That old gravel road snakes across the spine of the ridge, specifically Tower Ridge, where I grew up. Straddling the Jackson-Vinton County lines, Tower Ridge, aptly named so because of its two twin air towers, holds fond memories for me. It’s here that I spent my childhood years, oblivious to the poverty that encompassed me, and it’s here that I spent my adolescent years where I became acutely aware that not all people used outhouses or bathed in creeks during the summer. My memories on The Ridge (as I fondly refer to it) serve as a constant reminder of the poverty that many face in Appalachia and as a remembrance of the unwavering love of my Appalachian family and culture.
I am the 7th child -and youngest- of Norm and Betty Stacey. My dad was a disabled Army veteran who fought in the Korean War, good with his hands and a brilliant mechanic. He dropped out of school in the 8th grade. When he met my mom, a budding socialite, cheerleader, and honor student, she, too, dropped out of school in 11th grade to marry my dad and relocate with him while he served in the military. Seven kids later, they had me. Three of my brothers served in the military, following in my dad’s footsteps. Not one of the Stacey clan had an inkling of attending college, until I came along. In fact, it was somewhat scoffed at. The “Don’t get bigger than your britches and your raisin’” mentality often permeates Appalachian culture and my family was not immune to it, particularly if you are a first generation college student. Of course, my parents were proud of me, but not excessively proud. My mom always says, “I’m proud of all my kids no matter what they do or don’t do.” That’s Appalachian love at its finest. So, when I attended college it was with little fanfare. After all, statistically, I was lucky to graduate high school.
My mom worked two jobs, sometimes three, to make ends meet with my dad’s disability. She worked as a seamstress at the former Pants Factory, a barmaid at The Eagles bar, a waitress at the local dairy barn, and a laborer at Pillsbury (now General Mills). She worked those long hours so we kids could have those little things that many take for granted: new tennis shoes for school, a few nice outfits for school, and Christmas presents under the tree on Christmas morning. We were the definition of the working poor - as are many families that are tucked away in the Appalachian hollows and hills. When we first moved to The Ridge, we had no indoor bathroom with the exception of a sink. We used an outhouse for several years, bathed in a creek in the summer (and to this day I refuse to buy Ivory soap because it’s the only soap we bought during those times as it’s the only kind that floated in the creek), and, went once a week to Grandma’s in the winter for baths. Of course, we washed up throughout the week. According to my dad, being poor was no excuse for bad hygiene. Food stamps and yard sales dictated much of my childhood life. Interestingly, I didn’t know I was poor until others pointed it out. Kids can be cruel and often use their socio-economic status to develop cliques. Parents weren’t much better either. If you weren’t on the local pony league summer ball teams or cheering for the coveted pee-wee Cowboys, you were somewhat a step down on the social totem pole. As a kid growing up in poverty, we couldn’t afford those types of things.
Fortunately, I found solace in the classroom. I had phenomenal teachers who nurtured a love of learning. From my 5th grade teacher Mrs. Boothe who paid me $5 to grade spelling tests (I know it would be inappropriate now...gasp) to my 8th grade teacher Jim Downard who wrote success notices about my stellar academic performance (which I still have all those notes), I found that education was the great equalizer. I wasn’t poor in the classroom. When I was a senior, teachers like Brian Lintala furthered that confidence and made me believe that I was, indeed, someone special and that my circumstances didn’t dictate my future. I think that’s why I became a teacher. Initially, I thought about law, but, along the way, my advisor suggested teaching. And, 23 years later, here I am. I was blessed with an amazing support system along the way. My parents loved me and worked hard to provide for our family. I had amazing teachers who sparked my love of learning, and when I graduated from the comfortable confines of my school, I was fortunate to meet and eventually marry my husband of 26 years, Andy Miller. Those support systems are the most critical element of success to any student.
I think many impoverished Appalachian people are very weary of the education system and rightfully so at times. As a poor kid, I, quite frankly, was pretty bitter when the middle-class “upity” teacher wanted me to worry about essays and fractions when I had to walk a mile in the snow just to catch the bus because it only ran as far as the local church. There are different communication registers that you have to use with differing socio-economic classes. I guess it’s why I consider it a privilege to have grown up in poverty. I have lived on both sides of the proverbial socio-economic fence and speak from experience. That, I hope, adds credibility and validity. It’s hard for many impoverished Appalachian families to feel as if they aren’t being judged by people “in the system.” It’s imperative that a kid like I was knows that there is a way out of generational poverty as long as he or she possesses an element of grit.
I tend to see every student as a blank slate. Circumstances, privileges, etc. have no bearing on potential. Granted, some kids have it tougher than others. Some kids have more privileges. The truth of the matter is who wants it the most. I spent many years angry with a system that assumed I was going to be a statistic because of my poverty. I was unaware of the opportunities that existed outside of my county lines, and often, I was overlooked as a student with “potential.” As an educator, I make sure all my students know about educational opportunities. I challenge my students to not just dream but to also exhaust all means to achieve those dreams. I don’t fault parents for not knowing the system as I’m sure many of them are much like mine were; however, if we, as a culture, are going to change the Appalachian narrative, we cannot simply wait for someone else to do it. We can’t be afraid to let our children travel beyond the county lines. We can’t worry how far away they are going to move. We can’t keep them near us for our own sense of security, because that’s selfish, and that’s often not their dreams.
Providing students with opportunities early on in their education creates pathways to success that ultimately reflect positively on Appalachia as a whole. Waiting until students are seniors to care about their future is too late - whether that be a collegiate future or a working career. I often tell my students that being poor as a teen is rough, but for those who invest in education and seek the collegiate route, being poor can actually be beneficial in regards to collegiate aid. Hundreds of scholarships exist for high-performing, low-income students, and we have the opportunity to present that to them. Every story is unique, and being from Appalachia only enriches their possibilities for the future if they are willing to be involved in their communities and opportunistic in their choices.
As my own kids go on to college (one a new graduate of Marshall University and the other currently at Columbia University in New York City) and my students from each year take on the incredible onus representing our region, I hope they, too, pen their stories of success. Maybe, just maybe, one day, instead of our region being depicted as uneducated and drug-ridden, our Appalachia will be known for all those great traits and for producing some of the most gritty, talented, dream-chasers this nation has ever witnessed.
All it takes is one person with the right support systems to break a generational cycle of poverty. One person can be instrumental in scribing a new narrative. We determine how others view our culture by the image we portray and project about Appalachia. That image is reflected by those who leave our area and how they talk about it. It’s time we take back our Appalachia and show our young people they can be proud of our region. They can love our small towns and quaint traditions and be thankful for starlit skies and green hills. They can even itch to leave the area to gain experience and exposure to diversity. What I hope to achieve as an educator and advocate for Appalachia is for those same young people to feel compelled to return to or reinvest in the region.
I still travel that gravel road quite frequently to visit my mom and my brothers who still live on The Ridge. There’s still a functioning outhouse, and I still use it when I visit. I thank my mom everyday for showing me the craft of hard work and the core of all the great Appalachian traits that we should celebrate such as loyalty to family, love of the land, the art of storytelling, and an indomitable spirit of survival. I hope, though, that through my successes as a first generation Appalachian college graduate, that I am playing a small role in reshaping the Appalachian narrative and paying it forward.
We may have quite the undertaking ahead of us as a culture and as Robert Frost once wrote, “miles to go before I sleep,” but who better to tell our stories than those who call these hills their home.
Written by: Betty Miller