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#TBT: How Can We Stop School Shootings?

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I’m rerunning this post because of the shooting Tuesday at an elementary school in Ulvade, Texas. The current death count stands at 19 students and 3 teachers. I know I’m a generally negative person but I don’t think this is the last school shooting.

This latest school shooting in Florida has hit me hard. I was once a high school English teacher and later on, a middle school librarian. The first five years I taught, we never heard of a student going into a school and gunning down classmates. Then came April 20, 1999. Columbine High School erupted in gunfire as two students brought guns to school and killed 13 people before killing themselves. “School Shooting” entered common American lexicon. Nothing has been the same since.

I don’t teach anymore and while I miss that career mightily, one aspect I don’t miss is the existential dread of wondering when was it going to be my school’s turn. When were my students going to look to me as gunshots rang out? When was one of my students going to snap and bring a reckoning down on our school? I don’t miss that helpless feeling that crouches at the bottom of every teacher’s heart: “What happens when it’s us?”

That feeling lies there because the sad, simple answer to my titular question is a terse “We can’t. We cannot stop school shootings.” I fear that ship has sailed for a few tragic reasons.

First, we can’t stop school shootings because we can’t pass any meaningful gun control laws in this country. This depressing fact doesn’t matter, however, because even if our politicians miraculously put aside their differences and ignored the tidal waves of money some of them receive from the gun lobby, it simply wouldn’t matter. Passing a law, any law, has zero effect on behavior. Legislate that people cannot chew bubble gum and honest people will give up their Bubble Yum.

Unfortunately, another segment of society will cram every stick of gum possible into their mouths. Laws only affect lawful people. Pass a law forbidding anyone under age 21 from owning a firearm and we will prevent exactly zero school shootings because the people who deign to follow such a law aren’t going to shoot up a school anyway. As long as we worship the Almighty Dollar in this country, an underage person who wants a gun can get one . . . someone angry enough to kill his fellow students will find a way to get money and turn that money into a gun.

More gun control laws will not stop school shootings because they will only affect those willing to abide by the laws and by definition, this excludes school shooters.

Some people feel banning “assault weapons” like the AR-15 and its clones and derivatives will end the problem. It won’t help. Just for clarification and to appease any gun nuts who read this, the term should actually be “assault ‘style’ weapons” or guns modeled on military arms. A true assault rifle would be something like the US Army’s M-4 carbine, itself a descendant of the Vietnam Era M-16. Both are fully automatic weapons. Pull the trigger and they will fire til the magazine is empty.

The truth of the matter is banning AR-15 style rifles will only send shooters looking for other weapons. Several semi-automatic handguns have magazines which hold twenty or more rounds of ammunition and these handguns are much easier to conceal and so easier to get into a school, especially a crowded school area, than a rifle. The Ruger 10/22 is a .22 caliber rifle which can be outfitted with magazines up to 100 rounds and at schoolyard ranges, a .22 Long Rifle round is every bit as lethal as the 5.56mm round the AR-15 uses.

So let’s ban all guns! As long as the Second Amendment remains enshrined in the Constitution, that’s not going to happen. Even if it were repealed by some miracle, the bloodshed and division of the country attempting to collect the now illegal guns would entail makes such a possibility deadlier and less palatable than risking school shootings.

Some people have even gone so far as to advocate arming our school teachers. This is a preposterously, unthinkably terrible idea. It is not difficult at all to get a concealed carry permit in most US states. Theoretically, any teacher could get such a permit and, if the laws were changed, be allowed to carry a weapon into the classroom ostensibly to confront and repel a school shooter.

Again, this is a horrible idea. To get a CCP, a person has to sit through a class and then shoot a paper target at a range. To repel a school shooter, a teacher would have to kill someone — possibly someone they know and have tried to help before. Let’s set aside for the sake of argument the problems like victims getting caught in the crossfire or teachers simply missing their targets and hitting innocents. Just focus on one thing; any teacher carrying a weapon MUST be ready to KILL another human being.

Understand, the school shooter has made up is mind. He is here to kill as many people as he can or maybe just mark some specific names off a list. He’s made his choice and confronting him will only put a teacher in the direct line of fire. This is not a pistols at ten paces duel or a gunfight on Main Street out of a Clint Eastwood movie. To take out a school shooter who has already started killing, you don’t confront him or tell him to put down his weapon. You get behind him or outflank him and shoot him in center mass or the head until he falls down dead. If he never sees who shot him, so much the better.

Teachers are not wired up to do that. Teachers, not all, but most, are nurturers. They got into teaching to HELP people, not KILL them. Taking someone’s life will trying not to lose one’s own life is an incredibly difficult choice to make and execute. Hesitate an instant and you die and maybe all the students you are trying to protect. When it comes to actually killing a student, I honestly believe 99 out of 100 teachers are going to hesitate or freeze up and become a casualty. It doesn’t mean teachers are weak or cowardly . . . not everyone is a killer. Soldiers must be trained to kill. Overcoming the aversion to taking another’s life is one of the first things trainers in the military have to overcome. Teachers aren’t meant to kill and putting them into a situation where they have to deal with that choice will not go well.

