Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Red Light's On

Now we could have followed the advice of MapQuest and taken the perimeter highway around to Decatur and the Friend’s School and our rendezvous with the 2013 Tellebration. It may have been faster. But as a fellow who wheeled around East Atlanta and Decatur a fair amount in my youth and early adulthood I preferred to drive through town. Knowing how traffic can clot unexpectedly we gave ourselves a huge cushion of time.

Despite a wreck at Mt. Paran that blocked three lanes we found ourselves at the North Avenue exit in no time. Across Peachtree, then over a block to Ponce and we were practically home free.

We had just turned on to Ponce de Leon when Sheila said (I’m approximating here) “Isn’t the Mother Ship nearby?”

“Matter of fact it is!” I shouted with glee. “Shall we dock for a few minutes and refuel?”

The words had barely escaped my lips when there it was.


Gleaming neon, and yes, the “Red Light Was On!”

We pulled the red Camry into the very first spot by the airlock. (It was meant-to-be.) Floated past the giant red neon proclaiming Heaven-On-Earth, and entered.

The olfactory senses were flooded with a delectable blend of hot coffee, sticky sweetness, and hot doughy deliciousness.

An angelic face behind the counter asked for particulars. Though John McCutcheon proclaims four too many, and two, one to few, we settled on three and a medium cup o'Joe to share.

We watched as the conveyor attendant carefully lifted them, with a chopstick through the hole fresh from the hot grease and glazing , -- one,--two, --three into a crisp box. 

We waited a couple of minutes for the fresh brew to make, then found our seat and, taking time to snap a selfie of anticipation, were transported to another sphere.

As you can see from the photos we were as glazed as the dough-nuts.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The week of the Eastern Gray Squirrel

I have been working at developing a different lesson for each grade level that visits Arrowhead, and seven lesson plans for our "outreach" lessons for kindergarten -- we visit each kindergarten in the Floyd County school system seven times during the school year. My plan is to introduce a different Georgia animal in each lesson, illustrate several of the Georgia Performance Standards for that grade level through that animal, and tell a story that involves that animal to reinforce a few of those standards. 

I've used the wonderful American marsupial, the Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) with several second grade classes. It's a fascinating animal, and I just happen to have several stories in my repertoire that feature this animal.

With kindergarten I've taught about the alligator and the box turtle and used native American stories about how alligator lost his beautiful smooth golden skin, and the time turtle went on the warpath. Watching kindergartners respond to real live animals like these two is a lot of fun.

We have had lots of "outreaches" and field trip visits so far this year, but on Wednesday we had our first Third Grade field trip of the year. I decided to make the ever-present Eastern Gray Squirrel our third grade animal. It is a very successful species as homeowners know. As any bird-feeder knows. As British folk know, since invasive Gray Squirrels from America have all but obliterated the native squirrels of Great Britain.

One of my old standby folktales is the old "Sody Saleratus" and, ta-dah!, it features a squirrel. So I prepared a squirrel coloring/memento sheet, read up on those fascinating critters, -- They can turn their rear feet to face backwards which allows them to run head-first down a tree trunk! -- and practiced my story. I had a great time with the Cave Spring third-graders. 

Our "Coloring Sheet" for Third Grade

We had a lot of work done on our house last year, as some of you will remember. One job I gave the contractor was to squirrel-proof our attic. They made a heroic effort, nailing up hardware cloth inside the attic eaves. Still I have heard occasional tale-tale scurrying footpads over my head, and this week as colder weather arrived the bushy-tailed rodents relocated in noisy numbers to our attic space. I made a mental note last night to buy some more hardware cloth.

Then came today. 

Sheila rises early twice a week to exercise at a local gym. She was dressed this morning and going out the door when she noticed our lights playing games. They would dim down to a faint yellow, then suddenly glow brightly, then just as quickly blink completely off, then bright, then dim then bright then off, etc. Up the stairs she comes to tell me. About the same time my consciousness is beginning to comprehend that something is amiss. I smell a rancid electrical burning and hear periodic pops and crackles. My first thought was: Eastern Gray Tree Rats! --errr, squirrels.

After walking around the house, turning things off, hearing more pops and watching the continuing light show, and ascending the stairs to even stronger acrid smells, I decided to call 911 and keep our 144-year-old from burning down. 

I was too busy trying to find fire to take pics of the wonderful firefighters
who came to our rescue this morning. They came is several vehicles, 
including one that looked a lot like this.

The firefighters were here in no time, in force, armed with some pretty impressive technology. Their heat-seeking video gun soon located a burned out surge suppressor on some of our computer equipment in our bedroom. But the popping light show was undiminished and they decided that cutting electricity to the house was the best course till Georgia power could check things out.

The bucket truck

Sheila HAD to get to work -- big deadlines this week, so she showered in the dark while I waited on Georgia Power, and the fire department were barely out of the yard before two friendly and efficient linemen for Georgia Power showed up with a bucket truck and more amazing equipment. 

