Could a year of walking through the cedar glades of Tennessee give you a new perspective on race, privilege, and public education? Turns out, it can.
Illustrations by Courtney Garvin
Flooding has clogged the condemned Goochie Ford’s eight concrete culverts, turning the East Fork of the Stones River into a whirlpool. I watch as more branches and leaves wash downstream and crash against the simple beam bridge, making the dam deeper. Waves splash over the edge of the chipped ledge where my parents stand. They’re debating whether Dad should bring my nephews here to fish come summer, once the annual drought dries the river to a creek.
Mom and I discovered the closed bridge on one of our weekly jaunts. Walking is something we women in the family do: I love it because my mother loves it, and she loves it because her mother did. Our hikes don’t involve planning or production. When the weather’s nice, Mom and I lace up our shoes, hop in the car, and drive out 96E, back into Lascassas, Tennessee. A decade ago, just about any road worked. These days, developers are replacing farmers, planting subdivisions between cornfields and pig styes. Now, we drive a ways to find a good route, a path that includes hidden spots like this one.
Dad’s joined us today; I think it’s an extra Christmas gift for Momma. I fall back a few paces to snap some photos of them, a pair of 70-somethings out for a country stroll. Mom’s hair still glows rosy gold in the winter sun. Dad’s wearing a T-shirt my older half-sister tie-dyed for him. It’s one of her more innovative designs — a ribbon of striated blue meandering across a slate background. She calls it her Long and Winding Road Pattern. She should rename it the Goochie Ford.
As we climb through the barricades blocking the bridge, I return to the topic Dad and I had been discussing for most of the past six weeks — the coming inauguration of Donald Trump. Dad stops me.
“I’m really not too worried about it,” he says.
I am speechless. I have spent the last decade wearing him down, pulling him into the Democratic Party. Now I’m trying to push him past that into true progressivism. Had I failed?
“Nope,” he continues. “I’m not worried at all. America doesn’t appear in the book of Revelation. I always wondered how we were going to end.”
I know he’s at half-joking, but this is the sort of statement I can’t walk away from. Mom saves me from ruining Christmas. She points out a white, vinyl-sided cabin with a green tin roof, a Tennessee version of Currier and Ives. A Christmas tree glows in a side window, and visiting relatives have parked their single-cab pickups and ’90s-era sedans in the muddy side yard.
“I bet they cut their own tree,” Momma says. Then, “Weren’t our trees always the prettiest?”
She has always said that, but I’ve never been able to see it.
When I was a child, we cut our tree on the Saturday before Christmas. Our expeditions always followed the same script. On those mornings, Momma would call Mr. Swader, the pig farmer who owned the land behind our house. He would tell us that, well, yes, we were welcome to come cut down one of his cedars. Then, we’d march down the hill, Daddy swinging a chain saw in his left hand, his hand saw in the other. Momma would coil a length of rope over one shoulder. Ruthie and I would be responsible for the gloves and other accoutrements. At the bottom of the hill, we’d crouch carefully under the barbed wire fence and step into the first glade.
We had dismissed the trees nearest the fence years ago, so we would separate, each of us hoping to be the one to find the perfect tree. We would track each other by singing carols. The formula for the perfect tree was easy enough: full, even branches sprouting from a straight, unsplit trunk. I would circle each cedar slowly. There it would be, the bare patch on the cedar’s backside. Ruthie’s voice might be the first to drop out of our quartet.
“I found it!” she’d call a few seconds later. We’d convene for Momma’s inspection. The first tree never passed, but a few trees later, Mom would give a nod of approval.
Then, Dad would take his turn. His objection was the same every year: “It’s too tall.” Ruthie and I would argue, so he’d stretch his 6-foot frame against the tree and raise his arm so we could see how it towered over him.
“That’s at least 16 feet,” he’d say. He’d hold his hand shoulder height against the cedar. “I’d have to cut it here.”
“Those are the fullest branches,” Momma would object.
“If we take that much off the top, it’s going to look…,“ Daddy would let the sentence die, leaving us to imagine the truncated tree.
Then, Momma would tell her favorite story, the one she told every year.
