When I Was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant opened my eyes to understanding those from different circumstances. I previously just thought that I had empathy. I taught for 18 years at public elementary schools that were all designated as Title I…schools with a population percentage predominately disadvantaged.
My former experience was at private schools…day schools for early childhood. Quite the opposite situation compared to a Title I school. The day school students were from financially successful families with most every opportunity available. The parents were college educated and most planned to send their children to the most highly ranked private schools. To say the least, the expectations were incredibly different.
My day school children did not have to worry about the electricity being turned off on a regular basis. They didn’t know about high crime neighborhoods where people placed bars across their windows. They didn’t have to worry about not walking on the other side of the street past a known drug house. Honestly, they had few worries at all.
And then I began my journey through the real world that many children face. The sixth graders at one school were already in gangs. I just did not understand.
A third grader regularly crawled to the front of the classroom and laid down in a fetal position behind me. The other children would yell…”Be careful and don’t drop your book! It might fall on his head!”… this is teaching? HELP! The child spent three months of the school year in a mental facility. I just did not understand.
Three or four years later, I had a class of lively and bright second graders. There was just one problem. NONE of the children could read even one word. NONE of them knew any letters of the alphabet. New meaning to the words “start at the very beginning.” I just did not understand.
And then I found an incredibly special children’s book titled When I Was Young in the Mountains. Cynthia Rylant based the book on her own childhood in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. What her life lacked in personal comfort was completely overshadowed by her grandparent’s love and care. And besides…she was in the mountains. She had her world and her world was enough. Suddenly, I understood.