The bucket truck

In a matter of minutes they had isolated the root cause of our problems. 

 The section of shorted wire 

Yep. You guessed it. Sciurus carolinensis, the good old Eastern Gray Squirrel. There, right at the old telephone pole at the edge of the road at the driveway, the insulation on the Georgia Power supply line to our house had attracted the attention of a squirrel, and as a result it was shorted almost completely out. 

I enjoyed talking with the two men as they worked, demonstrating the marvelous advances in technology that allow linemen to avoid much of the danger and muscle strain of past decades. They taught me how to read the poles along our street. The new pole across the street with its recent tag with a "12" nail signifying 2012 installation. The many climbing spike wounds and darkened square (from an old-style Georgia Power metal notice) that showed the pole at the drive to be a 1940s pole. The one on the corner with two bands of faded paint that used to denote a bus stop when Georgia Power ran the city buses.

They let me keep the bad section of wire to show off and walked with me to our electric meter and main cutoff so we could let the energy flow again. And they left. 

Sheila was ready to head out to Kennesaw. I showed her the wire. She told mer about our friend Welton's recommendation of Purdy Electric. And she was gone. I walked around the house checking on stuff. The stove was definitely damaged. The microwave was dead. Lights and electronics in the downstairs hall were off. A clock-radio had expired. The laser printer had bit the dust. There may be more. 

Two fine young fellows from Purdy Electric showed up about noon. They got to work, first carefully checking the circuit breaker panel. they found the breaker for the front heat-pump buzzing and hot, and so replaced it. They climbed into the attic and checked out the wiring and junction boxes there, then crawled under house and checked the wiring there. One of the guys is from Trion, the other from Armuchee. He came through our school but missed me by way of Nancy Smith's fourth grade class.

Tomorrow morning North Georgia Equipment will be here to check out the AC/Heat System. It seems to be working fine. And I guess I'll have to get out and find a stove and microwave.

My friend, former student-teacher, present "boss" at Arrowhead, and genuine animal lover, Vivian Davis Chesley kept a pet Eastern Gray Squirrel named Charlie for more than a decade. She loved that rodent. So I hesitate to tell of my current emotions regarding Eastern Gray Tree Rats.

Friday, October 11, 2013

What's Up Doc?

What is it about becoming involved in Republican politics that causes medical doctors to lose all reason?

To become a medical doctor one has to start with pretty good intelligence, obtain excellent grades. display a good work ethic, have lots of sticktoitiveness …. well, everyone knows, it is a long hard road to a medical degree.

But somehow we are plagued with several Republican medical doctors who are badly in need of a cure for foot-in-mouth disease. Here in Georgia we have two medical doctors competing for the Republican nomination for US Senate. Listen to examples of the effusion of their mouths:

“There are more people killed with baseball bats and hammers than are killed with guns.”
-Congressman Paul Broun, M.D.   
[For the record: Firearms account for about 68% of killings, blunt objects about 4%.]

“Meanwhile, I’m stuck here making $172,000 a year.”
-Congressman Phil Gingrey, M.D. 
[I heard poor Dr. Gingrey inspire 500 preteens with the message that his poverty is so abject that he could never dream of a run for President like wealthy guys who have managed to ascend to that office, like rich-boy Abe Lincoln, I guess, or the current fellow who grew up in the lap of, I suppose, comparative luxury?]

And now, one of the best doctors in America, one who has a remarkable and truly inspiring life story, and successfully saved someone I love from the excruciating chronic pain of trigeminal neuralgia. So I am sincerely and deeply grateful to this good man for his skill and dedication.

But in the last few months this wonderfully accomplished physician has gotten involved in Republican politics. Today he spoke to a “Values Voters”* group and these absurdly hyperbolic words escaped his lips:

“I have to tell you, you know [The Affordable Care Act] is really, I think, the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery. And it is slavery  in a way because it is making all of us subservient to the government.”
- Benjamin Carson, M.D.

I have some much admired friends who are medical doctors. I have great admiration for them. I have great admiration for Ben Carson. But Republican politics seems to bring out the very worst in physicians.

* By the way, I have values, too.

Friday, October 04, 2013

41st Annual Nat'l Storytelling Festival - A little music to get us ready

Pre-Festival Thursday
Getting Ready Music
Tim O'Brien

Opening act:

Nora Jane Struthers and the Party Line

The pretty blonde took the stage with the four guys in her band, to warm us up for the main act. Nine songs later they left the stage to thunderous applause. Nora Jane Struthers and the Party Line are talented musicians. Each had an opportunity in to spotlight their skills during the show.
I had noticed a young man talking with the two couples seated in front of us before the show. During the show the whole tent was duly impressed with the energy and talent of this same guy, Jack Devereau, the fiddler. But those couples seemed especially expressive of their admiration, giving proud and knowing looks at each other as he played and bursting into applause or joyful laughter often. It reminded me of myself.

