312 (for MAM)

 

The above numbers are the street address for my mother’s mill house. She and her six children moved there in March 1955. For many reasons it was a significant move, but the best were  that our mother could walk the three blocks to Cannon Mills Plant 1 where she hemmed wash cloths, and it had an indoor bathroom. In that March move we entered a house, but over the years it became a home.

The house was like all the other ones on “the mill hill.” The rent was $1 a month per room, Cannon Mills maintained it by making necessary repairs and painted it every four years-inside and out. The tenant had to work for the company and maintain the yard and keep it neat in appearance. For workers like my mother, the house was a boon. The seven of us shared the one bathroom, my three older sisters occupied the front bedroom, my mother and baby sister the middle one, and my brother and I had the back one. The large kitchen was our eating and social center with the television sitting in the adjacent hallway, and the front porch was a place to sit and  socialize with neighbors or romantic friends as we grew into teenagers . The front room, mostly a passageway to the kitchen, was used for special occasions such as Christmas or a place to snuggle with a date. All mill houses had a garage, but since we had no automobile it was used for other things: a storage space, a “hideout” for a young boy, and a first test for children and grandchildren and great grandchildren who all learned about courage when they climbed the wide door to the roof and jumped into the encouraging cheers of cousins. Those lessons proved useful later in adult living.

Soon after we moved to 312, our mother planted a sapling that she knew, even then,  would grow into a mighty oak that still shades her front porch. The gardenia at the corner perfumes the porch with each bloom, and her much loved sugar maples still grace the side and back yards. The three metal posts placed by Mr. Rowland to hold her clothes line stand still;  erect, rusting relics that witness to the days of wringer washing machines and cotton clothes, sheets, and towels dried by sun and wind. Sadly, the chinaberry tree growing next to the back alley died, but its memory for a boy seeking a high scouting post still lingers as does the one of the “paint shed” where large containers of SWP paint were stored. Mr. Holtzclaw, one of the painters and fondly called “Hoggie”, would  tell us children that SWP stood for “Sweet William Papa.” We would learn later that it was one more tease of his, but it pleased us in that young, innocent time.

Unlike the house on Applewood or Rankin Streets, 312 was near town. We walked to school, Plant 1, the YMCA, stores, and church. Without an automobile, walk we did, but everything we needed or wanted was within blocks. We grew, forged new friendships and romances, attended church each Sunday, graduated high school, worked, went to college, some married, all the things of ordinary lives. And, the center of all this activity remained 312. We always returned, like homing pigeons.

Husbands, wives, girlfriends, friends, in-laws, ex-in-laws, and grandchildren before their own children walked on the pine floors and gathered in the kitchen, to talk while waiting for a pan of mother’s biscuits to pop from the oven. Served with streaked meat, beans, and lots of butter, they became the metaphor of life in 312. And always in the middle mother moved, hands white from biscuit flour.

Now her hands no longer pat dough into biscuits. They hold the edge of her blanket which covers her frail body and strong spirit. Just turned 100, she spends her time in bed, too weak to even move herself. In her mill house’s middle bedroom, she is visited by family and friends, but our family gatherings grow fewer and smaller in number. One day, upon her death, we all will gather one last time in 312 to  celebrate her life. Then, 312 will return to what is was before March 1955: a place like a shell plucked from beach sand by an early riser and carried home to realize later that it is just a shell where once a life, which passed like a vapor, lived.

Grim Futures

 

In the Charlotte Observer article “Students: Rising CMS grad rates mask grim future for many blacks” of February 15, 2019, Alyana Jenkins, a West Mecklenberg High School senior speaks truth: “I’m asking for you [CMS school board] to raise expectations for the school system across the board.” She is  speaking not only against the credit recovery program, which is a farce, but also pleading for educational principles of quality scholarship, which often cannot be measured by a machine graded multiple-quess test.

However, I hope Jenkins and everyone else involved, realize the consequences of raised expectations. In his book, Study is Hard Work, William  Armstrong writes, “The secret of how to study is locked up in the desire to learn….good students are  made by constant and deliberate practice of good study habits, and for this there is absolutely no substitute.” As a teacher for forty years, I know that the harder I worked my students, the harder I  had to work. No modern pretentious language will mask what is required. Work for the classroom means showing up on time, being eager to learn, being prepared by having done self-study (homework), and open to hearing. That is for teachers and students. Scholarship is rewarded, but it requires discipline and dedication. We have a high school senior begging for this, and we must honor her plea.

