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The Road Out

A Teacher's Odyssey in Poor America

Deborah Hicks (Author)

Available worldwide
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Hardcover, 294 pages
ISBN: 9780520266490
February 2013
$29.95, £19.95
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Can one teacher truly make a difference in her students’ lives when everything is working against them? Can a love for literature and learning save the most vulnerable of youth from a life of poverty? The Road Out is a gripping account of one teacher’s journey of hope and discovery with her students—girls growing up poor in a neighborhood that was once home to white Appalachian workers, and is now a ghetto. Deborah Hicks, set out to give one group of girls something she never had: a first-rate education, and a chance to live their dreams. A contemporary tragedy is brought to life as she leads us deep into the worlds of Adriana, Blair, Mariah, Elizabeth, Shannon, Jessica, and Alicia?seven girls coming of age in poverty.

This is a moving story about girls who have lost their childhoods, but who face the street’s torments with courage and resiliency. “I want out,” says 10-year-old Blair, a tiny but tough girl who is extremely poor and yet deeply imaginative and precocious. Hicks tries to convey to her students a sense of the power of fiction and of sisterhood to get them through the toughest years of adolescence. But by the time they’re sixteen, eight years after the start of the class, the girls are experiencing the collision of their youthful dreams with the pitfalls of growing up in chaotic single-parent families amid the deteriorating cityscape. Yet even as they face disappointments and sometimes despair, these girls cling to their desire for a better future. The author’s own life story—from a poorly educated girl in a small mountain town to a Harvard-educated writer, teacher, and social advocate—infuses this chronicle with a message of hope.
List of Illustrations
Author’s Note
Introduction: A Teacher on a Mission
Part I. Childhood Ghosts
1. Ghost Rose Speaks
2. Elizabeth Discovers Her Paperback
3. We’re Sisters!
Part II. My Life as a Girl
4. Girl Talk
5. A Magazine Is Born
6. Mrs. Bush Visits (But Not Our Class)
7. A Saturday at the Bookstore
8. Jessica Finds Jesus, and Elizabeth Finds Love
9. Blair Discovers a Voice
Part III. Leavings
10. At Sixteen
11. Girlhood Interrupted
12. I Deserve a Better Life
13. The Road Out
Epilogue
Notes
Index
Deborah Hicks has written about the lives of children for two decades. She works in the Program in Education at Duke University and directs an educational program for girls in Appalachia.
“It’s become a standard book and movie trope: An idealistic teacher walks into a classroom of hardened, at-risk students and strives to reach them.But the outlines of the story, while familiar, can still surprise and inspire.”—Boston Globe Book Section
“A valuable look at the intellectual lives (and fragile potential) of girls buffeted by American social realities, and an excellent reflection on the challenges of teaching.”—Kirkus Reviews
“If all teachers today had the freedom and ingenuity to create an engaging and challenging educational program for their students similar to the one in this book, then more of our country’s poor children would receive the exciting and dignified learning experience they desperately deserve.”—Foreword Reviews
“A wrenching account of one woman’s attempt to show a group of at-risk preteen girls that literature can offer the a better life, and possibly even an escape route from their poverty-stricken and drug-racked community. . . . The girls are luminous. Their stories will touch your heart.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Quite a book. . . . [The Road Out] is both a careful study of the effects of poverty on young people and a celebration of reading and writing.”—Mike Rose’s Blog
"I was one of those girls reading books the librarians hesitated to let me carry away, but taking from those books the resilience and strength necessary to change my life. Reading The Road Out, I was taken back to my own teenage years in the best way possible. From a place where hope seems almost impossible, we find more than hope—we find inspiration. Read this book, it is a cure for what I sometimes think is the only unforgivable sin—despair."—Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina

"The Road Out is vital and enriching. I think it's an important book that should be required reading for every American who's concerned with education of the poorest and most forgotten in our society. The stories [in this book] filled me with outrage and sorrow. But there's hope here, as well, and with more teachers like Deborah Hicks, perhaps that ray of hope will grow to a beam...and then to a flood." —Stephen King

