A teacher describes how literature helped a group of girls in an inner-city, white Appalachian ghetto get through the toughest years of adolescence.

Guests

  • Deborah Hicks founder and director of the Partnership for Appalachian Girls' Education and research scholar at the Social Science Research Institute at Duke University.

Photos From ‘The Road Out’

Read An Excerpt

Excerpt from “The Road Out: A Teacher’s Odyssey in Poor America” by Deborah Hicks. Copyright 2013 by Deborah Hicks. Reprinted here by permission of University of California Press. All rights reserved.

Transcript

  • 11:06:57

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Deborah Hicks has been a teacher and writer for more than two decades. After earning a doctorate in education from Harvard, she found herself in a Cincinnati neighborhood that felt like her childhood home in the Appalachian Mountains.

  • 11:07:16

    MS. DIANE REHMIn a new memoir titled "The Road Out: A Teacher's Odyssey in Poor America," she describes the lives of seven girls in Lower Price Hill. Deborah Hicks is here to tell us about the special class she created for them.

  • 11:07:35

    MS. DIANE REHMI invite you to join us. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to you.

  • 11:07:52

    MS. DEBORAH HICKSGood morning.

  • 11:07:53

    REHMWe're so glad to have you here, Deborah. I mentioned Lower Price Hill.

  • 11:08:00

    HICKSYes.

  • 11:08:00

    REHMTalk about Price Hill...

  • 11:08:03

    HICKSWell, Price Hill, Cincinnati is famous for its hills and Lower Price Hill sits at the bottom of one of Cincinnati's famous hills. So it's kind of almost like you're going into a neighborhood that sits at the foothill of one of Cincinnati's hills.

  • 11:08:23

    REHMWas there an Upper Price Hill?

  • 11:08:26

    HICKSThere is a Price Hill and then there is a Lower Price Hill.

  • 11:08:30

    REHMOkay.

  • 11:08:31

    HICKSAnd interestingly, as you go to Upper Price Hill, the income level rises and in Lower Price Hill, you tend to have more poor and working-class people.

  • 11:08:42

    REHMAnd wasn't there, at one point, a tubercular hospital in that area?

  • 11:08:50

    HICKSThat, I'm not sure about, that's a very interesting question. But there are at this -- even now, there are just treatment centers for sewage treatment so it's kind of an interesting. It's a bit of a depressing neighborhood.

  • 11:09:07

    REHMI see. And what took you there?

  • 11:09:11

    HICKSWell, I had a teaching job at the University of Cincinnati. I got my doctorate in education after growing up in Appalachia and I had a teaching job at the University of Cincinnati in the Education Department.

  • 11:09:26

    HICKSBut I always had this dream of going into Appalachia and teaching and being a teacher. That was something that I dreamed about from the time that I was young.

  • 11:09:35

    HICKSSo I got to Cincinnati for this position, this teaching job and I heard about this Appalachian community called Lower Price Hill and I went there. And I grew up in Appalachia and so I felt like I was at home. And I said to myself, this is where I want to teach. This is where I want to be a teacher.

  • 11:09:56

    REHMDeborah, tell me about that growing-up for you and where that was and what it felt like.

  • 11:10:06

    HICKSI grew up in a very small, mountain town, initially a town called Rosman in North Carolina. And this was in the Blue Ridge Mountains so it's a very beautiful area actually. And I was absolutely a small-town, mountain girl, but I was a girl with a big imagination early on in life and I grew up in a working-class family so we didn't have a lot of books in my home.

  • 11:10:34

    HICKSBut early on in life, I attached myself very strongly to books and to reading and had a huge imagination and I was basically a small-town girl with very big dreams.

  • 11:10:44

    REHMYour mom had some Golden Books.

  • 11:10:49

    HICKSWe grew up with some books that my mom ordered from a mail-order service and we had some of the tiny, little Golden Books. And I just basically, I devoured those. There was a field near my house and I went out to this field, sat there reading and became a reader at a very young age.

  • 11:11:07

    REHMDid your mother care about books, education, teaching you to read?

  • 11:11:17

    HICKSMy mom is, you know, a working-class person so she wasn't a huge reader, but she did read to me when I was growing up and she valued books and learning. But mostly, my mom is a Southerner and so I grew up surrounded by stories and by my mom telling me stories.

  • 11:11:37

    REHMAnd what did your dad do?

  • 11:11:39

    HICKSMy dad was. He kind of worked different jobs. One of his jobs was a television repair person, but my dad -- neither of my parents went to college. They did high school only and my dad got a little bit of training in the Navy actually doing some electronics-type stuff.

