Family Matters: A Mother and Daughter’s Literacy Journey
I was born to a sixteen-year-old mother from a broken home in the coalfields of central Appalachia, where unemployment, poverty, and illiteracy rates are reportedly among the highest in the nation. If my mother and I were the statistics we are supposed to be, we would look something like this:
She would be a high school dropout and single mother with two or more children by age twenty. She would be in an abusive relationship that she would not leave because she had no support. Her prospects for employment would be grim because there are few jobs. For a such a woman, with no money, no support system, and a low level of functional literacy, college would be an unlikely dream.
Simply because I am her daughter, and no one in my family had ever attended college, I would continue this cycle with my own children. For us, “Appalachia” would be a place to escape, and “culture” would be an abstract word with no meaning. “School” would be a place where we don’t belong because there is no place in a standardized test for voices like ours.
I have heard that numbers don’t lie, but neither are they entirely truthful. Yes, there are too many girls and women who fall into these categories in our region, but my mother and I do not. The reality is that she completed her GED and slowly worked her way through college while raising two children.
Her love of reading led her to a degree in library science, then two master’s degrees, and finally a doctoral program. She and my father are still happily married after almost forty years, and she coaches elementary teachers on how to teach reading in a community on the Virginia-Kentucky border. She raised a daughter who is an associate professor at a liberal arts college.
Our literacy lives have grown and intertwined over the years like tendrils on a vine; I inherited her love of books and reading, which also inspired my love of writing. This past summer, after years of nudging, she joined the Appalachian Writing Project’s newest cohort as a teacher-consultant. As founding director of the Appalachian Writing Project, I am proud to call her a colleague.
Home-to-School Literacy Connection
When I began to examine the powerful connection between the literacies of home and school, I realized why she and I defied the odds.
Because I was born to such a young mother, and because I grew up in a collectivist society where family ranks second only to God, my love of words was nurtured by three generations, my first literacy coaches—none of whom had a college degree—who taught me how to see the world by reading and writing my way to understanding.
We can’t deny the power of statistics in determining who gets to attend college, how resources are allocated, how mainstream America perceives rural students, and, most importantly, how rural students see themselves.
But I don’t trust quantitative descriptions of people, particularly those from rural areas, and more specifically those in the poorest parts of Appalachia. Numbers ignore the most important aspects of rural culture, such as dialect and the plurality of literacies that children learn at home, because they can’t be measured.
So let this be our truth:
Many of us leave and return to Appalachia to live because our roots grow deep, and because growing up in these mountains means no matter where we go in the world, we are anchored spiritually to that place of voice and story and song.
The writing project showed me that I needed to come back to the area and teach because I know my students’ culture. I know the tension between being Appalachian and becoming “standardized” by tests, prejudice, and the pressure to escape the pitfalls and challenges that exist there.
Despite an assessment movement that seeks to categorize and analyze, I want to convince teachers to take into account the deep, abiding influence of place on rural students. Kentucky author George Ella Lyon calls this juncture of region and writing the “voiceplace.” Most importantly, teachers need to know that they stand in the middle of a long line of people who began their students’ educations long before these students reached the classroom.
My education began in the most unlikely of places: a single-wide trailer at my grandmother’s farm on the Virginia/Kentucky border, which sat along one mile of Long Hollow. It was here that my parents, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother laid the foundation for my love of culture and teaching, and my future research.
My days at home were filled with books and drawing (my mother is a talented painter) and song (my dad is a talented singer). On Fridays, I read Reader’s Digest condensed books at my grandmother’s house, then walked a path through the woods to my great-grandmother’s farm, where sets of Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and Archie comics awaited. As if that weren’t enough, my great-grandmother fed me hearty helpings of folk tales and preaching, along with her country cooking.
Research supports this home-to-school literacy connection. Gundlach, Farr, and Cook-Gumperz (1989) find that “children in modern literate cultures often begin learning to read and write before they begin school…[and] bring to school the linguistic resources they acquired from families, neighbors and others associated with their cultural identities” (pp. 1, 24).
Likewise, nonmainstream dialect speakers (such as those speaking Appalachian English) have already learned to use the complicated linguistic patterns of their home voice as well as a more standard variety. Teachers may assume, then, that their students are bringing “well-developed linguistic abilities” to the classroom (p.10).
Author Lee Smith writes that the King James Bible is the most influential book for a southern writer. Kids in chiefly Protestant central Appalachia may not adore Shakespeare (I didn’t) but they can recite fluently the King James Bible, a book that was translated into Elizabethan English by the same king who was a patron of Shakespeare’s acting company. Appalachian kids hear this version of English weekly in church.
Author Silas House writes that growing up in an Appalachian church and hearing the poetic sermons is one of the reasons he became a writer. Relics of Elizabethan English were—and still are—common in the sermons at the Victoria Freewill Baptist Church where I grew up, and recited in prayers over my parents’ kitchen table. The phonology and lexicon of Shakespeare’s era were as familiar to me as my own voice, but I needed someone to make that connection.