So does this mean we abandon hope of stopping school shootings altogether and just live in fear? To a certain extent, yes. Practically speaking, absolutely. The only way to effectively stop school shooters is to get them before they start. Schools as they are now are what military and law enforcement people call “soft” targets. They need to be hardened. Schools need metal detectors at every entrance. During the day, schools should be under lock-down conditions. No one in the hall means no one gets shot. No unlocked doors means no one sneaks in. Ban bookbags. Amend dress codes to ban baggy clothes and jackets that make it easy to conceal weapons. If the students raise hell, if the parents raise hell . . . show footage of Columbine, Sandy Hook, Aurora’s movie theater, Las Vegas’ concert, this latest shooting in Florida, etc. Make them answer one question: “Would you rather be fashionable or would you rather bleed out on the floor of the cafeteria with a bullet in your spleen?”

I fully realize none of that is going to happen though. In fact, give it two weeks or so and everyone is going to go back to business as usual . . . until the next preventable school shooting takes place.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean.

#TBT: It Can All Be Gone In An Instant

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This post goes all the way back to lpppAugust 2008. It’s the 3rd post I ever made on this blog. I wonder sometimes whatever happened to Beth.

Many times I think educators in general and librarians in particular get so consumed in minutiae that we don’t realize the really BIG picture. We get caught up in book orders and classes coming in and out and trying to keep up with the latest Web 2.0 tools that we often don’t pick our heads up long enough to take a look at who and what’s around us. We aren’t just working with colleagues, some of whom we love dearly and some of whom were put on this earth to be the bane of our existence. We aren’t just teaching and waiting on students, some of whom we dearly love and some of whom were put on this earth to be the bane of our existence. We are interacting with people who have issues and hopes and dreams and lots of times our library and our schools are not an ingrained part of that dream. The bright new teacher who comes in the library workroom to get coffee may be dreaming of writing a novel or moving to a tropical island. I say all this to say this: we need to dream and we need to hope and we need to laugh and love because as much as we may or may not care about our jobs or careers, one thing is certain . . . they buildings will outlast us, but the people may not. Pick your head up tomorrow and look around. Everyone you see could be gone in an instant and what was the last thing you said to them? You may be gone in an instant and what is the last thing people will remember about you?

I know this may seem morbid, but I’m melancholy and slightly morbid by nature. That has nothing to do with this post. This frailty and mercurial quality of life was just brought home to me in a brutal and shockingly upclose and personal way on my ride home this afternoon.

I saw the black pickup crest the hill and I saw the teal sedan pull out of my subdivision to turn left and I knew that the laws of physics were about to be put to the test once again. The crash was absolutely horrific. The pickup struck the sedan full force in the driver’s side door. The driver had no time to brake after topping the hill. The sedan careened across the road in a crazy spiral and came to rest in the ditch on the far side. I pulled around the carnage and up into a driveway of the subdivision. I already had my phone in my hand dialing *47 for the highway patrol. The dispatcher asked me a series of questions that I barely remember, but judging by soon to come events I must have answered them well. All I clearly remember until reaching the girl was saying to the dispatcher, “You need to get an ambulance rolling RIGHT NOW because this does NOT look good at all.”

Two well-meaning passersby had stopped and for reasons known only to God and their animal instincts to avoid car explosions, pulled the young woman from the wrecked sedan. I was livid, but said nothing since their act was not one of malice but of misunderstanding. Kneeling by the young girl’s side, I took her hand as she slowly regained conciousness. Her face was a jigsaw puzzle of glass cuts and she had a LUMP coming up on the left side of her head that promised greatness. Her left leg was gashed a full six inches long down her calf. She was covered in blood. She was wearing one of the tube/halter-tops that are popular now and a pair of short shorts. She had blonde hair rapidly turning crimson. As she came around, she immediately wanted to sit up. I and one of the other ladies gently pushed her back to the ground. She was bleeding out of her mouth but she started talking and begging us to let her up so she could leave. When I bent closer, I knew why.

She reeked of alcohol. This was bad. She was going to jail if she lived for DUI with injury. Plus, the alcohol was making her blood thinner. I got her talking and asked her for her name, which was Beth. She wasn’t really clear on the year, her age, or where she lived, but judging from the car and the sister-in-law I spoke to later, this latter may not have been solely the result of the concussion. I asked her about her plentiful tatoos including one beautiful star on her neck. She kept wanting to touch her face and she kept asking me what was wrong with her face and where all this blood was coming from. How do you tell an obviously very fetching young woman that the next time she can look in a mirror, assuming she ever can, the face she sees will be very different than the one she left the house with that morning? One thing that struck me as incongruous was the way she kept pulling at her top in a universally feminine gesture with bloodstained hands to keep it from slipping down to expose her strapless bra. Drunk and gravely injured, modesty must be preserved.

After what seemed hours but in reality proved only ten minutes, the paramedics and rescue squad arrived. The professionals took over but I must have appeared to know what I was doing because they didn’t order me out of the way. I asked her who needed to be called to meet her at the hospital. She at first said, “no one”, but finally relented and gave me a relative’s number, which seemed a good sign. I called the relative who proved to be a sister-in-law and told her the story. She screamed and cried and then pulled herself together to start calling family and friends.

