By Marianne Leek
There is me. And then there is a mountain. And then there is you. That is how I have always loved you, through faded photographs and faraway small talk and worn out stories. That is how I have always looked at you, through fog and windshield wipers and smoke. That is how I have always chased you, in the moments between the seconds that we were together, because that was all we ever had. That is how I have always known you.
from “The Mountain Between Us,” a personal essay by Dawson Mitchell, a junior at Hayesville High School in North Carolina
In the past five years, there’s been a culture shift at Hayesville High School, where I teach. Students, teachers, coaches, and administrators have been on fire for reading and sharing stories — specifically stories that arise from our home in southern Appalachia.
This literary perfect storm happened when we discovered the works of two great Carolina novelists, Ron Rash and David Joy. Frequently, the conversations that resulted from reading Rash’s poetry or Joy’s essays spilled into the hallways and carried over into other classes. Colton Thomas, a former student who now attends Mars Hill University, explained that until he found the genre of Appalachian literature that characterizes the work of Rash and Joy, “Reading had become more of a chore than actual enjoyment. Their books were relatable and reinvigorated my love for reading.”
In 2016, I stumbled upon David Joy’s Where All Light Tends to Go quite by accident in an independent bookstore in Boulder, Colorado. Coincidentally, he lives less than an hour from where I teach. I read his book in one sitting and quietly passed it along to a student I knew would appreciate the story. I use the word quietly because, if you’ve read this book, you know it deals with some mature topics and themes that might not be considered “school-appropriate.” Before I knew it, that copy made its way through most of my junior English students and half of our high school faculty, and was returned tattered, torn, dog-eared, and marked up.
I quickly talked my principal into ordering 30 copies, all of which have over the past three years slowly, suspiciously, disappeared.
I’m not sure why Where All Light Tends to Go resonated with so many. Perhaps it was the novel’s setting, less than an hour away; perhaps it was because the main character is a teenager who lives in poverty and is dealing with adult responsibilities and complicated family relationships. Perhaps trying to figure it out trivializes the magic of us simply enjoying and sharing a good story. It just seemed to be the right book at the right time for many of us. Around this time The Bitter Southerner published Joy’s essay “Digging in the Trash,” which examines poverty, stereotypes, and class issues in southern Appalachia. Not only did students read the article and discuss it with each other and their teachers, but many also gave the article to their parents to read. The essay became fodder for dinner-table conversations throughout our small county.
One of my students read Joy’s first novel, Where All Light Tends to Go at the same time she was struggling with losing her father to a degenerative disease. She texted me the morning of his death with a line from Joy’s book, “There’s a place where all light tends to go, and I guess that place is Heaven.” That one text message was affirmation enough that reading and the power of story deeply matter in the lives of human beings. And I was immediately reminded of a line from Ron Rash's novel One Foot in Eden, “But nothing is solid and permanent. Our lives are raised on the shakiest foundations. You don't need to read history books to know that. You only have to know the history of your own life.”
After that text message, I realized just how important it was to meet this author and for him to meet my students.
In May of 2017, Joy visited Hayesville High for the first time. He dove into a raw discussion about hard topics with more than 60 students, teachers, and administrators. Joy wrote this about the that first experience: “We talked about class issues and poverty, we talked about drug use and addiction, we talked about violence, we talked about life and death. I shared some of my stories, and I was lucky enough that some of those students trusted me with theirs. What I can tell you is these ‘kids’ are thinking an awful lot about big issues. What I can tell you is that they’re more willing to engage in meaningful conversation than most adults I come across. I was amazed at the honesty and the bravery they showed. I was honored they let me hug their necks.”
It has since become a literary rite of passage for my students to meet with Joy and the nearly legendary Ron Rash to discuss life, craft, and all things Appalachia.
Ron Rash visits us once a year to talk to the students and teachers at our school about writing, literature, and Appalachian culture. The students already know Rash’s novels, poetry, and short stories. Maggie Thurmond, a junior and Clay County native, explains why his stories are so relatable to her, “There are so many stereotypes about how Southern people talk, act, and carry themselves. Too often we are portrayed in books, short stories, and the media as unintelligent hicks that cannot amount to anything in society. Those outside of Appalachia see us as people who wear overalls, are barefoot, and carry a shotgun. As a teenager who has grown up in this isolated, mountainous region, it is painful to see myself and the people I know and love portrayed this way. When I came across the writings of David Joy and Ron Rash, it was like a breath of fresh mountain air. For once, I found books, poems, and short stories that accurately portrayed what life here is really like. Their books show characters from this region that are intelligent, articulate, hard-working, people. They tell the truth of the hardships and struggles that we face that other people could never understand.”
