V. On Becoming a Writer: Appalachia

Well before I graduated from high school, I knew where I would go to college. Because of that, I applied to only one school, a small Methodist liberal arts college in the Appalachian region of Southwest Virginia. My sister had gone there for two years, and the day our family drove her down the long highway from northern Virginia, I decided Emory & Henry College was my place.

Two months ago I was invited back to the college as a speaker for a summer alumni program. I began my talk this way:

The tennis player Boris Becker who won Wimbledon at the age of 17 used to say, “I was born at Wimbledon.” Over the years, I have often said that I was born at Emory & Henry College, for it was there this shy girl discovered she was a person of worth, who could learn and grow and leave behind many of the dictates of southern lady-ness my mother thought I should follow. One of which was that the importance of a college education is “to be able to find employment if something happens to your husband.”


To heck with that.


My experiences in those four years were rich and varied. It was there the city girl learned that not all chickens are roosters. That Southwest Virginians and East Tennesseans yelling “fight team fight,” sound radically different from students yelling the same thing in my northern Virginia high school stadium. I met a moonshiner’s daughter who was valedictorian of her high school, visited a ten-year-old girl in a house without electricity or running water, followed a friend through the woods behind the college as she gave trees and brambles and scrub brush their names. I galloped a classmate’s palomino stallion bareback across the campus, holding on for dear life, and in the days when they locked women students up at night, sneaked from a dorm window with others to go with the guys to an all night diner.

 

 But most important of all, I made friendships that have lasted a lifetime.

 

 I was never a stellar student. But I had professors who were very influential in my life, particularly the English prof who threatened to flunk me in a Junior Lit course (my major) for cutting class one time too often. A year later, the same professor summoned me to his office and told me I should go to grad school, something no one had ever suggested to me and which I had never considered. But because of that advice, I applied and went.

 

 When I describe these experiences, it might appear my college years were spent in a rosy bubble apart from the “real” world. The truth, however, was that this small isolated campus was in many ways a microcosm of that real world. Organizations were student run, including a judiciary that handled serious campus offenses. Our campus elections for student government offices were set up like the national ones, a two party system, with the competiveness and strategies mimicking our nation’s politics.

And in the environment of a small college, none of us was immune to the pain and tragedy of others: such as the campus panic when word reached us of an explosion at a large chemical plant in Tennessee where relatives and parents of our classmates worked, the death on the field of the revered Academic Dean from a heart attack following a dramatic football victory, the discovery that a popular student was a master thief, the horrific consequences of a celebratory end-of-school dive into the shallow campus pond that left a fellow student paralyzed for life.

In a city or on a large university campus, events such as these seldom touch those not personally involved or close to the ones who are. But on a small campus, everyone is involved. Which meant that my college years were an incredibly human and humanizing experience, the fulcrum on which the rest of my life has turned. That small southwest Virginia college was, for me, the truest embodiment of two Latin words by which we describe a college or university from which we graduate: alma mater, its literal translation nourishing mother.

 

Next up: San Juan Acozac