Then Beth was in the ambulance and on her way to hospital. It was over and I drove the two hundred yards home. It was only when I walked in the house and got to the mirror in the bathroom that the full extent of what had just happened hit me. I had bloody hands and blood streaks on my face from wiping my eyes. I had blood on my clothes and shoes. I wondered if I needed to go to the hospital myself since I’d deliberately disobeyed every rule laid out to us in the annual blood-borne pathogens video. I decided against it and took a shower with antibacterial soap, shaking like a leaf all the while.

So there you have it. Yes, Beth was stupid and irresponsible for drinking and then driving. She may yet pay for that stupidity with her life. Her father called, a prince of a man I am certain, and, after asking if I’d taken anything from her car, proceeded to tell me that Beth was still in the trauma ward with swelling on the brain. This was five hours later. Five minutes to five and Beth had been sitting around a table filled with beer bottles talking with similarly inebriated friends. By five fifteen, instead of being at the gas station like she’d planned, she was lying in a ditch with a face full of glass and a complete stranger holding her hand and asking about her tattoos.

Look around folks. Look around. It really can all be gone in an instant. Don’t believe it, just ask Beth.

#TBT: Sport of the Gods

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This came out way back in ’09. It’s that time again for practice to start in earnest. Hopefully by Thanksgiving everyone will be ready to go.

Volleyball is for girls. Football is for boys. Wrestling is for MEN!

At least that’s the way we always phrased it back on the mats when I was a wrestler. Please, before I go any farther, do not confuse nor make the tired joke about wrasslin’. NOTHING annoys a real wrestler more than the question, “Where’s the ropes?”

Tonight was the first Monday night after Thanksgiving and ever since I was a freshman in high school, that has meant the first match of the wrestling season. Ever since late September, wrestlers all over the country have been counting calories and donning sweat suits to get down to whatever magical weight they want to compete at for the coming season. Tonight, they got to step on the mat and see if their hard work has paid off.

I don’t miss much in my life as much as I miss wrestling. I was a varsity wrestler for my high school for three years and I had the pleasure of coaching as both an assistant and a head coach for nearly ten years. No other sport comes close. Wrestling was on the agenda at the first Olympics and the basic equipment hasn’t changed much . . . except we don’t wrestle naked anymore — although the first time you ever put on a Spandex singlet and step out in front of a crowd of people, you may FEEL naked.

Everything great and wonderful about my high school years revolved around wrestling. I went out for the team as a freshman in the hopes of catching the eye and impressing a girl named Kim whose brother was on the team. I was the only heavyweight that year so I started every match . . . and LOST every match except the lone forfeit I got because the opposing wrestler tripped getting off the team bus and got a concussion. Needless to say, I didn’t get the girl, even though she was impressed that I didn’t quit. At the awards banquet that year, I received the Silver Flounder Award for being the biggest fish on the team.

I dropped weight and wrestled great my sophomore and junior years. I even placed second in our region my junior year. I was one match away from qualifying for the state tournament when I came down with stomach flu. That was the end of that year. My senior year was a disaster. I was already having a REALLY BAD year and the first day of practice, I found out the weight classes had changed. My coveted 167 was gone. I was now in the same class with two monsters who I never could hope to beat. They tried to kill each other and the loser dropped down to the next lowest division.

I was odd man out. I was a senior with three bars and twenty-two pins on my letterman jacket and I was relegated to the bench. It was at that point that I gave up on my entire senior year and the wheels well and truly fell off the apple cart, but that is a story for another time.

So, men, gird up your loins, put your foot on the stripe inside the circle and wait for the whistle.

When you finish, roll up the mats . . . and wash your feet! Love y’all.

#TBT: Adventures in Cast Iron Cooking

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I published this a long time ago. Budge hasn’t cooked okra in awhile but I’d still eat it!

When Budge and I first married, we lived with Mama and Rob for a while until we got on our feet a little better financially. Budge helped Mama with the housework and laundry, but Mama did all the cooking just because . . . well, just because, I guess.

Anyway, one weekend about six months into our nuptials, Mama and Rob went to visit Grandma Lowe for the Lowe Family Reunion up in the hills of North Carolina. Since we had the house to ourselves, Budge decided she’d make us dinner. She’d cooked a few things for me before and they hadn’t be half bad. Tonight, she planned to pull out all the stops. She knew my favorite side item in the world was breaded, fried okra, so she obviously planned for that to be prominent on the menu. It was here that things got interesting.

Now, as a side note, my Budge is a wonderful wife. God knows she’s a whole lot more than I deserve and I am deeply appreciative of her. One issue she had early in our marriage, however, was putting way too much pressure on herself to be a modern day June Cleaver complete with pearl necklace and apron. She liked things to be perfect. Unfortunately, Budge never had much hands on experience cooking. Her mother passed away suddenly when Budge was 15 and she just hadn’t had time to learn much about the culinary arts. The second factor adding to this tense situation was the fact that Budge had only seen Mama cook fried okra for me and Mama always fried her okra in Granny’s cast iron skillet.

Now from that sharp intake of breath, I see that y’all, at least the cooks out there, realize what’s going on. In this day of non-stick, space age polymer pots and pans, a cast iron skillet has mostly been relegated to baking corn bread. The reason for this demotion is simple — it’s hard as crap to cook in a cast iron skillet! Budge did not know this.