After his last visit, Rash commented on our students’ level of engagement and inquiry: “I've always been impressed with how carefully the students read my work, and how their questions and comments go beyond the obvious to deeper levels, such as issues on craft, such as importance of point of view and structure.”
It makes a deep impression on our students to talk with Rash, whose four books of poetry, six collections of short stories, and seven novels have landed him on The New York Times’ bestseller list and won him global acclaim. It empowers our students when he tells them, “There are three things that Southerners do well. We cook, we play music, and we write great literature.”
In the South, we have a tradition of sharing stories that feels as fundamental and essential as breathing. Often, these stories come in the form of songs, sermons, fish tales, or gossip. We share stories in the checkout line at the grocery store, at the ballfield, in church, and at family reunions. Most students crave the connection that comes from writing and sharing their personal story, and they want to be able to connect with characters and places in the stories they are asked to read. For teachers like me, the tradition requires considering what literature and writing assignments are a good fit for our students. Or, as Joy once explained it to my students, “Life’s too short for shitty books.”
When teachers offer choice and engaging reading and writing options, students tend to find both reading and writing cathartic and meaningful, and frequently the right writing opportunities can help a student make sense of or come to terms with experience. It often begins a healing process for them. Many of these students have been in school together on the same rural campus — which also serves as the largest employer in our county — since daycare, their stories and histories interconnected by their unique small-town education experience. As high school sophomores, students create a writing keepsake that includes over 35 polished pieces of writing. They continue this writing project as juniors. Their writing becomes an attestation of where they come from, who they are, and who they want to become, a project that encourages students to make connections between place, literature, and personal experience.
After reading “Digging in the Trash,” Kaden Metcalf, a high school junior, talked about a line from that essay: “The kids I grew up with came to know truths that don’t reach most people until they’re adults if they ever reach them at all.”
She said, “People from our area really see the harsher parts of life that most others are spared from enduring. We live through rough times and learn from them. In my younger years, I can recall times when we didn’t have a roof over our head and times when we didn’t have three meals a day. I can recall being around others who had it just as bad and still others that had it worse than I. I would rather be surrounded by poor and impoverished people than the ones who have always had. When you grow up scrounging for everything you have, and your family is living paycheck to paycheck, you learn so many life lessons. You learn the true meaning of a hard day’s work and earning your keep.”
Another student explained to the class he could relate to Joy’s writing because he remembers his family being so poor that they had to search for change to buy gas and groceries. He described how he and his siblings frequently had to wait for the things other students had and that his family did the best they could to provide. He also expressed dismay at the stereotype of the poor as “jobless losers who drive big trucks and yell a lot, because a lot of people in this area are hardworking people who do their best to live a happy life.”
* * *
Every child’s home is just that — their home. But fewer and fewer teenagers live with two biological parents. A staggering number of my students has lost an immediate family member to drug abuse and addiction. Sadly, the majority of my students have survived some sort of trauma by the time they reach high school.
In many rural communities, teenagers are working jobs only to turn their paychecks over to family members to help with household expenses. In small communities, students often have responsibilities on family farms before they even make it to school in the mornings.
In the South, we take the concept of home seriously. It’s blasphemy to criticize a child’s living circumstances, how they dress, how they smell, or what their parents or grandparents do for a living. Even in the harshest of living conditions, at the end of the day, that is a child’s home, and that is their family.
And family? Well, that’s just it — you love your family.
Buried beneath the rural, idyllic landscape of our region, mottled with churches, barns, flowers, and flags, lies a new and harsh reality — communities struggling with a rise in both poverty and addiction. Stories such as Rash’s “The Ascent” examine the complex and layered relationships between drugs, addicts, and the family members who continue to love the addicts and extend them grace.
Students crave stories that examine human frailty and families that are real. Too many teenagers today deal with poverty, hunger, homelessness, mental illness, addiction, domestic violence, and profound loss. Yet, as teachers, are we supposed to ignore all that and convince kids who don’t even know where they will sleep that night it’s important to identify the theme in a passage that bores them?