The Road Out is a moving testament to the power of fiction and friendship—as compassionate teacher Deborah Hicks gently leads us into the lives of a group of at-risk girls growing up in a white Appalachian ghetto in Cincinnati. Here are the girls who fall through all the cracks: poor, often all but abandoned, coming of age in the toughest of circumstances, yet filled with dreams nonetheless. This is an extraordinary, eye-opening, riveting book about hidden girlhoods, and real girls who will stay with you forever. Wonderful writing, astute social commentary, full of heart. A beautiful and very important book.”—Lee Smith, author of The Last Girls among other novels

"A wrenching, extraordinary tale. The Road Out is not a story of victims, but a story of passion and literacy. With abundant authority and vulnerability, Hicks uncovers unexpected insights and offers new ways to bring a love of reading along with some hope into the far corners of urban lives on the margins."—Carol Stack, author of All Our Kin and Call To Home

"This stunning book will open your eyes and break your heart. Reminiscent of Robert Coles' magisterial Children of Crisis, The Road Out is the best book I've read on the inner lives of working-class girls."—Mike Rose, author of Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education

"The Road Outis a powerful, beautifully written memoir. The author is a remarkable teacher who recounts how she struggled to use her love of literacy to help young girls in Appalachia confront the devastating forces of rural poverty that she herself faced as a child. Like all great works of literature, it tells us as much about the author and her own continuous learning experiences as it does about the remarkable girls whose stories she tells. The Road Out is ultimately a story of hope and a vindication of courage. It is also a warning shot for school reformers who preach simplistic answers to the question of how schools can deal with the impact of poverty on learning."—Edward Fiske, former Education Editor of The New York Times, and editor of the The Fiske Guide to Colleges

Chapter 1

Ghost Rose Speaks

For Blair Rainey, things began to change in the winter when she was nine years old. This was the time in her life when Blair began to find herself on the pages of her book. 

Before then, she had listened and watched as her half sister, a girl in her teens, read aloud. Then things began to come together in a strange new mix: the scary movies Blair loved to watch on television; the book she was starting to read herself; the human drama in her family's social center, a front-facing bedroom. Blair loved to read there, sitting up in bed. Lying next to her was her Grandma Lilly, a heavyset woman with a bad hip and gray, braided hair pulled back tightly to reveal a weary face. For years, her grandma had struggled to hold things together with the thin trickle of funds from Social Security and child support. Blair had slept next to her grandma since she was an underweight newborn, tiny enough at first to fit in a shoebox. But she was growing up. Now everyone in her family knew that Blair was the smart girl who was going to make it out. On gray afternoons that winter, the world in her grandma's bedroom moved to its own rhythms. The television set blared drama and talk shows. A small, scrawny terrier danced in circles for attention. Blair's grandma lay in bed, answering the phone and barking out orders to her grandkids. The bedroom, with its view of the streets outside, smelled of pets and baby pee and musty warmth.

From outside, sounds from the streets drifted in. The crazies were out there, including Blair's mother, a sad and angry ex-addict. "Get your ASS off the sidewalk!" she would scream at some unlucky soul walking by. There was the lady who walked around all the time talking to the billboards. One day she was walking by, and she looked at the chain link fence and said hi to it. Then there was Kooky Old Joe, who had served in World War II. Kooky Joe said that a bomb had gone off right by his ear, and he went around talking to everything too. The streets outside were ugly and crazy and weird, Blair would think to herself, as she sank deeper and deeper into her book.

Blair was born in Lower Price Hill, a neighborhood of just over one thousand on Cincinnati's west side. Close by were the brown, slow-moving waters of the Ohio River. Her grandmother's people, migrants from Appalachia, had once crossed the river on their journey north from eastern Kentucky. They were part of one of the largest population shifts in America's history. Between 1940 and 1970, over three million Appalachian people packed their belongings and left the mountains, hoping to find work and a better future for their children in midwestern cities. They moved into inner-city neighborhoods close to old-industry centers, in cities such as Chicago, Dayton, Akron, and Cincinnati. As Janice Sheppard of Williamson, West Virginia, described her journey in the 1950s: "I sold everything we had within two days, made arrangements, and then on the day I decided to leave I had just enough clothes for [my] nine kids." She put everything she could in the trunk of a car and headed north.

The migrants from the southern mountains were typically poor; few were landowning farmers. But up north, men and women could at least find work in warehouses and on the shop floor. In their new urban homelands, the southerners formed close-knit urban villages with ties to their rural points of origin in Kentucky and West Virginia. A stretch of highway, such as old Highway 25 in Kentucky, linked particular counties in Appalachia with particular city communities to the north.

