With the slight embarrassment that I am so tardy in sharing this news, I am nevertheless pleased to announce that my wife, Heather, and I have embarked on the next stage of our lives. Over the summer, Heather accepted a tenure-track position in the Biology Department at the University of the Cumberlands. At the beginning of August, we packed a great U-Haul and made the eight-hour trek to settle into our new home: Williamsburg, Kentucky. Nestled in the western foothills of the Appalachian mountains and a bare eleven miles north of the Tennessee border, it has certainly marked a change of scenery from South Bend.
|Sunrise over Williamsburg, Kentucky, Oct. 10, 2011|
It is a great relief for both of us to once again be surrounded by … let’s call them tall hills. (Though the Appalachians may once have been taller, this child of the Rocky Mountains can’t quite bring himself to call our new surroundings “mountains”.) Heather has frequently been known to sigh whenever she sees a picture of mountains, and the depressing flatness of northern Indiana had failed frequently to satisfy my love of nature. To be sure, the grounds of the University of Notre Dame can be quite beautiful; but the Michiana plains lack a certain loftiness. When the sun breaks o’er the eastern ridge or sinks behind the west; when the misty banks of fog curl ‘round the valley bottoms; when the winding country roads bring vistas green and cozy little dales hid beneath mountain shadows; then daily I can find my breath catch in sighs in ways I had been missing.
As Heather has settled in at the University, I have developed a pleasant routine at home. I’ve my books to read and papers to write; and soon I will start working on a variety of translation works I’ve long projected but not ‘till now had the time to pursue. I have also been in touch with several area colleges about adjuncting in the Spring, with some promising leads. Despite some wariness at first, I’ve started to make inroads into the community. I’ve been welcomed as a volunteer at the Whitley County Public Library—I know that, given budget constraints, they can use all the help they can get.
There is a quiet, if sometimes almost desperate, perseverance about this community. It is a small town in a rural county, and the economic recession has hit it hard. While the odious tales of welfare-bilkers always make tongues wag, there is less self-pity and more gracious self-reliance here than I had found in South Bend. As a neighbor put it, “these are good Christian folk”. This peculiar usage of “Christian” might seem quaint or even offensive to the more urbane; but it is not meant to divide or cast aspersions. For this community, “Christian” describes the best virtues that humans cultivate, not the entrenched partisan blinders that drive so much ignorant bigotry. “Christians” here are charitable, not self-centered; but that charity is driven by the life-long ties that bind neighbor to neighbor in a tight-knit community.
Their seeming hesitancy to accept outsiders is often because outsiders seem to assume the worst about “good Christian folk.” Outsiders see these communities through the lens of the worst stereotypes of “rural Kentucky”: uneducated hicks, close-minded and bigoted. Are there problems in the education here? Certainly; Heather and I both cringed when the girl working the register at Dairy Queen couldn’t make change after mistyping the cash total into the machine. But it’s not because education is not valued, nor because “education” is a bad word. These communities are impoverished; they haven’t the resources to make schools the temples of learning that we all desire. Many high school students drop out not because they want to but because they have to—someone has to earn enough money to keep food on the table.
One of the faculty at Union College, a Methodist school about forty-five minutes northeast of here in Barbourville, offered a good analysis of the situation. When all the failures of the education system seem so daunting, when your students seem so utterly ill-prepared to be in your classroom and you’re tempted to quit it all for the enclaves of liberal learning in other parts of the country, you understand this: we have a moral obligation to be here to help them, not to flee in disgust.
When I started graduate school, I never dreamed I would end up living in rural Kentucky; it had no place in the fanciful Ivory Tower that I, like so many grad students, projected for myself. But here I am and here I realize the naïve elitism that drove those fancies. I am an educator. That vocation must be focused on my students, not on me. I can arrogantly claim that I am here magnanimously to lead these children out of their self-imposed tutelage. But I ought rather humbly to see that I am here to join their human journey. My academic training affords me certain insights into that journey, gathered from the journeys of so many pilgrims past. But these insights must work with, not against, the lives of my students, of this community. I have as much to learn from them as they can learn from me. I can put my skills to good use here; but to do so, I must put aside stereotyped preconceptions and let myself be a part of the community, not outside of it.