I was fortunate to have taught at the largest African-American boarding school in the U.S. Like HBCUs, students and teachers at black high schools tend to come up on the rough side of the mountain; and at The Piney Woods School in rural Mississippi, everybody is climbing.
I recently had an article published on Field Notes, a ArtsJournal blog, that traced my experience as an educator at this school. It was both challenging and inspiring. The best description for it: a communal experience. I referred to the school as a “humble place,” which it is, historically-speaking. That doesn’t negate the reality that the institution is struggling in a number of areas.
Last year, I asked a student on the first day of school how things were going. She said, “There is no wifi. How am I supposed to do school stuff?” With no wifi and no functional computer lab, the Piney Woods millennials have to tough it out. I didn’t know what to say to this young lady. They didn’t have various websites vying for their attention during class time, which was good. But, still. You can’t help but feel for these students.
In a world without screens and keyboards, there are obvious frustrations. There are also, however, some strong positives: Constant face-to-face interactions. Fewer attempts to plagiarize. They often have to embrace the freehand experience to complete their writing assignments. They put printed dictionaries and thesauruses back into practice. Instead of Googling, they read newspapers and interview faculty and staff. Classrooms are hot so there are a lot of portable fans. During oral presentations, the fan accompanies their speech, encouraging vocal projection and breath support. They rely more on internal instinct versus internet wisdom, which boosts confidence and makes them work harder to sell an idea. Students are also required leave their cell phones in their dorm rooms so they are not consumed with the thoughts of the world while on the academic clock. Social media check-ins become replaced with dream-casting, goal-setting, reading, and good, old school conversation.
Without wifi, these kids still manage to land internships and obtain roles in leadership programs. The school’s bus is often out of order, but the school manages to provide a mode of transportation to get the students to conferences, competitions, luncheons and museums. They give their personal best with little to no resources.
How does a school with so little manage to send more than 90% of their graduating seniors off to college?
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a way with imagery. My favorite of his visual symbols is the art of hewing a stone of hope out of a mountain of despair. Dr. Laurence C. Jones founded The Piney Woods School in 1909. It all started when he met a little boy who lived in poverty and was in great despair. Dr. Jones sat under a tree with this child and taught him to read. That was the beginning of The Piney Woods School. Despite its challenges, the school continues to be a stone of hope for children in despair. Give a Piney Woods student a mountain and she will meet you at the peak.
To support The Piney Woods School, please visit http://www.pineywoods.org/ and contact the Development Office.