In January, I visited the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, a public residential high school in Greenville. Artistically talented students from around the state spend two or three of their high school years in dedicated pursuit of their art—dance, drama, music, visual arts, or creative writing—along with their academic curriculum. I wrote about it here.
I asked Scott Gould, a creative writing teacher at the school, if he would ask his students to write me a short essay about their school. This was a wide-open request; I wanted to hear whatever perspective the students wanted to offer about their experience at the school. Among the essays the students submitted, here are three of my favorites, unedited and untouched. I’d like to share them with you.
My mother called on Sunday to tell me our herd of goats, previously twenty-one strong, had been reduced to three. Two feral dogs squeezed through a hole in the pasture fence and killed anything they could catch. My parents and brother arrived during the massacre. My father jumped the fence to chase the dogs and shot the slower one with a pistol. On his way back, he heard a few scattered bleats and followed the sounds. In a gully, he found two billies and the last nanny. They had survived by shoving themselves into an abandoned chicken coop.
Afterwards, my family walked among the carcasses–once white, now bloodstained and caked with rain-softened clay. We wanted to find life, my mother said. They gave up at four in the afternoon, and my father and brother made a pile of the bodies in the woods, to be buried later.
Phone calls like this are common now. I’ve been in a boarding school since August, and every weekend my mother seems to find something new to break to me. It’s not always bad. The weekend before, she called to tell me my brother enrolled in a birding retreat on the South Carolina coastline. And before that, she told me about the new color she picked for the living room walls. I’m still not used to this kind of communication. I miss immediacy. A year ago, when I still lived with them, I would know all this. She wouldn’t have to tell me two or three days later. I’d like to say I’ve adjusted, but I haven’t.
The Wednesday after the goats died, she called again. She told me she couldn’t shake what she had seen. She worried. Would the dogs’ owner show up? How about the surviving dog? What if he came back? She hadn’t been sleeping, and when she did, she dreamt of the bloody bodies, the torn sides of a billy, the kids crushed into the mud.
I told her I knew how she felt, but I don’t. I don’t think it’s possible. She sent me only one picture of the scene, a close-up of the surviving nanny’s nose, ripped open by the dog’s teeth. The rest I have to imagine. I imagine the dogs—Brown? Black?—chasing the herd across a winter field, hooves and paws tearing up dead grass. I imagine stumbling kids. I imagine the deputy who arrived a few hours later, gray-haired and perhaps a slow talker. None of it is certain. I still sleep easily. That’s the cost of our separation: her anxieties don’t travel the phone lines, and I can’t make myself care.
But I want to care. Some days I only want to be home, in the ranch-style with green siding and the stump in the front yard, which is the only remnant of the rotting oak my family cut down without me. I’d walk to the pasture with my father, take the shovel he offers me, and dig with him, shoulder-to-shoulder, a hole big enough to put all eighteen dead goats under three or four feet of orange clay. Then, we return home, and I sit in the living room next to my mother, tell her she can sleep now. Even hours into the night, after she has gone to bed, I sit, surrounded by lamplight and the color of the freshly-painted walls, three coats of Townhouse Tan, and listen to my brothers. They lie side-by-side on the hearth, birder’s guidebook open before them, and take turns whispering names to each other: bobwhite, cardinal, tufted titmouse.
In the heart of South Carolina, the railroad tracks converge over swampland, and fields are laced with cotton in the Dog Days of early August. The summer heat rolls in, unstoppable and rests between cypress knees and Spanish moss. The place can’t decide what to be: it’s one-third urban, one-third rural, and one-third swamp. The people seem to fall victim to a cycle of poverty, of being at sixteen what their parents were at eighteen, what their own children will be at fourteen. It’s not easy to get out. The place is called Florence, and I lived there for sixteen years before moving three hours away to study creative writing at a boarding school.
In upstate South Carolina is the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. It’s situated just off Greenville’s downtown area, with Reedy River Falls Park in the school’s backyard. Downtown Greenville is an arts community, with performing centers and theaters, galleries, art festivals and craft fairs, and restaurants willing to provide venues for writing club readings or jazz band performances. Not only is the atmosphere different, but the entire landscape: from my dorm room, I can see the hazy silhouette of mountains.
