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Meet Virginia: Betsy Wood

Teacher Betsy Wood wasn’t always proud of coming from Appalachia.

Born and raised in in the tiny town of Trigg, deep in Giles County, where her grandfather owned a general store. Even in her 20s, Wood cringed at her father’s drawl—“Better not cross him, by Ned, he’ll tell you where bounce he’s from”—triple negatives—"I ain’t never seed no sech a thing”—and colorful descriptions—"Oh, he’s as blank as last year’s birds’ nests.”

“And, at the time, my dad’s playing a five-string banjo didn’t make me very proud; it made me ashamed," Wood reflects. "And it dawned on me: I’m as bad as anybody else. I have a real problem with my heritage.”

She saw the same thing in the students she taught English to at Giles and Narrows High Schools.

“The problem was that they felt they were from the country. I know, when I went to school, I really was, I think, underestimated, because I talk so, I have such a mountain dialect; I know I do. We were not taken seriously. And I worked to overcome that, not by changing myself but by proving. And I had to somehow get a confidence in who I was, my background, what I had to be proud of.”

So, in the early 2000s, with the support of the school board and principal, Wood created an elective on Appalachian culture, Giles County’s first. The class offered mostly 11th and 12th grade lessons in Appalachian history, writing, music, and crafts. She took them on field trips to Matewan coal mine, Mabry Mill, brought in guest speakers who caned chairs, quilted, made instruments, clogged (Appalachians call it “flat-footing”)—even invited a local undertaker who helped mountain families prepare their dead.

“These kids had lived in this area all their lives and didn’t know a lot about any of this.”

And they cooked.

Betsy Wood and her students make apply butter.
Betsy Wood
Betsy Wood and her students make apply butter.

“Oh, they loved warm, fat, ginger cookies; I didn’t let them snap. They loved warm apple dumplings. Warm apple dumplings. We made them in class,” she remembers.

Brown beans, chicken and dumplings, biscuits and sausage gravy, sugar cakes, scratch corn bread, apple butter stack cake. “It’s a sin,” laughs Wood. “It is so good.”

Wood turned the Appalachian narrative, often riddled in stereotypes, upside down.

“You get a fellow who sits on the porch and whittles a likeness of the old hound dog, what’s the difference? What part of the brain is being used? Same as the part of the brain of the sculptors. Haute couture is highly respected in France, but who wants homemade clothes? I think that the Appalachians did everything everybody else was doing but in a different spirit, and a drive to persevere, to survive, it was survival on nothing.”

She watched as the lessons took hold.

“We help kids, or we think we do, develop intellectually, but what do we do to help them like themselves?

We had kids who were successful in part I believe in part because they came to respect themselves. Know what you have and love it and take it to own and make it part of your life.”

Wood retired in 2016 after 44 years of teaching. She constantly runs into former students, who, now in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, warm at her praise.

“Kids want a teacher to say, ‘You’ve did it. You’ve arrived.’ I’m 75 years old, I look back over my life. ‘What have I done?’ I think it’s when I see that kids have succeeded. Because they somewhere found within themselves that drive … These kids have to rise above a feeling of inferiority. Don’t be ashamed of who you are.”

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

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