Saving a Mountain

by Silas House

Youth Saving MountainsJudy Hensley is modest to a fault. Ask her about her many teaching awards (among them, the Foxfire Exemplary Classroom Award, the Ashland Oil Golden Apple, a listing in the Who’s Who Among Educators, the Teacher of the Year) she laughs quietly, saying, “Oh, that’s boring.” Talk to her about why she thinks she is a good teacher, and she says, “I learn from the children. They teach me.” And ask her about the year the students in her class saved 12,000 acres of a mountain from being mined, and she takes absolutely none of the credit. “That was all them,” she says. “They were the leaders, the ones who made it happen.”

One of her former students, Jacob Doyle, now a senior in high school who has a talent for making everyone laugh, isn’t joking when he talks about Hensley. “If anybody deserves the credit, it’s her,” he says. “She won’t take credit for what we did, but she was the only one who was always right there.”

In 1997, Hensley instructed her seventh grade class at the Wallins Creek Elementary School in Harlan County, Ky., to come up with a science project for themselves. She was a teacher who had gained a reputation for getting her students to experience a “hands on education,” having organized her classes to gather data for a county history book, construct Internet websites, and do fieldwork in places like the Blanton Forest. That year, she had no idea that they would choose to save a mountain.

“It became a real world lesson about the freedom of speech, peaceful protest, citizen’s rights, and peaceful assembly,” Hensley says.

Black Mountain, the highest peak in Kentucky at 4,139 feet above sea level, supports a distinct ecosystem filled with rare and endangered plants and animals. The 28 miles-long ridge had recently been scheduled for mountaintop removal and strip mining. Hensley had been one of the few Harlan Countains to express her opposition to mining the landmark and had written about it for the local newspaper. To her surprise, many of the students had read the article. One of them, Tyler Buell, suggested that the class try to stop the mining.

“They spent a few days mulling it over, trying to figure out what they could do,” Hensley says. “Then, a child named Elizabeth Saylor brought in a letter, asking the company to not mine Black Mountain.”

Saylor was so shy and withdrawn that she asked Hensley to read the letter to the class, so her fellow students were particularly fired up when they found that she had poured her heart out in the letter. Saylor, now a talkative, smiling teenager about to enter her senior year of high school, says the letter changed her life. “ I was so upset that the mountain might be destroyed, and I just wanted to say that.” she says. “After the whole experience, I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind anymore. It taught me to stand up for what I believe in, to fight for what I know is right.”

Her teacher was along for the fight, too. Many educators in the region won’t even teach about mining in any capacity, as the minerals are still the lifeblood for many Appalachian Kentucky counties, and the subject matter may prove too controversial. Although some members of the community didn’t want the matter pursued, Hensley never tried to steer the students away from tackling the subject as more and more of them brought in letters. “She wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, and let us do our own thing.” Saylor says of Hensley, whom she identifies as her favorite teacher.

Soon other classes were joining in and eventually there were letters from the sixth, seventh, and eight grades. They determined that the letters should go the Office of Surface Mining (OSM), located in nearby Middlesboro.

Others frowned on this idea. “It became a real world lesson about the freedom of speech, peaceful protest, citizen’s rights, and peaceful assembly,” Hensley says. The project went a step further when Hensley recommended the children know what they were talking about. “The class researched the geological structure and formation of the Appalachian mountains,” Hensley says. “They read relevant materials about the region, mining, endangered species, and Black Mountain itself.” The students even brought in other disciplines, using computers for research, art to design posters and t’shirts, and the democratic process to reach compromises about ideas, brainstorming, and critical thinking.

Eventually, four busloads of students left Wallins Creek and traveled to the OSM in Middlesboro. “The students unloaded in front of the office and the staff was staring wide-eyed out from the office windows,” Hensley says. The children assembled in front of the building with their posters and before long a staff-member came out to ask what was happening. “I’m sure we took them off guard, but that really wasn’t our intent,” Hensley says. “It was a public office and we had some citizens who wanted to deliver their messages in person.”

Only one member of the media came out to cover the story. Jennifer McDaniels was a reporter for the Harlan Daily Enterprise, and her article—featuring pictures of the children quietly protesting outside the OSM—was picked up by the Associated Press. Soon the story went out all over the country. ”From coast to coast, there was a story about these children from Wallins Creek who wanted to save a mountain,” Hensley says.