The Richness of Rural Life
Some kids may despise grammar and diagramming worksheets, as I did, but they know syntax, phonology, and vocabulary well enough to code-switch or use a formal voice when they want to avoid prejudice. They may not be fluent in foreign languages but they can speak in multiple dialects, drawing from their tacit knowledge about language and their understanding of its politics in a place where sounding “different” can mark you as an outsider. Their home voice, that dialect we call Appalachian English, has its own system of grammar and vocabulary. They know and use grammar, just a different kind. They need someone to make that connection.
I spent hours listening to my great-grandmother tell stories on her front porch. She spoke in an uncompromising Appalachian dialect that was pure as poetry. She used phrases I rarely hear now (“It’s nigh time we was gettin’ to bed”) and her stories were rich with artifacts of a language peppered with patterns such as “There ain’t many more of us that remember the old ways” that date back to Chaucer’s era.
My grandmother, mother, and I still speak in this voice when we want to return to our comfortable tongue, like a pair of well-worn shoes. Sadly, I wouldn’t learn of my linguistic history until college, where I took a class called Appalachian Prose and Poetry, but I encourage teachers to begin teaching about it in elementary school.
Rural students may not like science worksheets, but they know the anatomy and life cycle of a tobacco plant and how to grade the leaves on a cold October night in their daddy’s barn. They may not enjoy dissecting in a lab but they can catch a fish or kill a deer and name every part as they carve and harvest the meat.
They know the earth is synchronized with the heavens, which affects growth and cycles. My great-grandmother’s recipe book, which my grandmother and mother still use, is filled with facts and figures for recipes, home remedies, and planting and harvesting by the astrological signs. What a wonderful bridge to science, like Homer Hickam’s boyhood fascination with the heavens, which gave him such rich material for writing and led to a career with NASA.
They may not like math, but they can calculate the length of a pine board needed to build a porch, follow fractions on a recipe for canning heirloom tomatoes, or use geometry to design a quilt. Phobic about math since the fourth grade when I began my struggle, I knew that it wasn’t something you got at school. I watched my relatives, some whose formal education ended in an elementary grade, calculate fluently for woodworking, sewing quilts and clothes, or keeping budgets, and all with no calculator. I needed someone to show me the bridge from there to the classroom.
You may not see them in band class but three nights a week rural kids are standing on a church stage glorifying with a guitar or piano. Music was around me my entire life. My dad and grandpas played the guitar and my granny played the fiddle.
I understand why numbers are important. I know that’s how some people think and see the world, the same way I use words to make meaning. But if numbers are all you have for creating a profile of a rural student or gauging literacy, you’ll miss the point entirely.
Even as a teenager my mother knew I needed music and books and crayons and paper. She and my grandmothers read and praised my poems and stories. When my first poem was published in a national magazine she was my biggest fan. I was 15, the same age as she when she discovered that she would be a mother—and decided that we would not be statistics.
“Mom, You Are a Writer”
For me, writing is a pleasant experience; for my mother, it’s far from cathartic. Writing unmasks insecurity caused by a painful childhood and difficult initiation into adulthood. While her childhood may have spurred her relentless ambition, it has also made personal and creative writing nearly inaccessible. It was one of the reasons she resisted the summer institute, where she would have to face down that demon once and for all.
I was nervous about our roles there, and worried about intruding into the private place that writing can be. Our roles had reversed: it was my turn to read her stories and tell her what I thought, to encourage her to trust her instincts as a writer and ignore the nagging voice that causes her to grieve over every line. She encouraged my honest—even critical—feedback. What did I think?
I remember the moment I read a piece she had written about a story from the archives of our family lore, told time and time again by my great-grandmother. It was a story about a misunderstood woodcarving woman who fled into the woods and lived in a cave after being charged with attempted murder.
I read the first line, and chills spread up my arms. I realized for the first time the pride she must have felt as a mother when she read my writing, how she must have wanted my teachers to see it, too. I’m not sure if anything I said that day sounded authentic; as her daughter, my credibility as a writing peer is probably weak at best. So, I’m saying it now: Mom, you are a writer.
In Appalachia, when you meet someone for the first time, she will ask you about your “people,” who they are, and where they live. I learn about my students’ people in writing assignments that encourage them to talk about their culture and identity. (One such assignment is Appalachian author George Ella Lyon’s poem prompt “I Am From . . .”).
To understand the literacy practices of a rural student is to understand her “people,” and you won’t find those answers in numbers. You will find them in lines such as, “I am from the work-worn hands of my great-grandmother, her script as delicate as lace/I am from ‘arthuritis remedy’ just inside the Holy Bible.”
In my own life, as in that of many others in rural areas, the answers about our people and how we came to be writers span several generations to where our literacy journey began. As for my mother and me, the writing project has made us colleagues but the writing made us kindred spirits.