Border of the County Kid: External Influences in Rural Schools
September 29, 2022
By Clint Whitten
The family farm was nestled next to the Merhinin River about twenty minutes from the nearest Food Lion, which meant I was always the first and last kid on the school bus. Mom dropped me off at Grandma’s house around 6:45 a.m., which gave me just enough time to cram a few Martha White’s instant muffins down my throat. Grandma always made sure each muffin had a dollop of butter wedged in the center. Sometimes, if we were running late, the bus driver would let me bring a muffin on the bus with me; she understood some rules were meant to be broken. The hour-long bus ride through the windy back country roads often resulted in me crawling under the seats in search of entertainment; “Keep your butt in the seat” was a rule I didn’t follow well. After school, Grandma would be waiting for me with a Little Debbie cake. As a former teacher in the community, she would teach me cursive writing in the white porch swing while claiming, “You’re going to use this every day.”
Eventually, by middle school, my mom had to drive me to school herself. Apparently, buses are not jungle gyms. The warm muffins were replaced by bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches from the local donut shop. After school, Dad would pick me up and immediately go to the gas station up the road. He would grab a Coca Cola, take one sip, and then put a few peanuts inside. Silently, we would listen to his 80s rock music while I read my book.
Dad would drop me off at home and then head to work on the hobby farm. I had about an hour to complete any homework that required the computer with dial-up internet before my sister needed it for her own work. Mostly, I used the encyclopedias to complete my research papers because we weren’t allowed to tie up the phone line for too long. When we needed additional resources, Mom would drive us to the local library, which always had a musty smell that reminded me of crumpled up dollar bills found in my jean pockets.
In every school, I was known as Mrs. Whitten’s grandson. Grandma had either taught my teachers herself or she was their former co-worker. Regardless, whenever I won an award or got in trouble on the bus, she knew before I could even process the situation. Somedays I was her middle man as teachers would send me home with ferns and Christmas cactuses for Grandma.
These external factors of long bus rides, dial-up internet, encyclopedias, Coca Cola, and being the grandson of a local celebrity provided the foundations of my education before I even stepped foot into the classroom. Nowadays, when I hear about a student who can’t try out for football because they live out next to the county border, I simply respond, “Provide them with a ride,” because I was that kid who lived out on the county border too. I recognize that some kids have hour-long bus rides and when they search for entertainment on the dirty floors of the school bus, the system is designed to get them in trouble. Some parents work a day job and then work on the farm until sunset fueled by peanuts soaked in Coca Cola. The constant pressure of representing your family name is sometimes a weighted blanket that is suffocating a kid. For me, growing up on the border of the county was constantly listening to the earth breathe, learning cursive from a former teacher who was also my grandma, and figuring out ways to complete homework assignments with dial-up internet and encyclopedias.
Clint Whitten is a middle school English, creative writing, and theatre teacher and a doctoral student at Virginia Tech.