  • 11:12:00

    HICKSAnd he went on in adulthood to do different kinds of jobs involving electronics.

  • 11:12:04

    REHMAnd then your own elementary and high school education, what were they like?

  • 11:12:08

    HICKSIt was very disappointing. So I went to school at the age of five. I went to first grade at the age of five. Where I grew up, there was not a kindergarten type of thing and school for someone like me, school should have been a door that absolutely opened, but it was not unfortunately because I went to a school that was designed, not for the sons and daughters of professionals or people who were going to go to college, but the sons and daughters of farmers and factory workers.

  • 11:12:42

    REHMWho were expected to become...

  • 11:12:46

    HICKSFarmers and factory workers.

  • 11:12:46

    REHM...farmers and factory workers.

  • 11:12:47

    HICKSSince I went to a school in a working-class area as well and I experienced 12 years of absolute boredom.

  • 11:12:55

    REHMBoredom?

  • 11:12:58

    HICKSYeah.

  • 11:12:58

    REHMHow did you get out of it?

  • 11:12:58

    HICKSMy own story is really, really interesting. So I didn't have any big plans to go to college around the age of 16 because I was a very young student. I got a letter in the mail saying I had a scholarship to a local, southern -- one of the local, small southern colleges.

  • 11:13:20

    REHMHad you applied for that scholarship?

  • 11:13:23

    HICKSI do not remember applying. I just got this letter and there it was, an opportunity. Opportunity knocks so I was the first in my family. I went to college and I did my undergraduate degree that way.

  • 11:13:37

    REHMAnd then…

  • 11:13:38

    HICKSThen I did so well in school that I decided to go on to grad school, but still all along having this kind of vision or dream of going into Appalachia and teaching a little bit, a little bit like that young adult novel called "Christy" where a young woman goes into the mountains and teaches mountain kids.

  • 11:14:00

    HICKSBut I put that on hold because I went into grad school. I went to Georgetown University first and I was studying and learning to be a teacher who would teach immigrant children, an ESL teacher teaching English as a second language.

  • 11:14:14

    HICKSAnd then I got another opportunity to go to Harvard University to the Graduate School of Education because I wanted to just fine-tune my understanding of how children learn. I had this big interest in education all along. So I went to Harvard and that was like walking into the Land of Oz.

  • 11:14:33

    REHMIt must have been.

  • 11:14:35

    HICKSIt was amazing, for a kid like me from a small town, basically an Appalachian paper mill town. It was like walking into the Land of Oz.

  • 11:14:45

    REHMHow did you maneuver personally?

  • 11:14:47

    HICKSIt was very difficult. First of all, I really did not have any money so it was very tough to be in graduate school. I truly was the starving graduate student. But I just -- and I fumbled. I stumbled a lot. I fell a lot. I remember at one point going into -- taking a class in philosophy at Harvard because I'd missed a whole bunch of -- I had real holes in my education. And I was just totally, totally lost.

  • 11:15:19

    HICKSI didn't know what I was doing, but I just thought, I'm going to give this a try and I did.

  • 11:15:23

    REHMAnd?

  • 11:15:23

    HICKSI got a doctorate in education and I totally loved Harvard. It was the biggest and best thing I'd ever done in my life.

  • 11:15:34

    REHMSo then ultimately you get to Price Hill or Lower Price Hill. Tell me how that education system is set up.

  • 11:15:49

    HICKSYes, so Lower Price Hill had a neighborhood elementary school. It was K-to-6 at the time that I moved into Cincinnati and as I mentioned, I had a job at the University of Cincinnati in the Education Department there and coming out of Harvard, I was a literacy specialist, sort of studying how kids learn to read.

  • 11:16:08

    HICKSAnd I went to the local elementary school and I said to the administration there, can I come here and teach? It was my fantasy or my dream to teach in Appalachia and then here I was in this urban Appalachian community in Cincinnati.

  • 11:16:27

    HICKSAnd just a little bit of background about the community itself, so people don't often associate the word Appalachia with the City of Cincinnati, but it turns out that Cincinnati is part of a sliver of Appalachia's history. In the post-war decades, in between the years of 1940 and 1970, there was this huge migration from south to north called The Great Migration. It's a very big part of America's history.

  • 11:16:55

    HICKSAnd a lot of people don't realize that Appalachian people were part of that great migration. There were over three million Appalachian people who moved from south to north. They moved into cities to find work in old industrial cities like Dayton, Akron, Detroit, Chicago were some of the famous destinations and Cincinnati was one of them.

