“Ain’t.” Nine-year-old Nikki Bowman-Mills uttered the word — the “word” — within earshot of her substitute teacher at Clay Elementary School in central West Virginia some 40 years ago. The substitute immediately beckoned Bowman-Mills to the blackboard and placed a piece of chalk in her hand. “Ain’t is not a word,” the teacher said, ordering her to write the phrase. “If you say ain’t, people will think you’re uneducated.”

Bowman-Mills dutifully followed the teacher’s instructions, forming the same letters over and over again on the board, questions flooding her mind as she wrote: Ain’t isn’t a word? Who are these people judging us?


“It was the first time I realized there was this perception of West Virginia as uneducated,” Bowman-Mills said. “It changed the trajectory of my life.”


Bowman-Mills, BA ’92, International Studies and Slavic Studies, vowed then to leave the state as soon as she could. She envisioned a life as a newspaper or magazine correspondent, experiencing the world she’d thus far only glimpsed on the glossy pages of National Geographic.


So after graduating from West Virginia University, she began her self-imposed exile. For nearly 16 years, she lived in cities across the South and Midwest, where she earned a master’s degree in writing and edited multiple magazines.