by Diane Cornett Watts, 1977 ALC Alumna
I have had a lifelong love affair with language. I am a lover of words, written, spoken, sung, or performed. And, the best word I can think of to describe my two-year residency as a student at ALC is “paradoxical” – contradictions that, upon closer inspection, bear out truth. The paradox of a small school cradled in a valley rocked by mountain barriers that opened doors to the paths I would take in life…is my story.
You can’t just happen upon Alice Lloyd College or even note it on a drive-by. It is an out-of-the-way place you have to intend to find – a geographically closed environment that could cause you and me to draw metaphorical parallels and assume that it is also insular – culturally limited, blinkered, narrow-focused. We would be wrong. What I found there were open doors, open minds, and open hearts.
The intimacy we as students could have with the faculty and staff was extraordinary; we were welcomed into their classrooms, their offices, and even their homes. Looking back now, I cannot tell you what my text books were or what I learned from them. But, I can tell you about Jim Bergman and our Psychology lesson in the woods at night … how he was a professional, caring man who was patient with us, gave us his time (always with a smile), and made each one of us feel as if we were the most important person in the room. I can tell you about Christine Stumbo, my sociology professor, and our personal chats in her tiny, book-lined office where she encouraged me to think for myself and inspired me as a woman to set professional goals and achieve them. I can tell you about Arnemann Grender and what made his egg-drop challenge in Physics class so memorable – no rules, no directions, no boundaries, just self-reliance to protect the fragile. I can tell you about beautiful Betty Bergman, a lady in every sense of the word, who recognized my love for singing and encouraged me to use my voice. And, I can tell you about Abner Grender, affectionately known as Papa G, whose detailed organization and loving direction of the Voices of Appalachia gave us all the opportunity to be heard.
With the VOA choir, I participated in two concert tours – one northeast and one southeast. These experiences broadened my understanding of life outside the security of our narrow mountain walls.
At every stop along the tour, usually a church or similar venue, members of the congregation or local community hosted us in their homes for a night or two. The hosts were as varied as the landscape we glimpsed through foggy bus windows as we covered the miles. From the lavish Dupont Estate in Delaware where homes were unlocked and generosity abounded, to a hole-in-the-wall apartment in Washington, D.C. where the host couple hoped we weren’t hungry and offered us nothing, my own assumptions were challenged. I learned something about economics.
I learned about perception and reality – that while perception is not reality, its consequences can be very real. As teenagers from “poverty-stricken Appalachia,” it didn’t take long for us to realize that we were charged with an ambassadorial responsibility. We fielded questions like, “Do you have running water in eastern Kentucky? Electricity?” Several families didn’t ask outright but simply instructed us on how to use bathroom faucets, “one hot – one cold,” and how to flip a light switch. I suppose we were as much a mystery to them as they were to us, perhaps even more so. Keeping company with strangers was a priceless opportunity. Never had education felt so immediate or so important.
Most of our days were spent on the road, in a bus, and with that kind of togetherness, we got to know each other pretty well. Some of us were already friends, but many of us didn’t know each other at all. I was especially intrigued by students in the choir who had come to ALC from other countries. I was amazed that someone who could barely speak English, firstly, would attempt to sing a foreign language repertoire and secondly, could do it so beautifully. I thought they were very brave, extraordinary people. Up until that time, I don’t think I had never met anyone from outside the U.S. I’m grateful for the education I received on those long bus rides. I learned about the lives of teenagers in Africa, the Middle East, and Japan. I found our differences fascinating and our similarities comforting. I learned something about diversity – that we are really all the same.
All this I not only remember, but will never forget.
Thank you, ALC, for taking me on Purpose Road, I-95, and other byways… for that is where education truly happens.
About Diane: After receiving an associate degree at ALC in 1977, Diane attended the University of Kentucky and Morehead State University where she graduated with a Bachelor of English with minors in Psychology & Sociology – which she promptly put aside for a travel job as a flight attendant with Delta Airlines. She is the only native-born American in her family; her husband Martin from Great Britain, their son Graham from South Korea, and daughter Brooke from India. After several years of staying home with her children, teaching piano by day and working in local theatres by night, she put her degree to use and built a career. For 15 years, she taught AP English Language (argument & analysis) and served as English Department Chair in a high-achieving high school in suburban Atlanta where she still resides. She recently retired from the school system and started her own business, Watts Professional Development, where she speaks to corporate clients on a curriculum she developed, “Understanding Argument: The Science & The Art.” And, for fun, she spends time with her adorable grandson, Grayson, and she still sings in her community chorus!