In the summers, Blair visited her one relative who still lived in Kentucky, an aunt in Hazard. Down there, Blair got pushed in a creek by her two half brothers, who were wild and always looking for fun and trouble. She let the family dog off its chain. Sometimes she dreamed of living on a farm with two kids of her own, her dogs, and a horse. But the world that Blair knew in Cincinnati was the concrete universe of the streets. It was better for her inside, especially in late winter, when the purple-gray shadows of dusk came early to the neighborhood.

In March, curtains of early spring wind and rain brought odors from a nearby creek, now a putrid dark green from industrial sewage dumped into its waters-and into the air that Blair breathed. Her asthma kicked up then; out came the respirator. As the spring afternoons warmed, children and young mothers with baby strollers spilled out from cramped rooms in rental units, onto narrow side streets lined with cigarette butts and trash. Older adults with weathered faces sat on stoops or in rainbow-colored folding chairs, enjoying a smoke. Grown men, most of them white, worked on cars. Their faces often had tired, stressed-out expressions. The factory and warehouse jobs that once beckoned workers from poor counties in Kentucky and West Virginia had begun leaving the neighborhood in the 1980s. The old-industry side of the neighborhood, near where Blair lived, was a ghost town. Warehouse windows were boarded up or gaping. Shards of glass were ground into sidewalks that had once known the human warmth of workers going to and from their jobs.

Then summer came. Blair attended my literature and creative writing class for girls over the summer; she had already been part of my afterschool class during the school year. From my work with her over that year-and the year before, when I volunteered in her classroom-I had learned a tough lesson for a naïve teacher: unless I drove Blair, now ten years old, to summer class myself, sleep often took priority over educational opportunity. And so on the morning of June 25, 2002, I set out for Blair's house.

 

It was early still, a teacher's start to the day. The light outside was soft, with a pale-gray cloud cover that would lift by midmorning. It would be a hot day. I drove across one of the many bridges connecting Kentucky, where I lived near the river's edge, to downtown Cincinnati. The sights were familiar from each morning's drive. First there was the busy downtown area, with Starbucks on one corner and high rise banks on the right. Businesspeople in their two-piece suits and secretaries in their heels had begun to walk briskly on the sidewalks. Five stoplights further and I made a left turn, heading west. The road widened and the larger buildings disappeared. Then the road crossed a viaduct, with some old train tracks visible below and, scarcely visible from the road, the polluted creek where earlier generations had taken cool dips to escape the summer heat. Moments later the first of the old brick warehouses appeared to the right. I had arrived in the girls' neighborhood.

Finally there was the intersection-the community's geographic and emotional center. I came to a stop at the light. A few locals wandered into the Paradise Café for coffee and a smoke as I waited. A woman with a tired face and heavyset hips lit up a cigarette while she waited at the bus stop outside. It was an intersection that tended to give outsiders an uneasy feeling. As seventeen-year-old Bill Ferris, who grew up in the neighborhood, said to a reporter in the 1980s: "You're standing there on the corner by the light, and you hear all these doors locking-click, click, click-like you're going to come and pull them out of their cars and rob them."

The light changed. I turned right onto Perry Avenue, the two-lane road where Blair lived. Most of the houses on her stretch of street were of modest size and in need of repairs to their clapboard frames. Her part of the neighborhood had been dubbed Little Appalachia for its resemblance to rural hamlets in West Virginia or Kentucky. The two-story wood-frame homes sat close together, their yards spilling over with bicycle parts, discarded car tires, wrappers and cigarette butts, and young bodies at play.

Grandma Lilly had bought their home years before. She had labored to completely pay off the house in only six years. Now, at least, her grandchildren would have a roof over their heads if anything ever happened to her. But Grandma Lilly's precarious health and the thin trickle of Social Security benefits didn't create the conditions for upkeep on an older two-story house. From the front, it appeared to sag, the front-facing porch weighing heavily on wooden beams. The house stood across from a tall yellow billboard with black lettering that shouted its message: WE BUY UGLY HOUSES.