“When I was a little girl,” she’d say, slipping into the Swedish-Chicagoan accent of her youth, “my dad sculpted our tree. He’d buy a pitiful tree and fix it by gluing limbs into the bare spots, a perfect tree for half the price.”
Dad never replied to that.
Once the tree was felled, we would haul it back up the hill, still singing. Inside, Dad would screw the stand into place and then raise the tree, letting the lacy branches trail across the ceiling. He was always right. This one was still too tall.
“Won’t it make beautiful shadows on the ceiling?” Mom would say. It was time to decorate.
A Tennessee red cedar — which, getting technical, isn’t a cedar at all, but a juniper — grows foliage only on the outer reaches of its branches. Momma said this was one of the cedar’s perks. She’d stuff the tree’s insides with multicolored lights, so it glowed like Moses’ burning bush. She’d order us to hang ornaments deep in the heart of the tree, so they would catch more light and sparkle. When we’d finish decorating it, Momma would step back to add that final annual proclamation: “This is the prettiest tree yet.”
Really? Sure, it was the equal of last year’s tree, but it didn’t compare with the store-bought beauties my friends put up with their parents. Our Christmas cedar trees and the glades where they grew were synonymous with everything that embarrassed me about life in Lascassas: They were a little too scruffy to ever be sophisticated, a little too country to ever be urbane.
Neither the people nor the trees around me had received what they needed to truly thrive, so they had evolved and adapted and held on. I can invent a stark sort of beauty within that story. But is stunted survival the best I can imagine for my home place?
This Christmas of 2016, I am frustrated and disillusioned, though not surprised, by what occurred during the election cycle. I need to escape the op-eds and the 24-hour news cycle and my Twitter feed before my disillusionment becomes despair, and I can’t laugh about our nation ending.
I head back to the cedar glades for perspective on the ways our society has chosen inequality.
It took me a whole year to find it.
One warmer February day, I drive east along the back roads I’d known as a child, toward the cedar glades that had raised me. I’d love to hop the fence and wander through the Swaders’ pig farm/Christmas tree lot, but my folks sold our Lascassas home about a dozen years ago. Instead, I’m headed to Flat Rock Cedar Glade and Oak Barrens, the state natural area most convenient to my parents’ city house.
These are the roads I’ve walked since childhood, and I think of this place as home, but fact is, I was an outsider from the first day I showed up, six weeks before the end of second grade. The class had taken a vote over lunch, Brandi informed me that afternoon, shaking her crimped bangs. They had agreed I should go back where I came from, as though I’d shipped in from Seattle or New York or Moscow, not another suburb on the other side of Nashville. The girls in my class would vote again several times over the next six years. The result was always the same.
Distracted with memories, I miss the entrance to the glade. I check my mirrors. No other cars. I reverse and turn into the gravel parking lot. It is just large enough for 10 cars, maybe 12 if the drivers are smart parkers. Mine is alone here today. I lock up and head toward the narrow trail and into the first grove of tightly packed cedars. In the inner glade, no greenery remains, just a tangle of rotting branches. These trees are scrappy, the product of poor soil and clear-cutting and drought.
* * *
My fourth grade social studies class was dedicated to Tennessee: its history, geography, and white people.
There, I learned that Rutherford County, my county, is famous for three things. First, of course, is a Civil War battle. Over New Year’s 1863, 76,000 men fought their way through the cedar glades, mowing down trees with their fire. It was the sixth deadliest land battle of the war. The second notable feature is being the geographical center of the state, a distinction marked by a stone obelisk with a brass placard. The obelisk sits at the center of a three-acre limestone rock, which was once ringed by a cedar glade. Third is the World’s Largest Cedar Bucket.
The 1,556-gallon bucket is made of Bordeaux-colored cedar planks and forged iron rings. It sits under a small pavilion in Cannonsburgh Village, an odd little settlement created for the bicentennial of the United States. Since few frontier-era buildings remained in Murfreesboro by the mid-1970s, the preservationists and planners who constructed Cannonsburgh were creative. They trucked in a clapboard country school and inserted stained glass windows harvested from a German church. Voila, Williamson Memorial Chapel was created. But their faux colonial settlement needed a school, so they repurposed a corn crib from a local farm. They set the bucket in the middle, the most authentic element in this homage to Murfreesboro’s mythical past.