Twice this year I have had the joy of watching a daughter in a major role on stage, performing beautifully and reaping just acclamation from an audience. Lillian as Tracy in Rome Little theatre’s production of Hairspray, and Brannon as Velma in Oceanside California’s Star Theater production of Hairspray. Both, in this father’s humble and righteous opinion, were magnificent. I beamed whenever they took the stage, nudged Sheila at highlight points, laughed outloud just from sheer joy, clapped and hooted when they completed a number, and wildly when they took their bows.

I recognized the tableau before me last night. These folk were Jack’s parents and grandparents. During a break we struck up a conversation --- Are you surprized, Brannon?

Jack’s grandmother told me about entering Jack’s room when he was a toddler to find him performing there to an imaginary audience with his pretend guitar. He stood peering into a distance, standing on his bed. She asked hin what he was looking at. “All dem people!” he replied.

Both my girls were performers from the get-go, too. 

Nora Jane and the boys played mostly her own songs

The interplay of the instruments and voices and personalities on the stage can be magical and joyful and tragic and awe-inspiring. I like to remind my kids and fellow actors that the audience has fun when the folks on the stage are having fun. Since the audience’s fun is our our object, having fun on stage is required. This group had fun on that stage last night. Turning and grinning at each other when they got in a special lick, or maybe at some (unheard by me) glitch.

My only complaint is my old geezer, slightly hard of hearing, usual complaint with virually everyone in America under 40. Enunciation! If songs have words, the words are important. I have had a mantra that has become ritual for me. I learned it from my friend and vocal coach, Rachel Jones. Before any performance of a song I mentally chant at least a couple of time, “The Words. The Words. The Words.”

Main Attraction:

Tim O'Brien

A very different kind of magic happens when there is one singer and one acoustic instrument (at a time) owning a stage as occurred in the Library tent for 15 consective numbers to end the evening. Just Tim O’Brien in his ordinary non-descript print shirt, tails hanging casually and comfortably over non-descript pants, his reddish hair and beard slightly unkempt. He might have been driving down Boone Street and decided on a whim to drop by and jam with us. 

His two Grammys for Best Bluegrass Vocalist are well deserved, but my goodness, he is no slouch as an instrumentalist, either. He worked by turns for an hour or more through four instruments, beginning with an awesome guitar, then the “scariest instrument in America” (the banjo), that Italian mandolin (“mandolin is Italian for ‘out-of-tune’”, he jokes), and finally a mean fiddle (His fingers blurred on “The Black and White Rag”).

My friend Duane Parsons, whom we lost this year, would have enjoyed this show I think. He was a big fan of traditional music, especially blues. Not a lot of blues tonight, but lots of bluegrass. I thought of him, since the last traditional concert I attended was a great blues show in Decatur with Duane and Charlotte.

And he can enunciate. I understood each line, always simply constructed, like most good writing.

I have several pages of notes on the individual songs from Nora Jane and Tim, but will have to stop here for now. Sheila is working up in our room at the Sleep Inn, while I tap keys and sip coffee in the braekfast area downstairs, surrounded by several other tables of breakfasting fans of storytelling. I need to go up and make some sandwiches for lunch while she finishes up a work assignment. The first stories begin at ten. We need to be in our seats by a little past nine. Probably won’t make that, so it’ll be back seats for us this morning, probably.

Here we go. The 41st NSF official begins!

Check back, I hope to add some pics and links later. Gotta go!

Thursday, October 03, 2013

41st Annual National Storytelling Festival (Head Start Wednesday)

From the 41st National Storytelling Festival
Jonesborough, Tennessee
Storytelling Live!
Storyteller in Residence
Donald Davis
Wednesday, October 2, 2013

As usual we were later leaving than we intended. Sheila had work to do. Telephone conference. E-mails to respond to. Nose to the grindstone all morning and until 2. She took occasional breaks to throw clothes into the suitcase.

I was at the grocery store and the credit union (our bank), then off getting the car fueled and washed.

By the time I had made a last check of the doors - especially the refrigerator doors - and pottied one last time, we were all packed up and headed out the driveway in our new-to-us red 2010 Camry Hybrid. The dashboard clock read 2:41. Google says Jonesborough is over four hours away.

At 2:42 Sheila remembered that the Zip-lock bag of Festival tickets, hotel reservation form, and parking tags was still lying on a shelf in the kitchen.

And we were headed out the driveway in our new-to-us red 2010 Camry Hybrid. The dashboard clock read 2:48. Did I mention Google says Jonesborough is over four hours away?

