Dr. Grauer's Column - Appalachian Dreams
“I live in a little white trailer,” a first grader said to one of our students.
“My intention for the trip was to talk to more people and open my eyes to southern culture…” said another of our students, who live in some of the top income areas in the country, so we were off to a good start.
We were visiting Rogers Elementary School, bringing gifts all the way from Southern California and, not to be trite, understanding we might get the greater rewards for our giving.
Rogers Elementary lies in the green hills of Wolfe Country, Kentucky. I had heard of Bourbon County, as well as Harlan and Muhlenberg since they are sung about in the old bluegrass and coal miner songs I know, but there are 120 counties in Kentucky. Wolfe County has around 7,000 people and runs deep through the Daniel Boone National Forest with black oaks, pines, and the sugar maple species that was used to make my banjo, and it has a median family income a whole lot different than our area.
Our Expedition leader Paulina Davis-Fisher and our chaperones Nick Scacco, Dominique Bartoughian and I loaded up our vans with all of the arts supplies the school principal said they needed to help get their art program up and running again, as well as reading books and sporting goods. We had carried some on the airplane, had others shipped to Paulina’s friend in Lexington, and a group of students were tasked to shop for the rest of the items during our first morning in town. We caromed through the windy, one- and two-lane backroads lined with green tree tunnels and rock ridges, and we showed up at their gymnasium door on a bright September morning in the vans filled with supplies.
On the way, I imagined a tiny school and maybe trailers, and was surprised by the sunny, white gymnasium and the whole, modern-looking one-story brick layout set on rolling, grassy acres. The principal and some administrators and staff were all there to receive us, smiling.
Our 20 students divided up into class groups for the grade 1-2, grade 3-4 and grade 5-6 combo classes. Our first task: storytelling!
Some students and I found ourselves facing around 20 first and second graders staring at us sweetly, waiting for story time. I quickly handed the book Amelia Bedelia to Victoria A. (grade 11), which she delivered beautifully. Now I was up.
I thought I might make up stories about the local legend, the Goatman. But I needed to assess my audience and establish the tone that worked for them. “Who has goats? Who has goats at their house?”
About a third of the students raise their hands. Hmmm.
“Who has horses at home?” About half raise their hands and there was murmuring as some expressed how many they had.
“Okay, who has pigs?” and about six of the 20 or so students signaled.
“What about dogs?” Almost all.
“What about cats” Most.
They could not possibly have been more rapt in their attention, or less distracted, at least when it came to animals.
I don't know why I entered the classroom worried that the kids would lose attention or get bored or find storytelling to be irrelevant. Or maybe I do. Based on postsecondary educational attainment and workforce indicators of 2021 , Kentucky ranked 45th in education among the 50 states in the nation. I just didn’t know what that really meant in the context of this class and these bright, little faces.
It was time for the story.
“Who wants a happy story?” (Four or so hands raised)
“Who wants a sad story?” (Three or so hands raised.)
“Who wants a funny story?” (Half a dozen.)
“Who wants a scary story?” (Almost all hands up.)
“Okay who wants a VERY scary story?” (All hands up, wiggling.)
I reached into my well. Back home, every Fourth of July, all the children in my neighborhood gather on the glen with a fire pit for their annual campout. Some families asked me if I might read them scary stories around the fire pit before bedtime. This I anticipated and did for many years, and so I was not without material. Plus, fortuitously, I was aware of the local Goatman legend, and I had been attempting to scare our own Grauer School students with this story all week, using variations of my long history with Bugganes and trolls.
Once there was a land of green rolling grass, with happy horses and dogs and kitties all over.
[I dug deeper.]
Pink, fluffy bunnies romped and scampered all about the happy children all about the grassy knolls of Kentucky, not far from this very spot, and bubbles floated in the air, and all the children scampered and skipped about in smiley bliss.
[Okay, I thought I had ’em.]
The children were skipping around the field and prancing their horses all around the village. Come to think of it, it was right around this schoolyard where you all play. Then, a few of them went playing deeper into the happy green woods just back there. They went in deeper. And deeper, and the woods grew darker! Until coming upon a black pond. At the edge of the pond was a trestle dock reaching out, and as they approached that trestle, they heard strange, strange noises. As the children looked around, right there behind the schoolhouse, they first heard only a stirring. But then the noise grew louder. Louder!
