A brief update on the novel … All is going well, friends, e.g. I am/we NaNo-ers are alive. But it’s possible I might not look at the (very) rough draft of this story for ten more years. Short stories and mini-poems will be about all my attention span can handle in the months following November 30th.
A brief synopsis of the novel … Virginia (“Ginny”) Mulligan is a failed photographer, newly-graduated and directionless. Upon the splintering of a relationship, Ginny signs up to teach English in the Appalachian mountains. The people of Coventry,Virginia are welcoming, and she connects with her students. Yet an old fear darkens the community toward her and the teachers–a fear of losing their children, their people, to the outside world. Another teacher named Solomon drags Ginny into the war against this philosophy, inviting–for the both of them–backlash of a potentially fatal kind.
And a rough excerpt …
Their faces drifted out of a great melty blur.
Leeza the Fierce One. Glittering grey eyes and beanie, yellow, as ever. Red-as-fire-engine hair and a heavy camouflage jacket that looked like it had belonged to her father.
Decklin the Loner. Hiding himself in the back corner, he sketched during the past two writing sessions.
Jess Lawrence of the Lawrence clan. Raymond Lawrence Jr., her uncle, had swung by to say hi already, near the start of class on the third day. She tucked her pencil in her left long sock, presumably so it would not get lost. Or taken.
Paulene hated mice and tucked her feet underneath her when she wrote, just in case one would scurry underneath. (Not unlikely, given the condition of the school.) She, however, was not a girly girl; I saw how she tore into her sloppy Joe at lunch on the first day. Judging by her stained white tee, the holey skirt, the sweater, which she wore every day, I did not think she ate outside of school.
B.J. hated class. At least, seeing him sleep through every request I made of the class, it felt like it to me—I had yet to distance my worth as a teacher and as a person from my class’s attention spans. I wondered now. Did he ever get to sleep at home? Where did he lay his head at night? On a ratty couch? A floor?
Tilly Rae reminded me of my sister, Kinsey, with bright almost-white hair spilling bushily out from under her grey sweatshirt hood. She looked out at the world like it truly was out to eat her, or at least, to take a bite. I wondered about her home life if her peers inspired such tremors.
Sam, HeatherAnn, and Winnie huddled in a corner and giggled. I could not yet tell them apart, partly because I had had terribly experiences with popular girls in middle and high school, and my natural bias had kicked in, preventing much differentiation. But these girls would never have even broached the second-wave popular crowd at my old school, given their camouflage backpacks, middle-schoolish pink ribbons, and heavier middles than was acceptable in Vogue-entrenched city schools.
Hunter’s lumbering body took up twice the space of any other student, and when he stood by me, I—an above-average 5’ 8’’—felt like a child, not that I felt like the authority anyhow. The way Leeza looked at him, I guessed she felt the same: the only person in the world she might be afraid to mouth off to.
Ian had asked me to call him “Lobster” on the first day. He looked related to Leeza, but I could not tell if there was any relation there. He goofed and giggled during class, freckle face beaming at his own private antics. It was harmless, and the popular girls made google eyes at him, but he got on Hunter’s nerves. Given the latter’s size, I kept my eyes open.
John-Mark was the mystery kid. He said nothing, did nothing, only obeyed and looked back at me, studying me.
I felt like a unicorn.
Who was I? Dark from summer, kicking around in Keds, unable to write in chalk, and constantly shaking out the tickling ends of a growing-out rocker hair cut… though I was most clearly not a rocker, hipster, city-slicker, or anything distinct. I was as nameless as the Cat that trailed me home.
I could not just throwback a reference to some cultural phenomenon like college parties. They did not know what those looked like. Or thrifting in Goodwills to look homeless. We—my old friends and I—talked about being poor college students while we had stood in the middle of our riches.
The people looked back at me.
Who did I think I was?
“You are doing a noble thing,” Mom, Amelia, …even my host mom, Mrs. Chamblee, had said.
Who did I think I was?
The people are poor. During training, we had been warned about the food running low in the cafeteria: always bring your food. Always. Or go to the vending machine. Or start a Victory garden by the dumpster.
The people are poor. During training, we had been warned about students jumping in the lake without knowing how to swim; Appalachia kids, you know. “No swimming holes?” “Not any deeper than five feet. And the lake’s town property. Mountain kids avoid it.” Watch for the hind kick. The look in the eye like the struck deer. Look directly underneath your chair; more kids drown there than any other place in the water.
The people are poor. During training, we were told not to talk about our relative wealth. Our flat-screen televisions. Our 3-minute wait time Emergency Rooms. Our trash can full of could’ve-been-eaten food.
Dress down. Talk straight. Above all, don’t demand respect. Especially from the mountain kids.
When Sunday afternoon rolled around and when I saw the kind gentleman who had sold me the composition notebooks; when I saw Mrs. Chamblee, town gentry, mingling carefully with the mountain families; when I saw that I was the only new teacher, the only one from the outside; and when I saw Solomon with the people…
…I knew what I was.
I ate a bite of sweet potato casserole and tried to pay attention to a woman with white hair so thin, I could see her scalp, who was telling me the history of the recipe.
“We would be nothing without you teachers coming every year, Miss Mulligan,” the woman said at the end of her long narrative. She smiled. In the front were missing eyeteeth.
I almost believed her.