It didn’t take long for others to jump on the bandwagon. Grass roots citizens’ groups and other schools got involved. Filmmakers from Appalshop in Whitesburg, Ky., came to interview the students. The students found themselves doing public service announcements on radio stations, becoming representatives for their region, and even coming up with a mascot—a dusky salamander that was native to Black Mountain. Another Kentucky school, Rosenwald-Dunbar Elementary (in the bluegrass section of the state) joined the cause and traveled with the Harlan County students when they appeared before the Legislative Research Commission at the state capitol.

“We almost didn’t get to go because there was so much pressure on our county board to not let the children be involved in the whole process,” Hensley says.

But the students never backed down. By the spring of 1998, the cause had spread so far that a resolution was passed saying that the coal and timber companies would be compensated for lost profits and nearly 12,000 acres on the mountain’s summit would be preserved against mining and timbering forever, leaving it to remain the stat’s highest peak.

Shortly thereafter, a crew from Ted Koppel’s ABC news show, “Nightline,” showed up in Hensley’s classroom. Mention of the “Nightline” piece causes the students who were involved to groan and roll their eyes.

“They made us out to be hillbillies,” says Jennifer Fryer, one of the students in the original class, now a senior, clad in intelligent glasses and a hip John Lennon t-shirt who is eyeing the Agnes Scott College for Women after she graduates. “The first thing they showed was the broken down buildings around here. They didn’t film any of the nice homes or the surrounding beauty.”

“Just the shacks,” chimes in Doyle.

Wadonna Watkins is now a well-spoken senior who was also in the original class. She says that the report categorized the students and made the report seem to be more about poverty than saving the mountain. “People aren’t that different here from other places, but they wanted to make us seem different,” says Watkins. “I mean, I am proud to say I’m an Appalachian. I’m a unique individual from a particular place, but they made us seem like we were strange.”

Hensley, perhaps used to this treatment, was more intrigued by the fact that they didn’t run the segment until Bill Clinton made his tour of Appalachia during his second bid for the presidency. “The students saw themselves for the first time through someone else’s eyes and heard their own voices for the first time through someone else’s ears. There’s nothing wrong with being what you are,” Hensley says. “The segment did start by showing broken down buildings—overlooking nice places—but overall, I thought the ‘Nightline’ spot was a positive piece.”

Although the segment might have been insulting to the students, it did lead to better things. Barry Shainbaum was a Canadian photographer who was working on a book about integrity, hope, and heroes. He was flipping through his channels, saw the “Nightline” spot about Hensley’s students, and knew that they fit the subject matter of his book perfectly. He ended up photographing the entire class, hands held together and raised defiantly, gathered on an overlook with Black Mountain looming proudly behind. The book, Hope and Heroes, was published in the fall of 2001, and the class’s picture appears alongside the likes of Nelson Mandela and Dr. Jane Goodall.

Sky Brosi, a senior at Yale University recently completed her senior thesis about the project and ended up writing and illustrating a children’s picture book based on the student’s efforts. Meanwhile, Hensley continues to be approached by people who think the story would make an incredible book, or even a movie along the lines of October Sky.

“The students and I never wanted to seek any kind of fame from this,” Hensley says. “They wanted to preserve the mountain. I wanted to preserve them—preserve their ability to dream, to reach for lofty goals, to believe in themselves.”

It worked.

“It taught me that I can make a difference,” Saylor says.

Watkins is proud that their efforts– and accomplishment—broke the stereotype of lazy, ne’er-do-well hillbillies. “It proved that all the stereotypes were wrong, and it proved that people can do good things when they unite,” she says. “It made me more sure of myself. Before I didn’t feel like I belonged in a crowd, and now I feel accepted in what I do.”

“This experience caused a radical change in me. Here were these little children, saving a mountain. And I was a part of that,” says Fryer, with evident awe. ”It gave me the confidence I have today. At the same time, it made me feel humble. We don’t deserve to be called heroes. We just did what everyone should do—take the initiative. I admire Ms. Hensley so much. She challenged me to use my brain and expand my horizons.”

Hensley has a simple, yet powerful philosophy for teaching: “I believe in the teachable moment,” she says, “that we should not let the natural curiosity and enthusiasm of children go unanswered, but should seize the moment to share a learning experience while the interest is there.” In this case, it most definitely worked, and one of Appalachia’s most beautiful mountains is safe for eternity, thanks to a group of seventh graders and their amazing teacher.