  • 11:17:14

    HICKSAnd it turns out that Lower Price Hill, which was very much an urban neighborhood, it was ten minutes from the downtown affluent, banking city with, you know, gleaming banks and Starbucks Coffee, the whole nine yards. About ten minutes from there was this very poor Appalachian community.

  • 11:17:36

    HICKSAnd I went into the school, which was the neighborhood school in this community, and said to the administration, can I be a teacher? And they invited me in, which I'm very, very grateful for.

  • 11:17:50

    REHMThey invited you into a paid teaching position?

  • 11:17:57

    HICKSOh no, I was a volunteer.

  • 11:18:00

    REHMThat's what I thought.

  • 11:18:00

    HICKSI was volunteering my services.

  • 11:18:00

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:18:00

    HICKSAnd I volunteered as a reading teacher and there was a second grade teacher teaching in the school who invited me to join her in summer school because a lot of the kids who went to this K-to-6 school had to go back to school in the summer to make up for remedial learning issues and so forth. So I volunteered as a reading teacher in a second grade classroom.

  • 11:18:25

    REHMDeborah Hicks, her new book is titled "The Road Out: A Teacher's Odyssey in Poor America." We'll take a short break in our conversation. When we come back, we'll talk about some of the young girls who later became young women with whom Deborah worked and helped and led. Stay with us.

  • 11:20:06

    REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, Deborah Hicks is with me. She talks about her experiences in Cincinnati in a very special part of Cincinnati where she volunteered to teach a very poor community, a very poor elementary school. And then she follows in the book some of the young women she really mentored. Her new book is titled "The Road Out: A Teacher's Odyssey in Poor America."

  • 11:20:51

    REHMJust to go back for a moment to the question I asked you about the TB hospital, here's an email from Kit saying, "Yes, there was a TB hospital in Price Hill. Dunham Hospital on Sunset Avenue, not really in lower Price Hill which was defined by 8th and State neighborhood, closed many years ago and then became a recreation center." Now, let's talk about some of the young people that you worked with that you met who, like you perhaps, have their own dreams.

  • 11:21:40

    HICKSYes. So when I -- I volunteered as a teacher in the local K-6 school and I was teaching alongside a 2nd grade teacher. And one of the first students I noticed and met was a young -- a very young girl, eight years old named Blair.

  • 11:21:55

    REHMAnd you call her Blair in the book, though that is not her real name.

  • 11:22:00

    HICKSThat is not her real name. That's a pseudonym. And when I saw Blair I saw a couple of things at once. First of all, I saw a little girl who was very tiny. She looked in some ways not well. She was too thin. She looked a little bit sickly but at the same time she had this kind of I guess I would say spirit about her. Her eyes conveyed strength and precociousness and just a little touch of anger.

  • 11:22:33

    REHMAnd you found out that she had been born prematurely?

  • 11:22:38

    HICKSYes. So Blair was born too soon. She was born a premature baby and she was born with drugs in her system. And I think that was part of the reason she was so tiny but it hadn't stopped her from being an incredibly intelligent and precocious little girl.

  • 11:22:54

    REHMAnd what about her grandmother?

  • 11:22:58

    HICKSSo Blair's mom had ten children by different men, different partners and was not able to keep any of them. Blair's mom had an alcohol and drug problem. And so Grandma Lilly -- again a pseudonym -- was Blair's grandmother. And she was able to keep some of the babies. And one of them she kept was Blair.

  • 11:23:24

    REHMNow tell us about the kinds of reading that you did with someone like Blair.

  • 11:23:33

    HICKSSo I -- when -- I began working with these students in 2nd grade and I followed the same students as they moved into third grade. And then about midway through third grade I turned to a group of girls in the classroom and I said, do you all want to have your own class? And this would be a class after school. We would meet a little bit outside of the regular classroom and read books and literature and talks about the girls' own stories.

  • 11:24:00

    HICKSAnd so a group of girls said, yeah, we'd love to do this.

  • 11:24:04

    REHMIncluding Blair.

  • 11:24:06

    HICKSIncluding Blair.

  • 11:24:06

    REHMOkay.

  • 11:24:07

    HICKSAnd it ended up being Blair and six other girls. And we began meeting every week after school and ended up staying together for the next four years.

  • 11:24:17

    REHMHow did the school system feel about this?

