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
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