What do you think those noises sounded like? Who can make those noises?
[Students all chime in and start to wiggle until the teacher sends them a worried glance, they need to settle down.]
That’s right, they heard a growling, louder, and a blood curdling, horrifying, screeching …. As those children stood there listening, suddenly … suddenly …[louder now] when suddenly [loudest]… there was
… there appeared
… The Goatman!
… THE GOAT…MANNNNNNN!!!!
[All backs straight, all eyes round, even the Grauer high schoolers.]
[Etc., fill in your own adventure]
Those clear little eyes in their faces and their stout backs revealed attention, and they beamed and attached to the storytelling and to one another around the classroom as the teacher filmed every word of the story with her phone.
There was a terrible flood just recently here in east Kentucky, just a couple of counties over. First, our group was going to bring supplies to the flood victims, but the truth is this school right here, Rogers, could use them just as much.
Whole towns were submerged in the flood and painful stories were emerging. We never made it to the flood zone, but next period in the music room, we put on the traditional Kentucky folk ballad “Shady Grove”, a jig about beautiful bygone days that makes your feet move. I like the way the Jerry Garcia sang it best, and the kids made rhythm to that until eventually a couple of them put in dance moves along with me and the teacher. Here, you can dance or read to it, too: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ayk_qQw0XZg. “Shady Grove” has a bit of a ballad feel, too, for a world that has been lost. We sway, and now our students Tahlia F. (grade 11) and Lily T. (grade 11) are filling up their laps and arms with cuddly first and second grade innocents. This is why we are here.
Last year, 2021, Kentucky finished 29th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, according to EducationWeek , with an overall grade of C. Wait a minute! The study I had seen earlier, ranking them 45th last year, sounded just as authoritative and easy to believe. I know education, too, and I hate those ranks. They tend to measure the wrong things and to reduce education to a couple simplistic outcomes that lead to simplistic school governance.
I think: Let’s rank our kids by measures of civility, warmth and understanding of others, and resourcefulness.
Next in the music room, I try to sing that old-time Kentucky ballad, “I got a horse, I got a cow, I got a mule, I got a plow, and I’ll get along somehow.” I love the old-time music. I can’t find that one on YouTube and the locals don’t know it, either, but maybe they will. It’s not uncommon for outsiders to help revive traditions they bring back to their origin sites—that’s how the whole blues revival occurred in the US, and the longboard surfing revival in California. People from great traditions tend to love re-discovery and acknowledgment too, as they re-commit to keeping those traditions alive, traditions that can be sources of pride and identity. Our students will recognize those traditions for life.
Outdoors at the school, our kids break up into groups and teach the game "Sharks and Minnows" to the Rogers kids. They play easily in mixed groups of mixed ages, an educational and anthropological aspect of socializing that larger schools have long forgotten and that is unparalleled historically for effective, healthy teaching and learning. Age mixing is everything school was before it was reformulated by the educational theorists and social constructivists who made schools huge and “comprehensive.”
I have a special affinity for smaller schools, where we are a “part of something together,” and we were seeing that at Rogers Elementary.
The students down there in Kentucky are developing intelligences we can barely fathom out here on the crowded coast, they coexist uniquely, and I don’t think they even know it. You may think that it’s not right to tell stories mythologizing their woods as a scary world filled with horror creatures or snakes. But Appalachian nightmares for us might just be Appalachian dreams for them. The expert at the Reptile Zoo in nearby Slade helped me out on this by telling me that the people there don’t encroach on the wilds or think it is a thing to remove or kill or fear. They know how to walk and play among the animals and the plant species all around. The children at Rogers don’t think they are environmentalists. They just live in the country, and they’re the real thing.
 Report: Kentucky ranks as 6th least educated state in America, Fox56 News, February 16, 2022.
 Quality Counts 2021: Educational Opportunities and Performance in Kentucky, EducationWeek, January 19, 2021.
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