  • 11:24:21

    HICKSThe school system was very supportive. And I remain very grateful to them for all their support in allowing me to hold this special class in the school building and just do everything possible to support my work. And initially I was -- I mean, I've always been an idealistic teacher, always had a big passion for teaching. And initially I went out and I searched everywhere, the internet, I searched libraries, I searched bookstores to find the absolute perfect books for a group of nine-year-old girls living in a very poor community, a community with some Appalachian roots still.

  • 11:25:04

    HICKSAnd I was certain that I had found the perfect novels and the perfect books, but it turned out they had something else in mind.

  • 11:25:12

    REHMLike what?

  • 11:25:14

    HICKSMy students, including Blair, only wanted to read one thing and one thing only, and that was horror fiction.

  • 11:25:21

    REHMNow read for us from your book, if you would.

  • 11:25:26

    HICKSSure, I'd love to. So this is a scene from early in my teaching. I mentioned I taught for four years. This is probably the beginning of the summer just prior to the second year of my teaching. And I'm sitting with the -- my students -- because one of the things we always did, and especially when we met during the summer -- because we met in summer school as well -- is we always began our class with breakfast because my students were total foodies. And it was a way of kind of building community and developing a sense of relationship.

  • 11:26:02

    REHMAnd did you bring the food?

  • 11:26:05

    HICKSI picked out the food and my students very much enjoyed it. And so we're sitting at summer school. It's the beginning -- just before the second year of my class and we're sitting at the breakfast table in the school in lower Price Hill. And we've been joined by a woman whom I call in the book Ms. Susan, who was a local community woman who kind of did -- was sort of like an instructional assistant at this elementary school. And she always joined us for breakfast. And she was a very tough, kind of in-your-face real working-class woman.

  • 11:26:42

    HICKSAnd so we're sitting at the table with Ms. Susan and we're having breakfast. And just prior to that -- just a little bit of background -- there had been released -- it turns out my students were total Stephen King fans. Even young Blair at the age of nine was reading Stephen King, which is remarkable for a nine-year-old, 420-page Stephen King novels.

  • 11:27:04

    REHMI should say.

  • 11:27:06

    HICKSBut we're sitting at the breakfast table and it turns out that just prior to our meeting Stephen King had produced and released a made-for-television movie called "Rose Red." And this movie was about a haunted -- kind of a haunted house set in, I think, Washington State. And the house was like a character and it sucked people up and kind of ate them and absorbed people into the walls. So we're having breakfast and we're discussing "Rose Red."

  • 11:27:38

    HICKSSo Ms. Susan plopped a banana down on the table in front of me. She looked older than a woman in her late forties. Money was short and Ms. Susan had to work two jobs to make ends meet. Her black hair was pinned back revealing the tired lines on her face. There were shadows under her steel gray eyes, those these same eyes portrayed a youthful sassy feeling. She was a proud woman who could beat the crap out of anyone who messed with her.

  • 11:28:08

    HICKSEat this, it's good for you, she said in a voice made husky from smoking her Newport Lights. Did you work late last night, I ask. Ms. Susan worked her night job at UDF, United Dairy Farmers serving up ice cream cones and floats. Some nights she didn't finish cleaning up until after 1:00 in the morning. She nodded and muttered soberly, Um. Ms. Deborah, you know where I worked for ten years, said Blair? In hell. She's a little demon with two horns coming out of her head, said Elizabeth. She's going down. God, I hate to see her go that way, said baby-faced Alicia who sat next to Elizabeth.

  • 11:28:49

    HICKSI'm a smart mouth and evil bitch, said Blair. She picked up the corner of her blueberry muffin carelessly, as though eating it were the last thing on her mind. And my attic is like "Rose Red," she said, thinking once again of the house that she was -- that she had been watching on television. Blair let the fingers of her right hand rest for a moment on the book she had brought from home. On its cover was an image of a bull and the title "Rose Madder."

  • 11:29:21

    HICKSOn the inside were accolades from reviews. A work filled with terror from the very first page, read one. Disturbing haunting, King paints a vivid nightmare, read another. "Rose Red," said Adrianna, her half-closed eyes coming alive with a thought, I want to read "Rose Red." Actually, I want to see the movie again because I like it when that ghost lady, she pulls that dudes mom into the closet.

  • 11:29:50

    REHMWell, there we are, Deborah Hicks reading from her book "The Road Out: A Teacher's Odyssey in Poor America." Why do you suppose those young women were so attracted to horror stories?

  • 11:30:09

    HICKSIt's an interesting question and it's a very important question because that was the question I asked for over a year when I was teaching. And as a teacher I spent a great deal of time just trying to understand my students and go where they were. So I kept resisting them because they wanted to read horror fiction but I wasn't asking that very question, why? Why were they wanting to read horror fiction?

