And, some might say there is no better person or accomplishment to recognize for such an event than Jeannette Walls, a best-selling author and journalist whose road to success began in McDowell County, West Virginia, and who spent two days on the BC campus as part of the school’s “Celebration of Appalachia.”
Walls, who grew up in extreme poverty in the coal community of Welch before becoming a successful columnist and award-winning author in New York, shared her story of resiliency with students, teachers and fans during a meet-and-greet and dinner gathering on the BC campus, Thursday, November 3.
She spoke again, Friday, November 4, to a crowd of nearly 600 educators and students, including dozens of local secondary school students and BC’s entire freshman class, who studied Walls’ best-selling book, The Glass Castle, as part of a common read in a fall freshman seminar class.
“It’s a special year as we celebrate Appalachia,” said Bluefield College president, Dr. David Olive, “and we’re fortunate to have Jeannette Walls as part of this celebration. Her story of resiliency is an inspiring one, and it’s a treat to have her share it here on our campus.”
A product of a childhood that included living in a shack with no indoor plumbing, sporadic electricity and a hole in the roof, Walls overcame her hardships to eventually write about them in a memoir called The Glass Castle, which spent more than four years on the New York Times best-selling list with more than 3.5 million copies sold. While confessing that she is not a writer, but instead a storyteller, Walls described the creation of her book as “excruciating,” yet “cathartic.”
“I never told anyone in my life about digging for food out of the trash,” said Walls. “I must have written that scene 20 times. If you are going to be honest, then you have to tell the whole truth. You have to be open and confront things that embarrass you.”
In The Glass Castle, Walls describes growing up in Appalachia with her three siblings and unorthodox parents, who managed to neglect them, love them, and teach them to face their fears. The story is at times harrowing, yet hilarious as the children went without food, yet were encouraged to read Shakespeare and dream of the beautiful glass house they would all build one day.
Despite the adversity in Appalachia, Walls moved to New York City at age 16 to live with her older sister who had previously escaped the hardship. There, she found work, attended Barnard College, and went on to become a well-known journalist, author and television personality. Blown away by the number of people who have been interested in her book, she encouraged listeners at Bluefield College not to run from their demons, but to harness them.
“One reason I’m a fan of storytelling is because it helps people realize they don’t have to be ashamed of their stories, that they can share and overcome,” said Walls. “My story is not about me. It’s about issues of poverty, homelessness, alcoholism and parenting. Most of all, it’s about what readers take from it.”
On the Bluefield College campus as part of “A Celebration of Appalachia,” but also as a favor to BC professor Phyllis Owens, who taught Walls ninth grade English in McDowell County, Walls spoke of the importance of education and the difference teachers like Owens make in the lives of students.
“She was one of those magical teachers, who changed lives,” said Walls about the influence Owens had on her childhood. “I’ve traveled all around West Virginia, and I have met people everywhere whose lives have been changed by Phyllis Owens.”
Walls also thanked other educators participating in her visit to BC. Education, she told them, is the great equalizer for the disadvantaged. Kids in poverty, she said, just want the same opportunities as everyone else. Teachers, she added, can open the doors to those opportunities.
“I hope you never forget your impact on students and their lives,” Walls said to all the teachers attending. “The thing that means the most to me is education, helping people learn to help themselves, and that’s what teachers do.”
Walls, whose career also includes a second novel, Half Broke Horses, and writing for New York magazine, Esquire, USA Today and MSNBC.com, also spoke about the debate over whether her parents were good caretakers or abusive. She chooses, she said, to focus on the good.
“I have no regrets. I couldn’t be any happier with how my life turned out,” said Walls. “I can go to the grocery store now and buy anything I want, and that’s a miracle. Everything in life is a blessing and a curse. We choose what to focus on. I think I had a wonderful, magical childhood, which was rough at times. I choose to focus on the blessing.”
Other events scheduled and confirmed for BC’s “Celebration of Appalachia” include:
— “Matewan,” the movie, Tuesday, November 15 at 6:30 p.m. in 310 Lansdell Hall
— “Opera Theatre: Scenes from Appalachia,” Friday, November 18, 7:30 p.m., Harman Chapel
— “From Seeds to Songs,” a music workshop hosted by Andrew McKnight and Beyond Borders, Saturday, November 19 at 1 p.m., Harman Chapel
— “Beyond Appalachian, Beyond Blues, Beyond Folk,” a music concert, Saturday, November 19 at 7:30 p.m., Harman Chapel
— “An Appalachian Christmas,” presented by BC’s Masterworks Chorale, Thursday, December 1, 7:30 p.m., Harman Chapel
— “Appalachian News,” an art show presented by the Bluefield Daily Telegraph’s Bill Archer, December 9-February 16, BC Art Gallery, Lansdell Hall
— “African American Influences on Music of the Appalachian Region,” a concert by Bill Archer and Karl Miller, Thursday, January 26 at 7 p.m. in BC’s Quick Shott Café Coffeehouse, Shott Hall.