Poor Mountain Girls Getting Ahead
Cynthia M. Duncan—
What does it take for a poor child in a poor place to get ahead? The right attitude? Mentors? Good teachers and schools? Good luck? All of the above?
Joanne Martin and Gwen Boggs both grew up in large, very poor, traditional mountain families, Joanne on a subsistence farm in the 1940s, Gwen in a coal town in the 1960s. Joanne’s parents had only gone as far as second grade, Gwen’s completed sixth grade. These were isolated young girls.
Both were taught by their mothers that they were as good as anyone else. Joanne said, I grew up in real poverty, but I have felt freedom all my life. Gwen said, As far as the money goes I put myself in the poor community, but as far as feeling goes, I feel I am just as good as the person living on Red Bud Hill.
As a young girl Joanne helped on the farm and looked after her seven siblings. Rivalry among local politicians meant there was no middle grades school nearby and when she was twelve a neighbor convinced her mother to send her to a boarding school in the region.
She thrived there, and her teachers encouraged her to think about going on to college. It seemed far outside her world. Number one, your parents aren’t educated; number two there’s no money; number three you don’t have a car; and number four you don’t know how you would ever get there. But, the teachers said yes every time she said no. When I found an obstacle about why I couldn’t go, they always found a way that I could go.
She married at seventeen, in college, and had her first child at nineteen. But she finished school and began working as a nurse. Joanne and her husband have worked in health and education in Appalachia since the War on Poverty, mentoring, encouraging children from poor families to be independent and ambitious. She acknowledges how important the boarding school and mentors were in shaping her life, but she insists that desire to succeed has to be there. People have to motivate themselves. She says her mother gave her that desire. My mother had no education, but she taught me that I was no better than anybody else, but I was as good as anybody else.
Gwen’s childhood was hard. Her father was a coal miner who was often out of work. Dinner was always beans and potatoes, with barely enough to go around. She loved school, but was hurt when classmates ridiculed her ragged hand-me-down clothes. Her parents did not drive and were very religious. My mother—I love her and I would turn the world around for my mom—but she was really, really strict. And Dad was the type of man that a whipping was all he knew. As a teenager Gwen rebelled, ran with a bad crowd, drinking and smoking marijuana. She got pregnant and dropped out at seventeen. When her daughter was born she married the father and they had two more children. Having the children made me grow up, turned my whole world around.
Part of that turn involved earning her GED in a program for young mothers and their preschoolers, where she found critical support from the teachers and her peers.
Gwen was a creative, devoted mother when we talked in the 1990s, ambitious for her children. I want them to not drop out, not to end up sitting on the porch all day. I want my girl not to marry and get pregnant too young, but to have a good family when she is ready. And my boys, I don’t want them to have children and go to work and barely be able to feed them, or barely be able to put diapers on them, and just have to scrounge, like Billy and myself…I want them to do better for themselves.
Twenty years later her children are doing better, working steady jobs, raising their own happy healthy children. She did not achieve her dream as a thirty something to get a college education and work with young children, but she divorced Billy and when we talked in 2013 she was happily remarried, still working as a waitress, and delighting in her four grandchildren.
Joanne and Gwen’s strong, plucky mothers, isolated in the hills of Appalachia, virtually illiterate, taught their girls they were as good as anyone. Supported by mentors and key educational institutions, both women took that confidence and achieved a better life than their parents for themselves and for their children.
Gwen did not go as far in school and professionally as Joanne because she did not have that lucky break of a neighbor’s mentoring and a challenging boarding school. If she had, her personal life might have been very different. But she raised her children well and is happy now in her fifties with a devoted family.
Cynthia M. Duncan is founding director of the Carsey Institute for Families and Communities at the University of New Hampshire and research director at AGree, an initiative bringing together diverse interests to transform food and agricultural policy in the United States.