All gassed up we can drive there and back without refuelling. Bladder breaks are usually more frequent, but this time it’s GA 53 to GA 140 to I 75 to I 40 to I 26 to Boone’s Creek Road, Jonesborough. No pauses. 

We park at the White House on College Street, as always, and join the other folk strolling down the steep hill toward the gleaming big white circus tents, first the empty College Street tent then the crowded Library tent. 

There’s Donald, resplendant in gold shirt and bowtie, talking through a wide smile to the folks milling about the entrance. The tent is pretty crowded for this pre-festival event, but we make our way  to the very front and find seats there way to the side, but with a clear view of the microphone. 

We took a selfie before the program started.

Here's a blurry pic that gives a better idea of the tent and crowd.

After a brief introduction from the emcee, the Dean of American Storytellers grabbed a mike and the ears of several hundred listeners and didn’t let go for ninety minutes. I wouldn’t have complained if he’d held on another hour.

He started right out letting us know what we were in for. He’s a retired Methodist preacher, after all, and that’s a common preacherly way to start out, you know: tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ’em, tell ‘em, then remind ‘em what you told ‘em. He explained that these were a new set of old stories he had never told before. I liked the idea that this was a World Premiere. And that they were the stories he had learned storytelling on.

 “When you are just learning to play guitar,” declares Donald, “you don’t write your own music!” 

These stories date from the days before he even knew they were stories. It was just called visiting then. 

The stories were in three roughly thirty-minute chapters, one for each of three uncles, Grover, Gudger, and, everybody’s favorite, Frank.

Uncle Grover was the elder of Donald’s daddy’s brothers -- 17 years older! And he was the teacher of 16 children, eight of whom were his siblings! First day of the school year he had each child pick out a hickory branch his own height, trim it good, and carve his initials in it with a pocket knife. With those switches lined up against the building as a reminder, most of them remained unused through the year.

There was quite an adventure when the boys caught a feral cat in their rabbit gum and put it in the school’s cold pot-bellied stove after Grover had “laid a fire” for the next day. When Grover tried to light the fire the next morning? That cat nearly killed him. But he kept his cool, and cancelled school till he solved the crime. (Frank was the culprit.)
Grover “read” law, and passed the bar exam with only one missed question. As a solititor (procecutor) he traveled a circuit. 

Once he had transmission trouble in his Model T and a passing stranger hooked his horse to the bumper and helped him over the hill. As luck would have it the stranger turned out to be a moonshiner/defendant in one of the trials that afternoon. When the judge asked the miscreant if he had a character witness, you guessed it, he called on Grover, who said that was his only occasion to represent both sides in a trial.

I’m not sure how we got to next story of Uncle Alfred Jolly who made, sold, and drank more whiskey than anyone else in Haywood County. When he got religion, his bushy beard got in the way of the baptizing, and somehow his lips missed the cleansing, which led to some major Methodist-style backsliding.

Next came Uncle Gudger, who just died last year at 102. Gudher’s first wife was a sister to Frank and Grover. As a recent widower at seventy or so, Gudger declared he’d have to marry one of the local widows just to get rid of the rest. At 8 Gudger had taked his mama into letting him bring home a runt kitten.

The thing grew so fast under their care that they named it Haywood County. This story grew into a great tall tale that I’ll probably steal for some of my own lies, er, stories before long. Punch line: “Here came that cat carrying its head in its mouth!”

And then there was the snake that stuck its head through the fence and swallowed a rabbit. Then it stuck its head back through the fence to swallow another rabbit on the other side. Whoops.

Finally there was the youngest of the many David brothers, Frank, who believed that if it didn’t take longer to tell a story than it took the story to happen, it wasn’t much of a story. Everybody knows about Uncle Frank’s famous Foxhound, Rainy Weather. (I tell my version of that story, and have to credit Donald, since I keep most of his particulars under different names.) But this story was about how Frank, who was a local politician, kept folks votes while also keeping them from hunting on his property.

Frank taught Donald how to stomp mud puddles dry, to the consternation of Mrs. Davis.

And Frank sure knows how to discourage college boys from the dangerous practice of hitchhiking. “Law, yeah, [at the state pen], they make you WORK!” That boy is probably still crawling through Kudzu.

Donald ended up, of course reminding us that he had told us about only three of his uncles, and there are more stories about those three, and there are enough more uncles, not to mention aunts,  to keep him talking a long time, but he reckoned he’d stop there.

Donald Davis is a wonderfully creative storyteller, with a warm comic style. My girls grew up on Donald Davis tapes. I don’t know if he has changed or if I have just grown to know him better, but his style seems truer, less presentational, than it did to me years ago. I love his stories.

Last year I used his DVD, Make It. Tell It. Write It. with my students. I’d show a short clip of Donald, we kept “Trouble Lists” in our writing notebooks, and I told my “trouble” stories and the kids told theirs and eventually we wrote them down. It is the best and simplest children’s creative writing program I know of -- and the kids don’t even know it’s a writing class. It’s their Storytelling Club.