  • 11:30:32

    HICKSIt turns out that I got a clue one day when I was teaching and two of my students -- one of them was Blair who I mentioned was very tiny and frail looking, and the other was a little girl named Alicia who was also very small, fair, blond hair, blue eyes, very Appalachian-looking child. And they could have passed for sisters. And all of a sudden Blair and Alicia put their arms around one another -- we were at the breakfast table again as we always were before we began teaching, and they began getting into a giggly fit -- a little girl giggly fit. And they began almost snorting with laughter and turning red in the face, and they had their arms around one another.

  • 11:31:17

    HICKSAnd they began chanting, we're sisters, we're sisters, we're sisters. And I was sitting there, you know, getting ready for my class and I said -- turn to them and said, what makes you all sisters? And they said, both of our moms are out on the streets. And I realized at that moment that this is part of why horror fiction is so meaningful to my students. They're dealing -- they're living in a situation in a very poor community that had -- essentially it had gone ghetto. It had turned into a modern day ghetto, even though the original Appalachian migrants came in and were very -- they were poor but they were working.

  • 11:32:02

    HICKSAnd they had sort of a coherent -- they had a family structure that prevented things from going over the edge. But things had gone over the edge and I realized that the actual lives of my students were more like a horror fiction novel than they were like these gentle character-focused stories that I'd picked out for them.

  • 11:32:26

    REHMSuch as.

  • 11:32:28

    HICKS"A Blue-Eyed Daisy" which was a lovely, lovely novel for young readers. It's a beautiful novel about a king of West Virginia girl with a working-class dad and all kinds of connections to the girls' lives. But they were connecting more with horror fiction. It spoke more to their experience.

  • 11:32:46

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And you write about that sense of sisterhood that they did develop. And your role in that was what? To encourage that kind of relational behavior or to simply note it?

  • 11:33:13

    HICKSWell, mostly -- I mean, I was the teacher so I was not family but I wanted to create a family-like environment. Because as I began to work with the girls and they began to open up and share their stories with me, I realized that they needed something that was a little closer to a family-type environment than it was a typical school-like environment. So I tried to create a very trusting, warm, intimate environment for them to open up and share their stories and read literature critically.

  • 11:33:41

    HICKSAnd so in some ways I think I was more like an aunt or that kind of person, something in between that and a typical classroom teacher.

  • 11:33:53

    REHMYou said you were with them for four years.

  • 11:33:57

    HICKSYes, that's correct.

  • 11:33:59

    REHMSome did not make it all the way through. Talk about what happened.

  • 11:34:06

    HICKSSo -- yeah, so all the girls made it through to the end of the four-year class. And we began at -- in 3rd grade and met until the end of 6th grade. And then something happened to me. I needed to leave Cincinnati. I grew up in North Carolina and I -- when I began doing this work in Cincinnati I knew that I had found my life's work. I didn't have to look any further to realize my dream of what I wanted to do with my own life. But I wanted to take what I learned from this experience in Cincinnati and go back home to North Carolina and do other kinds of similar work there in North Carolina.

  • 11:34:44

    HICKSSo I picked up at the end of 6th grade, which would've been the end of the four-year period for my class, and I left. And at that point my students were just entering adolescence.

  • 11:34:55

    REHMWow.

  • 11:34:56

    HICKSAnd they were entering junior high, and that's a very tough period for a young girl.

  • 11:34:59

    REHMTough, tough time.

  • 11:35:00

    HICKSYeah, yeah, yeah.

  • 11:35:03

    REHMAnd what happened to them when you left and how long were you gone?

  • 11:35:10

    HICKSI left permanently. I live in North Carolina at this point. And I came back to my native state and founded a program for Appalachian girls in the North Carolina Mountains. But my students entered adolescence with a lot on their shoulders. And it's not so much what happened to my students. It's what happened to their families. So two of my students, prior to -- you know, during the time I had taught the class, had already lost their moms. And Blair was one of them. Her mom was never able to raise her. Mariah was another. She'd been taken away from her mom at a very young age.

  • 11:35:50

    HICKSAnd during -- after I left at the end of the class, two more of my students lost their mothers. And one of them ended up -- one of the girl's mom ended up dying from a drug overdose and being found in an alley. So that's what my students were dealing with as they were dealing with adolescence.

  • 11:36:14

    REHMDid one of them get pregnant?