Most mornings it was an ordeal to get Blair into my car and to the special reading and writing class I had created for her and five other girls. I walked to the side door, past two barking chows straining against their heavy chains, and up the concrete porch that was missing its handrail. From inside came a sleepy young adult voice: "Who is it?" The voice belonged to Blair's older half sister, still in her teens but already working the night shift at Taco Bell. Once inside, I found most of the household still in bed. Blair's toddler niece lay curled up next to Grandma Lilly in the front bedroom, where up to four generations slept on a given night. On one of the cardboard boxes used as dressers sat Blair, sleep-deprived and growling a feeble protest. She was a night person. But once she got to my reading class, Blair usually perked up. One of the reasons was that in the summers my class always began with breakfast.

By eight that morning, I sat with Blair, still looking crusty-eyed and cranky, and five more of my students at a makeshift breakfast table-the kind of round work table you could find in any public elementary school in America. Next to me sat Miss Susan, an instructional assistant at the school who often joined the girls and me for breakfast on summer mornings. On the table, covered with cheap paper tablecloth, were the food offerings I had brought in this morning: blueberry muffins and raspberry jam, granola, yogurt, orange juice, and a bowl of hard-boiled eggs. I always fussed over my students, southern style, at our summer breakfasts, and Blair brought out my motherly instincts. She was a picky eater, and I nudged a couple of YoBaby fruit-flavored yogurts in her direction. Blair had taken home a point-and-shoot camera of mine to photograph some of the darker reaches of her house, including the attic. She was creating photographic images to go with a story she was writing.

"I live in a cave," said Blair, the crumbs from a blueberry muffin at the sides of her mouth. "And my house is hell."

"I've been to hell and your house ain't it," shot back Miss Susan, speaking quickly and glancing sideways at Blair. Her words were as much about delivery as content. Audience was important, and she aimed her remark at all of us around the table. Her lips parted in the faintest of smiles, revealing the gap from her two missing front teeth.

Blair snickered at Miss Susan's in-your-face reply. These mornings felt to her more like being with family than sitting through one of the dreaded summer school classes held in other parts of the school building, for the unlucky students who couldn't pass their end-of-year tests. She knew that here she could get in someone's face as well as Miss Susan-or anyone else she encountered on the little section of street she was allowed to roam-could. Blair's tiny frame made her look like a little girl, but the motor mouth on her was something altogether different. For a girl who came into the world as an underweight baby with drugs in her system, the physical world had to be subdued by verbal wit, intelligence, and bravery.

Miss Susan plopped a banana down on the table in front of me. She looked older than a woman in her late forties. Money was short, and Miss Susan had to work two jobs to make ends meet. Her black hair was pinned back, revealing the tired lines on her face. There were shadows under her steel gray eyes, though those same eyes betrayed a youthful, sassy feeling. She was a proud woman who could beat the shit out of anyone who messed with her.

"Eat this, it's good for you," she said in a voice made husky from smoking her Newport Lights.

"Did you work late last night?" I asked. Miss Susan worked her night job at United Dairy Farmers, serving up ice cream cones and floats. Some nights she didn't finish cleaning up until after one in the morning.

She nodded and muttered soberly, "Mmmmm."

"Miss Deborah, you know where I worked for ten years?" said Blair. "In hell."

"She's a little demon with two horns comin' out of her head," said Elizabeth.

"She's goin' down-God, I HATE to see her go that way!" said sweet, baby-faced Alicia, who sat next to Elizabeth.

"I'm a smart-mouth and evil bitch!" said Blair. She picked at the corner of her blueberry muffin carelessly, as though eating it were the last thing on her mind.

"And my attic is like Rose Red," she said, thinking once again of the house that she was photographing. Blair let the fingers of her right hand rest for a moment on the book she had brought from home. On its cover was an image of a bull and the title Rose Madder. On the inside page were accolades from reviews. "A work filled with terror from the very first page," read one. "Disturbing, haunting ... King paints a vivid nightmare," read another.

"Rose Red!" said Adriana, her half-closed eyes coming alive with the thought. "I wanna read Rose Red-actually I wanna see the movie again because I like it when the ghost lady, she pulls that dude's mom into the closet."

