came home – to live and work

here for the first time in my life. I teach in a county that the Appalachian

Regional Commission designates as “distressed.” While my

heritage and values might make me a hillbilly, I’m the most traveled hillbilly I

know. Between my father’s military career and ten years myself with a volunteer

service organization after college, I’ve lived on four continents and in 14 time

zones. I bring a unique perspective with me to the classrooms I work in.

I stood today on a little bridge our kids cross to get to their buses,

looking down into the water that flows under it. Our kids cross the Tug Fork (of Hatfield-McCoy fame)

twice a day over that bridge. The feud was some miles downstream from us.

I wanted John Edwards to be President. It’s easy to become a populist when

you work with kids in a place where the median household income is about $19,000

a year.

Midnight has come. I suppose my point is just that life itself seems to

complicate any consideration of education in poor rural communities. People who

tell me that the times are a-changing and that we should get used to the

economic demands of the coming days and change our approach to education

accordingly engender a resentment in me at times that I don’t fully understand.

When I look at the poverty and the needs of my school’s community, I find it

difficult to clarify the issues in the same pattern that the rest of the country

seems to be pursuing. I suppose I’ll leave it at that and go to bed, committed

to an effort to be most substantive with my issues tomorrow…

Greg Cruey, Guest Blogger


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