  • 11:36:18

    HICKSOne of my students had a baby in high school and that's Adrianna. She had a little girl and she was 16 when she had her baby. But in spite of everything Adrianna stuck with high school and I'm so proud of her. She finished high school. She graduated from high school and she's now studying to become a hair stylist. And she has, against all odds, raised her baby, who is now a little girl.

  • 11:36:46

    REHMSo what did the experience help you to understand more clearly afterwards?

  • 11:36:58

    HICKSAfterwards I realized that -- and you mentioned this word sisterhood -- I realized that what we had in this class was a sisterhood, and that that was giving these girls something to attach to and a reason to attach themselves to school. Because all of these -- all of my students had difficulty attaching to school. Only three of them, after I left, ended up finishing -- actually finishing high school.

  • 11:37:25

    REHMDeborah Hicks. Her new book is titled "The Road Out." We'll talk more and take your calls after a short break. Stay with us.

  • 11:40:02

    REHMAnd welcome back. Here's our first message on Twitter, which says, "I can relate to these girls in Deborah Hicks's book because I, too, was a huge fan of horror fiction. It was a good outlet for my anger." Did you see it that way, as well?

  • 11:40:28

    HICKSYeah, and I totally resonate with that. It's a great question. And, yes, absolutely. That's a wonderful question and...

  • 11:40:40

    REHMDid the girls express their anger about their situations to you?

  • 11:40:45

    HICKSYes. And a couple of the girls were very angry. One of them was Mariah. And Blair was angry, as well. And definitely...

  • 11:40:57

    REHMAngry at what?

  • 11:40:59

    HICKSThey were angry about their life circumstances. And angry about their mothers having difficulties and having drug problems and in some cases they were angry at me, the teacher, because I was trying to push education and push certain things that I felt would help them attach to education and they turned their anger towards me, as well.

  • 11:41:23

    REHMHow?

  • 11:41:25

    HICKSThey resisted what I offered to them. They resisted reading. I remember at one point Mariah said to me, "I ain't never gonna enjoy reading. And it was like this wall of resistance to me as a teacher. And I realized at one point, they're not resisting me so much as a person, me as Deborah. They're resisting the teacher because I'm in that position of pushing something that initially to them felt uncomfortable or different or new. And I think, also, another piece of that is that a number of these girls had had just huge losses in childhood. They lost their moms, many of them to a drug problem connected with a prescription painkiller called OxyContin. And they had lost, in some ways, their childhoods.

  • 11:42:24

    REHMHow did OxyContin become such a major factor in your book?

  • 11:42:32

    HICKSI did not go into the situation expecting to learn or know anything about OxyContin. I knew nothing about that going in, but OxyContin turned out to be one of the biggest issues that the girls were facing in their young lives.

  • 11:42:46

    REHMHow?

  • 11:42:46

    HICKSUnfortunately, Appalachian communities across America have been tainted by a problem with prescription painkiller abuse. And it centered initially around painkillers like Vicodin and Percocet, just painkillers, which people would get for things like back problems or whatever. Enter, in the mid '90s, a painkiller called OxyContin, which ended up being very pernicious, very destructive. When crushed and either snorted or injected OxyContin yields a kind of opiate high. OxyContin is a synthetic opiate. And what happened to a number of my students is their moms began experimenting with OxyContin first, as a kind of, if you will, a kind of weekend thrill or weekend high and became addicts.

  • 11:43:40

    HICKSAnd from OxyContin addiction, next came heroin because heroin is also an opiate. And to support that habit came prostitution.

  • 11:43:49

    REHMAnd what about the girls, themselves?

  • 11:43:54

    HICKSThe girls themselves want nothing of this. And that's something that I think they learned from my class, was to stake something different and better for themselves. And they have totally stayed away from drugs and I'm very happy about that.

  • 11:44:08

    REHMAll right. Let's open the phones. We'll go first to Jacksonville, Fla. Good morning, Therese. You're on the air. Therese, are you there? All right. Let's go to Cincinnati, Ohio. Hi there, Dale.

  • 11:44:28

    DALEOh, hello, Diane. It's a pleasure to be on your show.

  • 11:44:32

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:44:32

    DALEI would like to ask Ms. Hicks if she's familiar with Jonathan Kozol's 1991 book, "Savage Inequalities," which ends in a metaphor of hope in Price Hill? He's above the city, eating in the Sovereign Restaurant, viewing the Ohio River and the beautiful downtown Cincinnati above Oyler School, which I'm sure is the school she's referring to, in which she worked. And if I may take just a one second to maybe read this quote from the final chapter of his book.