Blair could picture in her head her own mother, who had been in and out of the household all summer, trying to hold things together after her latest round of rehab. There had been seven babies born to Blair's mother, and Grandma Lilly could keep only a few of them. Family came first, but there were limits to what even family could do in such desperate circumstances. The trouble for Blair's mother, I discovered, began with alcohol and drug abuse, things she had tried to correct in sporadic rounds of rehab. In between her stays in rehab and halfway houses, Blair's mother went around with different men. Blair had never met her biological father, but she knew he was a different man than the man she sometimes called her stepdad, a drunk. The changing cast of characters gave Blair a feeling of being in a crazy house. The only good thing about her mother being in the house was that Blair's half brothers didn't act out as much and hit her.

Sometimes her mother sat in the front bedroom, watching television along with everyone else. She was a large woman whose auburn hair fell upon her shoulders in a wild way, as though blown by a fierce wind. Her face was sallow and had a haggard, angry look. She was, Blair would say, very mean; if you saw her on the street, you would feel afraid. Sometimes when she was out of money, she would beg from Grandma Lilly, who could barely keep food in the mouths of Blair and the other grandbabies left to her care. Other times she would go around and do things to get money from men. Blair didn't like people like that. As a matter of fact, she didn't like her mother. She wouldn't have minded if an evil house like Rose Red had sucked her mother into one of its shape-shifting walls.

"In Rose Red something happens to women," said Blair. "They end up dead."

"What's Rose Red?" I asked innocently. I had missed King's made-for-television movie when it aired over the winter.

"A haunted house," said Blair, turning the plastic spoon in her banana YoBaby yogurt like a stubborn three-year-old. When her mother was around the house, Blair wanted to be the baby. At those times, she would come into my class with a pacifier dangling from her mouth. She would crawl on the floor, cooing and making high whimpering sounds. She had acquired a nickname: Itty Bitty.

"And there's this girl," said Elizabeth. "She's magical, she's the only one that can wake up Rose Red."

Elizabeth sat next to Miss Susan, nearly opposite the round table from me. She was one of our group's heartiest eaters, but you wouldn't know it from her skinny arms that always seemed ready to flail at something. In front of her on the bright pink tablecloth was a tiny junkyard of the morning's feast: two empty yogurt containers, a banana peel, a pool of muffin crumbs. At the sides of her mouth were the vestiges of the raspberry jam she had smeared on her muffin. Elizabeth spoke in the same throaty tones as Miss Susan. She spit out her words as quickly as she ate:

"That-was-scary, man, when that hand popped out of the refrigerator. I didn't know that was gonna happen."

The movie had aired on television in late January. The most important character in the movie is the old mansion itself, a house named Rose Red and set on a hilltop in Seattle. The house is sinister, and has been from the day it was built in 1906 by an oil magnate, John Rimbauer, for his beautiful young wife, Ellen. The house snatched their little daughter, April, born with a withered arm. It added rooms like a metastasizing tumor, and these would shift constantly, with dire consequences for the unsuspecting visitor. But the house has been quiet, a "dead cell," since 1972, the year that a pocketbook-clutching lady on the Historical Society's tour had disappeared. All of this is of great interest to Professor Joyce Reardon, out to obtain scientific proof that paranormal phenomena actually existed. Into the house she goes with her strange cortege of hired psychics, including fifteen-year-old Annie, an autistic girl. Then the house begins to come alive. Roses and other plants bloom in the solarium, clocks start to tick, and the trouble begins. One by one, the members of Professor Reardon's band of psychic explorers are picked off by Rose Red. But sweet Annie is different. Rose Red's long-term occupants call out to her in barely audible spirit voices: "Annie, Aaaaanniee."

"She woke up the house," said Elizabeth, leaning forward on her bony elbows.

The conversation had woken up Adriana herself, and her oval eyes, half-shut before, now revealed their rich lavender tones.

"Okay, this is gonna take a while," she said. Adriana rarely took the floor for long, but when she did she expected the others to pay close attention. "Okay, in that Rose Red house, something happens to girl-women, and something different happens to-"

As will happen with any group of girls sitting together and eating, Elizabeth and Blair had begun whispering on the side, snickering at some secret joke. Shannon looked distracted. She wasn't a fan of Rose Red, or any of King's stories really. Little Alicia was giggling at Blair's latest bit of food play-crumbling your breakfast muffin into a tiny mound. Our two tiniest girls felt like sisters sometimes, and they were in cahoots this morning.

"Hel-LO RUDIES!" said Adriana, narrowing her long eyes into a look of preteen disgust.

It was my cue to suggest that we clear the table of breakfast and start our reading.