So, blissful in her ignorance of cast iron cookery, she filled the pan about a third of the way with Wesson oil and waited. Once the oil started smoking and looked about to catch fire, she dumped the bag of Southern Home frozen okra into the pan. I didn’t know Budge knew some of the words that came out of her mouth when some of the hot oil spit out onto her arms and bare feet. If you wonder what I was doing at this time, I was sitting at the kitchen table watching intently and keeping my mouth shut like any intelligent new husband watching his wife cook.

Time passed. Budge watched the okra for several minutes with no discernible results, so she decided it would be safe to prepare other parts of the meal, just like she’d seen Mama do. Now, for the laypeople out there, here is a VERY important fact — the interval of time between “perfectly golden and delicious” fried okra and “blackened pea gravel” fried okra in a cast iron skillet is about three tenths of a second. Those three tenths of a second passed as Budge was pouring up the glasses of tea. I knew something was amiss by the way Budge looked at the frying pan when she crossed back to it.

I couldn’t see her face, but I thought I caught wind of a slight “sniff” as she carried the pan of okra to the sink to strain the oil off it. As she used Mama’s aluminum colander, I heard the unmistakable sound of river rock being ground in a coffee grinder. Still, how bad could it be? She set the rest of the meal on the table and it all looked extremely tasty. I fixed my plate then asked, “Baby, where is the okra?” She didn’t answer, but sighed heavily and brought over the bowl.

You know those lava rocks some people use as mulch around their flower beds and trees? Think harder and smaller. The bowl was half full of what can only be described as jet black ball bearings with bits of blackened cornmeal mournfully hanging on to them. I glanced up at my bride’s stricken face where her eyes were just beginning to tear up and did what any self respecting husband would do in such a situation. I poured the entire contents of the bowl onto my plate and began eating.

Under her watchful eyes, I ate the entire bowl of food formerly known as fried okra. It was crunchy. Ever ate charcoal flavored Grape-Nuts without milk? Make no mistake, it was charcoal. I could have drunk a liter of pure strychnine mixed with dioxin and the amount of charcoal in my stomach would have neutralized it instantly with no need for pumping or antidotes.

It was worth every bit though to see the tears vanish from Budge’s eyes as I declared the okra “quite tasty”. We both knew the truth, but that’s what you do when you love someone. You make allowances. Mama later explained to Budge with a smile just how hard cast iron cooking was and introduced her to The Fry Daddy. Budge makes very good deep fried okra. I’ll have to tell you about her peanut butter pie later though!

Keep your feet clean and remember who loves you!

#TBT: Recollections of Santa

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These things had a LOT of decals!

I originally posted this Christmas Eve 2009.

Christmas Eve has been a favorite day of mine for a long, long time. When I was a child, it meant getting up early and driving to Granny Hughes and her jerk second husband’s house in Columbia for a day of food and presents. That was as far as we ever went when I was a kid and driving with Mama for an hour seemed like an adventure.

I remember one time, we were coming back in a driving rainstorm and Mama couldn’t see plus she was dead tired and nodding off. I kept putting my hand out the window to collect rainwater and rub on her face to keep her awake. Good times. Good times.

By the time I was a car driving teenager, we didn’t have to go to Columbia anymore because Granny had moved in with us. Instead, I’d go hang out with my Aunt Cathy and Uncle Larry and their two sons, Zach and Blake. This particular Christmas Eve, Zach was maybe six years old. Blake was a toddler. The must have toy for that year was the DinoRider Action Figure collection. Zach was in love with all things DinoRider, so Cathy, like any good mother, had gone out and purchased a tandem axle dump-truck load of DinoRider Action Figures for her tow headed eldest boy.

I got to her house about ten on this particular Christmas Eve and the boys were asleep, finally. That was the cue for Cathy, Uncle Larry, and I to put together the “Santa Tableau”.  Most of the toys went together easily enough as I recall, but around midnight, we got to the DinoRiders. The box said “some assembly required.” Yeah, right.

The figures were all put together, BUT none of them had the correct decals stuck on yet. Those were in a sheet PER BOX about the size of the Webster’s Third Edition International Unabridged Dictionary. I started sticking decals on. To make matters worse, the figures had a molded place EXACTLY where the decals were supposed to go, so if you were the tiniest bit out of line, it stuck out like a sore thumb. I didn’t know I had OCD at that time. I just knew I had to get the stickers on perfectly or it would drive me crazy. If you made a mislick and put a sticker in the wrong place, God help you. I’m convinced that had the Titanic been wrapped with DinoRider decals, she would have split the iceberg and made New York in record time. Those things would stick your eyeballs together just looking at them.

Midnight became 2 A.M. which turned into 4 A.M. Finally, at around 5:45 AM, the three of us got the last of the toys ready and set up properly for maximum “Wow Factor” when the boys came in to see them. I stumbled into Zach’s room and collapsed in the bottom bunk of his bunk beds and promptly passed out from exhaustion. I slept like the dead until around 6:15 A.M. when, with the barest hint of dawn just breaking in the window, I was awakened by two pudgy little hands beating me about the head and shoulders with cries of “Shannon, come see! Come see! Santa came!”