  • 11:45:06

    DALE"From the top of the hill you can see across the city which looks beautiful from here. You also have a good view of the river. The horizon is so wide and open and so different from the narrow view of life to be surmised from the mean streets around the school. One wonders what might have happened to the spirits of these children if they had the chance to breathe this air and stretch their arms to see." And I think Ms. Hicks is answering that question.

  • 11:45:35

    REHMThanks for calling, Dale.

  • 11:45:37

    HICKSThanks, Dale. That's a beautiful passage. And I'm very happy to hear you make that connection with my class. I am totally aware of Kozol's book. And I read the book as I was beginning to work in Lower Price Hill and was totally aware that he had spent time in the neighborhood. I do take issue with one thing that Mr. Kozol wrote in the book and that is that he never saw the students in the school where he spent time smile. And we had a lot of smiles and laughs in my class.

  • 11:46:14

    REHMAnd you're very proud of that.

  • 11:46:16

    HICKSYeah, it was a happy place. It was a safe and happy and warm environment.

  • 11:46:23

    REHMHere's a tweet, "What are your thoughts on how poverty is racialized, how focus on poor black Latina women makes Appalachians invisible?

  • 11:46:42

    HICKSI would just say in response to that that poverty does not understand color or race. Poverty can affect any of us. And certainly if you're poor and white in America you do not have opportunity or access. I mean, poverty in America is invisible in general, but white poverty in America is even more invisible because people think that if you're white, you're fine, but not necessarily so.

  • 11:47:12

    REHMYou know, clearly, Deborah, you went to extraordinary lengths to help these children. How realistic can it possibly be for teachers who have classes of 30, 35, 40 students to go to the lengths you did?

  • 11:47:34

    HICKSWell, I do believe that teachers all across the country are going to the lengths that I did. I think there are many of us out there who are totally dedicated, idealistic, professionals. It's obviously different, but I think we can take what I did in my very small intimate class and learn from that and apply the lessons to that to a large setting.

  • 11:47:55

    REHMAnd what are those lessons?

  • 11:47:57

    HICKSOne of the lessons is you have to develop a relationship with your students. And that's something that's a little bit tougher in a era in which there's so much pressure to achieve a certain result, let's say a performance on a single-shot test at the end of the year at a certain time point instead of stepping back, looking at your students, asking where they are and then developing a relationship with them around that. That is something that can be applied to any classroom teacher's work.

  • 11:48:28

    REHMAnd what about today's budget-cutting program? I mean, how is that going to affect the work of teachers like yourself or others?

  • 11:48:41

    HICKSIt's very destructive. As a person who's committed her life to education for the poor and working classes, I just do not understand the budget cuts for public school. It just seems like the absolute opposite track we should be taking. And it has a huge impact. You cannot do the kinds of things that I was doing, which was very focused, very specific, using a lot of literature that I went out and found, and especially having small class sizes, where...

  • 11:49:08

    REHMIndeed.

  • 11:49:08

    HICKS...the teacher gets to know the students. You can't do that if you're cutting budgets at the same time.

  • 11:49:14

    REHMWhat about No Child Left Behind? What kind of affect has that had on public education?

  • 11:49:24

    HICKSI mean there's, you know, the good, the bad and the ugly, I guess we would say, the old Clint Eastwood movie. So the good is that No Child Left Behind has given us more specific data about how kids perform and different cohorts and poor kids versus more affluent kids and kids of different races and ethnicities. But the down side of No Child Left Behind is that it makes it more difficult for teachers like me and other teachers to address the needs of our students and to go where they are.

  • 11:49:59

    HICKSAnd I'll have to say that for the students whom I taught in Cincinnati, the No Child Left Behind focus and ideology that developed around that made things worse for my students, not better.

  • 11:50:13

    REHMAll right. To Cincinnati, Ohio. Hi, Michael.

  • 11:50:19

    MICHAELHello, Diane.

  • 11:50:20

    REHMHi, there.

  • 11:50:23

    MICHAELI'm calling because I wanted to report to Dr. Hicks and to your listeners that things have got a lot better in the school because of reform efforts. And new programs have been developed that address a lot of the programs that Dr. Hicks experienced with her students. Conditions in the neighborhood are as bad as ever, probably worse, but the school has become now a national model of a community school. It has, for example, a dental clinic, a preschool, a mental health services, almost every conceivable social service is actually based in the school. So the school has been renovated. It's bright and shiny. And I think I said it's now becoming one of the most successful community schools in the country.

