The first in a series on the intersection of landscape and identity in an American classroom.
The students at Owen High School in Black Mountain, North Carolina, have breathtaking views, from almost every classroom window, of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I tell them how lucky they are to live and learn in such close proximity to beauty, but it’s hard to impress fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds with what’s just outside their door. When their English teacher tells them, “I grew up in New York, and I thought it was boring too,” no one is surprised.
I’m here for a week through a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council, teaching a series of workshops to ninth graders on the impact of landscape on identity. October 8-12, my students are reading and writing together with the goal of publishing their work online for an audience of other students. We’re partnering with classrooms in Saxapahaw, North Carolina; Westport, Connecticut; and Brooklyn, New York; all of us posting work and comments to a shared blog. So far we’ve been trying to express exactly what it’s like to live here, at the end of dirt roads, in the shadow of mountains. Some of my students wish their town had a teen club or a better mall; they wish for more to do, for city life, for friends they haven’t met yet.
At the same time, their writing expresses a nostalgia—already!—for their childhoods. On our first day together, they remembered time spent outside with sticks and made-up games, delight at seeing the “magnificent things” at the fair, sneaking into a private lake to go fishing with Dad. One student wrote, “I remember playing with granddaddy longlegs on the back deck…hard to believe I’m afraid of them now.” Many of them described a worry-free life that is gone now—a sentiment echoed by a student in Brooklyn, who wrote, “I remember not having NO WORRIES. I remember when life, to me, was nothing but a playground.”
It’s interesting to watch all of our students navigate these complex feelings—the love and pride they clearly have for their hometowns, and the desire for things to be different, novel, exciting. Tomorrow the Black Mountain students will be monitoring water quality on the Swannanoa River, taking a nature walk, and visiting a Cherokee archaeological excavation site. We hope that these experiences will help ground some of the longer blog posts we plan for later this month. I’ll be back to tell you more about our project then—and to highlight some student work—but in the meantime, please feel free to visit our blog and leave a comment. I can tell you from experience that they will read every word you write to them.
Belle Boggs is the author of the story collection Mattaponi Queen. She lives and teaches in North Carolina. Her essay “The Art of Waiting” was published in the March/April 2012 issue of Orion.
Wish I’d had a class like this in High School. The world is the best classroom.