Monday, February 10, 2014

Literary Ruralism (Part VII): Rural education in Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior

I loved Kingsolver's 2012 novel Flight Behavior for its compassionate and nuanced depiction of rural and working class white folks in Tennessee.  Having grown up in rural Arkansas, parts of the book really resonated with me as authentic, including Kingsolver's depiction of the rural education system.  In this scene, Ovid Byron, an entomologist studying the sudden appearance of millions of monarch butterflies in Appalachian Tennessee is interviewing Dellarobia Turnbow, a local housewife, for a position in his lab: 

“Tell me, Dellarobia. What did you do in science class?” 
“In high school? Our science teacher was the basketball coach, if you want to know. Coach Bishop. He hated biology about twenty percent more than the kids did. He’d leave the girls doing study sheets while he took the boys to the gym to shoot hoops.” 
“How is that possible?” 
“How? He’d take a vote, usually. ‘Who says we shoot hoops today?’ Obviously no girl would vote against it. You’d never get another date in your life.”He seemed doubtful of her story. But it was true, and in Dellarobia’s opinion no more far-fetched than the tales he’d told her. Of newborn butterflies, for instance, somehow flying thousands of miles to a place they’d never seen, the land where their forefathers died. Life was just one big fat swarm of kids left to fend for themselves. 
Dr. Byron uncrossed his legs and leaned forward, pressing his hands together between his knees and looking at her. For the first time in this interview he seemed totally present. “Is this typical of high schools in this area, what you are describing?” 
“Well, I only went to the one.” She hesitated, reconsidering how much she ought to disclose. … “I had some good teachers,” she began again, unconvincingly. “Well, ok, I had one, Mrs. Lake for English. She was about a hundred years old. It’s weird, it was like she came from some earlier time when people actually cared. I heard she had a stroke, though. Bless her heart. Probably one too many times hearing some kid conjugate “bring, brang, brung.” 
Ovid seemed unamused. “What about math?” 
“Our high school had Math One and Math Two,” she said. “Coach Otis, baseball. Math Two was for the kids who were already solid with multiplication. 
His brow wrinkled formidably. “Is this true?” 
“Is that, like, massively insufficient?” 
“Two years of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, precalculus, calculus, and stats.” He rattled this off like a ritual prayer in an alien religion. “Nothing there sounds familiar?” 
“You ought to try that out on Coach Otis. If you want to see a grown man cry.” 
Dr. Byron actually seemed agitated. “What are these administrators thinking?” he asked.
As if he had a dog in this race, Dellarobia thought. His children, if any, would get started on higher math in some upmarket kindergarten. 
“They’re not thinking anything much,” she told him. “Sports. That’s huge, a kid can shine if he’s good at football or baseball. Probably get a job later on in the bank or something like that.” 
“Well, but it’s criminal negligence, really. These kids have to grow up and run things. Larger things than a ball field, I mean. What kind of world will they really be able to make?” 
“I’d say you’re looking at it.” She crossed her arms, awaiting Dr. Byron’s verdict. Former Feathertown athletes had this college in their hands: the mayor, Jack Stell; Bobby Ogle [a local pastor]; Ed Cameron at the bank, with any whom she’d pleaded grace on her house loan. In his office that day they’d joked about their semester together in Mrs. Lake’s class, which Ed barely passed, and the football squad he led to state semifinals. People liked and trusted such men. 
“Look, Dellarobia, I don’t want you to take this personally. But I’ve been wondering about this. I went to that school. Things were not what I expected.”  
“Feathertown High?” She was obviously startled, unable to picture any intersection between Dr. Ovid Byron and local culture.  
“In December. I wanted to speak with the faculty about getting volunteers in the new semester. It’s a great chance for these kids. Exposure to field biology, data analysis, scientific method. If for no other reason, the college resume. But I got nothing. The counselor asked if we were paying minimum wage.” 
“Oh, kids in Feathertown wouldn’t know college-bound from a hole in the ground. They don’t need it for life around here. College is kind of irrelevant.” 
His eyes went wide, as if she’d mentioned they boiled local children alive. His shock gave her a strange satisfaction she could not have explained. Insider status, maybe.

* * *
“Footballers teaching sports in place of science class,” Dr. Byron declared. “should not be legal. Are there no standards or testing?” 
“Oh, yes. We flunk those. We are dependable in that regard.” 
“How can that persist?” He was studying her carefully, for irony she supposed, or some kind of storybook scrappiness. She’d already taken this interview to be a lost cause, but now she registered.  … 
“I’ll tell you how,” she said. “This state has cities on one end of it, and farms on the other. If they ever decided to send somebody out from the money end of things to check on us, they might slap down a fine or something.” 
“And why do you suppose they don’t?”She laughed. “They’re scared they’ll get kidnapped by the hillbillies like in that Deliverance movie.”
This is frighteningly similar to the rural school I attended in northwest Arkansas, with about 400 students  total K-12.  Sports ruled.  Chemistry and physics were offered on alternate years.  Math beyond Algebra II was offered occasionally, when a critical mass of students wanted it. Way too many important classes taught by coaches.  Of course, that was all before the educational reforms that Hillary Rodham Clinton championed as first lady (of Arkansas, that is).  I know the course offerings are more varied now, including a foreign language and music.  Oh, and the school now has a counselor.  But I fear there are still too many students there who don't know "college-bound from a hole in the ground."

Read the New York Times review of Flight Behavior here.

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