Monday, August 24, 2009

100 Words Or Less: Predictions on health care

Today I'd like to hear something a little different from you on the issue of health care. I'm not looking for what you WANT to see happen with health-care reform; I'm interested in what you think WILL happen with health-care reform.

I'm hoping this will be a test of how the 24/7 news cycle in a given day or week matches how events really play out. Obviously, serious health-care reform -- especially a public option -- looks to be in trouble right now. But how about a year from now? Where will we end up then?

That's the kind of prediction I'm looking for. We'll come back to this along the way and see how the guesses turned out. Look into the future and tell me what you think... in 100 words or less.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Four teachers

On Tuesday I spoke at Beverly Woods Elementary School -- the principal, Caroline Horne, asked me to come talk to the teachers as they were getting ready for a new school year. One of the main rules of writing is, never use material once if you can use it twice. So here's the talk I gave. As you'll see, it's not exactly local news or anything... but maybe you have some memories of the teachers who made a difference for you.

When Ms. Horne called me a couple months ago to come and speak here, she was looking for me to give sort of a pep talk. To be honest, though, I’m not sure pep is what y’all need. I know it must be a strange time to be a teacher in CMS. If I were a teacher, I’d feel like I was getting a lot of conflicting messages right now about how I was valued, how I fit into this county’s larger plans, how much difference I was making in the world.

So I’m not going to stand here and tell you how everything is gonna be great, because I don’t know that, and I don’t think anyone else does either. What I want to tell you about this morning is four teachers who made a difference in one boy’s life.

My first-grade teacher was Clara Lewis. This was 1970, at a little elementary school on the coast of Georgia. I didn’t know until years later that it was the first year the schools in our county were fully integrated. I don’t know how it might have been different, because I don’t have anything to compare it to. All I can tell you is the first schoolteacher I ever had was a black woman, and I never knew there was anything different about it because Ms. Lewis kept our class busy and quiet and peaceful.

Now I will say that our whole elementary school was generally quiet and peaceful, and there was a reason for that. Our principal, Mrs. Barone, had on her desk a large wooden paddle that had an electrical cord coming out of the end. It was the stuff of legend. Nobody I knew actually got hit with the electric paddle, but everybody I knew seemed to KNOW somebody who got hit with the electric paddle. Now, of course, I know that she just drilled a hole and glued a power cord in there. But at the time, the electric paddle was the nuclear weapon of our elementary school. Nobody did anything really bad because we were all terrified that it would be launched.

By the way, feel free to use that electric-paddle idea here this year.

Back to Ms. Lewis: That first-grade classroom, in a changing school system, could have been a place of conflict or confusion. But instead it was a place of peace, where we all sat down together and learned. That was because of one great teacher.

My seventh-grade English teacher was Lillian Williams. My family had moved just before seventh grade started, from one side of the county to the other, and so I was in a new middle school. English was my first class on my first day of seventh grade. Ms. Williams got up and started telling us how much we would learn in the year ahead and how we’d all be ready for high school next year. Slowly, as she talked, it dawned on me that somehow I had landed in an eighth-grade classroom.

Well, it turned out that when I had enrolled, the assistant principal took one look at me – I was a big boy even back then – and assumed I was an eighth-grader. I was at a brand-new school, with no friends, and I was embarrassed. But Ms. Williams talked to me, and took a look at my test scores, and then she did something she didn’t have to do. She went to the principal and said: Let me keep him. So I took eighth-grade English, and seventh-grade everything else, and made two sets of new friends. I’m still best friends with a couple of those guys more than 30 years later. I even ended up playing Charlie Brown in the school play, which Ms. Williams directed. That year turned out to be one of the best years of my life, and it was because of one great teacher.

My 10th-grade English teacher was Brenda Hunt. When I was in 10th grade it would probably be fair to say I had not applied myself much in school. I had good grades, but I was just doing what it took to get by, and I had been hanging out with a pretty shady crowd. Ms. Hunt never said a word to me about any of this. What she said to me, instead, was that she thought I could write.

She was in charge of the high school literary magazine, and for the next three years I filled that sucker up with Stephen King wanna-be short stories, and authoritative-sounding essays, and sonnets written to girls who had never even heard of me. One thing I tell people who want to write for a living is that to be a good writer, first you have to be a bad writer. Ms. Hunt let me be a bad writer, and she showed me how to get better. I didn’t know it at the time, but I now had a career right in front of me, and it was because of one great teacher.

My high-school debate coach was Wayne Ervin. The other three teachers who played big roles in my life were serene and even-tempered. Mr. Ervin was… not. He used to keep a bundle of yardsticks in the corner of his classroom, and if he caught somebody not paying attention, he would crack a yardstick across the corner of his desk and just break it into splinters. Our senior year, some students went in together and bought him a steel yardstick about an inch thick. When I came back to visit from college, it was sitting in the corner of the room, bent in half.