Somehow, I managed to stumble into the living room as Zach ran into the midst of half the stockpile of Toys R’ Us arrayed underneath the well decorated tree. Cathy was snapping still pictures and Larry was filming the event with one of the first practical VHS self contained camcorders. Zach, joined a few minutes later by Blake, was so happy and so bouncy that I felt less and less tired. I may even have drank a cup of coffee even though I hated the stuff.

It never ceases to amaze me how time gets away from us. That was twenty years ago at least now. Zach is a grown man and the associate pastor of a church in Gainesville, Florida, but he just posted on FaceBook that he’s home safe. I’ll see him tomorrow at Daddy’s house for Christmas supper and I’m thinking it won’t be long until I have to put together a second generation of toys. You see, the little pudgy, tow headed boy of all those years ago gave one of the most beautiful diamond rings I’ve ever seen to one of the sweetest girls I’ve ever met just this past Thanksgiving. Just yesterday, he was beating me awake to come see him play with his toys. This coming Easter, I get to see him marry the girl of his dreams.

Don’t forget to wash your feet, y’all, and most of all Merry Christmas!

Love y’all a lot!

#TBT: Halloween at Aunt Nell’s

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I originally published this on Halloween 2009. Since then, Aunt Nell’s grandson, who was living in the house has sold it and left Greenpond for the suburbs. Halloween gatherings at Aunt Nell’s belong strictly to the realm of memory now.

When I was growing up, we lived in the back forty acres of the boondocks. I took some friends home from college to meet my mama over the holidays once and two of them swore we lived in a different time zone, if not another space time continuum. Living that far from nowhere meant that social events were scarce, but for a kid with a sugar craving on All Saint’s Eve, it was death. I LITERALLY had no where within walking distance of my house and we lived so far out we’d have to eat all the candy we got driving around just to survive the trip. So in the era of my childhood, preceding all the newfangled “Trunk or Treats” , the highlight of Halloween for me, my brother’s generation, and my dad’s generation was the annual trip to Greenpond to visit Aunt Nell and drink her Witch’s Brew.

the boys at halloween

Over twenty years ago in Greenpond. My baby first cousin, Blake, is the Blue Dinosaur; my brother, Nick, is the redhead behind him; Aunt Nell is in the witch’s costume; my second cousin, Anna, is next to Aunt Nell and is holding a child I don’t recognize; and Zach, my oldest first cousin, is standing behind Anna.

See, when Daddy and Aunt Cathy, as well as all the First Cousins, were children, they lived in the boonies as well; so they didn’t have anywhere to get candy on Halloween either. In an effort to give the children somewhere to wear their costumes and get some candy, Papa Wham’s sister, my great-Aunt Nell, started dressing up in a witch’s costume on Halloween and hosting a small gathering. She’d put a huge (well, huge for a five year old) cauldron of what she swore was witch’s brew on an open fire in front of her open and detached garage then pop up a huge amount of pop corn and lay out a great stock of candies.

Children — first my daddy’s generation, then mine — would come with their parents and eat popcorn and run around the pitch black yard in our costumes playing hide and seek until we vomited. It was our unofficial family reunion and most Halloween nights, just about every lineal descendant of Granny Mattie would make their way up Aunt Nell’s winding driveway. Rain or shine, she always turned out.

The Witch of Greenpond became pretty much a local legend. Aunt Nell made the cover of the local weekly newspapers and in all the years I can remember, she never missed a Halloween. Time comes for us all though, even good witches, and the year finally arrived when Aunt Nell simply couldn’t take on the night’s festivities. Alzheimer’s Disease had robbed her of the memory of the wonderful times she’d given all of us and the rest of the rural children of the surrounding countryside.

That year, about six or seven years ago now, I think, the pointed hat was passed. Anna, the adorable little blonde standing next to Aunt Nell in the picture, took up the mantle of the Greenpond Witch from her grandmother. Now she presides over the ceremony that has meant so much to so many people for so long. Now, rain or shine (and tonight was a frog-floater) the cauldron still gets lit and the children still come to eat popcorn, chase each other, and drink a cup of Witch’s Brew . . . which still tastes suspiciously like cherry Kool-Aid.

Happy Halloween, y’all, and don’t forget to wash your feet after you come in from trick or treating!

#TBT: Happy B-Day, Granny and RIP

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Granny Wham, 1978

I originally wrote this for what would have been Granny Wham’s 90th birthday. Tomorrow would have been her 98th and she’s been on my mind recently.

Had she lived, January 11, 2o1o 2018 would be my Granny Wham’s 90th 98th birthday. Mrs. Martha Ellen Willis Wham missed her nonagenarian years by two when she passed away just a month after her 88th birthday. She was a pretty awesome woman.

Granny was the poster child for a woman of Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation. She grew up on a small family farm in the rural Upstate of South Carolina. She had a younger sister (Aunt Mary) and two older half-brothers (Uncle Gordon and Uncle Henry) but as she said, “We loved each other wholly and no halves involved.” Her teenage years were in the brutal heart of the Great Depression and even an already poor area like post-Civil War South Carolina wasn’t spared.

Granny brought home the real trials of the era when she told me how her daddy, Papa Willis, had gotten a WPA job for the princely sum of $9 per week. As she put it, “we thought we were wealthy.” Like many of her co-sufferers, the deprivations of the Dust Bowl ’30s left their mark on Granny. She saved tinfoil by washing it clean and she had a full 12 place setting of Kraft Cool Whip salad bowls should the need have ever arisen.

