Short story prize allows a Swain teacher to put the spotlight on public education


As a private person, Dawn Gilchrist-Young ’87 lately has found herself the center of attention. In November, the Asheville public radio station aired an extended interview with her and a regional news weekly featured her in a thousand-word story. Swain County High School, where she is an alumna and has taught English for 14 years, gave her a page on its website, and in March a WCU student presented a research paper on her former teacher at the university’s Undergraduate Expo.

Dawn Gilchrist-Young

Dawn Gilchrist-Young ’87 with Lawrence Schiller of the Norman Mailer Center, which awarded Young its inaugural prize for writing by a high school teacher. Photo courtesy the Norman Mailer Center

Why the fuss about the reserved, intensely smart, uber-focused Gilchrist-Young? In October, the Norman Mailer Center, in conjunction with the National Council of Teachers of English, announced her as winner of the inaugural Mailer High School Teacher Writing Award for her short story “The Tender Branch.” Narrated with suspense by a solitary woman recovering after a brutal robbery, “The Tender Branch” lays bare a violent childhood and a morally questionable decision made in what the narrator considers the best interest of her family.

The award carries a $10,000 cash prize, and the attending ceremony put Gilchrist-Young in a New York ballroom with literary lions Elie Wiesel, Arundhati Roy and Gay Talese (each of whom also collected 2011 Mailer prizes). But for Gilchrist-Young, who doesn’t write during the school year, most precious of the award’s privileges was the entire month of July as a writer-in-retreat at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony in Provincetown, Mass.

If I could take you back to where I came from, you might understand. If I could take you back to the bedroom in the back of that trailer, the first time; if you could stand beside me there at the edge of the bed, the frayed and torn sheets stained and wet from the blood and my mother’s broken water; if you could feel the relief I felt when the slick thing in my hands didn’t cry, didn’t breathe even when I held it up as best I could, didn’t gasp, the blue on its face showing through a light purple, almost lavender, my mother’s favorite color; if you could know with me that this was one less for me and her to take care of, one less for me to soothe when it understood what was happening to Mother, one less for me and Mother to try and feed with government cheese and biscuits, and when the food stamps ran out then from flour we borrowed from neighbors – biscuits and wild onions in the spring, and cornbread with government butter while it lasted and maybe with potatoes and beans if they came in good in the fall and neighbors were generous, and cornbread and Banner sausage and more cheese or whatever was there in the winter if Dad had thought to leave us any money – and if you could have it to do again eleven months and twelve days later, the same situation, only this time I’d had been given an idea, and I took the idea from whatever god offered it; if I could take you back there, you might understand.
From “The Tender Branch” by Dawn Gilchrist-Young

“It’s quite lovely and quite a luxury,” Gilchrist-Young said of the retreat. Her goal while there was to work on expanding “The Tender Branch” into a full-length novel, and by rising early, structuring her days carefully and working with diligence, Gilchrist-Young was managing as many as seven hours a day writing. Even with a daily walk and an occasional outing (a whale-watching expedition yielded eight sightings, which the lifelong nonswimmer recorded with “terrible pictures”), in her first week Gilchrist-Young wrote 102 pages, which she promptly shipped to an agent. “I don’t know what will happen next,” said Gilchrist-Young, who has published poetry and commentary but never a novel.

The Norman Mailer Center established an award for teachers, said center president Lawrence Schiller, because as he and the late Mailer had discussed, “Without a basic education, you cannot understand the world around you [and] teachers are trained to understand the responsibility of educating young people.” All three judges “agreed that ‘The Tender Branch’ was the work of a writer who had incredible potential,” said Schiller, who also is an author and who played an integral part in Mailer’s “Executioner’s Song.”

The Mailer award, which attracted entries from public and private school teachers across the country, not only has given Gilchrist-Young time, money and prestige, it has given her hope that others see the value in teaching. “[It] is my assurance that someone out there is listening to what I am compelled to say, someone out there believes a teacher, a public school teacher, has words that are worthy of recognition,” she said during her acceptance remarks. The award also had given Gilchrist-Young an opportunity to advocate for public education, which she considers under siege with budget cuts at the state and national level. Gilchrist-Young sees what is at stake. “I’ve always loved the American idea of public education, that everyone can learn to read so they can be a citizen,” she said. “I think that’s the most brilliant and revolutionary idea that has come along in 500 years, and I’d like it to continue.”