Kindred Spirits: Appalachia, The Place Where I Overcame

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Written by Christina St Clair.
Christina St Clair has published essays, articles, short stories, and novels. Her work is influenced by her upbringing in England. To learn more about Christina, her available books, and to read her blogs: www.xyzwords.com

It may seem hard to believe that a person raised in England would come to love living in Appalachia, a place that as a child I’d never even heard about. After I moved to the United States, I enjoyed watching the comic antics of the snobbish banker, Milburn Drysdale, versus the commonsense mountaineer, Jed Clampett, in the TV sitcom the Beverly Hillbillies–in part because it revealed the stereotype of dumb hillbillies as false. And I certainly could identify with being unjustly labeled.

My family definitely did not fit the stereotypes of Downton Abbey as master or servant. We were working-class people, struggling to survive in the aftermath of World War II. My mother often ate the leftovers at dinner as surely as Appalachian women had to make do with what they had. My dad drove a truck and my mum eventually worked in a shop. Our housing, once a grand manor house now fallen into disrepair, had been converted into substandard flats with leaky roofs and moldy ceilings. I was the third baby of three, all of us born shortly after the war. Food, money, and housing were scarce. My mother did not want any more children, but along I came born at home with only the neighbor to help deliver me.

I was a bright girl and loved to learn. When I was four, I walked to a little primary school where I won the school prize every year. When the time came to take the eleven-plus, the exam that determined whether a child proceeded into an academic or a blue-collar stream of education, everyone expected me to do well. As it turned out, my exam results were exceptional. It seemed obvious I would have my choice of any of the girls’ schools in the area where I lived.

My father never had a chance to further his education beyond eighth grade, but he understood the power of education. My mother, too, wanted her children to have a better life than hers and taught me to read and write at an early age. They also taught me that I could do anything and believed that the best way to have a chance in life was to go to the finest school possible. So off I set with my mum on a red double decker bus for an interview at the nearby Prendergast Grammar School for Girls.

Grammar schools in England at that time taught Latin and other classical subjects in preparation for college. I dreamed of eventually attending Oxford or Cambridge. I had no idea that was an impossible dream denied to me because of my class.

I will never forget the imposing women at the posh (to me) school who interviewed me, nor will I forget the moment when I was asked what my father did for a living. I proudly said he drove a lorry for a big supermarket chain.

“I see,” said one of the interviewers, a slight frown on her face. “And your mother?”

“My mum works for a shop,” I replied uncertainly.

Suddenly, the atmosphere in the interview room became decidedly chilly. I began to squirm, aware only that I’d made a mistake and had somehow displeased these imperious women. All too soon I was dismissed with the assurance I would shortly hear from the school.

Week after week no letter came–until a few days before the school term was to begin.

I was devastated to learn my application was rejected. It had more to do with my parents’ jobs and our societal status than my ability, but equally distressing was the fact that the rejection letter came so late that all the student slots in other local schools were filled. Eventually I got a last-minute interview at a place many miles from my home. The headmistress at this school was apparently compelled to take me on. I remember her sharp retort when I said, not intending to boast, that I’d been a prefect which was a special honor like being a hall monitor. “You won’t be one here!” this stern lady announced.

I was bewildered. What had I done? I yearned to go on learning, but I wanted to escape this place where I felt so unwelcome. As soon as I turned fifteen–the earliest age in England for a schoolchild to leave–I quit school, got a job, and found a room with a kitchenette in a rambling old house that had been converted to shabby flats with shared bathrooms. My life seemed dull and hopeless. I was not yet nineteen when I met an American GI and relocated to the States to get married.

Ten years later the University of Pittsburgh granted me provisional acceptance to night school but wanted paperwork from my English school. It was only a formality, but the headmistress from the girls’ school wrote a scathing letter about my lack of potential. I will never know precisely what induced her to stand in the way of my furthering my education. Fortunately, the American university ignored her mean-spirited missive.

Even though I eventually earned a BA and an MA, it took me years to overcome the effects such early injustice had on my self-esteem. Even the chance remark of a highly educated friend who said he thought I was “ditzy, in a good way” elicited feelings of inferiority and hurt. I know he did not mean harm but I became immediately aware of my sense of inferiority next to those more educated and accomplished than I.

In Appalachia my creative voice has been emerging in a community of kindred spirits. We have all had to rise above the naysayers in order to become people whose unique expression is recognized as worthwhile. Recently, for instance, I read a beautiful poem “Appalachia”* by Muriel Miller Dressler. I do not have the fierce mountain pride and have never felt a mountain shake and open its jaws to partake of human sacrifice, of which she writes, but it is here in Appalachia embraced by the ancient mountains where I have lived for over twenty years that I have developed my creative voice. While I will probably never write anything as funny as the Beverly Hillbillies, I have found acceptance. My first short story was published by a regional publisher. I have been included in readings, in workshops, and in presentations. It is here in Appalachia that I have encountered warmth, friendship, and inclusion. It is here in Appalachia that the generous spirit of strong and wise people has inspired me to grow both as a human being and as a writer.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for sharing your story and the harsh realities of bias that you experienced. I too cannot fathom the bitterness of many people who then go on to hurt others. To squash the dreams of a young girl as she begins her life outside of the home is unfathomable. Why?

    I have been reading and watching YouTube videos recently about Appalachia. Your article was presented to me by Google only today. I see that you wrote it last September, so it’s a long time since. I thought the article was worth a comment even now, and hope it gets to you.

    Thanks again.

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