In 1963 James Baldwin wrote that if he were teaching in “any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, …I would try to make them know-that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal. I would try to make each child know that these things are the  result of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him.” Programs such as the credit recovery one are conspiracies to destroy marginalized students.

Having worked in a computer-based, “self-learning” recovery program in high school, I  know that the programs offer nothing but a “criminal conspiracy” to marginalize students. In the Observer article, state board member Ms. Becky Taylor is quoted as saying in 2017 “Sometimes it makes you wonder if there’s a little bit of a numbers game going on.” Now, two years later, we have our students confirming her words. Hear the truth: graduation rates prove little or nothing. How we prepare our children for productive lives does, but that cannot be a line on a chart.

Armstrong’s book that I cited above was written in 1956. Baldwin spoke his words in 1963 to  New York City teachers. Bear with me as I cite one more scholar. In 1960, educator Claude M. Fuess writes: “In a majority of secondary schools, the emphasis is not primarily on scholastic attainment; the vacations are too long, the standards are too low, and too much emphasis  is  placed on games.” Sounds like what Ms. Jenkins rails against in her West Mecklenberg High School.

Readers may call me a backward person, but I believe that we have taken the easy way out in educating our children. We stick them in front of computer screens for them to silently learn. Guess what? Learning is, or should be, a  social experience involving a teacher and peers. For instance, can any child learn to pitch a curve ball, dribble a basketball or throw a football, excellently, without instruction from a master teacher? That won’t happen; in the process of learning one of those skills the pupil athlete will be instructed, critiqued, but not criticized. The master teacher will work with the pupil as she or he does repeats and drills. Over and over and over. Oh, and the pupil will be willing, even eager, to hear the words of the master and to do the drills, over and over. That is hard work for both the pupil athlete and the master teacher.

Scholarship requires the same dedication. Pupils and teachers must be eager to learn and to work. But, as only one example, they cannot do it as effectively if classrooms are filled with thirty (or more) pupils. School boards must facilitate an environment for scholarship, not rote and false standards. School boards must be willing to work and learn, then provide the necessary tools without latching onto the latest “innovation” that settles for mediocrity instead of excellence.

As a retired English teacher, (forgive me other disciplines) I hope that teachers of Ms. Jenkins have required her to read, study, discuss, and write about Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Women of Brewster Place and A Gathering of Old Men and Romeo and Juliet and Beowulf and so on. I hope her teachers have “piled” on the reading and writing for such jewels as she. But I fear that is not the case, and her loss is also ours.

Separate but Equal

 

Last night my wife and I attended a worship service at Trinity Baptist Church in our hometown of Mooresville, NC. Led by the North Carolina Baptist Singers and Orchestra, the service presented sacred music of many styles from musicians and singers from Baptist churches from around North Carolina.

Listening to the voices and music, I was glad that my wife had come home  from choir practice last week to tell me about the evening. Having never heard of the group, I was swept away by the talent of its members. Before the music began, the pastor of Trinity reminded the audience that what we were to see and hear was not a concert but a worship service to the One and True God. It was, but two observations kept circling in my head, clouding my worship.

As I looked at the NCBSO, I could not help but be aware of the age of its members. Now, I do not know, but I suspect from my observation last night, that the average age of its members must be over fifty. And, I also saw only white faces singing or playing. Now, these two points do not raise any questions in my mind of racism, ageism, or any other of the popular “isms” of our culture. But as a Christian and Baptist, those points raise two other questions that concern me.

Age. Where are our young people? I know that some churches of faith have vibrant youth programs. However, as a rule, are we Christians doing the best to make certain that Christianity continues? Are we following the Great Commission in our own Churches,  homes, neighborhoods, and families? Worshipping last night with the Singers and Orchestra, I worried, and worry still, of what will sustain that fine group of Christian leaders? I pray that the North Carolina Baptist Church will be a strong, vibrant church where young people find the peace and joy, and grace for their souls that only God can give. And, I hope that some of them will have musical talents to share, so that the work of the NCBSO will  continue.

Had the worship service been led by a secular group, say a local high school or college, I believe, no, I know, that the group would not have been all white. But I find it interesting that no person or persons of color are present. Our society has had battles over integration of schools, lunch counters, movie theaters, and other venues. Yet, as far as I know,  no legal action has even taken  place to integrate a church.

