My weekdays begin at 5 a.m. I have time to drink coffee with my husband, thank him for making my lunch, make myself presentable and read, pray, and meditate. I also clean out the cat’s litter box, which is perhaps as important as anything in preparing me for the harsh truths of my students’ lives. I am three months into my 16th year of teaching public high school.
By Dawn Gilchrist-Young • Guest Columnist
If I could create for you an apt metaphor for public education, it would be that of public schools as a sentient being. And, as such a being, it would have a body, much as we do, with a heart, with a brain, and with hands. The heart of public school, in my metaphor, is the loyalty, passion, and dedication of its teachers. The brain of public schools, the part that has foresight, is the knowledge of those teachers in pedagogy, in content, and in current thought. The hands of public schools, to complete the conceit, are the resources teachers have available to them, with time being the most important resource of all.
I am writing this in my classroom on a Friday evening in the hours of quiet before the kickoff for our homecoming ball game. My students are all gone for the weekend, but it is still early enough that my classroom remains lit by the clear autumn sunshine. I look out at 28 desks that hold the adult sized bodies of the 63 students I teach in senior English: 24 in first period, 25 in fourth period, and 14 in AP English Literature. In my first- and fourth-period classes, the place is pretty packed when everyone is present, so I am grateful I do not as of yet have the full allotment of 29 students that N.C. law allows. My county is fighting hard to keep class size within reason and to maintain teaching staff, although current legislation is telling us that staff reduction is only a matter of time.
By Dawn Gilchrist-Young
I’m writing this because I teach three sections of senior English at Swain High School, where I’ve taught English in grades nine through 12 for almost 15 years. However, I can only say I’ve loved what I do for 14 of those years, and that’s because my first year in public education left me neither time nor energy to ponder the luxury of how I felt about my work. Having no time to reflect is typical for a first-year public school teacher.
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.
To read the story, go to www.ncte.org/awards/nmwa and click on “The Tender Branch.”
Though perhaps it’s not exactly the moveable feast Ernest Hemingway discovered in the cafés of Paris, the ambiance of The Coffee Shop in Sylva suits local writer Dawn Gilchrist-Young just fine.
It is here, in this 84-year-old, family owned, down-home restaurant strategically positioned near Sylva’s paper plant, Jackson Paper Manufacturing, that the Swain County native writes much of her work. One short story is now garnering national attention. “The Tender Branch” is this year’s winner of the High School Teachers Writing Award from the Norman Mailer Center.
Each morning, for two or so hours, The Coffee Shop customers such as Teresa Coward would notice the slim, studious-looking woman in one of the café’s bright orange-plastic booths, drinking cups of coffee with cream. A cup of coffee costs $1.25 at The Coffee Shop, including a refill; a side of apple, cherry, coconut, lemon or chocolate pie adds $2.50 to the tab.
“It’s home here,” says Coward, nodding in ready understanding as to why a writer would choose The Coffee Shop over some of the town’s more uptown, upscale café options.
Gilchrist-Young, caffeine satiated, would move on to write until noon at the public library. She didn’t want to command a table in the small café for too much time each day, inconveniencing owner Phyllis Gibson or waitresses such as Chessa Hoyle, livelihood-dependent on collecting the quarter and dollar tips left by appreciative, but working-class, customers.
This café is no stranger to Western North Carolina’s literati, at least the homegrown kind. Hoyle serves Sylva writer Gary Carden everyday. The late John Parris, of the “Roaming the Mountains” Asheville Citizen-Times column fame, was a regular here, too.
These days Gilchrist-Young calls the Village of Forest Hills in Cullowhee home. She lives there with her stonemason husband, Eric. Their daughter, Aaron, is attending Warren Wilson College.
The Norman Mailer award will put this unassuming writer, who has worked as an English teacher at Swain County High School for 14 years, on stage with former President Bill Clinton, Elie Wiesel and Tina Brown, Newsweek’s editor in chief; and conceivably even Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones fame. Like Gilchrist-Young, Richards is a recipient of a Norman Mailer Center award, in his case for his recent book, Life.
Gilchrist-Young and the other Norman Mailer award winners will be at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York City on Nov. 8. Additionally, she won $10,000 and a month next summer at the Norman Mailer Writers’ Colony in Provincetown, Mass.
Gilchrist-Young is a meticulous craftsperson. Her story was one of but two written a couple summers ago. Each story required two months to complete, the length basically of this schoolteacher’s annual summer break.
“The Tender Branch” delivers on the tenderness promised in the title. But the story is equally rich in the horrors attendant for women immersed in domestic violence. That violence is presented here simply as True Fact: the story seems to say, ‘You see, this is how many women live, but that is not the whole of them.’