The trees used to build the bucket had grown slowly in the county’s rocky, infertile soil, building hearts of tightly grained, durable and watertight red wood. Early settlers had used the cedars for fence posts and wall paneling. Industrialists realized the wood could be used for profit. In 1854, John C. Spence founded Murfreesboro’s Cedar Bucket Manufactory, which was worked by a dozen “hands,” likely code for enslaved laborers hired from their owners. These laborers made 200 buckets a day. After the Civil War, new owners renamed the business the Red Cedar Woodenware Company, and their employees added lines for pencil slats and butter churns. By the turn of the 20th century, the factory at Murfreesboro built 180,000 buckets a year, and it was only one of several dozen bucket and pencil factories in the area.
The Red Cedar Woodenware Company commissioned the bucket as a promotional gimmick in 1887. They shipped it around the country. It won a blue ribbon at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1892. The owners leased the bucket to a brewery for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Expo. Workers built a “promenade” around the lip of the bucket and then filled it with beer for fair-goers to drink. After the expo closed, the World’s Largest Cedar Bucket returned to Murfreesboro.
But the supply of virgin cedar was dwindling. Second-growth cedar was neither as strong nor as straight in the trunk. It was good only for fence posts or telephone poles. Factory owners had to get creative with their sourcing. They bought the lumber out of old houses and snapped up broken fence posts.
The cedar industry died a decade later. When Red Cedar Woodenware Company’s factory burned in 1952, only the World’s Largest Cedar Bucket survived. It sat outside Crigger’s Market, a local grocery, for a decade before being auctioned off to Winnepesaukah Amusement Park in Rossville, Georgia. When Murfreesboro’s mayor heard the park was in financial trouble, he asked for the bucket back.
The only serious challenge to the bucket’s title came in 1985 from the Cedar Bucket Furniture Company, a furniture store in Oxford, Mississippi. Brent McPhail’s father had told him to build the World’s Largest Cedar Bucket. Brent knew the Murfreesboro bucket was 6 feet tall, so he built his bucket 7 feet tall. He forgot to check diameter. When he finished construction, the McPhails had the World’s Tallest Cedar Bucket, but the Murfreesboro bucket held 56 gallons more. They remained second until arsonists burned the Tennessee bucket in June 2005. Rumors flew around Murfreesboro. Some folks suspected it was local teens. I heard a Japanese company torched the bucket in a fit of jealousy.
The Rutherford County Blacksmiths’ Association pledged to rebuild the bucket to its original specifications. First, though, they had to find enough high-quality red cedar. Unfortunately the boards they found all had knots in them. As the bucket aged and weathered, the knots would pop out.
“We would build the world’s largest sieve,” Cannonsburgh’s mayor told a reporter for the Murfreesboro Post.
It took the blacksmiths 6½ years to find the right boards. When the new bucket was unveiled in October 2011, it was returned to its pavilion, but the city erected a fence around it to protect it from further vandalism. I miss being able to run my fingers over its polished, scented wood.
* * *
One cedar stands alone on the edge of the largest glade in Flat Rock. Its central trunk is straight and strong and true, but just above my head, it explodes into four broad branches that spread perpendicular from the trunk and then reach into the sky like the outstretched fingers of Rodin’s The Mighty Hand. The bark has torn away from the branches in strips. Shoots stretch down toward the earth like exposed roots. It is majestic and malformed. I nickname it the Witch Tree.
My favorite childhood horror story was a retelling of a biblical parable that appeared on an audiotape my folks reserved for long car rides. I thought it explained why the cedars in Tennessee looked nothing like the trees pictured in my illustrated children’s Bible. Those cedars, the real Cedars of Lebanon, were towering with verdant, sweeping boughs. I understood why David used them to build his palace and Solomon bartered 20 cities in Galilee for more of the lumber. So, why did our cedars fester in the damp darkness of the glades, a harbor for ticks and spiders and snakes?
One day, the narrator explained, the cedars decided they wanted a king. They first asked the olive tree, saying, “Come and be our king.”
“No,” the olive tree said, “why would I stop making the olives the Lord God has commanded me to make just to be your king?”
