“Lessons in Mining”

“Redneck referred to the red bandanas that West Virginia miners wore around their necks.
–Chuck Keeney, WV Mine Wars Museum.

In my Appalachian middle school, the teachers
transformed classrooms into a coal mining town.
The rich students worked for The Company, while
us poor kids played the miner league. Whether
that division of labor by social class was
preferential treatment for the privileged or a
broader lesson for all, it gave an extra sting to our
respective roles in the interactive project. We
miners had to crawl on our knees, our necks
wrapped in red bandanas–identifying pennants of
our mining class as well as filters for our breath–
in a dark “mine” of cardboard boxes and blankets,
a ramshackle tunnel smeared with black coal dust.
The teachers led us out quickly, before our lungs
and minds were overtaken by the suffocating air
of the makeshift mineshaft. Then they took us to
The Company Store, doled out pieces of paper
scrip, and sent us forward to barter for food with
smug rich kids wielding power behind the counter.
The child of a poor, single mother, I was used to
the bitterness provoked by this lesson in mining.
The choking cardboard coal mine reminded me of
inhaling bleach fumes, my face pressed against
my mother’s clothes, the raw skin of her hands
wrapped around me, after she was done cleaning
the big, fancy houses of the town’s elite, parents
whose children looked down on me, once again,
from their elevated posts behind the store counter.
The Company Store setup felt much like waiting
with my mother at the Welfare office. The scrip
like paper stamps she had to exchange for food. I
realized miners, like my mother, are parents
trading hard labor in hazardous conditions, doing
whatever the world requires of them to keep their
children warm and well fed.


“Good fences make good neighbors”
–Robert Frost

Give us today our daily medication, and
may we forgive those who trespass our
property before we find our shotguns.

The news is all bad all the time,
so why bother learning anything
we don’t already know.

In mid-summer, we witness a murder
of crows cloak a cedar in black. How
green the grass grows

on the neighbor’s lawn, as
he pukes last night’s beer
over the white picket fence.

Gaggles of stars shoot across
our bows, our furrowed
brows, a warning of woes to come.

From sea to shining swamp, the
air we breathe is a tinderbox
and our raised torches are lit.

V.C. McCabe‘s poetry was most recently selected for display in an ekphrastic exhibition at the FRANK Art Gallery and for the Kurt Vonnegut Library and Museum’s So It Goes journal. Her work also appears, or is forthcoming, in Poet Lore, Prairie Schooner, The Minnesota Review, Tar River Poetry, Spillway, Entropy, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and elsewhere. She has lived in Ireland and currently resides in her native West Virginia. http://vcmccabe.com || http://twitter.com/vcmpoetry

What classroom lesson brought you to a realization about the world you lived in? Tell us in the comments.

Image credit: Flickr

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