The ground-floor classroom that I borrowed for our class was divided into several sections. Near the front of the room, close to the blackboard, was an eclectic assortment of inexpensive wicker armchairs, old-fashioned wooden chairs, and more modern plastic chairs, all shuffled into a makeshift circle. It was our meeting area, a place to talk about books and the stories and journal entries written by the girls themselves. Against one wall was a pair of rectangular work tables, one of which held our gleaming new Mac computer. Against the other wall, below a row of large old-fashioned windows with wooden sashes, was the round table that doubled as our breakfast nook and, when class had started, as a desk for writing. Placed on the carpet near our meeting circle were two stacks of oversized pillows for plopping up against a wall or lying more comfortably on the thin carpet. Finally, at the far side of these work areas, but facing our meeting circle and blackboard, were some white bookshelves I had brought in myself-sale finds from an office supply store. Miss Susan had assembled them one morning, holding tiny nails in her lips, a hammer in her hand. In the bookshelves were the literary titles I had worked for over a year to acquire: writing grants had become the raison d'être of my weekend life ever since I began my literature class.

Those shelves might have looked like an ordinary collection of books, pretty humble compared to something you would find in a wealthier school. But to me they were special: I had searched everywhere-the Internet, local bookstores, libraries-to find just the right titles. Now there they sat, rows of novels and stories featuring girls as heroines. There was Cynthia Rylant's sentimental novel about a girl's coming of age in a poor family, A Blue-Eyed Daisy. There was Alice Hoffman's magical tale of girlhood friendship and summer love, Aquamarine. There was Frances O'Roark Dowell's novel Dovey Coe, about a working-class girl who could get in your face every bit as much as my girls in their finest moments. And there were even some literary classics, favorites of girls across the generations: The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables.

I stood back and soaked in the scene with a teacher's sense of well-being. The girls were well fed, the morning light was angling in from our east-facing windows, open to let in a thankfully cool morning breeze. The neighborhood outside was still quiet at this hour, not yet nine. I watched as the girls meandered toward the bookshelves. We had no hard and fast rules about which books the girls had to read. I pushed my literary titles, marketing these like a savvy sales rep. I read from them, displayed them in inviting ways on the shelves, put up attractive posters. But I also wanted the girls to make their final selections for themselves. It was summer, after all, a time for indulging ourselves a little even if we were in school. And some part of me was more curious learner than stern schoolteacher. I stood back to watch as the girls made their choices. That summer I had given in and set aside one shelf of our bookshelves for paperback books for the young connoisseur of scary fiction. The girls huddled excitedly around that shelf: they couldn't wait to get their hands on the three-book series, The House on Cherry Street, that was the summer's hottest read. It was a tale of a haunted house that began with The Haunting, moved on to The Horror, and reached its riotous conclusion in The Final Nightmare.

 

That night I sat up in bed with a copy of the book Blair had brought to my class, confronting my misgivings about so young a girl reading horror. After I had finished teaching for the day and driven Blair home, I managed to find a copy of her King book at a local bookstore. Sleep didn't come easily that night, and it wasn't just because Rose Madder was a page-turner. The story scared the hell out of me. As I read, I felt more like a helpless little girl than a grown woman, a professional educator, living in a safe top-floor apartment.

In one scene, Rose's psychopath husband, Norman, goes after Pam, a sweet blonde hotel maid. Pam once lived at the home for abused women where Rose resides, and Norman thinks she can reveal Rose's whereabouts. Norman traps Pam in a hotel laundry room, trying to squeeze the information out of her. But his interrogation quickly turns gruesome. He grabs Pam by the throat; she slips out of his grasp and lunges for the door.

She looked almost nailed to the door, and as Norman stepped forward, he saw that, in a way, she was. There was a coathook on the back of the damned thing. She'd torn free of his hand, plunged forward, and impaled herself. The coathook was buried in her left eye....

[Norman] yanked Pam off the coathook. There was an unspeakable gristly sound as she came. Her one good eye-bluer than ever, it seemed to Norman-stared at him in wordless horror.

Then she opened her mouth and shrieked.

