On the town square of Saluda, the double doors leading into Rexall DRUGS are covered over in brown paper. It’s just as dark, peering through the front door of the SALUDA movie theater where a sign on the glass boasts “ARTIC AIRE” – a tiny penguin poised between the two words.
To the casual observer, it’s tempting to regard this small burgh some 40 miles west of Columbia as merely a quiet place to pass through. On the outskirts of town, cows graze in bucolic pastures. Tractors are parked in tin sheds.
No, you simply wouldn’t think much was brewing in Saluda on a mild morning in March.
And you would be wrong.
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Inside English teacher Kelly Minick’s classroom at Saluda High School, a pitch-perfect storm of expression has cut loose; a literary landslide has begun.
Eight of the 29 finalists in the prestigious South Carolina High School Writing Contest – set to conclude this Saturday in Columbia – have emerged from this place.
“Somehow in this classroom we have developed a sense of camaraderie and I don’t know the reason why,” Minick said. “I just stand up and do what I do. The only thing I can think of is that I have given my students an opportunity to be creative. To see things from a different point of view. And, I have pushed them.”
Indeed, the class on this recent morning is a rapid-fire discussion of characterization.
Words like “verisimilitude” (having the appearance of truth) are used.
Phrases like “All roads lead to tone and theme” are not uncommon.
A little Latin gets thrown in – en medias res – in the middle of things.
Names of novels get bandied about. William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” And some of literature’s most vivid characters too. Captain Ahab, from “Moby-Dick.”
All the while, Minick never stops moving.
She charges to the blackboard. Writes down something a student has said. She perches on a desk, listens to a student. She points to another student. “I want some people who haven’t talked to me,” she said.
She goes back to the blackboard. She perches. She smiles. She cajoles. She pushes.
“Ms. Minick is a teacher in the truest sense of the word,” said student Alex Lybrand.
“Throwing knowledge at a kid is one thing. Ms. Minick opens our minds to all these ideas. She is allowing us to use our potential. She allows us to put down our ideas in ways that we would never have thought of. She makes me see things that I did not notice before. I don’t feel like there are any wrong answers in here. We don’t make mistakes in this class. We just have different interpretations.”
Student Lori Able describes the magic of Minick’s teaching this way: “This class changes your view of the world, especially coming from Saluda.”
Which, ironically enough, is precisely where the 35-year-old teacher is from. “I was born and raised in the house I live right across from now.”
Minick graduated from Saluda High in 1997 and then Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina with a degree in English. “The last thing I wanted to do was be a teacher. I didn’t want to deal with the bureaucracy of it.”
But, Minick said, in 2001, “My mom ran into someone who worked at the grocery store who said, ‘Do you know they are looking for an English teacher at the high school? ’ ”
The rest is English, if you will. Minick applied and was offered the position.
Did she know anything about teaching?
“Absolutely not. Noboby taught me how to teach, but I did know my content. So, I taught what made sense to me. I want my students to be able to read, interpret their literature, form opinions based upon the text and then figure out how it is relevant to their lives.”
And how does she describe her students?
“Besides brilliant? They are from Saluda County. They come from all kinds of homes and all kinds of backgrounds.”
And this Saturday, eight of them will undoubtedly shine in the big city, where they will be given 40 minutes to write on a subject disclosed just before work begins.
The contest is sponsored by the South Carolina Honors College and the University of South Carolina Press. Novelist Pat Conroy and South Carolina Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth will judge the students’ work.
And what will Minick’s parting advice be to the students who hail from a small town where a store’s windows are covered in brown paper but where she has opened wide a world beyond Saluda County borders?
“I’ll tell them, ‘Just do what you do. Just do what you know how to do. ’ ”