Everything and Nothing: Oh, what a book can do
Posted Dec. 21, 2021
By Aïda Rogers
I’ve just sobbed my way through Where the Red Fern Grows, a famous children’s book about a boy in the Ozark Mountains who devotes himself to buying, training, and hunting with his two red coonhounds. I read it because it means the world to a new friend of mine.
Claressa Hinton didn’t grow up reading like I did. She didn’t have time – she was too busy moving between group homes and foster homes and occasionally back to her temporarily sober parents. Claressa estimates she moved between 30 to 40 times from age two to 18. Reading wasn’t important; making sure she and her two brothers stayed together was.
They’d landed at Tamassee DAR School in Oconee County – the “Place of the Sunlight of God” – when Martha LeCroy slipped her a copy of Where the Red Fern Grows. Claressa’s seventh grade teacher told her the book would help with her problems.
“It was as if she just knew what I was going through,” she marvels.
By that time, she’d already endured multiple traumas. One was failing third grade. To pass, that teacher advised her to put aside her problems so she could perform better in class. How was she supposed to do that, young Claressa wondered, frustrated and angry, when her parents couldn’t even get her to school?
Ms. LeCroy was a different kind of teacher. She let Wilson Rawls, dead since 1984, help Claressa through his classic book. In Where the Red Fern Grows, Billy Colman endures hardships and unfairness too. Rural and poor, he walks barefoot, in overalls, 12 miles to the train station in town to get the pups he worked hard to buy. He sees his first school, drinks his first soda pop, and gets bullied and beaten by the town kids who ridicule him for his “hillbilly” appearance. Billy has many adventures with the two dogs who adore him and each other, and they encounter dangerous people and weather head-on, together. The ending is something I won’t spoil, but the book’s lessons are many and eternal, lessons Claressa learned too.
The itinerant carpenter who wrote Where the Red Fern Grows grew up much like Billy, on a remote farm roaming the Oklahoma countryside. His Cherokee mother taught him to read and write, but without much formal education, Rawls dropped out of high school. These were the Depression years, and he sought work where he could find it, hoboing around the country, serving time for breaking and entering. But always he wrote, having clutched Jack London’s The Call of the Wild the way Claressa clutched Where the Red Fern Grows. Embarrassed by his poor grammar, he destroyed his stories on the eve of his marriage.
Luckily for him and millions of readers, his wife learned about his stories and had him rewrite his tale of a young boy hunting with his coonhounds. Sophie Rawls edited his work, got it published, and Wilson Rawls, who married late and had no biological children, found himself with hundreds. They wrote him letters; they listened raptly when he spoke in their schools.
Here’s what’s important: Those children wouldn’t have found that book if it hadn’t been for the army of teachers and librarians who recognized its value. Not selling well as the adult book its publisher had marketed it as, Where the Red Fern Grows was going out of print. Those educators put the skids on that – just like John Jansen, Claressa’s basketball coach at Tamassee-Salem High, put the skids on her directionless attitude about college. Just like English teacher Laurie Edminster wouldn’t let her accept what another teacher told her – that she wasn’t a good reader and would not be a good writer. Scarred by that pronouncement, Claressa faltered, and twice didn’t pass the high school exit exam. Ms. Edminster tutored her for a year, and Claressa passed the third time, “with excellence.”
Where is our heroine now? In Hopkins, a growing Richland County suburb, in an immaculate house she bought herself. She holds a bachelor’s degree in recreation administration from Morris College in Sumter, where she was awarded a full basketball scholarship, and a master’s degree in human resource development from Webster University. At 38 she’s the wife of a landscaper and the mother of a straight-A student.
Claressa works with children and families as a regional liaison for the Carolina Family Engagement Center, a grant project in the University of South Carolina’s College of Education. Thanks to her education and experience, she can speak with authenticity to children, parents and educators to improve how children learn, particularly when they’re in difficult circumstances. She’s particularly proud of one young man whose father was murdered years ago. He just graduated as valedictorian of C.A. Johnson High.
She attributes her success to her “intrinsic motivation,” adults who cared, and the ragged copy of a book she says she’s read a thousand times – no exaggeration. Oh, what a book can do.
Read a more in-depth article about Claressa Hinton here.
Aïda Rogers writes from an old house in Columbia and a new porch in McClellanville. Her three-volume anthology series, State of the Heart: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love, includes stories by 108 Palmetto State writers.
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