But if you took Mr. Ervin’s salary, and divided by the number of hours he actually worked, he was probably making about half of minimum wage. He came in early and stayed late and traveled just about every weekend with his debate students and his Model United Nations students. I was in both of those groups. We were public-school kids, a lot of us lower-middle-class or worse, but Mr. Ervin had taught us so well that we went up against the private-school kids and held our own. I gained a confidence in those activities that I had never found in myself before. And that was because of one great teacher.

I suspect that many of you have already had students come through your classroom who will one day think of you as one great teacher. I know you don’t get paid what you ought to get paid, I know you don’t always get the respect you deserve… all I can tell you is that every time that bell rings, you are creating memories for the children in your class. And doing that job well can be a reward that lasts not only your lifetime, but the lifetimes of the kids you teach.

Let me tell one last quick story. When I was in high school, I got to be close friends with a guy named Virgil. We’ve been friends about 30 years now, and except for my wife, he’s the best friend I have. One day, years after we got to be friends, somehow we got to talking about the teachers we had when we were growing up. I was telling him about this great first-grade teacher I had at St. Simons Elementary named Ms. Lewis.

He looked at me like I had hit him with a brick.

Ms. Lewis was his grandmother.

And years after I had come through her class, of course she remembered that nice boy named Tommy. She’s in her 80s now. I still send her Christmas cards. And that’s the sort of thing that can happen in your life if you have one great teacher.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Jimi and Jose do the anthem

As a supplement to this morning's column about Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, here's the best YouTube I found of Hendrix doing the anthem:

And here's the best audio I could find of Jose Feliciano's version from the '68 World Series, also mentioned in the column... the video is a slideshow of a July 4th parade. Appropriate.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Creativity, and not quitting

I hear from a lot of people who want to be writers. They want to know the secrets to being a professional writer. You can easily spend thousands of dollars on books and magazines and seminars on how to be a successful writer -- or how to succeed in any kind of creative field. The one secret I know -- it's a secret most people don't want to hear -- is this:

Don't quit.

Ira Glass, of NPR's "This American Life," says it even better. Take this to heart, go create something, and have a great weekend.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Local boy does good

When I came to the Observer, 20 years ago this summer, I didn't know anybody. I was a one-person bureau in Lancaster, S.C., and on Tuesdays I drove up to Rock Hill for a staff meeting. That trip to Rock Hill was a big deal -- I wasn't making many friends in Lancaster, and it was good to just hang out with people I liked. The guy I ended up hanging out with most was one of our sportswriters, Joe Posnanski.

Joe was even younger and greener than I was. He had majored in accounting at UNC Charlotte until he realized one day that the last thing in the world he wanted to be was an accountant. What he really wanted was to write sports. So he wrote a letter to the Observer asking for a job. The paper took a chance on him and put him in a slot compiling agate, the tiny type of stats and standings on the sports page. Every night Joe would put together the agate, and in the spare moments between deadlines he would write columns about the sports news of the day. These columns were never published. Joe was writing for, literally, nobody. But somehow an editor found the columns in the computer system. The paper gave him a writing job. When I was down in Lancaster County, covering car wrecks and sewer-line breaks, he was in York County covering high-school basketball and writing the weekly volleyball notebook. We bonded over sports and music, we swapped stories from our favorite writers, we burned to get better and move up.

Sometimes, after work, we'd throw a baseball around in the parking lot of Joe's apartment complex, and we'd dream about where our careers might go. At the time our biggest dream was just to make it into the main office in Charlotte (we called it the Big House, or sometimes the Mothership). But sometimes we'd talk about other dreams, like maybe actually writing a column someday, or even working for a magazine. Our favorite magazine -- the defining magazine for both of us growing up -- was Sports Illustrated. They had the great Frank Deford, they had the brilliant Gary Smith, they told the kinds of stories we wanted to tell. But that was a dream too far away, in another galaxy somewhere.

Since those days in the parking lot, Joe moved on to write columns in Augusta, Ga., and then Cincinnati, and for the last 13 years in Kansas City. His blog has hundreds of thousands of readers. His third book is coming out in a few weeks.

And yesterday, my buddy Joe accepted an offer to become a senior writer at Sports Illustrated.

Joe has tremendous talent -- had it all along. But you can draw a straight line from Sports Illustrated back to those nights on the sports desk when he wrote stories for nobody, like shooting jumpers in an empty gym, hoping and planning for the day when he would get his chance.

I'm proud beyond words for my friend. But now I need to file this and get ready to write the next thing. That's what Joe would do.