As I sat in church this morning, I had a remarkable realization. I thought I came to Appalachia to teach, to educate, and to enlighten. With only three months left in my TFA commitment, I finally realized that I have gotten it backwards. Yes, in a sense, I may be teaching, educating and enlightening, but more so I have been taught, educated and enlightened by the people in my small community. Being transported from the world’s most prestigious university to a “holler” in Appalachia took me from the height of intellectual knowledge and reason to a place that values who you’re related to over where you’ve been or what school you attended and relies on faith over science. The transition was a hard one, as I felt isolated and confused by this different way of living. It was easy to call my community “backwards” after growing up in this state and having heard it referred to as such for over two decades. No longer could I go to a sushi bar, a hookah lounge, a yoga studio, an art gallery, or even to a coffee shop. It seemed like I had gone back in time. The day I saw a horse and buggy coming down my road with people sitting in a wagon with a huge American flag waving out the back solidified the differentness of this place. It was hard for me to embrace things that were so foreign to me and I was hesitant to become part of the community because, honestly, I felt like I was more educated and aware of the world than they were. Thankfully, over the last 18 months, I have learned that just isn’t true. Here are just a few of the lessons that have been taught to me, making me rethink who I am, who I want to be and what truly matters in life.
1. Just because this community is classified as in poverty, doesn’t mean it won’t support those in need. In fact, I would argue that it is just the opposite. In this community where very few have a lot, even those with the least seem more than willing to give to their neighbors or even people they don’t know out of a sense of being all in this together. The empathy here comes from having suffered through hard times themselves or seeing family members and friends suffer, and therefore understanding the tangible good that can be done by helping. There is an atmosphere of genuine love and goodwill toward those who are truly in need (although a different story entirely for those who are on “the draw” and scamming the government). The club I sponsor has been able to partner with over 25 local churches, businesses and community members to make sure that those who do not have enough to eat over the weekends are fed. A local store raised more money for St. Jude’s than almost any other place in the country even though we have one of the lowest family income levels of anywhere. A student who needed an incredibly expensive dog to help her lead a normal life found that the community gave more money than needed to fund the purchase of her animal. How many big cities do you know of where acts such as this are performed regularly, with no public acknowledgement or banquet to honor their “community contributions”? The gracious, humble attitudes with which my community members serve each other is a model I wish could be replicated on a worldwide scale.
2. When unfortunate circumstances present themselves, be a blessing to others. I have seen three different cases of students/young community members who are in dire straights due to circumstances out of their control and who have quickly been given a place to live, people to clothe and feed them and moral support from members of their community, who are not always family. Never in my life have I seen strangers take in kids as their own and provide them with all they can in order to give them a better life and help keep them from suffering any more. The generous, humble attitudes of those who are willing to take on the added financial/moral responsibility of another life without getting paid by the government is astounding.
3. Selfishness won’t get you anywhere; selflessness will bring you more joy than you can understand. I have a student who, along with their sibling, has a mental disability. This student is a walking example of love, compassion and a beautiful soul. Every day, this student greets me like it is the first time they’ve seen me in 10 years and they always ask about me when I’ve been gone. This student does not understand how to be selfish, perhaps, or more likely, was raised to know that they are not the most important thing on this Earth. Instead, this student takes gentle, kind care of their sibling to ensure his wellbeing and treats everyone they meet with kindness, respect and love. This is just one example of literally hundreds that I have seen since I’ve been here – of people who care more about other people and their relationships with them than they care of their own ego or selfish pursuits.
4. Miracles do happen, especially when a community comes together. The community I live in is by no means perfect. There have been many instances when someone who has less visibility in the community gets stricken by an ailment and nothing is done, but there have also been many instances of the community coming together to pray and search for a way to help. For example, when one student was diagnosed with cancer, a community prayer vigil was held and for several months prayers were lifted up. As much as it blows all of my human understanding to say this, the student’s cancer is now gone. I am in no way saying it was just because the community came together and prayed for them, but I do believe that this was an act of God. I am so proud to be a part of a community that prays together and supports each other.
Yes, there are things wrong with my community. Yes, there are many things I would like to change about it. But no, I don’t think it needs to be re-vamped to model what the world looks like today. In this post-Christian, post-moral, post-racial, post-every-other-thing-society, where not stepping on toes is valued over speaking with conviction about your beliefs, my community is a beacon that life hasn’t always been the way it is now and that it doesn’t always have to be. I am ever thankful to have been taught these invaluable life lessons from a place that holds little esteem intellectually; sometimes, being intellectual doesn’t make you smart and doesn’t really teach you what you need to know.
Thank you, Teach For America, for placing me in a community that could teach me more than Oxford ever did and more than any Masters or Doctorate ever will. I will continue trying each day to pass on these lessons to my students so that they are aware of the advantages they truly have here in Appalachia.