If you ever get a chance to see Donald Davis in person, don’t miss it. Meanwhile you can find a few clips on YouTube and you can buy his CDs and DVDs online.

Tonight’s Pre-festival concert is musical. it features Tim O’Brien. Tomorow morning Sheila and I will be under one of the BigTops when the real National Storytelling Festival kicks off at ten. Now the always agonizing question - which tent? There are five wonderful choices.

Tomorrow’s blog: 
Who in the world is Tim O’Brien and what is the Party Line?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Here is a place to live.

The best urban greenspaces in North America...

The greenspace in each of these urban areas is directly important to the lifestyles of its citizens, of course.

But those greenspaces are a positive good for even that citizen who....
.... never walks, runs, or bikes the trails,
.... never picnics under those trees,
.... never lifts binoculars to locate an avian Pavarotti in the branches,
.... never captures the dappled, golden, sunset reflections of trees and deer in the pond,

.... never kneels in the leaf litter to slip a diamond onto an adored finger,

.... never swings a running toddler up from the grass onto his shoulders,
.... never points out a black-eyed Susan, beaver, darter, snapping turtle, or great blue heron to the wide eyes of a ten-year-old.

Those greenspaces call out to tourists, shoppers, jobseekers, business-builders --- each no less lover, parent, child, hobbyist, cyclist, runner, bird-watcher, photographer ---  "Come! Here is a place to live."

And the cold hard impersonal cash of those folk will greatly exceed whatever temporary (and often largely transferred) gains for a local economy that might come from another strip mall.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Dreams Do Come True

I have always believed in getting kids outside. 

At my very first teaching assignment, Bancrioft Elementary in Bancroft WV in 1969 I organized an outdoor club.

 We climbed the hills, hunted arrowheads, and set messages adrift in stoppered bottles on the Kanawha River. (OK, I wouldn't do that now, but it did make a memorable writing experience for my fifth graders!)

Back in Georgia at McHenry School we spread out under the pine trees behind the gym to write poems...

we examined the woods above the upper building with botanist Richard Ware, we planted 30 red maples, we installed (with the Optimists and Coach Kennedy) a "recycled playground" constructed of used tires.

When I joined the gifted program I helped design units that took us outside often - writing at "Kaleidoscope Rock" in Pepperell's Booze Creek, 

or on the playground or in the woods of other schools. We explored Myrtle Hill, Marshall Forest, the dry lake at FJC, and made trips to the Anniston Museum, Atlanta Zoo, Fernbank, the Knoxville World's fair, Savannah, Wormsloe, Ossabaw, Washington DC. We had our annual Sea Day at FJC where we dissected sharks.

When I came back to education after an eleven year hiatus I came to Armuchee Elementary. It was a perfect fit, from my viewpoint. It was filled with folk who agreed with my desire for hands-on learning. Ruth Pinson, Anita Stewart, Marilyn McLean, Cathy McGraw and others were even involved in an organized effort to study and refine and articulate the environmental approach. We raised butterflies; planted milkweed, passion flower, fennel, and American chesnuts; released sturgeon back into our rivers; stomped through our creek looking for macro invertebrates; built rain barrels; recycled our trash; built trails;

inventoried road kill (!); proposed a law (state amphibian); measured, read, wrote, thought, and experimented…   
… all .in the context of the very real and wonderful world around us.

In the process I became an environmental education "evangelist". I am convinced that learning in the great outdoors sticks.

And so my dream for retirement was to be able to spend some time working with children and adults as a naturalist/teacher in a nature center. The first choice, of course would be one of our local treasures -- the Rome ECO Center, a still-dream-only Marshall Forest nature center, or maybe even the spot I've been taking my students to since 1999, Arrowhead Environmental Education Center.

Dreams come true.

At my retirement party in May, some folks I greatly admire, approached me about working part-time at Arrowhead. It was still just a proposal, but if I gave the go-ahead they would pursue getting it approved. It's been two months, and though everyone who needed to approve the grant and contract had done so, the paperwork took a while. The grant is from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and administered through the schools.  

Today, I went by the Floyd County Schools office and signed my contract. It's official. It doesn't pay a lot. It is only two days a week -- but that's about what I want right now. So far I have spent four days (yes I worked four days without a contract) cleaning alligator poo from the gravel of their tank, replacing the mossy bottoms of tanks for turtle, lizard, and toad. Sweeping, washing, cleaning. Feeding crickets to tree frogs and salamanders. And planning with two wonderful co-workers, Vivian Davis and Marilyn McLean, for a year of introducing children to the wonders of the natural world around us.

If you have children in the schools of this area, encourage their teachers to schedule trips to Arrowhead while slots are available. It's a wonderful resource and a great place to learn.

I have my dream retirement job.