At the Governor’s School, I’ve studied under excellent teachers. I’ve been exposed to new authors and genres, learned to be curious, analytical, to believe in the deliberation of every line of poetry and each line of dialogue in a short story. I’ve learned to put my personal life into artistic context with the help of professionals. I’ve learned to become aware. To make something strange, beautiful, something important. And, something particularly valuable to me because of my immense pride in my hometown, I’ve learned to appreciate a strong sense of setting, the way characters can function in so many complex ways. I’ve learned how to convey Florence in words.
Governor’s School has provided me with the training to write about the content that I grew up with, the material I naturally have to offer. Every story I write takes place in some type of Florence, with its tangible sensation of heat trapped in the swamp, the perpetual presence of desperation. All of my characters are based on Florentines: single mothers I’ve met at work, the mysterious neighbor who passed out already-opened Halloween candy, or the woman who showed up to church drinking hairspray.
Going home on breaks, or for the summer, has altered my perspective of Florence. Instead of seeing tragic figures living in a never-changing place, I see characters full of complexities living in a place as undecided as they are. Once, the chain-link fence covered in hubcaps was ugly. But now I see it as armor, protecting the women on the porch, who sip sweet tea and watch another fistfight unfold in the street, those men who wordlessly understand the ritual required to live here.
Outside the Lines
I forget how strange my school sounds to the rest of the world until I leave it. On a card at the front desk inside a college admissions building, I am told to write the name of my high school. The full name, South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, does not fit on the dotted line, and I have to draw an arrow to the back of the card, and write the rest there. When I say my school’s name out loud to family members, it sounds prestigious, almost regal. But on the first day of school here it is made clear that I was chosen based on potential, and not necessarily talent. It’s this ego smashing that happens throughout junior year that creates the atmosphere of Governor’s School. You don’t get “good,” you just make progress. You are not special, you’ve just been given an excellent opportunity.
I don’t know how much Governor’s School has changed me until I meet up with friends from my old school at a football game during fall break. I live in Simpsonville, South Carolina only a fifteen minute drive from downtown Greenville. Still, all these kids know about my school are rumors. “I’ve heard the dancers are super catty,” one says. “I’ve heard there’s, like, crazy amounts of sex.”
I answer, “Sometimes,” and “That’s a good joke,” respectively. I try to explain to them that yes, I have real school work on top of art work. No, I can’t have a boy in my dorm room—I can’t even have Advil. Hey, hey, there are a few republicans. Like, two, maybe? I quickly realize that the magic of this school is lost as soon as I try and pin words to it. I stop coming home for Friday night football games. I choose, instead, to stay on campus.
There are two creative writing classrooms that make up our department. Each is packed with books and long desks and computers. Only creative writers are allowed in these rooms, and there’s a giddiness in the seclusion of it. Monday through Thursday, we stay in the rooms after hours to get work done, but on Fridays, we kick our shoes off and run around to celebrate the weekend. We lay on the desks and talk to each other and laugh until our sides ache. We share secrets and stories and we belong to these rooms, to the spines of our favorite books on the bookshelves. We belong to each other.
There are, of course, the nights when AP Chemistry keeps me up until four in the morning. There are the days where workshop is brutal, and I never want to write another word again. There are those scary moments where I feel that the pressure is too much and I fantasize about going to regular school. Maybe then, I could learn to drive, go to real high school parties, eat my mother’s delicious food anytime I wanted.
But then there’s a drama student playing guitar in the academic stairwell. The sound of his voice spins up the flights of stairs, bouncing off walls in wistful echoes. It calms me. There’s hot chocolate at the Starbucks across the street, and there’s the beauty of that street, which is lined with small trees dressed up in white Christmas lights, illuminating the sidewalk. There’s my friend who sits with me inside Starbucks and talks about Rilke and Miley Cyrus with equal insight and tenacity. When I return, there’s a group of students outside the residential life building, blocking the doors. They’re all dancing, and singing to the beat of their clapping hands, stomping feet: “You have to dance to pass. Dance, dance, to pass.” And because I can sense that there is something wonderfully magical about this place, I feel that I must obey them. It is only necessary. I am a terrible dancer, but in this moment, I dance shamelessly. When the crowd is satisfied with my moves, they cheer, and finally part, letting me into the building, welcoming me home.