The cedars went to the fig tree and said, “Come! Come, and be our king!” But the fig tree also turned them down. So did the grapevine.
But the bramble said, “Yes.”
And the bramble climbed the trees, pricking through their bark and digging thorns deep into their flesh. It tightened its grasp around the cedars, choking them. The cedars begged the bramble to stop, but the bramble just climbed on. After all, it was their king.
No longer could the cedars sway in the breeze the Lord God had sent them or breathe the air the Lord God had provided them or sing the psalms of praise the Lord God had taught them.
The prophet Jotham leaves the cedars there. On the tape, though, the cedars called out to the Lord God for deliverance. He sent them a firestorm. It wrapped around the cedars, consuming the bramble king. The cedars survived, seared and disfigured, but alive.
That explained our pitiful, ugly cedars, the 6-year-old me thought. Looking at the Witch Tree, I wonder whether there isn’t some kernel of truth to be found within my cedars’ creation myth. I think about the growing neo-fascist movement that has penetrated the White House.
Maybe that childhood story explains more than just our trees. Maybe it’s an allegory for life in Tennessee and across the nation.
The oaks begin greening in early March. Ten days later come a few frostbitten flowers. Spring explodes the first week of April. I step over a triad of white shooting stars lining the path into Flat Rock. A spring-green spider — translucent and delicate — hides under the golden petals of a hoary puccoon. A bee sips nectar from the narrow purple horn of a Nashville breadroot. I see the paw prints of a coyote in the mud ahead of me. I pull my sweatshirt over my head and tie it around my waist. I won’t need it today.
The trail turns up a hill. I leave the path and climb to a small clearing. A home once sat in its center, but little remains except a pile of stacked cinder blocks. Out back is a tumbling shed just large enough for a small donkey and its feed. Now, it’s a buzzard’s roost.
I started coming here because I love abandoned homes. I imagine the souls who lived there. I peek through their windows, and if the floor joists look sturdy enough, I tiptoe across to read the newspapers previous owners used for insulation and wallpaper, tracing my fingers across the ads for washing powder and Tin Lizzies. I’m here now because I’ve discovered this home’s disturbing secret: It has no feral daffodils.
Daffodils are a bittersweet commemoration of Tennessee’s forgotten lives. Down the road sits another house now owned by the buzzards. The roof has caved, turning the home from a bungalow to a hovel, but each spring, two undulating rows of daffodils bloom, their thousands of yellow heads marking the path to the front door. And a week ago, I visited the overgrown graveyard of a deconstructed, deconsecrated church. Nothing remained but the church steps and a handful of grave markers. Even the bodies had been removed. Still, bobbing yellow blooms trailed from divot to emptied divot.
I find the absence of daffodils haunting. Who lived here?
* * *
Life among the rural cedar glades was hard for the small farmers who settled in Middle Tennessee. Landowners could score a profit logging their acreage, but that was a one-time proposition. After that, many struggled to turn a subsistence living out of the poor, thin soil. For a few decades in the 20th century, the dairy industry offered hope, but the creameries disappeared before my birth.
My insufficient hardiness made me a foreigner in Lascassas. I was an odd, hypersensitive child who read Greek myths and played classical violin. I rolled my eyes at the “Goosebumps” books and refused to listen to New Kids on the Block. My classmates couldn’t believe I shared their background.
Dad had been the first in his family of recently urbanized sharecroppers to go to college, but he dropped out his junior year. When I was born, both my parents were high school teachers who moonlighted as seasonal landscapers. Daddy supplemented those incomes by coaching and refereeing high school ball. We lived in a concrete-brick home built along a Tennessee country road. My nursery was a repurposed closet. It’s the home I envision sitting on the hill in daffodil-less Flat Rock.
When I was 1, Dad took a job as an industrial chemical salesman. He was tall, white, and charismatic. Three years of engineering classes let him discuss chemistry with authority. His Tennessee twang made him seem trustworthy. He thrived. We upgraded to a four-bedroom home built into a bluff north of Nashville. We moved to Lascassas when Daddy landed the contract to design Nissan’s new water treatment plant. His company paid for him to join Stones River Country Club, believing the new auto executives needed to be wined and dined and golfed in the best style Murfreesboro could offer. In less than six years, we’d jumped from the working poor to the middle class. My teachers at Lascassas Elementary drafted me into the gifted education program. This wasn’t available to everyone.
