Courage not Regret (revised)

 

Flora Belle Atkinson Barbee and her six children lived in a small, green house at 709 Applewood Street. Built on a slight hill, the house had steep steps leading from the back door, and she once ran down them to escape a drunk husband who was attempting to cut her throat. An abused woman of the 1950s, she and her children were saved by the husband/father’s decision to desert them, not any legal or social institution. To support her six children and herself, she worked hemming washcloths in Plant 1 of Cannon Mills. But in the mid-1950s, the owner of the small house, her father-in-law, told her that she and her children had to move.

For whatever reason, this Christmas season, I have been thinking of Mrs. Barbee and her children living in the small, green house on Applewood Street before their eviction. I have wondered how she managed six children sharing two bedrooms, living room, kitchen, and a room built for a bathroom that never materialized. Instead, the toilet was down the hill at the back edge of the property and bathing was a number two washtub. The intended bathroom was used instead as a bedroom and gathering space for dirty clothes. The heat came from a basement furnace that spewed hot air through a grate in the tiny hallway between the bedrooms and living room. One cold night, when she had just gotten home from her second shift of hemming, she found that the furnace was out. In her attempt to get it working, a ball of flame rushed through the grate, but she managed to control that by cutting the furnace off,  but it was a cold night for a tired mother and her children.

Christmas, 2018, and Mrs. Barbee has troubled my mind. Every day must have been a struggle for her: Working in a cotton mill hemming washcloths. Riding a bus to and from work. Shopping and paying for groceries for her children. Being a divorced woman in the South. Washing clothes in the open basement with a ringer washer and hanging them on a clothesline. Attending the same church as her in-laws. Each day. Each week. All a difficult time, but I think Christmas must have been particularly difficult.

I hear parents today, but especially mothers, complain of the hectic days leading to Christmas. The buying, wrapping, and decorating demands time, thought, and treasure. That was true, I think, in the 1950s as well. But, what of Mrs. Barbee, who had little of those? Her finances were slim-after all, how much could a single mother of six save for Christmas or even birthdays? She had no car, so the spotty bus service was all she had to travel to town for shopping. Where did her tree come from and how did she get it? Her older children, three girls,  helped with the packages and tree and all that. But how did she afford Christmas gifts for her little ones, who undoubtably anticipated gifts for themselves under the shaggy, cedar tree. Perhaps she had one or two of the older girls go with her on the bus to town and help purchase toys and slip them unseen into the small, green house. She did so much, and she did it alone. No spouse to share any Christmas or any day, for that matter, with. And it would be years after those in the small, green house before any present would be under a Christmas tree for her.

This 2018 Christmas sees Mrs. Barbee in her mill house, at 312. It is the house she managed to move her family into after their eviction. She is the first woman to ever have had a mill house. Unless you understand the culture of a mill town during the 1950s, and Mrs. Barbee being a divorced woman, you cannot grasp the significance of her achievement in being allowed to rent a house on the mill hill. Yet life improved because she now could walk to work in Plant 1; the house had three bedrooms; it was closer to town and the schools; the mill company maintained the house; and it had an indoor bathroom.  However, she spends her days and nights in 312 bedridden and unaware of many things. But sometimes she turns her head as if  she can see the person or persons speaking. At other times she will make a gesture for one of her four daughters who rotate weekly in order to care for her. She has visitors and receives cards on special occasions. She is honored by all who know her and some who have heard of her.

Over the years shared with Mrs. Barbee, I never heard her utter regrets about, as she would say, “Me and my six little children.” Yes, I am certain that she wished for some things of her life to have been different, such as her talented husband not being enslaved by alcohol. But there is a difference in wishing for and regretting about. Mrs. Barbee is of that breed and generation who accepted circumstances and did the best that could be done in the moment. Therefore, she has the courage not to regret because she knows that she never compromised and did the best allway.

Courage not Regret

 

Flora Belle Atkinson Barbee and her six children lived in a small, green house at 709 Applewood Street. Built on a slight hill, the house had steep steps leading from the back door, and she once ran down them to escape a drunk husband who was attempting to cut her throat. An abused woman of the 1950s, she and her children were saved by the husband/father’s decision to desert them, not any legal or social institution. To support her six children and herself, she worked hemming washcloths in Plant 1 of Cannon Mills. In the mid-1950s the owner of the small house, her father-in-law told her that she and her children had to move.

