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LETTERS / Mayland Early College: A Gem in the Mountains

March 19, 2014. Dear Editor,

My recent passion has been to return to a place where I can work with teenagers and empower them to develop talents and gifts. I wanted to teach vocal performance through spoken word.  At the end of the day, organizing an after school program or teaching a workshop can be complicated. Teenagers are strange creatures who will often bend to the wills of their peers, and they will not always admit to having interest in things that might be considered unusual. Finally, an opportunity came in the form of a fantastic program at Penland, a world-renowned craft school, where I have the pleasure of working.

Through a partnership with Penland, I was invited to spend five weeks teaching spoken word performance to high school freshmen at  Mayland Early College High School, http://mechs.mayland.edu. Although I had previously met the English teacher, I did not know anything about this school.  I suppose I assumed that it was a regular public high school.

According to the school’s website, ”students that apply and are accepted to MECHS become members of a small, student-centered academic community. Through the collaborative efforts”… “we create a culture that fosters respectful and responsible citizens. Students experience an innovative and flexible approach to learning, which enables them to meet rigorous academic standards. Upon completion of MECHS, students have to opportunity to be awarded both a North Carolina High School Diploma and an Associate’s Degree from MCC.”

Things I observed that are not mentioned at the website:

  • Students manage their own time well, and balance work while engaging healthy interactions.
  • Home situations and privilege levels of the students are dramatically varied.
  • Many schools report a zero tolerance program for bullying—at MECHS there is zero bullying. It was astounding to me that I began to ask students who had written poems about bullying if they had experienced it here.  The answer was a unanimous, resounding no.  This is likely attributed to the fact that the administrators of this program require every teacher to find a way to incorporate community building and teamwork.  The environment is unlike anything I have ever seen.  I observed an exceptional group of teenagers who exhibited kindness and respect for each other. I believe the school has allowed them to cultivate their strengths in a way that does not cause them to feel as though they have to hurt each other in order to be empowered.
  • Because of the opportunity to graduate with an associate’s degree, the students seem to be connected to their futures.   These kids, regardless of where they’re coming from, have a real grasp on the possibilities that lay before them.  
  • MCC youth are challenged to overcome the odds, to learn and use their strengths, to push themselves to define what greatness means to them and achieve it.  While no method could ever be perfect, I believe it is a strong and needed start.  This is everything I wished for myself when I was fourteen and losing my footing.  This is everything I have wished for my friends’ children.
  • While teaching spoken word performance at this school, I watched 29 freshmen discover their voices, and their thoughts, and experiences were worthy of words.  I watched them navigate through their stage fright and build strong support systems for each other.  I watched them begin to believe in each other and themselves. I watched them unleash things they had never spoken about before.  For example, a girl spoke about being bullied because of her accent and dark skin; a boy spoke about using humor to hide his insecurities and fears; another student spoke about being a thirteen-year-old post-rehab addict; while another boy spoke about his “lazy generation” and how important it is to work hard and dispel that stigma.

I could not have asked for a more creative or inspiring teammate than Melora Bennett, the school’s English teacher.  While I worked with the students’ performance quality, she coached their writing process.  Somehow, she drew them out of their protective shells.  She helped them find the words for what they needed to say.  She gently guided their writing, ensuring that it was always their own, but pushed them to make it great.

I was reminded, in this experience, that poetry is not something you can put into a nicely wrapped candy tin; It is not only applicable to certain sorts of people and poetry does not actually have rules.  Poetry is a living thing and it can be whatever you want it to be; especially a vehicle for you to explore your voice.

Examples of our workshop exercises included: breathing deep into our diaphragms, making mmmmmm noises, repeating tongue twister, impromptu storytelling, exploring the idea of fear, and lastly, we reminded ourselves that you cannot actually be brave unless you’re afraid first.

At the end of the workshop, they all performed to a community audience. The competition was judged by three volunteers: Penland Community Collaborations Manager & Mitchell County studio jeweler Stacey Lane, award winning Yancey County author Katey Schultz, and local DJ and Appalachian State University undergrad student Andrew Eastwick.

The Mayland Early College is truly a gem within our mountains.


Stephanie Ott