As I related earlier, she married Papa in December 1945 after The War and they started a family. She was a homemaker until Aunt Cathy started school and then she went to work in the shoe department of Belk’s Department Store on Main Street in Fountain Inn. For the first 13 or so years of my life, every pair of shoes I owned was bought with Granny’s discount.

What Granny truly excelled at in my eyes, however, was in being a grandmother. To say she doted on me as her first grandchild would be a criminal understatement. She, with PLENTY of help from Papa to be sure, spoiled me, and later her three other grandsons, completely rotten. I loved every minute of it. She saved me from several well deserved punishments, but for the sake of space, I’ll just relate this one.

Granny had just bought a nice new corded rug to put down over the hardwoods in the den. It was a beautiful rug and she was proud of it. I, at the tender age of about three, was sitting in the middle of this brand new rug playing with a bottle of jet black liquid shoe polish that Papa had just used to shine his Sunday shoes. This is one of the few memories I have of Mama and Daddy before the divorce, but I distinctly recall each of them having told me more than once to put this bottle down and stop fiddling with it. Of course I kept right on and as you’ve probably guessed, the top popped off and jet black liquid polish met brand new beige rug. Mama started from the north end of the room as Daddy started from the south end of the room. As luck would have it, however, the room was a rectangle and Granny was in her rocker on the short eastern side so she got to me first, scooped me up over her shoulder, and stopped both my parents by saying, “It’s just a rug and it scared him to death. He didn’t mean it. He was just being mischievous.”

“He’s not bad, he’s just mischievous,” was Granny’s stock answer to any mishap any of her four grandsons might have. Lord knows how many times she could have worn us out or at least put us in time out for eternity, but instead, she just gave us a hug, asked us not to do it again, and usually gave us a piece of her homemade pound cake to reinforce the lesson.

Granny Wham, age 88 at Martha Franks Baptist Retirement Home.

To be completely honest, Granny Wham was one facet of my life I took for granted would ALWAYS be there. To me, she and papa were like the mountains or the ocean or even the blue sky above. They would always abide with us. Nothing could ever take them from us.

I was wrong. So very, very wrong.

Granny suffered a medium serious stroke in July 1995. It was the beginning of a long, long decline. She rallied. She even rallied upon learning two days after her stroke that Papa Wham had died. She had an indomitable will and for a few more years, it kept infirmity at bay. In the end though, a diagnosis of mini-strokes put an end to her living alone and driving. Aunt Cathy did the duty of a dedicated daughter selling her own home to move Uncle Larry, Zach, and Blake in with Granny so Granny wouldn’t have to leave the home she and Papa had built together in 1953.

She would stay with Aunt Cathy through the week and spend some weekends with Daddy and Teresa. One early weekend morning, trying to fix coffee for Daddy before he got out of bed, she made a misstep and fell, breaking her birdlike hip bone. After a stint in the hospital, she went to Martha Franks Retirement home to undergo physical therapy. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, she seemed to grow more frail instead of regaining strength. Again, though, her indomitable will, along with a hearty dose of good Willis stubbornness, kept the end at arm’s length for another few years. After all, she had a family to look after.

In the end, though, the reaper comes for everyone, even tiny precious and greatly beloved grandmothers. Aunt Cathy held her hand as she passed from this world to the next. My two first cousins, my little brother, and I stood watch over her casket at the front of the church where she’d taught Sunday School and sang in the choir for over fifty years, then, when it was time, we closed the lid on her beautiful oaken casket with The Pieta of Michelangelo depicted on all four corners and let the ministers have their say.

Granny’s dust lies next to Papa’s now in the Beulah Baptist Church cemetery. Her soul, I imagine, walks hand in hand with his down golden streets and, even though I have no theology to back it up, I like to think she looks down on us every now and then — in afterlife, as in life — watching over the family she held so close to her heart.

Love you, Granny Wham and miss you very much. Tell Papa we love and miss him too.

#TBT: Of Starfish

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Once upon a time, I was a teacher and a librarian. That was a long time ago, but back when I was and I started this blog, this post got more views than any other had up to that point and it is still in the top five ten years later.

I’ve been thinking about a lot of things and doing some intense soul searching over the last few weeks since finding out my position has been cut at school and I don’t have a job next year. To be honest, I’ve been seriously considering some field other than education just because the endless politics and prurience keep dragging me down. So I’m publishing this article that I originally wrote for my state association’s newsletter. I’ve been rereading it to try and boost my flagging spirits.  I hope y’all like it.

“Of Starfish”

Starfish and coffee, maple syrup and jam;
butterscotch clouds, tangerines, side order of ham.
If you set your mind free, baby, maybe you’d understand
Starfish and coffee, maple syrup and jam. (Music and lyrics by Prince Rogers Nelson)

Most everyone in education has or has read the poster / cup / screensaver about the young boy throwing starfish back into the ocean as the older gentleman watches him and comments on how useless the boy’s efforts are. Many of us, especially after a hard day when the children (and faculty) have tried our patience, are sustained by the hopeful last line of that free verse that says, “It made a difference to that one.”

