before it’s a what, it’s a where

old-ads-from-the-watauga-democrat_1901-watauga-academyI was honored to share opening remarks this weekend at my College’s observance of the fiftieth anniversary of the integration of schools in North Carolina’s High Country. App State began as a teacher’s college, like many regional masters institutions. So what a fitting and spectacular occasion: a history lecture by Karl Campbell, a panel of folks who were in school during the integration years sharing their experiences, and a deeply moving performance by the Junaluska Gospel Choir.

Today we are sanctified and recommitted! Thanks to everyone who worked to make this wonderful event a reality.

 *     *     *

I teach future teachers, and my subject is social foundations of education, which I describe in one sentence as “the places where school meets the real world.” We seek to understand the impact of race and ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and sexuality on education; the several achievement gaps that plague our state, and what we each can do to close them. The challenges of developing a disposition that all students can learn in a national culture that is historically, inveterately racist, sexist, classist, and homophobic; in a nation where SAT scores are best predicted by household income and zip code predicts educational achievement; in a place where inequality and bias feel as comfortable as bathwater.

That is the things about culture: no one thinks they have one. How we come up – who our people are, and how they show us to be with other people, and how all those lessons prepare us for our place in the world – these aren’t parts of our lives that we usually see. They are just the way things are. So a great deal of my course seeks to help students dethrone themselves from their perches atop the individual sovereign worlds that we all occupy – the worlds in which we understand everything, and everything is as we expect it to be. And instead begin, if only tentatively, to really understand the world through another’s eyes. 

The most powerful way to do this, I believe, is through stories.  Through hearing how somebody else has gone through the same thing you did – “school” – but really had a different experience. You see, I believe that unless we make a conscious choice to do otherwise, we will all teach the way we were taught, or wish we had been. Unless we make a conscious choice to do otherwise, we will all assume that the students arrayed before us are, at core, little “us-ses.” And if – or better, when – they turn out not to be, we will be bereft, out of options, and even more tragically we probably won’t even realize it. We’ll just label those who didn’t respond the “right way” as deficient somehow, and blithely move along to the next batch of kids. 

That’s not good enough. We who teach need to know more. To teach, I submit that we need to be able, if only tentatively, to imaginatively feel the world through another’s eyes. This is a daily practice, hour-to-hour – this dethroning. this decentering, this admission that the majority of American teachers are white women, and the majority of American students a black and brown boys and girls, and that if learning is to happen we who teach must first unlearn a great deal. And that we will best begin that labor by hearing from others what it was like, and what it is like. And thereby coming to know our shared and individual history. For if we know our history, as Bob Marley sings, we will know where we’re comin’ from.

Stories and histories always happen in places. Just like school. School is always physical, located: it is always a question of bodies housed somewhere, inventoried and ordered, before it is anything else. Before it’s a what, it’s a where.

A year ago I became a little obsessed with the “where” of Boone, North Carolina – this beautiful mountain town my family and I moved to six years ago from Chapel Hill. What was this where, before we arrived? What was it twenty years ago, forty, fifty, a hundred – back when the roads were so bad that they used to sell a popular postcard on King Street that said “the best way to get here is to be born here?” Why do some folks call the stream that runs through campus “Cabbage Creek?” Was there always a Holiday Inn across from the Peddler Steak House? Where did the train run that finally made it possible to get here regularly, most months, until the hurricane blew it away? 

And above all: where were the children? 

Up too late at night on the internet, I discovered the remarkable digital collections of Belk Library and got lost in old photos. I discovered that only fifty years ago Appalachian High School occupied the stately stone WPA building on campus now called Chappell Wilson Hall; that the it looked out over a football field, where professors’ kids played and sunned themselves each spring like we do now a quarter mile east. That where Belk Library and the parking deck stand was once another education building and a laboratory elementary school, where the legacy of the Dougherty brothers was carried on for generations of teacher preparation – that the ed school at App was up here way before it was in Edwin Duncan, so our new building is actually a sort of homecoming. I found Appalachian High’s twin out in Cove Creek, and the other smaller high schools in Bethel and Blowing Rock. 

And I discovered the much smaller Watauga Consolidated School – its original building a five minute walk from the public library, and its newer and slightly grander one, occupied for less than five years, a little further up the mountain, deeper into the Junaluska community. And I noticed that these schools were dramatically repurposed, or closed, as the new Watauga High School opened in 1965, roughly concurrent, as in so many other places, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

What was it like, I wondered? What was it like for the black and white children of Watauga to share this narrow valley in the mountains for so many years, walking the same streets but having such different experiences of them? What was it like to live in a segregated community you could cross on foot in twenty minutes, but whose terrain was clearly welcoming to some and tricky to others? What was it like to have your body housed and cataloged for school in such a different place, and in such different circumstances, depending on who you were? And more than anything: what was it like when, fifty years ago this year, all of what had been normal for generations was changed in an instant, as the new integrated high school opened just over the hill behind the new Goodwill store, off 105?

That question – what was it like? – led to today’s event. We’ve worked to bring together people who can help us understand what it was like, and what that means for those of use who live and study here now. We’ve brought together people who can answer that question better than we can. By the end of the afternoon, I sincerely hope that we’ll all be a lot smarter and a lot more understanding of what it was like, and urgently, what that understanding needs to mean for us now.

I hope we will leave newly connected to our own lived experience. To understand better what it’s like, as Dorothy Allison says, to think that:

Entitlement is a matter of feeling like we rather than they. You think you have a right to things, a place in the world, and it is so intrinsically a part of you that you cannot imagine people like me, people who seem to live in your world, who don’t have it.

I hope we experience some of what Dr. King called “the constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth,” as many of us come to understand the realities of the world we enter to teach more vividly and more powerfully. 

And most of all, I hope we all come to understand what Ta-Nehesi Coates wrote, just last year:

But all of our phrasing — race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy — serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience…You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land with great violence upon the body. 

May our teaching be wiser and deeper and better for that understanding: to help those of us who teach, or hope to, understand that our care for children, and our desire to “love them up,” is only the beginning of what we must know and understand to truly change the world.

Image from the great Western NC history blog A Look Back at Watauga. A rabbit hole if ever there was one.

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