DILLON — Ty'Sheoma Bethea achieved international hero status in February when the 14-year-old pleaded with Congress to help improve her school, but back home in this farming community some remain troubled by what she caused.
Mayor J. Todd Davis is among them. "We're kind of getting branded as a backward county," he said recently in his office next to the chamber of commerce.
All Ty'Sheoma did was write a letter to Congress seeking help to rebuild J.V. Martin Junior High School, part of which is condemned.
Her one-page, single-spaced letter caught the attention of President Barack Obama. He invited the eighth-grader to Washington in late February to sit with first lady Michelle Obama in the gallery of the U.S. House of Representatives while he delivered his first speech to a joint session of Congress. The president pointed her out as he described her dated and dilapidated school, where even many of the temporary, mobile classrooms are so old they've had to be remodeled.
As Michelle Obama hugged Ty'Sheoma on nationwide television, some in Dillon cringed at the negative publicity for the school, where one of the buildings dates to 1896.
The county still reels from the bad press it got a few years ago with the release of a documentary film about neglect of South Carolina's high-poverty counties straddling Interstate 95. The documentary, named "The Corridor of Shame," prominently featured the dilapidated condition of J.V. Martin. In one scene, the film showed children wearing coats at their desks during the winter because the room was so cold.
Davis and many boosters would prefer the town and county be known as the childhood home of U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, another product of Dillon's schools who also attended J.V. Martin.
Shortly after Ty'Sheoma's national appearance, the town and county hosted Bernanke at a ceremony naming an I-95 interchange leading to the town after him. Davis and others hope the prominent display of Bernanke's name on the intersection passed by millions of motorists will enhance the community's image.
But even as Bernanke praised his upbringing in Dillon and the spirit and hard work of its people, he invited Ty'Sheoma to his interchange dedication and applauded her in his acceptance speech for her determination and thirst for knowledge: "Like all natives of Dillon, I'm sure, I was proud to see Ty'Sheoma Bethea sitting alongside Michelle Obama as the president delivered his speech to the Congress."
Davis readily concedes that Ty'Sheoma makes a good point about the physical condition of some parts of J.V. Martin and admits that some of the blame lies with the community for not putting more money into it. But, he says, that's just the problem, money. The community needs more state aid for its schools because its tax base just can't keep up. He says Harbor Freight, a California-based tool retailer that built a large distribution center on the edge of town in 2001, is the only new industry to set up shop in Dillon in 12 years.
He worries that Ty'Sheoma's letter and the national attention it got won't help lure more industry.
"Education is a big part of industry looking at your area. To me, that's where it hurts us."
Talk of the town
On Main Street, just a few blocks from J.V. Martin, Elizabeth Law cheerfully welcomes diners to her Whistle Stop cafe. The world-traveling South African transplant, who chirps "cheerio" when customers leave, is doing her best to change the fried food tastes of Dillon by serving a lighter fare with an abundance of fresh vegetables. When she says she's aware of the local controversy over Ty'Sheoma's letter, conversation in the restaurant immediately turns to the issue.
Law's husband and partner, Paul, wonders why Gov. Mark Sanford recently turned down $700 million in federal stimulus aid, most of which was for the state's cash-strapped public schools. "That doesn't make sense," he says.
And Cullen Bryant, a farmer and Chamber of Commerce member who helped welcome Bernanke at the interchange dedication, says an important point has gotten lost in the attention and controversy: "I don't want people to think that educationally we're lacking. It's a structural thing, not educational." He says the county schools recently won their share of Palmetto Gold and Silver awards for educational accomplishments.
Former mayor Salley Huggins McIntyre agrees. She's pleased with the education her third-grade son gets in the county's schools. "I don't think it's the education. It's the building. I'm proud of the schools," she says.
Replacing J.V. Martin remains a priority for the school district. In December 2007, voters approved a new sales tax to improve the schools, but the worsening economy has clouded whether the tax can raise enough money.
At J.V. Martin Junior High School, Kathi Campbell, a master teacher and curriculum coordinator, leads a tour of the rambling campus and hodgepodge collection of buildings. She taught Ty'Sheoma in English class before her recent promotion to coordinator, and says the school's problems lie in the buildings, not the quality of education the children receive. She calls the tour "showing our dirty laundry."
She starts with the "new" section built in the early 1980s.
Then she uses a key to open the padlocked chain holding the door closed to the condemned, nearly century-old, auditorium with its still- beautiful wood floor, rows of seats, balcony and stately, columned stage.
Next she introduces a teacher in the classroom where students wear coats in the winter because the room gets so cold.
She strolls through the gymnasium that was designed for boxing and is so small that it's derisively called "the cracker box."
From there she walks into the 1896 structure, where bundles of uncovered electrical wires string along the hallway ceiling and some students take classes, including one for mentally disabled children.