For whatever reason, this Christmas season, I have been thinking of Mrs. Barbee and her children living in the small, green house on Applewood Street before their eviction by the grandfather. I have wondered how she managed six children sharing two bedrooms, living room, kitchen, and a room built for a bathroom that never materialized. Instead, the toilet was down the hill at the back edge of the property and bathing was a number two washtub. The room was, instead, used as a bedroom and gathering space for dirty clothes. The heat was a basement furnace that spewed hot air through a grate in the tiny hallway between the bedrooms and living room. One cold night, when she had just gotten home from her second shift of hemming, the furnace was out. In her attempt to get it working, a ball of flame rushed through the grate, but she managed to control that. But it was a cold night for a tired mother and her children.

Christmas, 2018, and Mrs. Barbee has troubled my mind. Every day must have been a struggle for her: Working in a cotton mill hemming washcloths. Riding a bus to and from  work. Shopping and paying for groceries for her children. Being a divorced woman in the South. Washing clothes in the open basement with a ringer washer and hanging them on a clothesline. Attending the same church as her in-laws. Each day. Each week. All a difficult time, but I think particularly  Christmas.

I hear parents, but especially mothers, complain of the hectic days leading to Christmas. The buying, wrapping, and decorating demands time, thought, and treasure. That was true, I think, in the 1950s as well. But, what of Mrs. Barbee, who had severe limits. Her finances were slim-after all, how much could a single mother of six save for Christmas or even birthdays? She had no car, so the spotty bus service was all she had to travel to town for shopping. Where did her tree come from and how did she get it? Her older children, three girls,  helped with the packages and tree and all that. But how did she afford Christmas gifts for her little ones, who undoubtably anticipated gifts for them under the shaggy tree. Perhaps she had one or two of the older girls go with her on the bus to town and help purchase toys and slip them unseen into the small, green house. She did so much, and she did it alone. No spouse to share any Christmas or any day, for that matter, with. And it would be years after those in the small, green house before any present would be under a Christmas tree for her.

This 2018 Christmas sees Mrs. Barbee in her mill house, at 312. It is the house she managed to move her family into after their eviction. She is the first woman to ever have had a mill house. Unless you understand the culture of a mill town during the 1950s, and Mrs. Barbee being a divorced woman, you cannot grasp the significance of her achievement in being allowed to rent a house on the mill hill. Life improved because she now could walk to work in Plant 1; the house had three bedrooms; it was closer to town and the schools; the mill company maintained the house; and it had an indoor bathroom.  However, she now spends her days and nights in 312, bedridden and unaware of many things. But she turns her head as if  she can see the person or persons speaking. At times she will gesture for one of her four daughters who rotate weekly in order to care for her. She has visitors and receives cards on special occasions. She is honored by all who know her and some who have heard of her.

Over the years shared with Mrs. Barbee, I never heard her utter regrets about, as she would say, “Me and my six little children.” Yes, I am certain that she wished that some things of her life had been different, such as her talented husband not being enslaved by alcohol. But there is a difference in wishing for and regretting about. Mrs. Barbee is of that breed and generation who accept circumstances and do the best that can be done in that moment. She has the courage not to regret because she knows that she never compromised but did the best allway that she could.

More Than a Dual Meet

More Than a Dual Meet

When Mary Ann and I  moved to Lake Norman just over a year ago, and we were, more or less, settled into our new home, she searched for a seller of her favorite cosmetic line. She told me  how she found a long list of representatives that sold the cosmetics she preferred, and randomly picked one. After the initial phone call to the saleslady, Mary Ann was telling me how pleasant the woman was and what a great conversation that they had had. Then, her phone rang, and the merchant asked Mary Ann if I was the Roger Barbee who had wrestled at A.L. Brown High School. Telling her yes, she told Mary Ann that her husband had wrestled at Mooresville High School and had wrestled me. Pleased for the news, we four met for lunch, and Mike, her husband,  and I have shared time since then because nothing compares to old wrestlers telling tales.