I appreciate the different “styles” of worship—the music, the oratory of the pastor, even the participation by the church members in the sanctuary. That is a preference I respect, but why do we worry so for secular equalities while ignoring the possibilities for spiritual equalities. After all, even in the 1st Century, Paul realized the need to take the Gospel to the gentiles.

We teach segregation in the most important institution of our society. I have grandchildren who, upon seeing three crosses I placed on a garden rock, asked what they were. We have “NONE”s who are rearing their children outside any Church. If all this is true, and I  write it and believe it, how are we honest when we print “In God We Trust” on our blessed money. Perhaps the hypocrisy of some of our religious actions speaks a sermon.

 

Hearing Our Own Voices

Hearing Our Own Voices

“During the period of the drumming, a member of the protestor’s entourage began yelling at a fellow student that we “stole our land” and that we should “go back to Europe.” I heard one of my fellow students begin to respond. I motioned to my classmate and tried to get him to stop engaging with the protestor, as I was still in the mindset that we needed to calm down tensions,” Sandmann said. “I never felt like I was blocking the Native American protestor. He did not make any attempt to go around me. It was clear to me that he had singled me out for a confrontation, although I am not sure why.”

The above words are those of Nick Sandmann that he states a day after the viral video of him facing Nathan Phillips. Many opinions have been written about the hostility displayed by three groups on the steps, of all places, the Lincoln Memorial.

First, I am doubtful of young Sandmann’s statement. It reads much too mature to have been written by a high school student. Having taught high school English, I am familiar with the writing of youngsters, and few, if any high schoolers use phrases such as “…I was still in the mindset….”  Why did it take a day for him and even his mother to explain his actions?

Second, the very small group of black Israelites were shouting slurs of all types to Sandmann’s school group. That is wrong. But they also can be heard saying “See, they [students] are mocking him [Phillips].”

Third, Phillips walks to the student group along with others of his group. He has explained his action as an attempt to calm the situation and has stated that he put himself in what he now sees as a dangerous  position.

All three points above are open to interpretation as the videos are viewed. We will be offered different opinions, such as the one in National Review stressing that the media was fooled by Phillips. I understand and am grateful that we can discuss our views. However, what I cannot understand is why a chaperone, when asked by a student if the boys could chant school cheers, gave permission.

Teenagers! Not always the best thinkers. Sometimes they don’t even think fully. Add that the group was all male and examine that potential. As a parent and educator, I have witnessed the harm they can do to themselves and others. But what I can’t comprehend is the adult’s reasoning when he or she allowed the boys to chant anything, even school cheers. What type of role modeling is that? Does the adult who approved the chants and the other chaperones who allowed the chanting and jumping to continue, approve of mob action? They must, because they allowed the boys, their young charges, to become a yelling mob, an army without a leader, to paraphrase Mark Twain. And, it is a bit ironic that the yelling and screaming took place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial just prior to the Martin L. King, Jr. Holiday.

Whatever your views of the situation, and there is potential for several, it is obviously another example showing how low our culture has fallen. As Yeats wrote, “…the falcone cannot hear the falconer/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;…”  We shout. We jump. We hear only our voice or ones like it. We say we are Christian as young Sandmann does, but we act worldly.

Young Sandmann and his classmates should hear the words spoken by the President in whose shadow that yelled, jumped, and screamed, even when allowed to by an adult. “The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend,” are words spoken by President Lincoln as he worked to unite our country after the Civil War.

Our country was molded by debate and no Signer got everything he wanted. It is said that Franklin, when asked by the wife of Philadelphia’s mayor, what the Founding Fathers had “given us”, responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

 

 

“It Doesn’t Matter”

 

When I drove this week to a local flea market to meet a friend who was bringing me some wood, I encountered a woman and a younger woman who seemed to be her daughter. Because their large, loaded pickup truck was parked in a handicap spot, I inquired why they, two able bodied people unloading many items they were moving into the flea market, were parked in a spot reserved for handicapped people. The older woman showed me a hang tag used by some handicapped folks. As I looked at her walking and unloading a large amount of “stuff”, I told her I doubted her need for such a spot. Her response was a challenging, “How do you know I  don’t have a heart condition?” As I watched them unload more items, her daughter remarked, “It doesn’t matter.” As a wheelchair user I differ with the woman and her daughter,  and I dialed the Mooresville Police non-emergency number, and the older woman hopped into her large truck and moved it.

