BLUEFIELD DAILY TELEGRAPH
Admirers, readers, students and faculty shared an evening with best-selling author Jeannette Walls Thursday evening as part of Bluefield College’s year-long symposium titled “Celebrate Appalachian.”
A former resident of Welch, Walls memoir ‘The Glass Castle’ told about her impoverished youth in the Southwest and growing up in McDowell County. The book became a New York Times Best Seller and was rated one of Amazon.com’s Best Books of the Decade for the 2000s.
Walls was on Bluefield College’s campus Thursday night to discuss her book and will be there today to talk with college freshman who have read the memoir.
Phyllis J. Owens, assistant director of the Bluefield College Division of Education, is also Walls’ former ninth grade English teacher. Owens said it was an honor to have her former student return to speak at the college.
“It is just a double honor to have her here,” Owens said. “She is so gracious to come, and we are so honored to have her. The freshmen students this year read her book and it was selected by the faculty. The reaction students have had to the book is wonderful. Our students have enjoyed reading about a person most of them describe as ‘real.’ Many of our students have indicated their life or the life of someone they know has been similar to hers. Her resilience is really what they admire.”
Walls said she dealt with a lot of shame as she worked to tell her story in the memoir.
“I never told anyone in my life about digging for food out of the trash,” Walls said. “I must have written that scene 20 times. If you are going to be honest, then you have to tell the whole truth. You have to be open and confront things that embarrass you.”
According to Walls, the reaction to the book showed her she was not alone in her experiences.
“After the book was published has been the most transformative period in my life,” she said.
“Shame is an isolating emotion. I thought no one else had gone through this or experienced this. No matter where I am — whether in West Virginia or New York or California — people come up to me and say the details may be different, but that they had an experience similar to mine. It has created a world of friends rather than enemies. People are ashamed and they will tell their stories to me. The book gets other people to tell their stories and to share what they’ve gone through, or someone else has gone through.”
During her speech, Walls thanked Owens and her former high school science teacher who had come to the event.
“There are so many educators in this world who change lives,” Walls said. “I hope you, educators in the room, never forget your impact on students and their lives. I think education is the great equalizer. The second most important thing is respecting the kids and giving them a sort of dignity. I don’t want sympathy and I don’t want pity. Pitying someone only gives them permission to pity themselves. It’s so easy to stereotype people, to stereotype kids who are ‘from the wrong side of the tracks.’ Everyone has a story and, if you listen to that story, you find out what people are really like. Kids in poverty just want the same opportunities of everyone else.”
Walls said there is much debate over whether her parents were good caretakers or abusive to her and her siblings when they were growing up. Walls said she chooses to believe in the good in her past.
“Everything in life is a blessing and a curse,” she said. “We choose what to focus on. I think I had a wonderful, magical childhood, which was rough at times. I hope people can learn something from my life. Most of all, this book is not about me. It is about what the readers get from my story.”