Teaching Appalachian Lit to West Virginia High Schoolers
Nick Ripatrazone Talks to English Teacher Karla Hilliard
In her classroom at Spring Mills High School in Martinsburg, West Virginia, Karla Hilliard tells the stories of Appalachia. Her students have connected with “works by writers like Robert Gipe, Crystal Wilkinson, Frank X Walker, Crystal Good, Silas House, Glenn Taylor, and Wiley Cash; the scholarship of Elizabeth Catte; and photography by Roger May.” Such art and writing helps students “grapple with stereotypes of [their] region but also its diversity, complexity, beauty, and strength.”
Hilliard tells me that she grew up in southern West Virginia, between Charleston and Huntingon. That caught my attention. The great short story writer Breece D’J Pancake was born in Milton, about ten minutes from her hometown. Laconic and lyric, his stories made quite the impression on me as a young writer—especially because his work was championed by Jayne Anne Phillips, my writing mentor at Rutgers. Born and raised in Buckhannon, West Virginia, she told me that Pancake went to the college there while she was in high school. She didn’t know him, but later knew of him—his wildly haunting stories.
Phillips later wrote: “The shadings, the broad arcs of interior, antediluvian time, are inside the sentences. The ancient hills and valleys of southern West Virginia remain Breece Pancake’s home place; the specificity and nuance of his words embody the vanished farms, the dams and filled valleys, the strip-mined or exploded mountains.” Those spaces, and more, are crafted now by the writers who Hilliard shares with her students—and that matters because students need to see artistic worth in their surroundings. When we believe that the stories of our place matter, we begin to believe that we matter, in turn.
Hilliard earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees at West Virginia University in Morgantown. She began studying journalism “because I love people and stories,” but “realized somewhere along the way that, at its core, this is the everyday job of an English teacher.” She taught for seven years at South Hagerstown High School in Maryland, and arrived at Spring Mills in 2013, where she currently teaches English 11 and AP Literature and Composition.
In a post for the West Virginia Council of Teachers of English, Hilliard wrote that her life as a teacher was inspired by her desire “to share poetry with people.” She credits the poet Jim Harms at West Virginia, whose instruction and guidance helped her see how poems work from the inside out. Harms brought his class to a reading—Terrance Hayes and Hip Logic—and after that, Hilliard was sold: “Poetry had me. And I had poetry.”
It has her students, too. She notes that after reading work from José Olivarez, one of her students said “I didn’t know this is what poetry could be.” That’s music to the ears of a teacher. Hilliard co-coordinates her school’s Poetry Out Loud program with Jessica Salfia, a talented teacher she credits with leading the charge at her school to examine Appalachia in the classroom.
In mid-October, Spring Mills, like so many other schools, shuttered and switched to all-remote learning. “There is a collective weariness, exhaustion, and grief from months of COVID and social distancing,” Hilliard tells me. “I recognize it in myself, in my children, and in conversations with friends.” She wonders when the isolation will end, and “how it will feel to feel safe again.” She then adds something really important for us all to hear: “But for a half million Americans who lost loved ones to COVID or other secondary effects like depression or overdose, there will be no moving on. Families will grieve their loved ones and for the lives they could have fully lived.”
That collective loss is a part of the pandemic that we haven’t even come close to accepting. We’ve become conditioned—inside and outside of the classroom—to expect a return to normalcy. We prepare and hope for the end of the pandemic, and yet for so many, life has been broken by this past year.
One mark of an especially strong teacher is a preternatural level of empathy, and I feel that in how Hilliard talks about her students—and I think it extends beyond the classroom. Her brother, Bradley, died of an overdose in 2018. He was 25. Hilliard got the news as she was driving home to spend Christmas with Bradley and her family.
She soon turned her grief into action. Along with Bradley’s girlfriend and Hilliard’s friend from high school, she founded More Than Addiction, an organization dedicated to “[shifting] the narrative and this demoralizing rhetoric surrounding addiction.” “Whether it’s people in recovery; families, like mine, who have lost loved ones to addiction; or students in our classrooms navigating their lives and young adulthoods, owning our stories and telling our truth can be a powerful road to self acceptance,” she tells me. “I strive to make my classroom a place of trust and belonging, where we work to honor the identities of all classroom community members. Building positive and lasting relationships with students is my most important work, and it’s these relationships that allow us to be vulnerable with one another to study language and poetry, and develop the skills to tell our stories.”
Hilliard and her students returned to the classroom in mid-February. “It was great,” she says. “A little stilted and weird at times, but once we broke the ice, we were all just happy to be together again.” This is what all teachers—including myself—want: “My prayer is to once again richly experience what community can offer us—respite, belonging, strength, affirmation, hope, and so much more. There is almost no place where this is more true than in our classrooms.” We will get there, and how wonderful it will feel.