Emily Burch, a Hayesville High graduate now at East Tennessee State University, explains the attraction this way: “Both David Joy and Ron Rash write about this side of southern Appalachia that a lot of people don’t think about, or at least don’t want to think about. Both of these writers write about a darkness and realness and about what it can be like to grow up in Southern Appalachia. Being able to read their works and talk about it as a class really helped me grow as a person. I loved having those deep conversations. They gave me a new perspective about things happening around us. Meeting Ron Rash and David Joy and talking to them about reading, writing, and life in general is one of my favorite memories from high school. Our class and both of those authors helped me find something that I didn’t know I was looking for — the love for reading.”
Dawson Mitchell wrote about how many teenagers feel conflicted about their small town Southern roots. The idea that nothing good can come from Nazareth is a belief too often shared by rural teenagers. But just as Phillip told Nathanael in the gospel of John, I hear something in me whisper, “Come and see.”
Mitchell explains, “One day in English class, Mrs. Leek pulled out two books — one by David Joy and one by Ron Rash. I had no clue what those names meant or who they were. I understood the importance of reading works by authors from our region, but honestly I didn’t have high expectations. And I regret that more than anything — that I had conditioned myself to think the same as so many people who believe that this place and everything that comes from it is nothingness. My heart was in no way prepared for what I would read, and I think that made the experience even more special. They told the truth. Their stories and words were genuine. They painted pictures in my mind that made me stop, close my book, and think for a moment — because they were what I saw and knew in my everyday life. They were familiar to me, because they came from a place that I so deeply struggled to call home.”
* * *
Sharing and discussing stories from our mountains didn’t just change the perspective of our students; it began a paradigm shift among our faculty as well. Jonathan Hensley and Will Penland are teachers and coaches who are committed to changing the stereotypical rhetoric about male coaches and athletes. Hensley says too many people are surprised to find out he is a reader. “Coach Hensley is a closet scholar!” is a statement that makes him cringe.
“I guess the stereotype of a male coach in Appalachia is limited to Xs and Os,” he says, referring to the play charts drawn in every locker room. But what many people in our area did not know about Coach Hensley is that his roots in Appalachia run deep and literature from the mountains has always been his favorite genre. He describes it as reading something he can relate to. The visits from Rash and Joy have changed the way he views reading in general. Now, discussing their works in the classroom helps him build relationships with his students and colleagues. Being able to spend time with these authors has allowed him to ask questions about topics that range from a fishing sweet spot to why a character was given a particular name.
Coach Penland echoes Hensley.
“When I began trading and sharing books with my students and colleagues, we began to open up and discuss not only books, but other influences in our lives,” he says. “As an educator, our job is to teach a subject, but more importantly we should be passionate about impacting the lives of young people through relationships and motivating them to pursue happiness in this life. Reading, especially books by regional writers, provides a powerful opportunity to engage in a cultural shift — breaking down stereotypes and relating to people in a whole different way.”
Classrooms should feel alive. Classrooms should have energy. Classrooms should vibrate with possibility. Students want to engage in class discussions on deeper issues. In fact, they crave it. They want to think deeply and critically. They want to be part of a learning community. They want to cooperate and work with others. They want to belong. They want to solve problems. They want to create.
That means it matters when we create a climate of inclusivity and community in the classroom. Teachers have a responsibility to promote academic discourse that connects literature and writing to broader questions concerning humanity and current social trends and issues. Every teacher must embrace diversity and teach their students that finding beauty in the cultural traditions of others in no way diminishes the beauty of their own. It is imperative that we show compassion and kindness to every student, not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because we realize every student is of inestimable value and every student’s story matters.
The focus of education should always be relationships, relevance, and rigor – in that order. Each must come before the other. I love teaching and learning, and I am passionate about teaching children they matter. They matter at school, but more importantly, they matter in the broader context of humanity.
There is within each child infinite possibility and opportunity to do good in this world, and even a single teacher has the power to steer students toward those positive possibilities. I want students to love reading, writing, thinking, and learning, and I know this to be universally true: Teachers who intentionally, consistently, and personally invest in their students turn out students who invest in themselves and others. That kind of attention can keep a child from dropping out of school. That kind of attention produces better attendance and test scores.
But in the life of a child, scores and grades aren’t what will matter most. What matters most is how we teach them to find value in themselves, others, and the world around them.