This week I learned that Mooresville was hosting a dual meet against cross-town rival Lake Norman. Since the son of a couple we go to church with would be competing, I wanted to attend. Also, I told Mike about the meet, and that I hoped it would be held in the old gymnasium at Mooresville where he and I had competed. Sadly, it was not, but was being held in the Magnolia Gym, the small and cozy one at the middle school. I was still excited, and Mike agreed to attend. The day of the match, I learned that the night was “Old Timers Night”, but I did not tell Mike for fear of his reaction.

The small gym was packed with fans, and several members of my church greeted me, a stranger to Mooresville High School wrestling: Alex kept the match clock; Roy photographed the action; Pastor greeted and encouraged all the wrestlers; Linda and Amy, the mother of the 119 pound competitor , watched each match intently; and Mike, the father of the 119 pound wrestler, shouted moves to every home competitor. My friend Mike met the head coach and others. The oldest “Old Timer,” he was introduced last, but his record was better than any other old timer.  Sitting between the two Mikes, I heard both of them as the dual meet progressed. Mike the father shared information about the home team wrestlers, and my friend Mike and I were somewhat isolated, wrapped together in the memory of our high school wrestling. Because his memory of matches and results is keener than mine, I trust what he recounts, but I remember  always dreading to wrestle him because of his fierceness. He was tough and determined, but always a good sport, on a wrestling mat and, as I discovered fifty years later,  off one.

Most Mondays he and I  share time by eating lunch or sharing time over a coffee, which he usually buys. We discuss religion, politics, family, and share personal history as he helps me in my wood shop, or as he gathers pine needles from our yard. I learned that he and I both grew up on the mill hill of our respective towns. We unknowingly shared while young wrestlers the want of that life. We don’t agree much politically, but our theologies are akin, and he who reads Greek, helps me in translations.

I cherish that we have come together all these years later-still competitors all these years after our best ones.  And that is why I wished that the dual meet would have been held in the Mooresville High School old gym, the one where my buddy and I competed against each other. But, sitting with him in Magnolia Gym was almost as good because here we were once again sharing our beloved sport. And the memory of hearing my friend’s name called, and watching him walk onto the mat once more, is a special one.

 

 

Elite

 

The standard definition of elite is “the best of a group.” But when I say that word to a friend, the usual response is negative. Asked why the negative response, I am told that “elite” suggests “elitism” which has the connotations of snobbery and an imposed authority. As a culture, we seem to be opposed to an elite, except in areas such as athletics and entertainment, or in being a celebrity. Training to be the best at throwing, shooting, hitting, or dribbling a ball is deemed time well spent. Rehearsing notes over and over or writing lyrics to chant is considered worthy of youthful energy. Our culture rewards beauty, natural or man-made, when the beauty is shared on magazine covers or television or in other popular veins of consumers.  Any person who rises to the level of elite in one of these areas is  rewarded by being revered in our culture.    All that needs to be done to support these statements is to look at any popular magazine, newspaper, or Internet source. Elites will pop up in their areas and they will be worshiped by devoted fans of all ages. We no longer have heroes, but drool over athletes, entertainers and such people we only “know” from a distance. A list of names could be printed, but I think that unnecessary. However, the  need to examine our acceptance of elites in some areas but not others is needed.

In 1995 William A. Henry III wrote In Defense of Elitism, a brief examination of “the poles of elitism and egalitarianism”.  Henry bravely wades into the waters of affirmative action, gender equality, and more in order to examine why we have, since World War II, worked to make our culture an egalitarian one. Sadly, I encountered Henry’s book only last week in our local Goodwill store and almost did not purchase it because of the title, but I did, overcoming my prejudice concerning the title.

In today’s (12-11-‘18) New York Times, David Leonhardt writes of an experiment in Michigan examining why many high performing, but poor high school students, do not graduate from college. He writes, “Unfortunately, most working-class and poor teenagers, including many who excel in high school, still don’t graduate from college. They often enroll in colleges that have a high dropout rate and never finish.” Leonhardt concludes his article by these words,   “It [the experiment]shows that many, many more students from modest backgrounds should be attending universities from which they’re likely to graduate — and that getting them to enroll isn’t very difficult. It is a matter of encouraging them to do so and making sure the financial aid remains available. Bottom line: we can help close income gaps in college attendance, Katharine Strunk of Michigan State tweeted yesterday in response to the new study. ‘Resulting question: why aren’t we doing this more?’”

