Thursday, September 15, 2005
Teaching -- and living -- a sense of place
In her classroom and in the rest of her life, Alice Kinder revels in Appalachian culture.
Alice Kinder can clearly recollect the time her Appalachian dialect became a source of embarrassment.
She was a sophomore at Radford University, the youngest of eight siblings and the first of her rural Tazewell County family to attend college. Her roommate had taken her to a party, and in front of everyone asked: "Speak for them, Alice."
Now with a master's degree and 20 years of teaching Appalachian and Southern literature at Virginia Tech, Kinder is still speaking for them, celebrating the cultural identity of her home, and still using "dang," "plumb," and "right smart" as proudly as ever
The downstairs at Champ's Sports Bar in downtown Blacksburg is usually slow, if not entirely dead, most weekday afternoons. The only life in the place comes from the glowing TVs placed behind the bar. That is, until Kinder walks in.
When not on campus, Champ's is a home away from home for Kinder, and has been for years. She is on a first-name basis with both the owner and the waitstaff, and exchanges jokes as if they were family. On a recent afternoon at the restaurant, Kinder moved smoothly between her two passions, baseball and literature.
"So much of academia is just poses," she said after ordering a sandwich and asking the waitress to "hold the calories."
"I love the unself-consciousness of it [Appalachian literature], that people will talk and tell good stories without thinking too much about it."
It is an especially bright day for Kinder, because her beloved Braves are battling the Cubs on the TV above.
Kinder can talk about the Braves back into the Dale Murphy days, and she can speak of the happenings at Atlanta's old Fulton County stadium as vividly as she can discuss Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.
"Dang't, come on guys," she exclaims loudly to the empty bar when the Cubs strike first.
She lights a cigarette and remembers her back yard, where she learned to love baseball playing up on "our" ridge, which was flat on top "so all the neighborhood kids would come and play."
Home-run balls shattered her mother's window three times before her brothers got a big piece of plywood to cover it on game days, she said.
Her brothers would go on to work in the coal mines like her father, who died of black lung disease when she was 3. Her brothers would also end up disabled from the coal mines.
"Appalachia is also about an attachment to the land, an incredible sense of place, which was usually the place where your great-grandparents were born on," she said. "Appalachia has been exploited for years, coal, timber, gas, now the young people because they have no jobs to come home to."
Seated comfortably on top of her desk with one leg hanging down and the other tucked underneath, Kinder is clearly comfortable facing her the two dozen or so students enrolled in her Southern literature class.
She was discussing the late 19th-century New Orleans writer Kate Chopin while floodwaters rose in the Big Easy.
"Now the deep South was a patriarchal society, whereas the mountain South was more matriarchal," Kinder said. "Maybe hillbilly men are right smarter."
She paused for her students' laughter. "My tongue is in my cheek here."
Kinder recalled her students' occasional impatience with her subject matter, including a student who "said she didn't come to college to study hillbillies."
By the end of the course, Kinder said, the student said two novels the class discussed -- Denise Giardina's "Unquiet Earth" and "Storming Heaven," which describe 100 years of coal development in West Virginia -- were the first books she had ever really enjoyed, and that she was giving them both to her mother for Christmas.
"She brings to her teaching a native's insights into the Appalachian region, a great appreciation for its culture, and a powerful passion for the work of mountain writers," said professor and poet Jeff Mann. "Her warmth, honesty, and humor pervade her teaching."
Steve Mooney is also an English professor at Tech and most of his graduate work involved Appalachian Studies.
"Alice knows the nuances and subtleties of Appalachian people and cultures," he wrote in an e-mail. "... She innately knows things Appalachian because she is Appalachia!
"As we sometimes say, we are the mountains, and the mountains are us."
Back at Champ's, Kinder's Braves aren't faring so well, but that didn't stop her from holding court.
She loves music and would like to be a blues singer in another life. The Stevie Ray Vaughn poster on the bar's wall was a gift from her, and she plays Ralph Stanley and Robert Johnson for her classes.
She asked for playing cards and began dealing poker to the bartender and waitress.They have an obvious running rivalry.
"We don't play for real money," said Kinder, after raising $100,000 before the flop in a Texas Hold'em game.
The lazy late summer afternoon broke open with the excitement of a line drive to right field late in the game.
"Whoo-eee, that's my boys," Kinder exclaimed, clapping her hands as the Braves scored on a shot that went "plumb off the wrist" of Cubs' first baseman.
With the Braves in the lead and the world in comfortable order, Kinder ordered a rum and coke and returned to her other love, teaching Appalachian culture.
"It's a rich and diverse culture that people don't realize because of the Duke boys and the Beverly Hillbillies stereotypes," she said. "I had a kid today come and talk to me after class who said he was happy to know someone who talked like him," she pauses.
"You know there ain't nothing wrong with being a hillbilly."