We all have starfish in our careers. They are our life’s blood and they keep us going; their very existence validating our best efforts and giving us the desire to come back in August even if we left in May or June swearing we’ll “never come back again.” Our starfish, our precious students and even teachers, in whose lives we have made a noted, tangible difference, are the most valuable revitalizing resources we possess.

I got to pondering starfish last Saturday after eating with my wife at one of the nicer Italian restaurants in town. Our regular waiter at that particular eatery happens to be one of my first, and still one of my most beloved, starfish. Jason (not his real name) was a sensitive, broody young man in my honors English class during a particularly bad year for me professionally. He thought deeply of subjects far beyond the purview of many of his classmates. He pondered much more than proms, power, and the popular crowd, of which he was an abject outcast. Jason had problems at home where a burly stepfather insisted he play football even though Jason had precious little athletic aptitude and even less interest. To make his life even more stressful at the time, Jason was also extremely confused about his sexual orientation. For some reason, he chose to confide in me. In all honesty, it wasn’t a subject I liked, was comfortable with, knew much about, or wanted to discuss, but something in me knew that Jason wasn’t going to go to anyone else, at school or out.

So, I listened before school, after classes and at the end of the day as he talked through what he was feeling. I felt terrible because I didn’t think I was being much help other than as a sounding board. Then one day, whether by luck, intuition, or some latent librarian skill, I gave him a copy of a book that had come to me in a box of classroom library donations. The title character was a teenaged boy with an emotionally abusive stepfather and confusion about what sexual orientation he had. It wasn’t a famous book; if someone put a gun to my head and demanded I tell him the title, I’d be shot dead.

Be all that as it may, the book seemed to be a key for Jason. He took solace that someone, even a fictional someone, had similar thoughts to his own. I don’t know why, but whatever the reason, he seemed to regain a little more life and a bit of zest. I remained his unofficial father confessor through his senior year and he stopped by quite often during his first year of junior college. We lost touch for about two years until he walked up in his spiffy waiter’s uniform and apron to be our waiter one night about two years ago. Between the breadbaskets and the ice cream desserts, he told Budge and me that he’d dropped out of college, gone back, dropped out again, started waiting tables in good restaurants and got certification as a physical therapy masseur. He now has a wonderful live-in girlfriend, whom I have met, so apparently, as I’ve kidded him, he has a handle on his orientation. We see each other about once a month, either at the restaurant or at a bookstore or ice creamery. He mentions those bad times every now and then, but no matter how many times he says it, I still get shivers and Budge says my face lights up when Jason says, “Coach, you listened when no one else did . . . I appreciated it so much.”

Jason was my first memorable starfish, but I’m glad to say, not my last. I hardly have space to talk about the wonderful parade of miscreants and misfits, talkative and taciturn, popular and pauper who have made my career as a teacher and now as a librarian incredibly interesting and unbelievably fulfilling, like the five boys who demanded I sign their diplomas because they felt I was the only reason they got them or the young lady and her beau who asked that I perform their wedding after graduation. Then I had the two tough middle school football players who say I’m the only one who could ever get them to read a book, the list could easily go on. They are all my starfish.

I suppose my reasons for focusing so much on starfish have a lot to do with one particular young student I knew well once upon a time. He was very overweight and had pasty white-pink skin. His middle school playground nickname was “The Great White Marshmallow.” Overly smart for his age, non-athletic to the extreme, bookish, he was simply not a success in the shark tank of middle school. I can see him now in sixth grade huddled in the back of the small library poring over a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, hoping earnestly that the large eighth grade jocks wouldn’t come inhere after him.

The young man’s best ally was the school’s librarian. She was the picture of kindness to him, even lending him her personal first edition of The Fellowship of the Ring because the school’s library didn’t have one. Looking back, he can understand how incredibly busy she was at the time and he knows now that she was going through tough times of her own, but she always took as much time he needed to talk about elves and dwarves and hobbits.

Because of the love of books and learning she imparted to one lonely starfish, that starfish had the desire to go on to college, then to library school and become a librarian himself. The librarian is now at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory as a psychometrician on the venerated faculty of Harvard University, but the boy starfish is now a middle school librarian and he’s never forgotten what it felt like to be burning up on life’s beach only to have a caring set of hands take him back to the cool ocean.

In closing, my esteemed colleagues, remember your starfish. Some of them may drive you crazy while some may make you smile and laugh, but either way, remember you never know the difference you make in someone’s, some starfish’s, life.

Love y’all and don’t forget to wash your feet.

How Can We Stop School Shootings?

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question-mark3aThis latest school shooting in Florida has hit me hard. I was once a high school English teacher and later on, a middle school librarian. The first five years I taught, we never heard of a student going into a school and gunning down classmates. Then came April 20, 1999. Columbine High School erupted in gunfire as two students brought guns to school and killed 13 people before killing themselves. “School Shooting” entered common American lexicon. Nothing has been the same since.

I don’t teach anymore and while I miss that career mightily, one aspect I don’t miss is the existential dread of wondering when was it going to be my school’s turn. When were my students going to look to me as gunshots rang out? When was one of my students going to snap and bring a reckoning down on our school? I don’t miss that helpless feeling that crouches at the bottom of every teacher’s heart: “What happens when it’s us?”

