Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

The first week in February, Chip Wigginton left his post at the Daily Southerner, after submitting his resignation. I miss him. I miss how easy going he was, how accessible he was (he hardly ever closed his door), how helpful he was to me. He was all over the place. Helping to place ads, editing articles, helping at the front, delivering papers. I never heard him complain. But most of all, I miss his support and his sense of humor.

Take care, Chip. You are missed here in T'town.

A Beautiful Day in Eastern NC

What a perfect day...lunch in the back yard, a beautiful drive to Greenville to see a friend who had had surgery, and grocery shopping at my favorite store -- the Food Lion on Arlington Blvd.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On Acceptance and Gratitude

From the fall of 2002: My mentor told me to have high acceptance and low expectations. That it's best not to be focused on the past or on the future, but on the now. I feel lucky to have a wonderful son, a good job with good income, and the love and support from the children at the school where I teach, Daniels Elementary School.

A Little about God and the Beach

This was from a journal of 2002, from a spiritual retreat at Topsail Beach...As I sit here tonight, a gentle warm breeze is blowing, soothing me. I like this feeling of peace, this feeling that God is with me.

Our group meditation was powerful. I knealt on the beach and thanked God for His creation. Being with my sisters and walking slowly on the beach felt good -- good to slow down!

"This Day in History" (my history)

Library Wars

This morning I picked up a journal I kept from my school librarian days at Weldon High School, a rural school in Halifax County, NC. Back in 2000, I undertook a gargantuan task, managing a school library that had been neglected for years. The most egregious problem was the fact that the facility had been used to store hundreds of old textbooks. Dealing with that caused a knee injury that is a problem to this day. What a shame that administrators today have so little respect for school libraries. I honestly think that the condition of the library was a factor in the low performance of the students at the school.

The first page of the journal is dated Feb. 2, 2001 and reflects my frustrations at how the library was mis-used by administrators and teachers. Even today, school librarians still function as "baby sitters", which doesn't benefit anyone. Thank goodness, the flexible schedule is being used more and more.

"Feb. 2, 2001

"What a day! I did manage to get to work 5 minutes early. Managed to stay awake on the way to work (it's an hour drive, one way). Upon arriving, I scoot out the door to check my mail and use the rest room. Upon my return, Wallace Gaelhood and his social studies class are at the entrance of the library. Really appreciated Wallace's comment about "an entire class is waiting for you." Duh. Whatever happened to prior notice?
The kids are awful. This is the group that changed settings and backgrounds on the library computers recently.
The teacher seems clueless about what the kids are supposed to do. Most of them are lounging around. I address the reminding them of the computer rules -- don't tamper, don't chat, no email, etc. etc.
While I'm going over all of this with the class, Wallace comes up and stands right by me. For a few seconds, I think he's supportive but no -- he interrupts, asking if he can borrow a calculator. Before I can answer, the fire alarm goes off, around 7:50 a.m. I am really rattled after that. The fire alarm goes off a lot 'by mistake.'
Back to business. I remind the kids that their books are on the cart. Then I went over to the network to see a girl checking her email. I send her to the study area, and remind the class that they need to get to work. Then I talk to the "teacher" (a sub) who has picked up the newspaper to read. She must think she's here for a break! I ask to see the class' assignment and she show me some handwritten notes. I mention that I hadn't gotten notice that the students would be studying China. I suggest to the sub that she circulate and help the kids, since the teacher had told me that I "didn't need to do anything." The sub tells me I need to help her because she "doesn't know nothing about no library."
I remind the kids at the back table that they are supposed to be working, but it's hopeless. The teacher goes back to the classroom with the students who won't work, leaving about 7 in the library. I remind a girl not to socialize, and to put away her snapshots. The afternoon class was just as bad, with the fire alarm going off again.
I'm beat by the time school is over. I can barely stay awake on the road, almost nodding off and hitting a mailbox. I pull over into the North Edgecombe high school parking lot and sleep for about 10 minutes. I get home and fall into bed, and am soon stricken with a case of diarrhea and vomiting. Chris brings me 7 up from the store and tells me to relax. Sweet guy. He asks if I mind if he watches his movie. I read notes for my next class for a while before dozing off for about 2 hours. Chris' movie, "Shaft," saves me. It's a great escape movie.

Feb. 25, 2000

There's a new use now for the professional reading room -- food storage! Crates of drinks, boxes of snacks, and a huge tub of drinks was left in there after the SAT test. I've been so busy that I didn't have time to address it. The principal remarked last week that the drinks had to be moved, so I finally had to do it myself...Soon, the principal buzzes me asking why the food had been moved. Huh? He throws another curve ball, mentioning the problem I have created!