It was the 1980s, and we were the most integrated generation of students America has produced, before or since. Even for us, integration was still more theory than reality. By the fourth grade, Jason and Donnell were the only two black kids left in my class, the class the teachers classified as the academic one. The rest of the black students had been shunted into the slower class.
“They told us we were that,” my friend Crystal said.
Then, she reminded me that her class had once outscored mine on a sixth-grade health test. Our health teacher threw out the scores, accusing Crystal’s class of cheating. At the end of fourth grade, Jason was held back and Donnell was tracked out of my class. I would not be in the same class with a black student again until high school.
Even being in the “smarter” class wasn’t enough to catch us up to what city kids received. Their consolidated junior high offered algebra in the eighth grade, which prepared them to take calculus their senior year of high school. Students at Lascassas were supposed to take eighth grade math, which meant either doubling up on math classes during sophomore year or topping out at pre-calculus. My math teacher wasn’t satisfied with that; Dr. Gardner stayed an hour after school teaching algebra to any student with the interest and the transportation needed to study with him.
In high school, my gifted education teacher used my status to enable me to skip or test out of any class that did not interest me. Other teachers crafted independent studies for me, supervised during their planning periods. I replaced social studies classes with extra art classes. I skipped freshman physical science but added a second year of biology. I traded drivers’ ed for a second year of chemistry. I wedged in four years of French and three years of choir.
I worked hard. My senior year, I was up at 4:30 every morning, studying before morning swim practice. After school, I had another two hours of swimming, followed by violin lessons or voice lessons or club meetings or theater rehearsals. I studied until almost midnight most evenings. I won a substantial scholarship to a small private liberal arts college.
I tell this story as though it proves my mettle, but is that honest?
The days are well over 90 degrees, but Mom and I take our weekly walk anyway.
Whenever we pass one of the large, flat slabs of limestone, Momma and I comment on how ugly it is, then we dream about repurposing it as an open-air dance hall. All we’d need is a starry night, a little under-the-table booze and a string band shoved to one side. She’ll bring the country ham and biscuits, she says, if I’ll arrange the fireflies. Oh, and something to catch the mosquitoes. Mosquitos love the cedars almost as much as human blood.
Despite our dreamy plans for Saturday-night sashaying, the glades can feel like the circle just above Dante’s imagined hell. The temperature here is up to 30 degrees higher than elsewhere nearby, heated by the thick limestone karst that undergirds this part of the state. The rock absorbs the sun’s energy and the trees trap the heated air, turning the glades into convection ovens. Only the cedars grow here, along with some wildflowers.
On the outskirts of each patch of rock, the soil deepens. There, oaks and poplars and walnuts crowd out the cedars, shoving the softwood trees back into their narrow sphere and separating each glade from its siblings. They make the glades ecological islands, or what “Insular Ecosystems of the Southeastern United States” calls “‘hotspots’ of rarity-weighted richness.” The isolation has allowed the glades to evolve their own endemic species. Some plants — Gattinger’s lobelia, glade savory, limestone fameflower, Nashville breadroot, Nashville mustard, Pyne’s ground plum, running glade clover, Tennessee coneflower — exist in only a handful of glades, all of them lying within the distance between where a lazy bird ate breakfast and later eliminated scat before dinner.
* * *
Mom and I walk on down the road. She tells me she ran into one of my Lascassas classmates. Nissan had laid off her husband, so she was trying to go back to work. Too bad good jobs are so scarce. Her parents still had the farm, but it wasn’t turning much of a profit these days. I’m reminded that as hard as I worked in school, my success reflects my luck more than my pluck.
My parents gave my sister and me the polish and experiences upper-middle-class kids receive. We read extensively, focusing on the books selected by my mother, an English teacher. My mother had quit her teaching job when I was born, so she was free to shuttle me to violin lessons and voice lessons and year-round swim practices. When my father’s company paid for him to join the local country club, I added tennis and golf and those other trappings of gentrified life. When I reached high school, I wasn’t some upstart country kid who believed I was smart. I was the Martin girl, the one who performed violin solos at the local women’s club and summered at the country club. I was fit, well-spoken, well-rounded, and white. I looked like a kid headed for success.