Vivian, our newly minted Director, has worked as the fulltime assistant to former Arrowhead coordinator, Kim Kilgore, for two years. The year before that, Kim and I "shared" Vivian as our student teacher in a specially approved University of West Georgia student-teaching experience. Vivian worked in my classroom most of the week, but also observed and taught with Kim. Vivian has a huge heart for the animals and younguns and for environmental education. It is a little strange, but a great privilege, to be "directed" by my former student teacher.

Marilyn has taught at Arrowhead for about eight years. She taught fourth grade with me at Armuchee Elementary during my first seven years there. She is one of the best teachers I have ever worked with. She and Ruth Pinson guided their students through the successful three-year effort to make the Green Tree Frog our state amphibian. I have watched children mesmerized by her easy, quiet, wonder-sharing at Arrowhead. It is a joy to get to work with Marilyn again.

Arrowhead was the dream of no one more that its original and only coordinator, Kim Kilgore. Kim has overseen the growth of Arrowhead from just a dream in the minds of herself and a few DNR legends like the late Ted Touchstone, to the wonderful facility we have today. Kim's influence in local and state environmental eduction circles has been great. I met Kim my very first week at AES in 1999. She will be missed as she goes on to other dreams.

Vivian has some big hiking boots to fill, but she is well-equipped to do it. And our little team is determined to carry on, and even enlarge, Arrowhead's mission.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Bad Words

I grew up a white boy in Georgia. I was lucky that I had thoughtful parents who, though not perfect*, could at  least recognize blatant hate. My Daddy, as a young kid, had witnessed a black boy being treated very cruelly. He and Mother taught us early on to treat every one with respect, as they understood it at that time and place. Had I or any of my six siblings, uttered the word "nigger" -- except while reading Huckleberry Finn aloud  -- we'd have likely gotten a switching from Mama or a belt spanking from Daddy. 

You may have noticed that I choose not to use the silly "N-word" euphemism except in explaining why I don't: It is not the arrangement of letters or the combination of vocal vibrations that is offensive, it is the use of them to denigrate other folks. This 66 year-old Georgia white guy does not and has never done that. 

Here's a shocker for you, though. Some of my most admired, most dearly loved human beings -- oh, what a sorry lot are human beings! -- have been racist to some degree, sometimes a high one. And part of my love for some of them is the degree to which they have grown out of that state. As the son of two Methodist preachers I, in fits and starts, strive for perfection, but few of us make it all the way, likely.

A while back we were the victims of a home invasion in the middle of the night. I did not see the poor slob in the dark, but in chasing him from my house and across our lawn I raged at him uncontrollably. I used language that I do. not. use. I consider it a sign of ignorance, poor upbringing, low intelligence, and a paltry vocabulary to sprinkle common expletive into every day talk. I don't cuss. But on this occasion, in fury, I belched a torrent of "favorite curse words" that would have used up James Lipton's complete list. I hope, had I known the guy was black (I 'don't) that I would have stopped short of using his race as a stone, but in the moment, I was slinging anything I could reach -- he had invaded my home, where my wife and child were sleeping. If I had let fly that horrid word, would it have negated any good I have done in my life? Should I have lost my job?

I am Paula Deen's age. Our society was so divided in the fifties and sixties that I was barely acquainted with any black people. Still I was an outspoken proponent of civil rights for all. As a result, at my high-school, I was ridiculed a few times in the 1960s as a "nigger-lover" -- I wore the title with some pride, actually. I was called that by folks who, today, may have forgotten, but who would be very embarrassed, and some of whom would be very saddened, to be reminded of their past hatred of those who looked so much like present day close friends, co-workers, and, in some cases, spouses, children, or grandchildren that they love with all their hearts.

All of that to say: I don't know Paula. I have paid more attention to her this week than all the rest of my weeks combined. She may have a heart as black as the word she admits uttering decades ago. To whatever degree she practices racial discrimination in her personal and business relationships today I hope she will be held to account and that those wronged can receive justice. But, at least in regard to uttering that word, she faced up to her past. That's a start that many have not made. 

I believe, in Paula Deen's case, the condemnation has gone too far. The overreaction is now serving to divide us further.

And if Paula has a great BBQ sauce recipe, I'll take it. The Fourth is upon us.

* You were/are real close to perfection, Mama!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Moving On...

It has been unofficial for a few weeks now, but as of today it is official. This is the last month of my teaching career. I will retire at the end of May.

(There is no rhyme or reason to the placement of pictures below. I just chose a pretty random group of pics from my facebook albums that illustrate my teaching career and inserted 'em wherever they landed.)

It is the toughest decision I have made in a long time. 

I am looking forward to retirement in many ways, but I can’t help but feel sad that I will not greet those two dozen eager little faces next fall. I won’t get to introduce them to Penny and Nick and Ben. I won’t get to walk them across the desktops in our simulation of the ancient discovery of America by Asians across Beringia. I won’t get to lead them on the “Long Trail” ...

