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On Being Barefoot in Appalachia
May 19, 2014 - 8:10pm

It’s the last week of school, and the sky has suddenly opened up during just before the time when students are trying to make their way to class. My students are coming into class barefoot, largely because they were wearing flip-flops or flats that got soaked or, worse, floated away in the heavy streams of water rushing through campus. I think of this incident when I read this recent piece on Appalachian and other poor, white, rural students.

There was another instance where I remember seeing a barefoot student, or rather more than one, and that was when I was teaching in California. The students almost always also carried the telltale signs of being a hippie sort, exalting a more “natural” approach to living. Few looked twice at these students, as they were a part of what people expect from Californians, but also because on a campus, that sort of ethos is more tolerated and acceptable.

When my daughter was younger, she said “ain’t got no” once, and never again, because her father and I had an outsized reaction to it. We make it very clear that a) ain’t isn’t a word and b) we do NOT speak that way in our house. I am constantly correcting both my kids when they insist on saying words like “hair” as if it has two syllables or “I” and “my” as if they were spelled “ah” and “mah.” The reality is that almost all of my honors students this semester were from Eastern Kentucky and not one of them had a strong accent.

In the late 1960s, Michele Lalonde composed the poem “Speak White” to protest the prejudice the French felt from the economically dominant English in Quebec. Language was a class issue, both in terms of its relation to the English, but also with regards to their position vis-a-vis the French from France. The provincial accent, the Québécois Joual in all of its iterations, may be closer to the Southern accent I hear many of my students use historically in terms of class, privilege, but also identity.  To mark an accent as “less than” is to mark an entire people. I’ve often toyed with the idea of doing a translation of “Les Belles-Soeurs”, a classic Quebec play written in Joual and dealing with class and gender issues, into Appalachian. The setting becomes not an urban balcony, but a rural porch.

Many of my students who are from here are also quite skilled at making things, not because of some larger “maker movement,” but because of economic necessity and cultural tradition. And yet at the same time we celebrate the expansion on maker spaces and fairs in urban or suburban areas, we tend to undermine the skills that rural students bring into a traditional classroom because of who they are and where they come from. “Making” has been a powerful tool for me to reach some of my students who are unsure and uncomfortable in the classroom. They possess a wealth of knowledge, but a form of knowledge expressed in ways that are not.

Looking down on my students probably isn’t the last acceptable prejudice. But it is present, and it is persistent. 

 

 

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