It is an established fact that a college graduate, as Leonhardt notes, will generally fare better than members of society without a degree. As a product of a cotton mill town during the 1950s and who just happened to graduate in 1968 from a third-tier, public college, I know, appreciate, and value my B.A. while sharing many life experiences with the students in the Michigan experience.  I enrolled in college because my mother and Coaches Mauldin and Daniels encouraged me. Mother wanted me to have a “better life” than she had had as a hemmer of wash clothes in Plant 1, and the coaches wanted me to continue wrestling. Also, like the students in the Michigan experiment, I received aid in scholarships and loans.  My experience, fifty years ago, I offer, is not unique when compared to others in my era, and even similar in ways to the experiences of the Michigan students. But it is also different in one major way.

A retired educator with over forty years’ experience, I question the standards of high schools today. Our culture has burdened our schools with so many non-educational duties: providing breakfast, childcare, condoms, and other programs that should be furnished by families. We use our schools to overcome, or try to overcome, the issue of housing by busing students across cities and districts to have “racially balanced” classrooms. In order to determine if a school is effective or not, we have installed misleading “standards” such as graduation rates,  scores on multi-guess tests, and even have GPAs past 4.0, along with multi valedictorians for one graduating class. How and when, in such an environment can real learning that challenges thoughts rather than re-enforcing them, take place?

Teaching today seems to have become something besides the opening of minds to encourage a lust for learning. As the old boy said in the Shenandoah Valley, “The bottom rail is on  top.” Reading Leonhardt and others leads me to believe, in his words, any good high school student “should be attending universities”. From my teaching experience of forty years, I have some questions concerning that “should.” One, does that mean that college is the only avenue open for a life of quality? Two, are the high achieving students truly high achievers or do they benefit from a massive grade inflation? Three, do the high achievers have the emotional and academic mettle needed for the demands of a college degree?

In a file drawer of my library are essays I wrote for English 700, a college composition class taught by Mrs. Farmer, a well-known and demanding teacher. An English major, I was so frightened by her that I  took the required class in summer school, hoping that the class would be easier than during the regular term. Each weekly essay was graded on creativity and technical use. My C/ grades were always A or B. My technical T/grades were dismal. Next to one T grade was a red O and in her fine hand, Mrs. Farmer wrote, “Lament on that.” She demanded, I worked.  I wonder if the graduates in Michigan or elsewhere could emotionally handle taking a course from a Mrs. Farmer and her red ink? I think many of them would go to  Dean Ebert (my dean then) and complain that the red marks made them feel inferior or wounded or some other self-serving emotion. I managed those red marks, even if in a summer session,  because I honestly knew where I ranked with other students. Some ranked elite. Some ranked good. I barely ranked and barely graduated, but I never forgot the words of Mr. Lamb, whose high school Mechanical Drawing class I enjoyed.  Standing in the line for my high school graduation, I remarked to Mr. Lamb that I wished my academic record for high school was as  good as my wrestling one. He said, “If you had spent as much time on your academics as your wrestling, it would be.” Ouch. Cut by a truth that I have carried since that June night of 1964.

I, too, am concerned with income gaps, racial inequality, and other ills of our culture. But I fervently believe that education is the only way to cure many of these cancers. However, it must be true education that is not superficially evaluated by weak standards. As Henry writes, “ As a society we consider it cruel not to give them [disadvantaged youth] every chance at success. It may be more cruel to let them go on fooling themselves.” We do not have to allow our youth to fool themselves; I  offer that we insist on principles for educating our children: Principles such as the ones we insist on for the basketball court, wrestling mat, performing stage, band, and more. I offer that we insist our students work like our athletes do. We require athletes to learn to run in many directions without thinking about it. Think of the defensive back or field hockey players who can move quickly while going backward. Think of the wrestlers and gymnasts who execute a move by “muscle memory.” Think of the deft dribbling by either hand on the court, or the grace used to quicken the pace in a hard-fought race.

