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by Erin Beck
For 2021, one of the most powerful people from West Virginia was deemed “West Virginian of the Year” by at least two state newspapers – one publication meant that as an honor, one said they meant it as an acknowledgment of his influence. For their end-of-year editions, many newspapers say farewell to the year by doling out titles on residents they deem deserving.
On social media, many West Virginians reacted to naming the state’s senior senator “West Virginian of the Year” because of his power, and not because of his good works, with anger. The discourse got me thinking about what we recognize as virtue in West Virginia and who we consider worthy of praise.
I have a theory: I don’t think any one person is stronger than the sum total of every other force working for or against them.
I tried to make my point once by making up a hypothetical. Say a girl was born with a multitude of debilitating health conditions. Say she was born into poverty and couldn’t afford college. Say she had many kids at a young age – maybe she had no trusted adults in her life to teach her about birth control options, or she had an abusive partner who refused to let her plan pregnancies. Maybe her religion forbade it, or maybe she grew up in a large family and it was all she knew. Say she became single, and her health conditions got worse under the simultaneous stress of childcare and work, perhaps with some shame and depression, and she could only work for short periods of time.
Say she was good at science class in school, and her childhood dream was to become a doctor.
Who are we to say she just didn’t have enough willpower or she just didn’t want it bad enough if she didn’t?
I notice we West Virginians tend to think of success as mostly about the traits of an individual, and less about what kind of support the person had from others and the community. We tend to think if someone has reached a well-respected, influential position or holds down a high-paying job, their achievements can be explained by their intellect, their drive, and their charisma. We tend to think less about who encouraged their talents in school, who watched the kids or an ailing grandparent while they studied, who they had as role models, whether they ever felt supported by a loving family, and whether they could even go to the doctor or whether they had health insurance.
I remember describing my hypothetical and was shocked to see the listener become irrationally angry. He accused me of placing limitations on the hypothetical woman and said something along the lines of “how dare you assume she couldn’t become a doctor?” I said that while many people achieve dreams that seem impossible, it’s overly simplistic to attribute every success to the uniqueness of an individual. We shouldn’t view it as her (hypothetical) failure if she didn’t become a doctor. We should view it as a failure of the community and people around her for not surrounding her with the tools and support she needed to reach those dreams.
There are people in West Virginia that would have been great in college-level careers but for one reason or another couldn’t take that path. There are people I’ll never meet who could write books filled with all manner of wisdom, but no one ever thought to ask. Maybe your grandmother knows the healing properties of every herb in Appalachia. Maybe your colleague can hear a song once and play it perfectly. Maybe your neighbor’s negotiating skills are so good, he could have gotten Congress to agree on some version of the Build Back Better bill. Maybe there’s a West Virginia kid who could have cured cancer, but his parents told him he was worthless so he skipped all his classes.
As we look back at the year and think about who’s worth honoring, I ask you to keep this in mind: you won’t have enough time in life to meet all the residents of West Virginia with more talent, better people skills and more emotional maturity than members of Congress.
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