Mar. 3, 2000

There is a silver lining. I got my application for the Library of Congress for a summer workshop. But the frustration of working at that school is burning me out. I feel clinically depressed and it takes forever to accomplish small tasks. But I manage to check in equipment, put up a table display, and prepare for class tomorrow. I have an appointment to check on my high cholesterol. I'm prepared to ask for modification, leave work at 3:30, no duty, and no fire alarms going off.

Apr. 24, 2000

I had a nightmare last night. I dreamed of being in Roanoke. I'm wandering around, homeless. I'm in need of a place to stay, I'm driving an old car, one of those big, long ones from the 1970's. I park it and then can't find where I parked it. I'm grieving for my mother. Someone gives me some poems that he's passing out. They are cut out from old kids' books and pasted onto paper. I see this as a kind gesture. I visit an alcoholism center. A tornado comes up. I'm in a concrete staircase, huddling with others. The wind starts to blow hard. Some of the people are Hispanic. I feel cared for. Mother comes and gives me a hug and tells me she loves me.

May 18, 2001

I have written my resignation for the 3rd and final time. The situation with David Jones has crossed into the realm of abuse. He schedules meetings and events in the school library without letting me know. He keeps me after school. He yelled at me and shook his finger in my face. Whatever I do is never enough. He embarrasses me in front of other teachers. I have to consider the toll that the school year has taken on my health. I have pain, rapid heart beat, feel stressed.

September 11, 2001

Otherwise known as 911. One morning a teacher came in to ask me if I had heard about the planes that had flown into the World Trade Center. This is surreal. I tell her I don't believe it, then turned on the tv. It was true. I watched in horror at the World Trade Center came down.
The student's aren't interested. They think the situation is "out of their zone." The principal supports the students. Go figure. In a month, I'm out of this place!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Enjoy Black Literature Every Day of the Year

Enjoy Black Literature Every Day of the Year

Black History Month beginning, I reflected on my favorite black writers. "Back in the day," when I was a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, I took the first Black History class ever offered at the school.

It was there that I discovered the works of Richard Wright, Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and Julian Bond. Over the years, the writings of James Baldwin took on a special meaning when I started working at an alternative school. I re-visited some of Baldwin's work, and exposed students to it.

Their positive reaction to it was a little surprising to me. Baldwin's work can be gritty, harsh. But it is also very inspiring and obviously resonated with one of the students in my class, a 15-year-old girl.

When Baldwin was about that age, he was a street preacher in New York. In school, he excelled, graduating from De Witt Clinton High School in New York in 1942. In 1944, he moved to Greenwich Village, in order to write his first novel. He did odd jobs, eventually landing a scholarship that allowed him to complete his book.

I like James Baldwin because he was a man way ahead of his time. He was unafraid to confront racism head-on, in books like "Go Tell it on the Mountain," "The Fire Next Time," and "Another Country."

James Baldwin was brilliant and controversial. Reading one of his books keeps me thinking, with a dictionary close at hand. He was unafraid to put his ideas "out there," and to risk criticism.

Baldwin was also an expatriate. Increasingly, he found life in the United States stifling, and decided to move to France. He was more accepted there. I guess France has a good reputation for nurturing American writers. I think of Hemingway, who published his first book in Paris.

Baldwin went on to be named Commander of the Legion of Honor while in France, where he died in 1987.

Another black writer I admire is Maya Angelou. When I started reading "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," I could not put it down. When I was teaching, the book was on one of the required reading lists at Tarboro High School. I wonder if it still is.

I especially admire Maya Angelou because of her many talents. She was a dancer and a choreographer. When she was chosen to read a poem at President Clinton's inauguration, it was thrilling to listen to her deep voice resonate in the cold air of that January day. At this time, she was a professor at Wake Forest University. Lucky students!

I've lost track of Ms. Angelou's whereabouts, and I'm not sure it she is still in North Carolina, but I loved how the state "claimed" her when she composed that poem for Clinton's swearing-in.

Another writer I'm crazy about is Zora Neale Hurston. I became one of her fans way after I graduated from VCU, when I worked at a small college in Georgia. Her work was studied in one of the English classes there. This was during a time while Hurston was undergoing a national resurgence of popularity, after being relatively neglected for decades.

Hurston's greatest work is considered "Their Eyes Were Watching God." I am just in awe of a writer who can write like Hurston. I love the portraits of her that were captured by Carl van Vechtan. Check them out at the American Memory website.

Sometimes I've learned about black writers from students. Terry McMillan, for example. I believe she wrote "Waiting to Exhale," which is just a delicious novel. In my opinion, Terry McMillan cannot write a bad book.