Finally, she heads outside among the array of temporary, mobile classrooms where Ty'Sheoma takes some classes within feet of a railroad track. Teachers and lessons repeatedly are drowned out by the roar and rumble of passing trains.
Campbell says the lack of buildings add to the difficulty of educating children, many of whom, like Ty'Sheoma, come from single-parent families that struggle to pay the rent and put food on the table in a community with few jobs and less opportunity.
Still, Campbell says, "I love my job. I can't imagine working anywhere else." And she sees the schools as offering many of the children their best chance to succeed against the odds.
The power of words
That's what makes Ty'Sheoma's letter so powerful, and the controversy around it so wrenching.
Not only has Ty'Sheoma been criticized for bringing negative publicity, but the principal, Amanda Burnette, and the teachers have been harangued in letters-to-the-editor in The Dillon Herald and in online chat rooms for allowing Ty'Sheoma's letter to go to Congress uncorrected.
The teenager's letter raises critical issues about a lack of money for school trips, lights that don't work, safety hazards from holes in floors, dated textbooks and leaking roofs. She praises her teachers and classmates and pleads with Congress "to help my school." But some in the community focus instead on her grammatical errors and misspellings, and accuse the principal and teachers of purposefully placing the community in a bad light by mailing the letter uncorrected.
Ty'Sheoma is an A- and B-student and a thoughtful speaker who answers questions with precision, but her letter is written in the poor, rural manner she speaks, Campbell says. She writes the way she learned to read, phonetically. Campbell calls it one of the difficulties the teachers try to help many students overcome.
Ty'Sheoma dismisses concern over her grammar and spelling. "I'm a eighth-grader, and as an eighth- grader, I make some mistakes. I just typed what I felt was needed to be said."
The teenager's letter may never have gotten attention at all had she not lacked money for a stamp.
The morning after she composed the letter on a computer at the public library, she took it to the principal's office to see if she could get 42 cents for a stamp. Burnette read it and talked with Campbell and others about whether they should correct the grammar.
Ultimately, Campbell says, Burnette decided to leave the letter unchanged. "This was Ty'Sheoma's letter. If we had corrected it, then it would be our letter."
Burnette "understood the power of the letter" in both its words and thoughts: "Just a little child pouring her heart out," Campbell says.
"He really did not forget us"
The letter likely would not have been written had it not been for the principal. The day after Obama gave his first press conference as president and mentioned the dilapidated condition of J.V. Martin, Burnette brought up the subject at her regular morning assembly with the school's 550 students. Obama had visited the school during the presidential primary and promised that he would not forget J. V Martin if he became president. When he mentioned the school in that first news conference, Burnette, Campbell and the teachers rejoiced. "He really did not forget us," Campbell says. Burnette seized the moment and urged the students, as citizens of the nation, to write Congress to get help to rebuild the school.
Ty'Sheoma says she responded to the principal's urging because "I wanted to give our school the opportunity to make a difference. I was tired of the train interrupting our classes and teachers struggling to teach." She never suspected the letter would get the attention it did. "I thought that I wouldn't get many responses."
Part of the reason for the attention goes to Burnette, who sent a copy of the letter to a Chicago Tribune reporter she met when Obama visited J.V. Martin during the campaign.
Soon after that, the letter ended up on Obama's desk.
Obama then invited Ty'Sheoma and her mother, Dina, to the White House and to his address to Congress. Ty'Sheoma, who has rarely been out of Dillon County, was stunned. "I couldn't believe it. I thought how it really could change my school."
She says she was honored to meet the president and be invited to Washington, but she liked the first lady best. The petite teen almost disappeared in Michelle Obama's hug in the Capitol gallery and described her as very tall, nice, kind, pretty and smelling "like a flower."
As she sat next to the first lady that night, she was shocked when the president pointed her out and awed "when all the people stood up and looked my way. … It felt great to get a standing ovation from people with a lot of power."
Ty'Sheoma hopes all the attention results in something good for the school so Dillon's children, including her 12-year-old brother and two sisters, ages 9 and 10, would have a good school to attend. "We should have schools like all the others," she says.
She couldn't believe it, she says, when she heard that Sanford continues to reject $700 million in federal stimulus money for schools. Just a little bit of that could have helped J.V. Martin and schools like it across the state, she says. "Even though our governor said he's not going to get us a school, we're not going to quit." If she had the power, she says, she'd "rebuild our school. Make it a place kids can go and provide more jobs here.
"A lot of people think people don't make it out of Dillon," she says. "I think we should stay and build a community rather than leave our problems."
For now, she has more urgent concerns. Her mother, who works as a welder at a company that makes emergency vehicles, expects to lose her job in the next couple of months because of layoffs, she says.
If that happens, Ty'Sheoma worries that she and her family will have to leave the community she loves.