My childhood prepared me to do well on the SAT college admissions test, an evaluation system that ostensibly rewards students’ merit but that reflects their cultural and economic backgrounds more than abilities. Students in the highest income bracket score almost 400 points higher than students from the lowest income bracket, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.
“SAT originally stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test,” wrote Josh Zumbrun in The Wall Street Journal. “But parsing the results by income suggests it’s also a Student Affluence Test. … The SAT is just another area in life where economic inequality results in much more than just disparate incomes.”
Though born poor, I was given privilege. I may not be economically elite — currently, I have a waitressing job to make ends meet — but I have a Ph.D. I am a member of the intellectual elite.
I wish my story was run-of-the-mill. Maybe then I’d feel freer to claim I’d pulled my own bootstraps.
* * *
Most of Flat Rock’s plants and grasses have already been dried by the July sun. Now is the season of the Tennessee purple coneflower, another species that evolved to fit the glades. One day, I veer off Flat Rock’s marked path and cross a limestone platte to look at copse of coneflowers and their purple bonnets.
The plant survives because it has a long taproot that delves into the cracks in the limestone, allowing it to grow in the shallow strip of soil between the limestone flats and the grasslands. Scientists suspect the flowers were carried to Tennessee during the last ice age. At that time, the region was more like the Western prairies where coneflowers usually thrives. When the ice retreated, the rest of Tennessee grew wetter and the grassland plants disappeared. But the coneflower prospered in the desert of the cedar glades, evolving away from its prairie cousins.
The only other plants still growing through summer are succulents that have stored their water for this siege of drought. They sucked up everything they can during yesterday’s half-hour thunderstorm, gorging themselves until their skin stretches like overfed ticks.
The cedars aren’t smart. They are persistent. They sip at the available water and then hang on, digging their roots deeper into the karst, waiting for the next flood and their next taste of water.
I return to the glades the second week of October. The weather turned three days earlier. And just like that, fall layers itself over the glades. It acts like a photo filter, adding a golden hue to the grasses and the trees. A pair of bees dart among the last of the blooming Southern aster, seeking a final infusion of nectar to help winter over their hive. I wander over to where a handful of coneflowers still cling to a bit of exposed limestone. They’ve lost the brilliance of their earlier days. The months of heat and drought have blanched their purple petals to lavender. Bugs have riddled them with holes. I return to the path and pause to remove the prickles and burrs my socks have grabbed. When I record this in my phone, it corrects the note to say my socks are full of “pickles and burgers.” My laughter scares a munching bunny, who shows me a flash of white tail as it runs.
But I am distracted on this hike. Tennessee has just released the statistics for the most recent round of standardized tests. Roughly two-thirds of students were below grade level in math and English. Less than 6 percent of the state’s third- through eighth-graders had “mastered” their grade level in English. The state’s education commissioner tried to bill the new scores as “more honest information about where our students are.”
Inequality isn’t just about the assumptions made about what individual students can achieve. It is also built into the ways Americans’ fund our schools. I want to believe our commitment to public education reflects our nation’s philosophical investment in the freedom, equality and opportunity of all its citizens. Unfortunately, my school experience was unusual. As I’ve studied and learned more about our public educational system, I’ve realized it was not created to serve the best interests of the nation’s children. It was invented to serve the interests of the state and its wealthiest leaders. Its creators acknowledged this.
“Theoretically all the children of the state are equally important and are entitled to have the same advantages. Practically this can never be quite true,” wrote Elwood P. Cubberly in his 1905 “School Funds and Their Apportionment.”
We rely on local property taxes, which means wealthier districts have plenty of money to pay for schools, while poorer ones have less. Twelve states — including Tennessee — pay nothing toward basic educational expenses like capital construction costs.
“Projects in schools located in high-wealth ZIP code areas had more than three times more capital investment than schools in the lowest-wealth ZIP code areas,” wrote the authors of the 21st Century Fund’s 2016 report “The State of our Schools.” The higher wealth districts also “have the capacity to borrow what they need,” the researchers continued, “whereas many low-wealth districts (particularly small, rural districts) cannot borrow at all.”
