This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 8 No. 3, "Growing Up Southern." Find more from that issue here.
Life in the lowcountry of Beaufort County, South Carolina, is marked by dramatic extremes of wealth and poverty. For example, while most of the inhabitants of Hilton Head Island qualify for welfare, the annual median income is about $50,000 per family. The small school serving the nearly all black population of Daufuskie Island* stands in sharp contrast to the resort hotels and condominiums on Hilton Head. Growing up on these islands, rich and poor youngsters alike experience acute isolation and provincialism. Yet, like other visiting artists who work in the area’s schools, I’ve found that while these conditions often affect a child’s academic performance, his or her artistic sensibilities and powers of expression can remain amazingly fresh and compelling. In fact, it often seems as though the provincialism of Beaufort County children has given them an openness, an appetite for new aesthetic experiences which their more sophisticated urban peers often lack.
The little community of Dale is less than five miles off Highway 21, the main route linking Beaufort with the rest of the state. Yet it too might as well be sur rounded by water. Many of the children I met at Dale Elementary never leave the county; ironically, when they do leave, it’s often a radical move to New York City or Philadelphia to visit their parents who have migrated in search of jobs. Only 12 out of 478 students are white; the language of many of the black students reflects their Gullah heritage.
Visting writers who have worked in Dale Elementary agree that the quality of the children’s creative work is nothing less than astounding. They draw richly on the imagery of the surrounding lowcountry environment of swamps, pine trees, Spanish moss, snakes, fish, and of course the ocean. Visiting artists are also amazed at the children’s receptivity to strange new ideas. For instance, in Shaun Farragher’s poetry classes he shows slides of paintings by Picasso, Dali, Klee, Van Gogh. The students — most of whose prior artistic experience has been limited to an occasional class in finger-painting or puppet-making — respond to these painters’ images with poems and pictures of their own, and demonstrate vivid and original perceptions.
Because of Hilton Head Island’s large financial resources, more students in the island’s schools are exposed to the visual arts than elsewhere in the county; even very young students pick up on the rather avant-garde techniques of the visiting artists. Despite their access to artists, the wealthy children of Hilton Head are in many ways as provincial as their peers in Dale or Daufuskie. For the most part, Hilton Head youngsters have a very limited circle of friends and an equally circumscribed perspective on the world at large. Entire cities are dismissed with a summary phrase. Savannah, I am told, is “seedy;” there’s “nothing to do” in Beaufort. Yet underlying these adolescent biases is a fundamental interest in new experiences and a desire for real, original self-expression.
Historically, few cultures have been strong enough to sustain themselves in total isolation. As a result, they have learned not only from the riches of their own pasts but also from unique or exotic encounters with the outside world. In a sense, individuals resemble such cultures because, although we each have the fundamental knowledge necessary for survival, we also need outside stimuli to trigger this knowledge into action. If judged by their receptivity to new experiences, ideas and people, the students in these lowcountry schools may be the most worldly, the most sophisticated of people.
Fat Scrubble (a monster)
He swallows buildings, the universe, the whole planet
His mouth burns up when he drinks the sun like a coke
He has three heads so he can see everywhere he goes
He has rubberband legs and one plastic leg
He’s so round he can hardly hold himself to the ground
Gravity and ropes freeze him there
He’s a good monster, for when someone robs the bank
before the thief can get caught he swallows the robber,
the building and the money.
Class poem, grade 1, Mossy Oaks Elementary
Quiet, a dead town
All you see is gnats and skeeters
Folks hoe the field
Ghost trees like a swishing wind
White church like a spook house
full of bats and vampires,
skeletons playing piano
All getting up on their graves
Worms coming out of the eye
Bones from dinosaurs, years ago
Ponds with grass and water moccasins
that hang like slime on a pine tree;
That reminds me of a Witch
while bluebirds fly and buzzards eat
the eyes of dead dogs. . . .
Class poem, grade 5, Dale Elementary
He be hotter than a pot of boiling, steaming orange juice
I’d slap him, knock him in his nose
until my hands swell up and burn.
I’d be blind from the rays.
It would be dark like a thousand nights.
I’d ride my rocket ship home to Earth
where everybody would stare at me, welcome me
Me friends would take me home, fix my hands
take me all around the earth.
And I’d be happy, glad,
like I just been to visit Santa Claus.
Class poem, grade 2, Shell Point Elementary
By Ricky McArthur, grade 6, Battery Creek Elementary
The sea roared and the fire raged out of control
The city blazed and the earth cracked.
The sea sank.
It was something like a draining tank.
Now, it’s all over and the world is gone
and very contented.
After Lawrence Ferlinghetti
By Stacey Payne, grade 8, Beaufort Junior High
“Christ climbed down from his bare tree”
He wandered in the darkness.
He sat down and rolled dirt into the sun.
He put it in the dark sky and formed light.
As Christ wandered, he became very lonely
He formed a Man out of sticks
and began talking to him.
As he talked and talked,
the stick came alive.
The man opened his eyes and thought,
THIS COULDN’T BE REAL
Christ and Man joined hands
skipped into the darkness of earth.
Graves of My Grandparents
By Margie O Brien, Battery Creek High
As I walk to my grandfather’s grave
It starts to rain as if God turned on a faucet
In the distance churchbells ring
As if to say, “I’m here!”
Fog rolls in like a steam engine letting out mist
My heart is beating faster, faster
Snakes come close; they hit and make a sound of swords
All of a sudden a figure stands before me
My grandfather slowly sits down
“Leave this place my dear for you have little time”
In a flash he is gone
A jet flies past
I jump and run as fast as my feet can carry me
Somebody’s pounding on my head.
I crash to the ground
Doors are closing.
Tom McClanahan is a writer living in Beaufort County, South Carolina. (1980)