Gilchrist-Young’s story is set in Haywood County: Canton, to be exact.
“My grandma was mean, but I’m not mean like her, just vengeful like her, vengeful like a cat you’ve left locked in the house all day and thinking everything is fine until you come home and there’s a pile of shit right on your pillow,” her character says in a moment of raw self description.
Gilchrist-Young writes only in the summer. The remainder of her time is spent — and this is not purple prose, not hyperbole, but simple conveyance of more True Fact — giving of her talents and herself to the kids attending Swain County High School. She was once given a year’s sabbatical from Swain to teach at Western Carolina University, a 12-month gift, she says, from then Swain Principal Janet Clapsaddle and the local school board. They wanted this talented woman to find herself, to assess whether she’d be happiest teaching at the university level, or returning once again to Swain’s classrooms.
Gilchrist-Young opted for the latter, deciding that the high school needed her, the college did not; she notes this must mean she needs to be needed.
So Gilchrist-Young, each school day, walks into Swain County High School. And by her simple presence demonstrates that a homebred girl, who would marry at 18 and who was raised in a singlewide trailer in the Euchella community with four brothers and sisters by working-class parents, Wretha and Robert Gilchrist, is at the same time a sophisticated, highly educated woman. Her resume includes Columbia University and an MFA from Warren Wilson. And, of course, and maybe this is the most important True Fact about Gilchrist-Young, is a living, breathing, in-the-flesh writer the kids can talk to each day.
One’s upbringing is a part, not the whole; it is through parts, however, that we create a whole — that is Gilchrist-Young’s message to her students and one seemingly delivered through her writings.
“This is a Southern Appalachian woman,” Gilchrist-Young says of herself, an exclamation point on a conversation that includes discussions about stereotyping of mountain people, the suffocation of being dubbed a “regional” writer, and the equally True Fact that Swain County and other local school systems were (often but not always perhaps for everyone) truly wonderful places for aspiring writers, artists and musicians to find themselves growing up.
Finding the energy to both teach high school English and write is clearly a family hand-me-down, “the Gilchrist work ethic” personified, as husband Eric Young describes it.
Her father, now in his mid-70s, gets up at 4 a.m. and does masonry until his body gives out, sometime in the afternoon or evening.
“If he doesn’t work, he doesn’t feel like he’s living,” Gilchrist-Young says.
Her mother stayed home with the children, three girls and two boys, plus worked some in local factories and in the school’s cafeteria.
When the couple built a room onto their trailer, her father added bookshelves on either side of the fireplace. He and wife Wretha ordered a set of “The World’s 100 Greatest Classics” to fill the shelves. This was, for the most part, a family of readers.
“We were surrounded by these great writers,” Gilchrist-Young says. “Dostoevsky, Austen.”
The young girl would select books based on her attraction to the titles. “The Scarlet Pimpernel” she found offensive; “Sense and Sensibility,” on the other hand, had an attractive alliteration, and she discovered through that simple siren song the world of Jane Austen.
Her father, a Zane Grey zealot, passed his love for Grey’s Westerns and adventure stories on to his daughter, and “Riders of the Purple Sage” would become, as would her mother’s Ellery Queen mysteries, future literary touchstones.
There were nightly Bible readings. The sonorous prose of the King James version of the Bible became yet another touchstone for Gilchrist-Young. It would influence her writing ear as it has so many others. More deeply imbedded than even her parent’s love for literature — and the Bible, which in that household was not literature but True Fact — was the Gilchrist code, which goes something like this:
“There is an authority that is higher than law, and a goodness that is more important than anything else.”
By Dawn Gilchrist Young
“ ... and all day I turn over my own best thoughts,
each one as heavy and slow to flow
as a stone in a field full of wet and tossing flowers.”
— Mary Oliver
“Writing keeps me company living here by myself.”
— Zora Walker
What does a woman of 74 do with her spare time when her husband dies and her grown children all have lives of their own?
“The highest form of morality is not to feel at home in one’s own home.”
“What has become alien to men is the human component of culture — which upholds them against the world.”
— Theodor Adorno, social critic and philosopher
By Dawn Gilchrist-Young
(Editor’s note: Writer Dawn Gilchrist-Young is conducting a series of interviews with mountain natives to gauge their reaction to changes taking place in the region and their memories of the past. These stories will appear intermittently in The Smoky Mountain News.)
When you head up Alarka from N.C. 19/74, you see a microcosm of western North Carolina — old home places with mountain pastures, high end real estate development signs every quarter mile, and enough trash to discourage even the most dedicated “Adopt-a-Highway“ group. Like the rest of the region, upper Alarka is a combination of stunning natural beauty, abject disregard for litter laws, and unbridled greed.