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March 31, 2004 1 min read
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Mountain Literature

When Principal Rob Williams first learned that two women from San Francisco would be sending his Eastern Kentucky elementary school some books, he thought, “A box of books. That’s a nice thing folks sometimes do for the school.”

So when a station wagon full of books—the first of several—arrived at Sandgap Elementary School, “everybody here was just bowled over,” Mr. Williams said.

In all, the school has received close to 1,000 books from the two women, who have ties to the region but wish to remain anonymous, Mr. Williams said.

And to the very last volume, the donated literature reflects a passion Mr. Williams had mentioned to the two while he gave them a tour of his school two years ago. That love is Appalachian literature.

“I grew up reading about children splashing in water from fire hydrants and hanging out on stoops—stuff that couldn’t have been more foreign to me,” the principal recalled. “Hillbillies are an ethnic minority. I think we need to do something to preserve our culture.”

Now, Mr. Williams says, Sandgap probably has the most extensive collection of Appalachian literature of any elementary school in Kentucky—hundreds of books for children, as well as adults.

That’s no small accomplishment for a 250-student school that serves a small, isolated mountain community of the same name in Jackson County, just on the rim of the Cumberland Plateau.

Seventy percent of the school’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and many children begin kindergarten without ever having laid hands on a book, Mr. Williams said. The principal himself was once a Sandgap student, the child of parents with only elementary educations, and he “was transformed by the written word.”

Mr. Williams and the school’s teachers launched a book drive of their own on March 2—the 100th birthday of Dr. Seuss—with the goal of providing at least 1,000 preschool-age children in Jackson County with a book. As of last week, the campaign had raked in 1,800 gifted volumes.

“My message to everyone is this: Probably the most important thing you can do is take a young ’un up in your lap, draw it close to you, and read to it 20 minutes a day,” the principal said. “That doesn’t sound like much, but if you can read, you can do anything. I’m a living example of that.”

—Darcia Harris Bowman


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