Another book that a student told me about was "For Colored Girls, Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf: A Chorepoem." The author is Ntozke Shange (given name: Paulette Williams). I believe that writers like Shange must have extra large brains. Such creativity on such a compelling level. She graduated from Barnard and as a child, people like W. E. B. Dubois, Dizzy Gillispie, and Miles Davis visited her parents' home. Shange became internationally famous when "Colored Girls" was performed on Broadway.

There's a reference book called "Black Writers: a selection of Sketches from Contemporary Authors." It's quite readable, and gives great insight into black writers, both past and present.

I'm anxious to see if colleges and universities will be having readings of black writers during Black History Month. Come to think of it, I might drop by the library on February 16th for the "read-in" and recite a few poems by another black author I recall from my VCU days, Gwendolyn Brooks. Stay tuned.

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Why I Admire Frederick Douglass (c)

Why I admire Frederick Douglass

Since this is Black History Month, I’m devoting my columns to suit the theme. Several weeks ago, Maya Collins wrote an article for the Daily Southerner on a group in Tarboro that formed recently called the Frederick Douglass Foundation. A high school student leads the group, which is dedicated to the principles that Douglass stood for. I think it’s appropriate that the legacy of Douglass continues to endure in this way, especially in our small town.
I have been fascinated with Frederick Douglass for over ten years. What an amazing story he has! Born a slave, he escaped to freedom and became a world-renowned orator, author, minister, and activist. Along the way, he developed convictions that still ring true, especially those regarding free speech, justice, and education.
Douglass was truly a self-educated man, stating: “Read and you will forever be free.” Learning to read was the catalyst for Douglass, the orator and statesman. His master’s wife provided him with the basics and when Douglass surpassed her expertise, he sought out books to keep him on the path to literacy.
One book in particular made a lasting impression on the young Douglass, and that was The Colombian Orator. At age twelve, Douglass devoured it, memorizing passages, then pacing the floor while he practiced his delivery. Scholars believe that this determination was a factor in Douglass’ transformation into an orator respected across the country and around the world. In his later years, Douglass spent about six months out of the year traveling in the United States and abroad giving lectures. Here are some up-lifting quotations from the speeches of Frederick Douglass:
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
“Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning.”
“What is possible for me is possible for you.”
The impact of Frederick Douglass on the history of our country, especially in the area of civil rights, was impressive. Martin Luther King, Jr. shared Douglass’ ideology for the equality of all people. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech echoes a speech given by Douglass called "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" Both men scolded a nation for espousing equality, while ignoring conditions that forced blacks into poverty.
Fast-forward forty years to the election of President Barack Obama. In remarks at the Democratic Convention in 2008, then Senator Obama, delivered what has become known as his “Yes, We Can” speech. It reflects the optimism and encouragement of Frederick Douglass’ advice that what was “possible for me is possible for you.”
My fascination with Douglass began when another teacher and I won a fellowship to the Library of Congress. While working at a small, rural high school in Halifax County, North Carolina, we were presented with an opportunity to study at the Library for a week with other teachers and school librarians from across the country. My partner and I were charged with the task of developing a lesson plan on Douglass, and the experience taught me amazing things about the life of this extraordinary man.
In his early years, Frederick experienced great hardship. In his Autobiography, he writes that: “in the hottest summer and coldest winter, I was kept almost naked – no shoes, no stockings, no stockings, no trousers, nothing on but a coarse tow linen shirt, reaching only to my knees…I had no bed...” Frederick also witnessed the suffering of others. He wrote in painful detail about the flogging of his “Aunt Hester,” whose only mistake had been her absence on a night when her master desired her. Most appalling was the master’s defense for the mistreatment by quoting from the Bible.
A shocking aspect of slave life was the lack of decent food. A typical day went like this: “Our food was coarse corn meal boiled. This was called mush. It was poured into a wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush…”
At the age of fifteen, Douglass had an epiphany, and set about to break the chains of slavery. First, he stood up to his master, a Mr. Covey, fighting him for two hours. With his master now beaten, Douglass felt his “long-crushed spirit” rise, leaving defiance in its place. This was the turning point for Douglass, who resolved that “however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.” (54) He began to plot his escape from bondage, first by boat and then by train. In 1835, he successfully escaped to freedom by train and by boat.
From this point on, Douglass was blessed with good fortune and support. His first speech at New Bedford, Massachusetts was met with wide acclaim. For the next sixty years, his life was filled with many accomplishments and honors, among them: successful journalist and owner of the North Star newspaper; friend to President Lincoln; appointment to the office of Recorder of Deeds in Washington, D. C.; candidate for Vice-President of the United States; supporter of equal rights for women; widely traveled lecturer.
After his death in 1895, a monument to him was built in Rochester, New York, where he had published the North Star newspaper. His home, Cedar Hill, in Washington, D. C. became a National Historic Site. A U. S. postage stamp was created in his honor and many of his original documents are held at the Library of Congress.
I’m always amazed that Frederick Douglass, in spite of the suffering he endured, never showed any bitterness. His achievements as a writer and minister are ingrained in the history of our country.
However, I believe that one of his greatest legacies is that his autobiography is required reading in schools and colleges across the United States. This man, a former slave, accomplished so much. Think of how much the youth of today can achieve, with all the opportunities for education and personal growth.
I hope that the words of Frederick Douglass will continue to live on, inspiring us to keep believing in ourselves.