... through our school woods or lead them in examining those seventy-odd apples they bring that first week.


 I won’t get to teach them those silly songs: “Cut the Cake” and “Evaporation” or teach them to sing Jefferson’s wonderful words “We Hold These Truths...”. I won’t tell them about my ‘Possum friend, ‘Delphis, nor will I give them their first recital of Jabberwocky. 

I have always loved that first week as I get to know them and vice versa. There will be no timid “brown bag reports” from the Castle this fall.

I can’t complain about my final group of homeroom younguns. I have a precious group who made me look awfully good for 2012-2013 as they “excelled” as a group on all five parts of the “The Test That Shall Not Be Named” with not a single failing score. And all three of my  groups managed to improve over their third grade scores by more than 20 points in science and about that much in social studies -- the best growth in Floyd County.

I first joined Floyd County Schools in 1971. I had already taught two years in Putnam County, West Virginia. After two years at McHenry teaching fifth grade, I accepted the additional $400 per year to be assistant principal there, while I continued my classroom duties for four more years. I transferred to Pepperell for one year as a sixth grade teacher before I began my eleven years teaching in the gifted program. What fun I had there as I got to invent my own curriculum along with a close knit group of wonderful teachers.

In 1988 I left teaching for eleven years to chase a dream in private enterprise. 

Then in 1999 I recognized education as my true calling and answered Anita Stewart’s invitation to interview at Armuchee. It has been joy to serve the children of Armuchee for the last fourteen years. 

I have been privileged to work with some of the finest teachers and administrators in the country at this remarkable school. The environmental emphasis at Armuchee fit perfectly with my own educational philosophy, and the environmental education program here helped me develop and refine my philosophy and methods. Together we have created an excellent atmosphere of learning for the children and collegiality among the staff and faculty. I am very proud of what we have wrought at Armuchee during the last decade plus. I will always carry warm memories of the students, parents, teachers, administrators, and other staff members with whom I have worked. 

Despite the current anti-public education climate in Georgia, I hope my cohorts will continue the tradition of environmental education at Armuchee. High stakes testing is not the final indication of educational success, but I must point out that while using environmental methods we have achieved testing results that compare very favorably with those of other schools. Learning in the context of the real world around us really does stick.

I look forward to the opportunity to do occasional volunteer storytelling and nature activities at Armuchee. Those twenty-five beautiful acres and the folks who have peopled them will always be near my heart.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Time for another commitment...

I turned 66 recently -- full social security eligibility -- and am contemplating retirement. This is very hard on me. Part of me abhors the idea of retirement. I love teaching. I love my students. I am thrilled to have captive audience for my silly shenanigans and I relish those "aha!" moments that, after 33 years teaching preteens, I can pretty well predict.

Anyway, I made a commitment in 1971 to Sheila Shaw. I am far from a perfect husband, but I have managed to keep the basics of that commitment and I love her with everything I have. That commitment resulted in promises to Brannon Shaw in 1983 and Lillian Shaw in 1988. My mistakes have been legion in the parenting department, but neither of the girls can doubt my love.

After teaching, with great enjoyment but without a permanent commitment, for 19 years, then taking 11 years off for business efforts, I reentered education, this time, on purpose, in 1999. And, this time,  I made a conscious commitment. Part of that was a commitment to love my students and to find joy in teaching them. I occasionally find myself nose to nose with some little 10-year-old miscreant, but even then I think they know I love them.

Now I face old age. Today my digital buddy, the Questing Parson, gave his goals for old age. I think I can endorse them. I too am determined to keep growing as I "grow old". Time for another commitment.

"I'm Old" by the Questing Parson

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Grandpaw Wilkerson & Beulah

Grandpaw Wilkerson & Beulah

(A retelling of Donald Davis's Story, "Rainy Weather")

Grandpaw Wilkerson KNEW his dogs. 

His favorite, late in life, when I knew  him, was Beulah. The Westminster Kennel Club wouldn’t have recognized her lineage, but Grandpaw knew her. She was a descendant of a long line of hounds he’d raised since his boyhood days. He could trace her forebears by name through ten generations of begats. He swore her heart pumped the best hound blood in Alabama. It’d be hard to figure who loved fox hunting better, Tom or Beulah. 

When the big storm of '59 tried to blow Calhoun County Alabama off the map, Daddy and I hurried over to Nances Creek -- just south of what my family still calls Cross Plains, but folks now generally know as Piedmont -- to help Grandpa with the clean-up.

That tornado had barreled through missing the farmhouse, and the church, but it took out the big barn.