Rural schools like the one I grew up in are particularly ill-served by this funding method. Though America has urbanized over the last century, almost 9 million students attend rural schools. In 16 states, including Tennessee, rural students make up more than one-third of all students. Rural students are more than 50 percent of all students attending school in three states. Lower property values mean these districts pull in less money. Rural school districts offer the lowest teacher salaries, which makes it hard for them to find and retain qualified teachers. Rural schools are unlikely to have early childhood education programs, and parents of rural school children are least likely to have college degrees. Though rural schools have smaller budgets, it is more expensive for them to access infrastructure like broadband internet (and the loss of net neutrality makes that prospect even more expensive). Rural schools also struggle to offer the curriculum urban and suburban students can access. A third of Oklahoma’s high schools, almost all in rural areas, have eliminated foreign-language classes for funding concerns.
Rural schools also face greater student poverty. According to the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services, 42 of the 48 counties that have child poverty rates above 70 percent are in non-metro areas. Almost all the 42 counties are in the Southeastern United States, the lower Mississippi Delta, Texas and Central Appalachia.
“Being poor in a relatively well-off community with good infrastructure and schools is different from being poor in a place where poverty rates have been high for generations, where economic investment in schools and infrastructure is negligible and where pathways to success are few,” note researchers for the Carsey School of Public Policy. “The hurdles are even higher in rural areas, where low population density, physical isolation and the broad spatial distribution of the poor make service deliver and exposure to innovative programs more challenging.”
As is true across the United States, race matters. About 25 percent of rural students are minorities. Over half of all rural black children live below the poverty line. Only one-fifth of rural white children do.
Rural School and Community Trust Executive Director Robert Mahaffey called the 2017 funding situation for rural schools “nothing less than a national emergency.” Then, the Trump administration announced plans to cut existing educational programs by 16 percent to fund a $1.4 billion expansion of school vouchers. Under this proposal, schools would lose before- and after-school programs, teacher training grants, and other aid programs. Cuts to Medicaid could end funding for speech therapy, occupational therapy, wheelchairs, social workers, and school nurses. States have also pulled funding from rural schools. This past year, the Texas state legislature allowed the Additional State Aid for Tax Reduction program to expire, along with the $420 million it had siphoned to the states’ rural schools. Lawmakers promised to fund hardship grants, but they only funded about 25 percent of the lost revenue.
Theoretically urban and suburban districts are better able to equalize the educational landscape, particularly in Tennessee, where most of the largest urban areas have created metropolitan districts. New legislation in 30 states has allowed wealthy neighborhoods to split off from their school districts. In Tennessee, the first to go were six wealthy suburbs outside Memphis which severed their relationship to — and financial support of — the struggling Shelby County schools in 2014. The divorce slashed the Shelby County Schools’ budget by 20 percent, forcing the district to close seven schools and lay off about 500 teachers.
Chattanooga might be next. In January 2017, Signal Mountain began lobbying to pull its three schools out of the Hamilton County School District. In late September, the Signal Mountain School System Viability Committee estimated their three schools would have a surplus of $1.9 million just by pulling their taxes out of the county-wide pot.
Unsurprisingly, both the districts in Memphis and the proposed district in Chattanooga are overwhelmingly white.
“When black public school students are treated as if they are inferior to white students, and that treatment is institutionalized by state or municipal action, the resulting stigma unconstitutionally assails the integrity of black students,” wrote United States District Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala in a case challenging the separation of Gardendale from the Birmingham’s Jefferson County School District. “That racial stigma is intolerable under the Fourteenth Amendment. That was true in 1954, and it is true today.” She also wrote she worried about “what becomes of African-American students zoned for decades to a particular feeder pattern.” Then, she granted the new school district’s request.
Why should a wealthier district siphon off part of their money to prop up a less prosperous area? From a pragmatic perspective, inequality costs us all. In 2013, the Educational Testing Service analyzed data and estimated childhood poverty costs the United States about $500 billion a year. Other studies have shown that poor education is tied to everything from increased risk of incarceration to poorer health and less stable employment.
