Appalachian Lives Reflected in Language

As I reread a worn blue journal, I am riding again in a van with Loyola College students to spend our March spring break doing community service at the David School in the coal mining town of David, Kentucky. We leave early on a raw Saturday morning; 10 hours later, we stand in the parking lot of a gray clapboard building whose white pillars rise two stories high.

Higher still rise the mountains of eastern Kentucky. In hollows tucked among forested hills cluster farmhouses, cabins, trailers. Four "hollers" and a stretch of highway make up David: Reservoir Holler, Schoolhouse Holler, Rough and Tough Holler; before us, Official Holler disappears beneath a pale moon into the dark crevice of the earth.


We will sleep, after supper with the David staff, in two houses built in the early Forties for officials of the Princess Elkhorn Coal Company whose president left as a legacy to the town his name and inaccessible seams of coal. Now Catholic nuns and Vista volunteers live in the houses, drawn to David from the far corners of the country to address the fact that much of the Kentucky populace cannot read.

Founded in 1972 by Daniel Greene, a graduate of Fordham University, the David School draws young high school dropouts back into the educational fold. Dependent on private grants and gifts, the school is President Bush's 57th Point of Light. It occupies the former general store where members of a model coal community once came to shop, to do their banking, to collect their mail. The building, weathered and worn, houses half a dozen classrooms, a kitchen, a dining room and a wood-floored foyer that doubles as a basketball half-court.


By 8:15 each morning, there is a game of hoops in progress before the 70 David students settle down to a day's study. They come from all over Floyd County by bus and van to earn their high school degrees. The basketball pounds in between, but the class periods themselves are quiet.

Loyola's outreach in this part of Appalachia was to be not to the teen-agers at the David School, but to the dedicated paid and volunteer community that runs the school, the Mountain Top Preschool further up the hollow, a health clinic at Mud Creek, and literacy banks throughout the county. For long days, some of us cleared logs and brush at a site for a new school building. Others refurbished the old sites, cleaning gutters, painting shutters, raking leaves, taking dingy plastic off windows washed to let sunshine in.

We each spent one day tutoring adults who, like the David students, are struggling to acquire language skills in a state whose rate of literacy is low. Sitting beside a man or woman barely able to read or write, one grasps the enormity of a decision to backtrack through 12 lost years.

Those who enter a literacy program believe that new skills will lead to employment now that mines do not. They aspire to read signs and flyers, newspapers and the billboards cropping up at the outskirts of places like Prestonsburg and Paintsville. They hope to sing hymns on Sunday, decipher documents, sign checks. More than practicality is at stake. One mother dreams of reading to her children, a father of helping with homework.

A young man tracing the alphabet beside me pulled from his wallet a worn letter from his brother. He wants to be able to read the letter; he wants to send one back. The woman in charge of the literacy center set us to work in a workbook she pulled off the crowded shelves that line her cozy room.

The young man stumbled through a story, sounding out syllables, looking to me for help I was not trained to give, but slowly the words came faster -- "help," "cat," "girl," "FIRE," "rescue" -- until the four pages were done. "That was a good story," he said, shooting a stream of tobacco juice into a foam cup. "I liked it." He closed the book.

Behind us sat a computer. "Would you like to write a story?" I asked. His eyes lit up, as blue as the screen that flickered to life. Letter by letter, he began to compose, his hands trembling on the keyboard, his thoughts rushing forth faster than he could catch them.

"You type," he said. We switched seats. He watched his words flow across the screen as he talked about Kentucky. My Kentucky Home was typed in bold. When his text was printed out, he read it haltingly. Word by word, we went over it again and again. He copied the hard words -- "squirrel" and "trench" and "real" -- onto flashcards. At 3 p.m, he packed up wearily. Midway through the doorway, he turned back. "If I keep coming," he said, "I could write lots of stories, couldn't I?" The woman in charge of the center nodded her head.


Language makes life luminous. When we write our lives, we bend back upon them as a stream curves back before it flows to the sea. Retracing our steps, we pick up odd moments, and we polish and in them reflect.

Reflection seems rare in eastern Kentucky at winter's end when the sky is overcast and dull. Bare trees cannot hide huge heaps of slag, slashed earth, streambeds clogged with trash and debris, the peeling paint on the porch of the David School. In the shift of seasons, redbud and dogwood will blossom and the mountains turn green, but the deeper cycle of poverty can cast a long shadow across fading pride.

Restoration resides in reflection. Seen anew, land and lives look brighter; catching sight of ourselves in them, we are able to consider what to do. As I turn the last pages of my journal, I see 11 young people and me at dusk on our last night in Kentucky, gathered in a circle with the David School staff for a time we call "Reflection."

One by one, we look back on the week we have spent together. With words, we shape the silence as we hope those who live in Appalachia can recast and reshape their lives. We share the legacy of language, a lode of sounds and letters black as coal that compels us to retell in story all that we discover in the clear light of day and recover in the hollows of the night.

Barbara Mallonee teaches writing at Loyola College.