That feeling lies there because the sad, simple answer to my titular question is a terse “We can’t. We cannot stop school shootings.” I fear that ship has sailed for a few tragic reasons.

First, we can’t stop school shootings because we can’t pass any meaningful gun control laws in this country. This depressing fact doesn’t matter, however, because even if our politicians miraculously put aside their differences and ignored the tidal waves of money some of them receive from the gun lobby, it simply wouldn’t matter. Passing a law, any law, has zero effect on behavior. Legislate that people cannot chew bubble gum and honest people will give up their Bubble Yum.

Unfortunately, another segment of society will cram every stick of gum possible into their mouths. Laws only affect lawful people. Pass a law forbidding anyone under age 21 from owning a firearm and we will prevent exactly zero school shootings because the people who deign to follow such a law aren’t going to shoot up a school anyway. As long as we worship the Almighty Dollar in this country, an underage person who wants a gun can get one . . . someone angry enough to kill his fellow students will find a way to get money and turn that money into a gun.

More gun control laws will not stop school shootings because they will only affect those willing to abide by the laws and by definition, this excludes school shooters.

Some people feel banning “assault weapons” like the AR-15 and its clones and derivatives will end the problem. It won’t help. Just for clarification and to appease any gun nuts who read this, the term should actually be “assault ‘style’ weapons” or guns modeled on military arms. A true assault rifle would be something like the US Army’s M-4 carbine, itself a descendant of the Vietnam Era M-16. Both are fully automatic weapons. Pull the trigger and they will fire til the magazine is empty.

The truth of the matter is banning AR-15 style rifles will only send shooters looking for other weapons. Several semi-automatic handguns have magazines which hold twenty or more rounds of ammunition and these handguns are much easier to conceal and so easier to get into a school, especially a crowded school area, than a rifle. The Ruger 10/22 is a .22 caliber rifle which can be outfitted with magazines up to 100 rounds and at schoolyard ranges, a .22 Long Rifle round is every bit as lethal as the 5.56mm round the AR-15 uses.

So let’s ban all guns! As long as the Second Amendment remains enshrined in the Constitution, that’s not going to happen. Even if it were repealed by some miracle, the bloodshed and division of the country attempting to collect the now illegal guns would entail makes such a possibility deadlier and less palatable than risking school shootings.

Some people have even gone so far as to advocate arming our school teachers. This is a preposterously, unthinkably terrible idea. It is not difficult at all to get a concealed carry permit in most US states. Theoretically, any teacher could get such a permit and, if the laws were changed, be allowed to carry a weapon into the classroom ostensibly to confront and repel a school shooter.

Again, this is a horrible idea. To get a CCP, a person has to sit through a class and then shoot a paper target at a range. To repel a school shooter, a teacher would have to kill someone — possibly someone they know and have tried to help before. Let’s set aside for the sake of argument the problems like victims getting caught in the crossfire or teachers simply missing their targets and hitting innocents. Just focus on one thing; any teacher carrying a weapon MUST be ready to KILL another human being.

Understand, the school shooter has made up is mind. He is here to kill as many people as he can or maybe just mark some specific names off a list. He’s made his choice and confronting him will only put a teacher in the direct line of fire. This is not a pistols at ten paces duel or a gunfight on Main Street out of a Clint Eastwood movie. To take out a school shooter who has already started killing, you don’t confront him or tell him to put down his weapon. You get behind him or outflank him and shoot him in center mass or the head until he falls down dead. If he never sees who shot him, so much the better.

Teachers are not wired up to do that. Teachers, not all, but most, are nurturers. They got into teaching to HELP people, not KILL them. Taking someone’s life will trying not to lose one’s own life is an incredibly difficult choice to make and execute. Hesitate an instant and you die and maybe all the students you are trying to protect. When it comes to actually killing a student, I honestly believe 99 out of 100 teachers are going to hesitate or freeze up and become a casualty. It doesn’t mean teachers are weak or cowardly . . . not everyone is a killer. Soldiers must be trained to kill. Overcoming the aversion to taking another’s life is one of the first things trainers in the military have to overcome. Teachers aren’t meant to kill and putting them into a situation where they have to deal with that choice will not go well.

So does this mean we abandon hope of stopping school shootings altogether and just live in fear? To a certain extent, yes. Practically speaking, absolutely. The only way to effectively stop school shooters is to get them before they start. Schools as they are now are what military and law enforcement people call “soft” targets. They need to be hardened. Schools need metal detectors at every entrance. During the day, schools should be under lock-down conditions. No one in the hall means no one gets shot. No unlocked doors means no one sneaks in. Ban bookbags. Amend dress codes to ban baggy clothes and jackets that make it easy to conceal weapons. If the students raise hell, if the parents raise hell . . . show footage of Columbine, Sandy Hook, Aurora’s movie theater, Las Vegas’ concert, this latest shooting in Florida, etc. Make them answer one question: “Would you rather be fashionable or would you rather bleed out on the floor of the cafeteria with a bullet in your spleen?”

I fully realize none of that is going to happen though. In fact, give it two weeks or so and everyone is going to go back to business as usual . . . until the next preventable school shooting takes place.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean.

2012 in review

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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 50,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 12 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.