Since early November we have been working with the natural gas company to connect a generator to our home. Things have moved slowly and not always well: Electrical lines were not properly connected. The permit number was not reported to Iredell County government. The lines connecting the generator and new water heater were not correctly installed. A water line was left dripping in a bathroom, and it took days before the gas company returned to correct the error. On and on the saga goes.

Yesterday the lawn company came and, using those loud and noisy blowers, piled all the pine needles, pine cones, and dead tree limbs next to the road. Later in the day two workers came and used a large vacuum-truck to collect all the debris. This morning while riding my stationary bike, I noticed several large, dead limbs lying in the drainage ditch. The workers had piled them there because they could not be thrown into the vacuum.  While I appreciate that the workers are mindful of the company’s equipment, I wish they had been aware of the need for the drainage ditch to be open so that water would flow freely.

These three incidents happened in one week, and I think the words of the young woman at the flea market shout out in our present cultural attitude  of “It doesn’t matter.”

I admit to certain areas of sensitivity: I am annoyed by two people who are able to unload a packed truck but park in a handicapped parking space. I am irritated by trained craftsmen such as electricians who are sloppy in their work. I resent having to clean up after any workman who is  being paid to do a good job.

The young woman (daughter?) at the flea market said, “It doesn’t matter” more than once. Perhaps she was wanting to de-escalate what she saw as anger between the older woman and me. While I can’t speak for the older female, I was irritated, but not angry. Too often in my seventeen years of wheelchair life, I have suffered such self-serving people who use a handicapped space, even after they have wangled a hang-tag from some doctor. I have learned not to get angry, but to challenge the driver if I can. However, what concerns me are those three words of the young woman.

She appeared to be in her  early to mid-20s and was a good helper. But her attitude as expressed by her three words is wrong. It (no matter the task) does matter. And our lives are filled with tasks. In fact, our living is a task that, like all tasks, should be done as well  as possible. We should never believe that “It doesn’t matter,” because if we do, then we are taking the easy way and if the greatest man who ever lived had said, “It doesn’t matter,” we would be doomed.

Red Hill

 

The neighborhood of my earlier years was somewhat rural. While not isolated, it was a small group of homes in a section of town called Shadybrook. Since this time was during the mid-1950’s, there were no shopping centers and box stores. Those, unknowingly, were in our future. But what we local youngsters did have during those wild years of about 7-10 years of age was open spaces full of fields, unfenced yards, woods, a ravine with a creek and kudzu, a sawdust pile, and what we called Red Hill.

A rise of red clay next to the ravine and creek, Red Hill was where we held court at the intersection of Dogwood and Applewood Streets, both unpaved roads. Because of the density of its hard, red clay that had poor nutrition,  no vegetation graced the dome of Red Hill. But that is just as well because the constant traffic of rambling, young feet would have trampled any blade strong enough to break its crust of iron.

We group of neighborhood youngsters played in all our spaces. We built camps in the woods, we dammed the small creek to make a knee-deep swimming hole, we used old planks as sleds on the damp side of the sawdust pile, and we used Red Hill for our base of operations. From its dome we commanded all of our conquered territory. From its open height we gazed over our seemingly endless opportunities and planned many excursions– such as choosing sides in order to have  a dirt-clod fight in the woods. (The hard, red clay of Red Hill furnished an ample supply of hard dirt-clods perfectly sized for a small hand to grasp and wing at an “enemy” in the woods.)  Our short, young, and strong legs climbed Red Hill almost each day of play. It was our Camelot, and we its knights. We had swords and lances fashioned out of broken tree limbs from our woods. We had each other, even when we chose sides for an imaginary battle. We had our long days of free play when no adult interfered.

One hot, muggy summer we decided that we could use a real swimming pool and that it would be better than our swimming hole. One of us borrowed a shovel from a father’s garage, and we set to at digging a deep hole in the dome of Red Hill. I don’t remember how deep or how long we dug, but an older neighbor, Larry who was a young teenager, asked us how we planned to fill our swimming pool. Daunted by the task of hauling water to our well-dug hole, and the heat and the humidity, we abandoned our plan for a Red Hill swimming pool. But the hole, like the hill that held it, was ours. We used it for protection and a supple of dirt-clods as we repelled attacks from pretend enemies.

We were not aware of Red Hill’s significance then. We were just young children who had been chased out of our homes on good weather days by a knowing parent. We only wanted to run and call out and invent games. We had an inquisitive desire to explore our world. We were innocents in a trusted world. Free dreamers, we saw Red Hill as our meeting place, our base, but did not understand Red Hill’s multiple meanings. We only saw a mound of hard, red clay rising above a ravine full of kudzu that was there for our pleasure.