  • 11:51:38

    REHMMichael, I'm so glad to hear that. When was the last time you were back there, Deborah?

  • 11:51:44

    HICKSThanks so much for the comment, too. That's just wonderful to hear. It really is. I'm very happy to hear about the positive changes and the many wonderful things happening there. And I try to go back at least once a year to visit with the Cincinnati girls. And I will be going back soon, but I haven't been back since, I would say, about a year ago.

  • 11:52:09

    REHMDo you keep in touch with them?

  • 11:52:11

    HICKSOh, yes. We communicate quite frequently, mostly over Facebook, which is now the new way of communicating with young people. We stay in touch, absolutely.

  • 11:52:21

    REHMNow, I'd like to hear about the schoolwork you're doing in North Carolina.

  • 11:52:29

    HICKSYeah, so I came back to North Carolina and I founded an initiative. So I'm from the mountains. I grew up a mountain girl in a small town, initially called Rosman, which is in the Blue Ridge Mountains. And I wanted to come back and build on what I had done in Cincinnati, but establish kind of a similar initiative in the North Carolina Mountains. So I founded an organization called PAGE. It stands for Partnership for Appalachian Girls Education.

  • 11:52:58

    HICKSAnd it's more of an organization than it is a classroom. We're serving up to 45 and 50 middle school girls living in remote rural communities in the mountains of North Carolina, in a county called Madison County, which is a really, amazingly beautiful place. But also, unfortunately, has high levels of poverty and Appalachian poverty. So I have established an effort to support education for out there through PAGE. A little bit similar to Cincinnati, we offer an intensive summer educational program where girls get together.

  • 11:53:38

    HICKSThey read books. They create something called digital stories, which are these 21st century way of creating a story on computers. And they get a lot of support from a team of Duke students, because I'm now working at Duke University. We get Duke students to move out with me to the mountains and they provide mentoring and support for these adolescent Appalachian girls.

  • 11:54:00

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Norman, Okla. Good morning, Andra.

  • 11:54:12

    ANDRAGood morning, Diane. How are you?

  • 11:54:13

    REHMFine, thanks.

  • 11:54:15

    ANDRAI just kind of wanted to kind of go along with what your guest was talking about a few minutes ago. I grew up in foster care. I'm 24 years old now. But I grew up in foster care and I was very use to moving around every six months, every eight months, being in a completely different location. And because of that I developed a very close relationship with books. I always had a book in hand. Now, whenever I was in middle school going into high school I kind of fell into this group of teachers and they all kind of banded around me and built a relationship with me, kind of like what your guest was saying.

  • 11:54:51

    ANDRAAnd there came a point in my freshman year I was suddenly pulled out of my foster home and my teachers went crazy. My debate coach managed to get a hold of one of her friends who had been a foster mom a couple years back. And they ended up pretty much saving me from, you know, falling off that bandwagon and they really taught me a lot about strength. And pretty much how to pull myself out of that, you know, kind of way I would box myself in.

  • 11:55:25

    REHMI'm glad you called, Andra. It certainly sounds as though teachers...

  • 11:55:31

    ANDRARight.

  • 11:55:31

    REHM...were a very important part of your life. And I'm glad to hear that.

  • 11:55:36

    ANDRAOh, absolutely.

  • 11:55:39

    REHMMargaret, who is a publisher and a National Book Critic Circle lifetime member wrote, "I love this book, which is featured in our current issue. And hope that Deborah Hicks will share the story of the girls creating their own magazine." Can you do that very quickly, please?

  • 11:56:05

    HICKSI would love to. So about going into the third year of our class, I had this brainstorm because when I was growing up, I was a very imaginative little girl. And I loved to write stories and so I had the idea we're going to create our own magazine, a magazine of our own, a girl's magazine. So I went out, I wrote a couple of grants and I got some money to create this magazine. And the girls created a magazine called A Girl's Word. They published stories. They published poetry. And it was a truly amazing experience for them to produce something like that.

  • 11:56:41

    REHMAre they still writing, do you know?

  • 11:56:44

    HICKSWell, in fact, they are. Blair, herself, is a poet. She writes books of poetry, even though, unfortunately, she did not finish high school. She's an active poet and she wants someday to publish her book of poetry. Adrianna writes in her journal and she's a journal-er. And I think even Jessica keeps a journal.

  • 11:57:08

    REHMWonderful. Congratulations.

  • 11:57:10

    HICKSThank you.

  • 11:57:10

    REHMDeborah Hicks. Her new book is titled, "The Road Out: A Teacher's Odyssey in Poor America." Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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