Some fool once called her “white trash.” And that’s when she made up her mind. She wanted to better herself, and her family. So, that’s what she did.

“That GED test,” she said, while she checked my blood pressure. “That ain’t no joke, now. It’s tough.”

Her accent is so Alabamian it hurts. She’s missing a few teeth, but it doesn’t look bad on her. She’s old. Wiry. Strong.

Where she grew up, country folks didn’t go past the eighth grade—some still don’t. And according to her daddy, “Once a young’un can read, it’s time to get out and work.”

Saying this made her laugh. I’m not sure why. Maybe one’s own private memories are just humorous.

All six of her brothers dropped out, so did she. It wasn’t a big deal to drop out of school back then.

Take me. I dropped out of school in the seventh grade. Nobody said a word about it. I returned to school as an adult and got my high-school equivalency stuff. And to this day, I still have a hard time spelling “equivalency.”

She and I aren’t that different.

She met a man who worked in a lumber mill, they had two children before she was 20. She’s still with him. She calls him Beater. I don’t know why. But personally, it’s not a nickname I would want.

When she was 24, Beater suggested she apply for a job at the hospital. She thought this was ridiculous. Hospitals didn’t hire “poor white trash.” Hospitals were for learned people. People with letters behind their names. Not hillbillies.

“Which is exactly what I am,” she tells me as she checks my temperature with an ear thermometer.

Even so, she inquired with the hospital about getting a job there. The hospital told her she would need college. So she called a college. The college said she needed a high-school diploma. So she called a high school. The high school said she needed a GED. So she called a GED program. They said, come on.

And so it was, for six years, she attended night classes. Beater took over cooking, and putting kids to bed. She studied her butt off.

“He believed in me,” she said. “He’d always say, ‘Wish I could do what you’re doing, baby, but I’m too stupid.’ But he ain’t dumb, he paid for every bit of my school. He’s smarter than he gives himself credit.”

Would that there were more Beaters in the world.

She got her GED. Then, she zipped through college, clinicals, and even taught a little. She connected with students because she was relatable. She was real.

“Been a nurse since the mid-seventies,” she said. “I work ER shifts, too. Shoulda retired long time ago. Shoot, my kids’re grown now. But I just can’t seem to quit. I love my job.”

Beater is pushing for retirement. He even bought an RV. He wants to visit the Everglades, the Grand Canyon, and above all, Las Vegas. She’s not ready. She worked hard to get here. She wants to stay here for a while.

“Ain’t about money,” she said. “I just really like to help people. If I didn’t, I reckon I’d die of boredom. Just last week, little girl came in the ER, they amputated her foot. I needed to be there for that. Just how I am. I had to help her through.”

Life is funny. She went to school to better her life. Instead, she betters everyone else’s. And all she asks, is that you don’t use her name when you write about her.

“Okay,” I said. “How about Beater’s name?”

“Hell, he won’t care,” she said. “Use his name all you want. But, maybe you can write in there how I used to think I was white trash, but now I ain’t. Might help someone.”

It just did, ma’am.

Sean Dietrich is a columnist and novelist known for his commentary on life in the American South. He has authored nine books and is the creator of the “Sean of the South” blog and podcast. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to

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