If we honestly educate our children, the future of our country, we will “create” elites. Some will, just as on the playing field or court or mat, be better than others. We applaud  Simone Biles. Tom Brady, David Taylor, and so forth. It is time we realize that we should applaud elites in academics and life. We have spent much time and energy and money attempting to “level the playing field.” The days of a Mr. Lindner from Clybourne Park are gone, and the glass ceiling, while maybe still present, is  at least cracked. But to “level the playing field” is only the field on which we try out for a team. That field needs to be level for all, and we must continue to work to grant everyone equal opportunities on the level field.  After that, if one has what it takes to make the team, he or she must then battle for a position, realizing that some members of the  team will  be better than others. Not all of us have the intelligence or skills or both to be a Matthew Centrowitz, Chief Justice Roberts, or Serena Williams.  Some people are better at some things than others, and no culture should or could remove that fact. An egalitarian society can’t exist. It is a lie to even attempt to create one. We have stars like Biles. Let’s celebrate them while we insist that our children arrive to school warm, fed, ready to learn. If poverty prevents them being warm and fed, every parent can send a child to school full of eagerness and respect for the learning process. School will provide warmth and a breakfast before opening doors for a life of quality through disciplined work to gain wisdom.

Being a lover of knowledge, no matter where it lies, is  good. As Mrs. Farmer once said in that 1967 summer school class, “It doesn’t matter if you dig ditches, as long as you dig them well.”

I believe she was aiming that at me.

 

 

 

 

 

The Left Fielder

 

Just about a year ago, in the 2017 fall season, Mary Ann and I were searching for a church after moving to Lake Norman. One Sunday we visited a church that we eventually joined, and one of the announcements congratulated a member who had turned one hundred years old. When her surname was announced I recognized it because it was an unusual name that I recalled from  my much younger years. I thought, “Could she be a relative of his?”

In the 1950s my hometown of Kannapolis had, as some other surrounding towns, an American Legion baseball team. The team played in a small, but nice stadium with a concrete wall beyond the outfield that ran from foul line to foul line, and a grandstand with dark green painted seats that spanned from third base to first base. The grandstand was even covered with a large, wooden structure.  And, the team was good. It drew players from some near-by mill towns that did not sponsor a Legion team, so the talent pool was deep, and the team had a good coach . It was a great time to be a boy and watch the players, hoping that one day we too could wear the wool uniform, hit with the wooden bat, and run the bases. We boys learned that if we stood outside the stadium in the parking lot and grabbed a foul ball, we could return it to the ticket booth for free admission.

One summer in the mid to late 1950s, a player from Mooresville would come to  our house with some local boys who were on the team. He seemed to be smitten with one of my sisters, but all I cared about was that he, a fine left fielder for our American Legion team, was at our house.  He was not very big, in fact, he was rather small, but he was fast. He could run down any fly ball from the left field foul line to deep left center field. He also could hit. Oh, to hear him drive a fast pitch into a gap between fielders was a special sound and sight. However, he was also kind and gentle with a young boy who saw him as a heroic figure. A boy who looked to him for help in learning the art of baseball. A boy who looked to him as a male figure. However, that summer of a special baseball team and his presence in my young life passed quickly as the team won,  and too soon he returned to Mooresville and his life there. I was left with one more memory until, over fifty years later, his presence is brought back into focus when his surname is mentioned in a church announcement.

Unfortunately, when I heard his name, I did not make inquiries. I “let it go”, and only wondered, now and then, if he were connected to our new church. Then, one day the left fielder’s  death was announced at church, in our local newspaper, and I understand that no seat could be found in the sanctuary during his funeral.  And because of my letting something go, I had missed the opportunity to see him as an adult and thank him for what he unknowingly gave a young boy during that summer of great baseball.

Not long ago I happened to attend the early service at church, and a lady introduced herself. She had the same surname of the deceased left fielder and the centenarian who, the kind lady told me,  was his mother. Excited, and determined not to miss this opportunity, I began a monologue about  the great left fielder from Mooresville who befriended a boy in Kannapolis during that magical summer. The lady stood quietly listening politely. When I finished, she said, “He was my husband.”  She then shared more about his  baseball talents, how as a young man he went to Florida to try out for a major league team, but he was deemed too small.  Smiling the smile of a time past, she told me that the summer I talked about was the one she spent at the beach, and we shared with each other our separate memory of the good left fielder.