Grandpaw had built that barn right after he and Maw Wilkerson got married a good sixty years earlier. The center section was unfloored but both sides had floors of wide rough-sawn boards. The two long floors that had held the tack rooms, and corn crib, and such was all that was left. Folks from the church had already cleared a lot of the mess up, so Daddy and I got after salvaging those big yellow pine boards.

We’d only pulled up and stacked a couple of ‘em when we noticed in the dirt under the boards some old fox tracks that must have been there when the boards had been nailed down sixty years before. Well, about the time we were pulling up the last board on that side, along came Grandpaw with a jug of sweet tea and with Beulah on a leash.

“Paw, come look at this!” Daddy hollered “Fox tracks!”

“Yep, look at that. That fox must’ve trotted right across here the night before we nailed that floor down! Lordy! look at Beulah! I b’lieve that ol’ dog can still smell the critter!” 

Sure enough, Beulah was straining at her leash with her nose in the dirt, a low growl bubbling from her jowls.

With a smile in his eyes, Grandpaw unhitched that leash from the hand-tooled leather collar he'd made her. You should of seen that dog go! Lickety-split down the length of that barn, up and over the sill at the far end,  across the barn lot, sliding under the old slat fence, and into the next pasture. 

There she started zigzagging to beat the band.

“What in the world’s she doin’," I hollered as we followed after her, about as fast as you could expect in the company of an 89 year-old .

“We didn’t clear that field till after the barn was built”, Grandpaw huffed, “She must be dodging all the trees that USED to be there!”

Running straight again through the next field, her trail song washed over the valley like sunlight in the morning. She headed smackdab toward the pond. “Lordy, Grandpaw, y’all  just built that pond a couple of years ago. What’s she gonna do now?!”

Well, I’ll tell you what she did: she plunged nose first into and under that pond, and started clawing her way across the bottom. That trail song was snuffed out briefly, of course, but then air began bubbling to the surface and releasing bits of barks. She ploughed out the other side paused a second or two to shake good and headed up and across the ridge, and by the time we got around the pond and up the rise we’d lost her in the blackberry brambles. Grandpaw reckoned we might as well  head back to the house. 

We didn’t hear from Beulah the next day, or the next. And it was Saturday and Daddy and I had to head back to Ellijay so he could preach Sunday morning.

Weeks went by, we kept going back and forth to clean up at Grandpa’s a day or two every week and Beulah never came back. We thought the ol’ girl was gone for good and we could tell Grandpaw was depressed even though he’d probably never heard that word.

Then the phone rang and it was the New Orleans Police Department. A dog with Grandpaw’s phone number on its tag had broken into the Salvation Army Thrift Store in the French Quarter and “treed” a fifty-year-old, ten-dollar fox-fur coat hanging in the show window. For a hundred dollar fee the dog could be shipped to Anniston on the Southern Crescent. Grandpaw thought about that about ten seconds, then with mischief in his eyes, said he reckoned Maw would like that coat. 

“I’ll wire you twenty bucks to buy the coat and cover shipping costs. Just let old Beulah go. She’ll find a good home.”  And that policeman agreed!

Sure enough, about a week later, here came the mail Jeep crossing the Nance’s Creek bridge toward the farm. Grandpaw grinned wide and called Maw out to get her new coat from the mailman while he grabbed his cane and walked on down the road. By the time he got to the bridge he could already hear that beautiful trail song of his best friend.

And while Maw was greeting the mailman, Beulah was trotting across the bridge nose to the ground, home at last, and still trailing that fox toward the outstreched arms of Thomas Wesley Wilkerson, who, I think I mentioned, KNEW his dogs. 

Oh, by the way,  any similarity between this absolutely true story and a true story called “Rainy Weather” that Donald Davis tells, is purely coincidental. Why, if you can’t trust me on that, what storyteller could you trust? 


Donald Davis includes "Rainy Weather" in his book Barking at a Fox-Fur Coat. He says the story grew out of one of his Uncle Frank's anecdotes. I developed my version of Donald's story recently when I remembered the picture (above) of my Great Great Grandfather Thomas Wesley Wilkerson with his hound. Is that a great picture or what? At the time I wrote my version I thought Donald's was a retelling of a traditional tale, like some others of his tales are. I now understand that this story is more of an original work than I thought. I've had a lot of fun telling it and fitting it to my family and a setting more familiar to me, but I know now that Donald Davis deserves full credit for the basic story. 

We have many Donald Davis CDs, tapes, an LP, a VHS tape, two DVDs, and several books. My children grew up on Donald Davis stories, and Sheila and I hear him in person often, including every October at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough TN, including his pre-festival Wednesday night concert, at the Pike Piddler Festival in Troy AL, at the Azalea Festival in LaGrange GA, and at the Peach State Festival in Atlanta. I have attended one of his short workshops and dream of attending his week-long workshop one of these days. And I use his children's storytelling program, Make It Tell It Write, regularly.

If you haven't read or heard Donald's stories you need to check them out.