The next morning I sat at my kitchen table, nursing a soothing cup of coffee. My eyes were bloodshot and puffy. I still felt foggy from a sleep that started late and ended at six with the shrill sound of a digital alarm clock. But even so my mind was at work, trying to make sense of Blair's words. The parts of the story jammed against one another: a young girl, Stephen King, horror. This wasn't what I had in mind when I had created my literature class for girls. I thought I knew what Blair needed. She was growing up in a poor neighborhood. And public school wasn't exactly a sanctuary, not the uplifting school experience of the Hollywood cliché, with the wide-eyed children in their thrift-store clothing, discovering a slice of the American Dream. In a time when more and more seemed to hinge on single-shot yearly tests, girls attending public school in poor neighborhoods spent much of their school days in an endless rehearsal for the big March tests. I wanted my class to be about something different: the gift of literature, a chance to expand their minds through the world of books and to share stories and life dreams. I wanted to open the door to what Robert Coles once termed a literature of social reflection. We needed a place, I believed, to read and talk about fiction, and about all the real-world things that make life for a poor white girl so complicated and hard and beautiful-all at the same time.

But Stephen King?

 

When I was still a girl, about the same age as Blair, I had my own share of childhood ghosts. There was my family, as complicated as Blair's in its own way, though we were not as severely poor. And there was school, where I sat for years in a kind of quiet daze, a combination of boredom and acquiescence to my fate. A girl was not supposed to be outspoken, so I held my peace, without anyone realizing that here was a girl with a curious mind and dreams about the world. The Appalachian landscape was my closest friend in those days. Always a child in search of adventure, I would go off for long walks, during which my imagination was free to wander as well. And very early I began to form a sense of my destiny around the idea that I would leave. At home was my mother, lost in the fog of her depression; my brother, already on the miserable life course of a disturbed kid without the benefit of medical help or therapy; and my father, an angry man-the son of an alcoholic who had never recovered from his own dirt-poor childhood. In my walks, I created my own form of leaving until one day I had the chance to go off to college and become an educator.

And now here I was, like a woman who had traveled in a time machine. I was trying to be a teacher for a girl struggling to find her own way in a crazy world. I felt lost and confused about Blair's love for a kind of fiction that was gruesome and freakish-or at least, that freaked me out. But I didn't want to be the kind of teacher who just taught skills without trying to get to the heart of her students' stories. I felt that Blair was trying to tell me something with her fascination with Stephen King stories. So rather than closing the door to her version of childhood ghosts, I went in the other direction. I listened carefully, until I could almost hear the faint voice of a character she was beginning to create. Rose.

 

Later that morning, I sat with Blair, who was lounging comfortably in one of our armchairs. Blair's hair had earlier in the summer been cut into a sweet pageboy. It made her pale face look even more childlike, though her small gray eyes had an older-girl edginess. Something about her was different that morning, and I struggled to make sense of it. Her hair was slicked down with baby oil; it looked nearly wet. Later I learned why. Oil was a good antidote to lice. If you got nits or lice in your hair, the nasty things would slither right off. With so many little ones in the house just then, Blair didn't want to take chances. She herself looked small in the ample armchair. An oversized T-shirt, a thrift-store find, hung down nearly below her knees. The fan placed near an open window was rotating, making its whirring sounds, and we began to talk about fiction.

Blair had been putting the finishing touches on a story she was writing about a ghost in her attic, a girl named Rose, Ghost Rose. Rose does a terrible thing: she gets in a fight and beats up a girl she doesn't like. When Rose gets home, she tells her father what has happened. He tells Rose to go to her room, like he always did when she did something wrong. But then he takes her up to the attic and locks her in. He never lets her out for anything. When it is time for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, he always brings her food. She can drink only water or orange juice. After some years, Rose dies in the attic.

Rose was still in the attic, Blair assured me as we talked. In her hand was a copy of The Final Nightmare, the last of the books in the House on Cherry Street paperback series.

Life in the rooms below Blair's attic, where the spirit of Rose resided, had been crazy and unsettling that summer. Blair's half brothers were wired with a frenzied energy, their gangly adolescent limbs in constant motion as they ran hoodlum-like around the house and the street in search of trouble and entertainment. Both boys had been in trouble in school throughout the year; it was rumored that their behavior had been affected by the drugs in their systems at birth. With her smart mouth, Blair frequently found herself caught in the path of their blows. The real stability was in her grandma's bedroom, where Blair slept, the door locked to make sure one of the boys didn't come in and wake the younger ones. In spite of these precautions, Blair often complained of lack of sleep.