I was wrong in not asking if he was associated with our church when I heard his surname. During that long-ago summer, he told me more than once how important it was to “get the jump on the ball” if it were hit to your field. I should have listened to his advice that morning in the 2017 fall season and gotten the jump on hearing his name. But I stood flat-footed and missed the chance to thank him before cancer struck him out. But I learned, and I did not miss when the lovely lady introduced herself before the early service that I just happened to attend. Now, when I sometimes attend the same service as she, we chat and always share our memories of the fine left fielder. That’s enough.

Ethel’s Lesson from Philippians

 

 

I got out early this morning for my ride. Because the days and days of rain had kept me off the stationary, I was eager for a fine, long, steady ride. As I settled in for my workout,  first-morning light touched the tall poplar trees across the road, and the mix of moisture and cold night air formed a layer of mist on the lake, making it look glass-like. The flat roofs of some houses held a light frost on their shingles and day began.

When I reached about mile four, I saw her figure as she walked along the shoulder of our road, headed towards me as she began her morning walk. She approached in a steady pace around the S curve, and I noticed that today she was wearing all purple, even her wool cap was a match. Each day she wears a different color, but this morning was significant, as I later realized. Did she later realize the possible implications of her chosen color this day?

Ethel is a neighbor who lives closer to the end of our road, and she and her husband moved into their house during the 1970s, On LKN, she is considered an “old-timer.” A widow and cancer survivor,  she has two grown children, loves her church, keeps her yard clean, and on her morning walks she will move any newspaper from a ditch to the driveway. She is, in the vernacular, “good people.” I enjoy our chats during mornings, and sometimes a chat will develop into a more detailed conversation. That is what happened this morning.

She shared with me an experience she had this week. A mild health scare, it was memorable for her and we discussed it. As she was walking away in the chill of a fall morning, I paraphrased one of my favorite Bible verses, Philippians 4:6, saying to the departing lady in purple, “Don’t worry about anything.” She turned and said, “But pray about everything.”

So, I Share with you Ethel’s wisdom based on Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

Don’t worry about anything

But pray about everything

Glowing Friday Night Lights

 

A fan of high school sports, I read the football schedule for tonight’s 1st round of the North Carolina playoffs. I was especially interested to see what team and where my local team, Mooresville, would be tonight. I was surprised to see Mooresville’s opponent had a losing record, and that caused me to look at all 51 games from 4AA to 1A. According to my count of the games in the Observer, 19 teams in the playoffs have losing records, and 20 teams in the playoffs have only  a 6-5 record, one team has a 5-5 record. The high school I attended, A.L. Brown, has a 6-5 record and has the pleasure of travelling to Asheville to compete against the home team, Reynolds, which has a record of 10-1. That could be a long bus ride home for the Wonders.

Football season is now  going into  its 4th  month, which began in the heat of August. Now, if a team continues to win, it could play, depending upon the division it is in,  five more games, continuing almost to Christmas. That is half  of  a player’s school year, and a full quarter of a calendar year.

I object to the system that determines points earned for playoff eligibility. Clearly, when a team with a losing record or a  marginally winning record is in any playoff, something is not as good as it should be.

As a coach, I always used the end of a season  as a bridge to the next one. Yet, when my team has a poor record and is forced, by state edict, to play a much more powerful team, that probable loss lingers.  For instance, Burns with a 4-7 record is playing Huss with a 11-0 record, at Huss. That game predicts a long ride home for Burns. Some games, such as Lake Norman with a 3-8 record playing at West Charlotte with a 6-5 record, defies the reason for high school athletes. Yes, I know that any game can be won, but winning and advancing one more  week is not, in  my mind,  the reason we offer sports in high school.

I suspect that the root of this playoff scheduling is money. Games on Friday night mean admission fees and concessions sold. If so, then our high school athletes are being sold out for the benefit of a system. I hope I  am wrong, but last year, my first year back in North Carolina, I saw the same system.

Every team in the listed schedule has played at least ten games, but most have played eleven. That is a lot of practices and games and opportunities for character building and team building and learning that diligence will have benefits.

It seems to me that, as Mary Poppins says, “Enough’s as good as a feast.”