Memories of childhood in later years come distorted because everything during childhood is larger than it actually is. As children, our world and everything in it loomed over us. So, it was a surprise when, as a college student, I visited my old neighborhood to show it to a girlfriend. As always, when reality meets memory, much aligned and much had changed. For instance, the two roads were now paved, and some of the open fields now had houses in them. What had been Mr. Brindle’s magnificent garden was now a fallow field. And over to one side at the intersection of Dogwood and Applewood Streets I saw a patch of hard, red clay.

I parked the car and we got out to stand on the shoulder of Applewood Street. Looking at the mound, no more than a bump in the field, I looked, hoping that some harsh stares would make that circle of dirt what I remembered it to be. Yet, no matter how hard I studied it, Red Hill could not become what it had never physically been. As a child I saw it as a real hill, almost a mountain. But, here, fifteen years later, I saw it for what it was—a patch of bare, hard, red clay. Leaning against the car’s fender, I was disappointed and sad. But as we drove to my mother’s home, I was suddenly uplifted by the memories of youthful, innocent, free play that happened on and around Red Hill. Sure, I now knew what it really was, but as a child when my friends, siblings, and I needed it, Red Hill was our Camelot. Full of adventure, fun, risk, and free, Red Hill dirt is in the veins of us all who played on and around it.

 

 

Atticus

 

He first appeared one morning some weeks ago. While riding my trainer, I saw him land under the pine trees and walk around looking for food. He worked at his task as if I were not present as I rode the stationary bike. He even walked close to me, but never acknowledged my presence. After several days of his appearances, I  asked Mary Ann to buy a box of raisins because I was almost certain he would eat them.

Many years ago, I knew an elderly lady, Elsie English, who fed raisins to a one-legged mockingbird that she named Johnny. Each morning he would perch on her back porch and stare into her kitchen sink window. When she went out her back door, he would hop a few feet away and wait for his treat to be placed on the porch rail. I don’t remember how many years she and Johnny shared raisins, but it was several. The appearance of the mockingbird on the pine needles was a mystery, but from Mrs. English’s shared experience, I had a good hunch about this bird’s taste buds.

I began tossing a few raisins on the pine needles after I set the trainer for my ride. He would soon discover them as he hopped about the earthen floor. I rode and sweated, and he ate one or two raisins before flying to another spot of the yard or to the holly hedge where I think he has a nest.  One morning I saw him sitting on a post of my shop deck, so I tossed his raisins onto the deck boards and that became our morning ritual. Slowly, over the weeks, he and I have developed a relationship. He calls from his hedge when he sees me getting the morning paper. He will sit on my opened shop door encouraging me to move faster in getting his raisins. He sits on the deck post, impatient as a five-year-old child. Last evening he was sitting on the back fence as Mary Ann and I went out to walk to the shop. He flew along and perched on his post. He called, and Mary Ann served him an evening snack. This morning when she went to retrieve the  morning paper, he was on his post, and she took the photograph of him before placing his raisins on the deck. We now call him Atticus.

Weeks ago when Atticus first appeared and was so calm around me, I told Mary Ann about his, as I thought, unusual presence each morning. He acted as if he was an escaped pet, but I knew that was highly unlikely. Without the “bribe” of raisins, he flew in each morning during my rides.

I am Christian, so my beliefs concerning the appearance of Atticus before the bribing of him are limited by my religion. However, while believing that animals do not have souls like humans, as an animal lover and owner for many years, I believe that they possess qualities which we may not fully understand, and I believe that humans and animals can, and often do, develop strong and rare relationships. Atticus now comes to feed his  belly, but why did he fly in before the treats, and for so long?  For weeks he came each morning.

Humanity has accomplished much. We now have GMOs and have landed craft on Mars and the dark-side of the moon. We know much yet are still ignorant about more. And if we don’t allow arrogance to blind us to our ignorance, we will continue to accomplish much. Animals will teach us, if we allow them.

Atticus? I believe he was sent by someone or something for a purpose. I believe his presence is a message for me. I believe that, as Reynolds Price said, he is a “visitation”, and it is my Christian duty to ponder his presence and understand his appearance.   Atticus is here for some reason, sent by someone, and I am bound to figure out his message.