The question is also a matter of moral right. Inequality in schools reflects the ways Americans have built a nation on a scaffolding of prejudice. Our property values are tied to our historical ability to earn wealth, to own homes in “nice” neighborhoods, to get funding from banks which relied on racist practices for most of American history, etc. This funding method ensures the next generation will inherit the economic and social standing of their parents and of their grandparents. The result? The most privileged students are sent to schools awash in academic resources, creative stimuli, and social connections. A few other students, like me, are allowed to fight to join them. The rest of our children are trained to participate in the industrial labor pool. They have the skills to be factory workers, but they cannot achieve their full potential.
Or, we’ve constructed our society just like nature laid out its soil. In some places, there’s more than enough water and nutrients and depth for grand trees to take root and thrive for hundreds of years. Elsewhere, the limestone lies too close to the surface, and floods wash away what little topsoil remains. There, every resource goes into survival. Everything — every tree, every plant, every animal — is stunted by its environment.
Too often when we speak about equality and justice, we use them as synonyms for fairness. We say that giving everyone equal rights and equal power won’t cost those in power. We retweet, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” But fixing this problem, laying an equal layer of figurative topsoil across America so that every child had the same opportunity to thrive, would take an incredible amount of our labor and our treasure.
Equality won’t be free. It will mean repaying the people who’ve been forced to invest in us.
* * *
I pass another limestone flat. On this one, even the coneflowers have withered away. I remember another parable popular from my childhood.
“Listen!” Jesus commanded the crowds who gathered along the sea of Galilee. “A sower went out to sow.”
The farmer didn’t place the seed carefully in rows like corn or in mounds of earth like potatoes; he tossed carelessly it across his property. Only a portion of the seed fell onto the cultivated land. Some fell on the path which passing feet had packed hard and flat, and the birds ate it. The farmer cast other seed onto rocky ground. That seed grew, but it could not root deeply enough to sustain itself during the hot summer months. The sun burned the plants away. The farmer planted other seed in the middle of a thorny patch of brambles he had not cleared from his land. The brambles choked the plants.
“Let anyone with ears listen!” Jesus commanded.
The disciples were confused. Jesus ribbed them a bit about being no better than the unbelievers, then he told them the seed is the word of God and the soil is the human heart. He blamed the failure of the seed on the soil. Only a few people hear the gospel, believe, persist, and are saved, Jesus explained.
How could the soil or the seed be at fault? It seemed to me the problem lay with the farmer who had either failed to prepare the soil or else failed to properly place the seed.
Dad volunteers for another Christmas walk. This time, we drag my 16-year-old niece along for our trek. She dislikes walking even more than Dad does, but she has learned events like this aren’t voluntary. We pass the bungalow where last spring I’d seen the field of daffodils. The owner has smothered the land with wood chips. There will be no more flowers in that yard.
Mom and I direct Dad down a different country road. We find a narrow pull-off, park the car, and set off. When we pass a stand of cedars that have grown tangled in an abandoned fence line, I make the other three wait for me while I clip a few branches off. I press the needles in my fingers and breathe in the memories of Christmases now past.
My parents sold our house in 2005. Grandma had died, so her living room was finally open for Christmas. Dad agreed to let Ruthie and I say goodbye to our home by choosing our own truly perfect tree. We clomped down the hill one last time, scraped through the fence and began the search. He nixed the first one I proposed.
“Look at the width of it!” He wrapped his arms around it. He could barely encompass a third of it. We settled on a tree I thought was too small but which Dad warned was still too big. Dad backed his truck down the hill to help us tow it home. Before he brought it in the house, he bolted hooks into the rafters to hold it upright. When we raised it into place, a few branches still folded over against the ceiling.
“Definitely the prettiest one yet,” Momma said softly.
In 2006, no one mentioned going back to the farm for another tree. Momma brought home a pre-lit faux fir from a discount decoration emporium. It fit the new living room’s ceiling with a foot to spare, so the next year, she added an angel. It is a beautiful tree, but the shadows across the ceiling are wrong, and Mom’s potpourri never has the right scent.
In 2017, when I got back to my apartment in Nashville, I propped the cedar branches in a glass vase. When the needles dropped, I collected them and put them in a shallow jar of water above my propane heater. Nothing else smells quite like a Tennessee red cedar.