Well I was born a coal miner’s daughter in a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler. We were poor but we had love that’s the one thing that daddy made sure of. He’d shovel coal to make a poor man’s dollar. ~ Coal Miner’s Daughter, Loretta Lynn
7:00 AM — The transistor radio on the table is blaring country music while Mom’s hollering, “time to rise and shine,” to my sister and me. The noise carries easily through the hollow door separating my room from the kitchen. No, I’m not from Butcher Holler, but Mom is working two jobs to support us. She’s off to work soon and it’s time to do my hair and choose the outfit least-likely to be judged uncool at Jackson Jr. High School. Definitely requires a Carol call — “what are you wearing and how soon will you be here?”
Forty-five minutes later, my best friend and I are rocking our mini skirts, platforms and pigtails as we mosey on to school, several blocks away. Having covered rising, I’m ready to shine in the environment I love most — school!
We are the lucky ones at Jackson, the “popular” kids. We’re in the “smart” class — so called because we make good grades and our teachers like us. Some of us are from the working class neighborhood around the school and others are bused in from even poorer areas. We travel together, changing classes, but mainly moving as a pack. We like it that way — safety in familiarity.
The hallways are chaotic and intimidating. But I learn quickly. Don’t be confrontational; don’t antagonize; try not to call attention to yourself in the cafeteria — and never use the bathroom unless you go to the gym where Miss Obenchain runs a tight ship in the locker room.
So why do I love it? Because of what happens in the classrooms, not the hallways. The teachers treat me like a smart kid. They talk to me as if I’m a part of the educated world they know. They share their experiences, many foreign and exotic — ski trips, tennis lessons, sorority balls — not just their content knowledge in English and math. They believe we can be whatever we want and they make some of us believe it too.
Life — AKA school — iI good in these years. And it will only get better, right? A large consolidated high school, more opportunities, what more could I ask? I’ve been rising and shining — and I’ll continue to — because I can be anything I want if I just study hard enough.
And I do, but most of my neighborhood comrades do not come along for my ride. The smart classes at the high school across town are filled with only a few of my former classmates. The people I know are in different, non “college-bound” classes. Some have disappeared all together! Most of the inhabitants of my classes are from two other jr. highs on the more affluent side of the city. They know special information, like when to sign up for SATs and how to apply for scholarships. Most importantly, they know the path that is before them — college, career, success.
I’m no longer secure in the path I’ve worked so hard to be on. What if I fail? What if I’m just a girl who thinks she’s smart and someone finds out? I only applied for the one scholarship because my mechanical drawing teacher told me to. I didn’t know you should take your SATs more than once. I should’ve asked someone, I guess, but who? No one close to me ever did this college thing. It’s so easy to panic when the unknown stares you in the face. instead of taking time to consider all my work and accept that all new things are scary, I panic. And in that state, I have only one option — turn in my scholarship and drop out before I have a chance to embarrass myself.
Years later, though, I’m still one of the lucky ones — I returned to school — on my dime this time, and figured out how to finish what I started. But a rewarding career in education is still marred by the knowledge that not much has changed in regard to educational opportunity. Kids whose parents didn’t go to college don’t know the terrain; they need continued support, even after they “make it.” Those who don’t want a college path have few (if any) viable options. Most importantly, the current test-oriented, accountability-dominated culture has taken away the best of what school has to offer – close associations with passionate educators who have the time and inclination to share not just curriculum, but themselves, with students who need so much more than facts and figures — and that’s all students.
It’s time to rise and shine again – to speak up – especially when those in charge would prefer silent acquiescence. Because I know what’s right – my best teachers taught me how to recognize and fight for it.
Thanks Mom – loving, strict, tired parent who still served with the PTA and the Girl Scouts; Linda Sampson – beloved English teacher who took the time after school to “chat” about my life; Lauralee Grim – amazing 6th grade teacher who allowed me to compact my classwork and move on at my pace; Eleanor Futten – efficient Geometry teacher who made me think of myself as a “math person;” Lois Obenchain – master of the gym, whose discipline and forthrightness helped me excel in athletics; and Irvin Bowles – shop teacher who happily allowed 2 girls, for the first time, to join his mechanical drawing class.