There were fights on the streets on hot summer evenings. An ordinary argument, with its shouting and cussing and stepping up to the brink of blows, would cross the line into a real brawl, with or without the benefit of knives or guns. There was trash, too; people just threw their trash on the ground. The gutters were filled with it, which Blair found disgusting. As a ten-year-old girl, Blair saw her neighborhood in shades of gray. The streets were dirty, crazy, and weird, she thought.

As a matter of fact, sometimes Blair felt crazy herself. And at night when things got quiet, she could hear Rose talking in a terrible, sweet voice.

"Rose only speaks to me," Blair said. Her small eyes seemed focused on some secret place, not visible to me. She was starting to speak in a high-pitched child voice, like Ghost Rose herself.

"What does Rose say to you?" I asked Blair.

"I want out," was Blair's sweetly uttered reply.

 

This was the summer when it began to dawn on me that Blair's ghost stories and horror novels were about more than things that go bump in the night. For Blair the stories were just as much about her place in a world that was frightening and troubling and beautiful. It was a world of sharp contrasts. The strength and resilience of female voices were present within and around all of my students. So was the backbone of extended family, the very center of life for girls in an Appalachian community.

But Blair and my other students also faced bone-crushing loss: their childhoods had been stolen from them. For the landscape in which they were coming of age was a haunted one. It was depressing, uncertain, sometimes fear-provoking. People fought on the streets, dealers worked their corners, the unemployed were listless and ashamed, the air was foul with pollutants that would never be tolerated by the more privileged. Inside their homes, girls had the warmth of family love, but even this couldn't shield them from harm. The earlier southern migrants had been poor at the start of their journeys to the city, but now, with the loss of jobs and a street-drug problem-the abuse of painkillers-the community's poverty was starting to spin out of control. The street's worst effects were tearing at the fabric of intimate family. Everywhere my girls turned they found reminders of the demons they had to stare down just to make it to the other side of adolescence.

In their improbable way, I was learning, the horror stories offered hope. Hapless heroines could outwit sinister spirits and crazies. Even the heroine of Rose Madder could find the inner strength to defeat the horrifying monster that Norman had become. Spirits such as Blair's Ghost Rose could speak out in angry voices, letting others know how trapped and alone they felt. I too was trying to create hope around the only form of transcendence I knew: an education rich in literature and reading.

All around me were the mantras about education for the poor. I was supposed to be getting the girls workforce ready, skilled enough at reading so they could at least finish high school. What the pundits and policymakers would have seen, if for a moment they could have peered at Blair as she talked about books, was a young girl with more than her share of reading skills. She was looking for something deeper in literature, maybe a small place for herself beyond the graying walls of a public school classroom. The road ahead for her would be a long and difficult one; that much I knew from my experience. But I was determined to help Blair find her own way.

It would not be the last time we heard about Ghost Rose. Nor was Rose the only ghost to make an appearance in my summer class. As the weeks wore on, I would learn that other girls were living haunted childhoods. There was Alicia's Ghost Howard-now he was a crazy one! Always up to no good. And there was the ghost of little Bobby in The House on Cherry Street paperbacks, Elizabeth's favorite literary ghost. A floodgate of stories had opened, and out the ghosts poured.

There is a tradition of storytelling among people of Appalachian heritage, and the culture is no stranger to dark tales or gore. But something different was going on, I suspected, something to do with the way in which these brave, resourceful girls-daughters and granddaughters of mountain soil-were coping with an urban neighborhood that had begun to turn into a ghetto, a ghost of itself. I couldn't have known at the time, for my students kept their secrets guarded at first, but the shadows of drug abuse, starting with painkillers but ending for some with heroin, were creeping even into their intimate families. Blair's mother was lost; she had done little more in the way of parenting than give birth to Blair. Alicia's mother was starting to slip, too, and experiment with weekend thrill rides. Adriana's mother would sometimes come home glassy-eyed from being high. We were becoming a sisterhood of girls with stolen childhoods. I wasn't conscious of these events at first, but one thing I did know: Blair had found a type of fiction that was speaking more powerfully as a teaching tool than any I could bring to her.

That night, in bed again with my copy of Rose Madder, I stayed up past midnight with my heart pounding, unable to stop reading the story.

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