Remembering Whitney

Remembering Whitney

While standing in the check-out line at the grocery store this afternoon, I found myself humming the first Whitney Houston song I remember hearing, “How Will I Know”:

“There's a boy I know
He's the one I dream of
Looks into my eyes
Takes me to the clouds above.

Ooh, I lose control
Can't seem to get enough
When I wake from dreaming
Tell me is it really love…

How will I know?
(Don't trust your feelings)
How will I know?

How will I know?
(Love can be deceiving)
How will I know?

How will I know if he really loves me,
I say a prayer with every heart beat
I fall in love whenever we meet
I'm asking you what you know about these things.

How will I know if he's thinking of me
I try to phone but I'm too shy
(Can't speak)
Falling in love is all bitter sweet
This love is strong why do I feel weak

Oh, wake me, I'm shaking,
Wish I had you near me now,
Said there's no mistaking,
What I feel is really love.

Oh tell me how will I know?
(Don't trust your feelings)
How will I know?

How will I know?
(Love can be deceiving)
How will I know…

If he loves me, if he loves me not
If he loves me, if he loves me not
If he loves me, if he loves me not

How will I know…

How will I know if he really loves me?
I say a prayer with every heart beat,
I fall in love whenever we meet,
I'm asking you 'cause you know about these things
How will I know…
(I'll fall in love)
How will I know?”

[From:; songwriters: Shannon Rubicam; George Merill; Michael Walden]

Early Sunday morning, when I first learned of Whitney Houston’s death, I immediately thought of the first time I’d ever heard her sing. Rewind to 1985 in Sitka, Alaska, birthplace of my son, Christopher, and the best place I’ve ever lived. On my lunch hour, I’d venture over to the Sheldon Jackson College gym, where about 75 men and women gathered for an aerobics class. The music blared, and the instructor moved us rapidly through the paces, her voice audible above the pulsating music. The singer belted out the words: “How will I know… If he loves me, if he loves me not…How will I KNOW?” With a plaintive, prolonged rise of an octave or two on “know.” “Who is THAT? You say her name is Whitney? I’ve never heard of her.” That song created energy in Lee Anderson’s aerobics class. I still associate Whitney Houston with that first song of hers that I remember.

In talking with friends about our sadness over her passing, I’m amazed at how many people recall the times and places when they listened to her music: at the beach, at the prom, on the road, or just while growing up in the 80’s. I just looked at the Youtube video for “How Will I Know,” and I was blown away by the staging of it: balletic dancing, humor, kinetic energy, an artistic set, and of course, a very young, flirty, and fresh-faced Whitney. I enjoyed the clever touch of showing Whitney looking up at a slide of her godmother, Aretha Franklin, as she sings: “I’m askin’ you; ‘cause you know about these things.” You can check out the video for yourselves here: I DARE you not to move while listening to this song. My gosh, it is addicting! And that SAX! I’m dancin’ and singin’ while it’s playing!

According to music industry records, the song “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton was Whitney Houston’s most popular hit. In this song, Whitney gets to showcase her 3 octave vocal range. There’s a pause, a drumbeat, and her soaring voice plaintively singing “I will always love you” with that stratospherically high note on the word “you.”

In reviewing Whitney’s body of work, I was amazed to see all that she accomplished in her life: a concert in Central Park, singing the “Star Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl while the Persian Gulf War was going on, and hundreds of awards and honors. Most impressive, however, was the influence she had on other singers, like Mariah Carey, Jennifer Hudson, and Keke Palmer. She allowed the fact that she had come from music royalty to take her to the limit.

Take a moment to remember your favorite song by Whitney Houston, and perhaps this will ease the sting of her death somewhat. One thing is for certain, her musical talent will burn brightly forever.