Words bring us together and open pathways

Editor’s note: Dawn Gilchrist-Young teaches English at Swain County High School and was the 2011 winner of the Norman Mailer Writing Award for High School Teachers for her short story “The Tender Branch.” The winner receives a monetary award and a summer 2012 stay at the prestigious Norman Mailer Writer’s Colony in Massachusetts. Gilchrist-Young accepted the award during a banquet Nov. 8 in New York City. These were her remarks.

The distance between Southern Appalachia where I grew up and this Mandarin Hotel ballroom is not so great. Nor is the distance between an afternoon in 1981 reading a high school essay to my parents and, a few weeks ago, receiving a call from Lawrence Schiller telling me I had won the first Norman Mailer Writing Award for High School Teachers.

The distance is not so great because there is a bridge created by words that can cross even the widest divides. In creating this award for teachers, the Norman Mailer Center has allowed teachers passage on that bridge. And in giving this first award to a public school teacher, the Norman Mailer Center is questioning those who would be keepers of the gate, questioning the status quo in our governing bodies that seems bent on impoverishing public schools and preventing their movement from the less advantaged land on one side of that bridge to the proverbial land of opportunity that is always just within sight.

For many of us in this room, there lives in our memories someone whose words encouraged, cajoled, irritated and chided us into fulfilling our potential. For me, it is the words of a teacher at a tiny  elementary school telling me he had sent a story I had written to a state competition. It is the words of another teacher at Swain County High School telling me I might have talent if I worked at it. And it is my own words heard in the voice  of yet another high school teacher there reading a critical essay I had written to the class. These teachers’ words live in me as I try to say something fresh and true to my own classes of  seventeen and eighteen year olds at the same high school. These words live in me when I sit at my desk and write. These words reside in me just as I hope the words I write, the words I speak, will take up residence in those who hear and read them and provide for them a means of bridging economic and societal gaps.

From the rural child living in a singlewide trailer to the urban child living in an apartment in the projects, from the mountain student I teach who has applied to Vanderbilt and Tulane, to the one who hopes for community college and who did without heat or electricity for much of last winter without complaint, what my students want is what we all want: that someone will attend to our words, that someone will show us how to use those words to establish our dignity and uphold the democracy that may move us to a better place.

And that is what I think is so wonderful about this award that I receive tonight. It does not offer the sentimental version of me, the teacher, as unsung hero, perpetuating the damaging stereotype of teachers as martyrs. Nor does it thank me for 10,000 graded essays, nor for teaching thousands of stories, nor for caring about one after another after another of the students who enter and exit my classroom, though never my memory. Instead, it thanks me for saying what I would have said anyway because it has to be said. This award thanks me for the insistent words that will not be quiet or still because they cannot be quiet or still, for the words that teach, but even more, for the words that tell a story, that keep me awake nights, that demand they be allowed to go beyond the walls of school. God gives teachers who write two voices: the one voice with which we shape the words that allow us to teach, and the other with which we shape the stories that we must write. And among the impassioned and dedicated, these words and the voices that give them life become a compulsion because we know they are a passport for anyone who learns to use them.

This award this evening from the Norman Mailer Center is my assurance that someone out there is listening to what I am compelled to say, someone out there believes a teacher, a public school teacher, has words that are worthy of recognition. And as each year in the future allows yet another teacher to stand in this place and feel this moment of grace and gratitude, and as the words grow in number and the voices grow in volume, perhaps those whose legislation so deeply affects us all will notice and believe that those who spend most of our lives in a classroom do, indeed, have words that are worthy of attention, words that can connect the people on one side of a divide to the people on the other.

And so I thank you. Thank you for allowing our world to expand beyond our schools, and for giving our words, for giving my words, an audience that listens, that allows those of us on the far side of the gap to do more than just see the land that is promised, but to actually touch it.

(Dawn Gilchrist-Young can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

To read the story, go to www.ncte.org/awards/nmwa and click on “The Tender Branch.”

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