The Bookmobile Man

31 Aug 2014

8/27/14

The Bookmobile Man

When Mr. and Mrs. Stoughton moved to our small Central Virginia community with their four children from Pennsylvania, everyone was unsure of them. They were outsiders. They had a strange name. They were the unknown. They found their place in the community by becoming involved in its activities. They both played pivotal roles in my childhood and my growth.
Mrs. Stoughton became my first grade teacher. I knew how to read before I started school, and Mrs. Stoughton recognized this. She encouraged me to read books I was interested in rather than stay with the class in reading groups. What I remember most about her class is how equally everyone was treated: from the children with two parents and a nice house, to the child with one parent who struggled to make ends meet (me), to the students who came to school in faded, patched clothing and had no money for lunch, medical car, or Santa Claus. And I remember music time. We sang learning songs as she played on a beat-up old piano.
It was many years later that I learned of the role Mr. Stoughton had played in my nurturance. I was a teacher of several years by then, and home for the weekend with my mother. They were both retired, Mr. Stoughton was in poor health, and they had built a new solar heated house. They had invited some neighbors in to see the new dwelling. Mom had been invited, so I tagged along. I was delighted to share with Mrs. Stoughton our common bond in our love of teaching. It was at the end of that discussion that I found out how important Mr. Stoughton had been to my intellectual growth as a child.
Our small rural community did not have a library. The nearest library was in town, a half an hour away. But we had a bookmobile in the summer. And I loved the bookmobile! I’d check out the maximum number of books allowed each time, read them rapidly, and then chomp at the bit waiting for the bookmobile to return at the end of the two week period. Eventually, the librarian, when she realized I really did read every book I checked out, bent the rules and I was allowed to check out more books than anyone else.
Over our tea and cookies, I learned that at one point the county decided to discontinue the bookmobile. For the use it was getting, it wasn’t worth the money spent. When that decision came up for a vote at the Board of Supervisors, Mr. Stoughton stepped forward to speak.
He told of a child who read voraciously. The librarian had difficulty keeping the van stocked with books for this child because she read so many books in the two week period. Then Mr. Stoughton appealed to the Board members who would vote yes or no on continuing the bookmobile. “That bookmobile is the life line for this child in the summer. Who knows where her reading may take her in her future. It would be a travesty to deny this child books. I pay taxes here and I say, if even one child uses that bookmobile, it is our duty to keep paying for it.” The Board voted to continue the bookmobile.
I was nearly in tears after Mr. Stoughton told his story. I had no idea all this had happened all those years ago. Truly the bookmobile was my lifeline in the summer. I was eternally grateful for Mr. Stoughton’s intervention, and I thanked him that night.
His response was, “It was right to do that. No one should deny a child books. Look at what came of reading from that bookmobile. Today you are a teacher. I was right.”

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Consuming an Apple

31 Aug 2014

8/27/14

Consuming an Apple

One day while I was standing on hall duty, Mr. Battle, my principal, came to stand with me. He was eating an apple. I watched him as he ate the whole apple, core and seeds, too. I tried to be circumspect in my observation, but he must have seen something in my face.
“You are surprised I eat all of the apple,” he said to me.
I admitted I was.
“When I was a boy we didn’t get fruit very often. I learned to savor all of it when I did get it,” he said. He went on to tell me he had attended a segregated school in Washington, D.C.. Everything in his school was a castoff from the white schools. The desks and chairs were scarred or broken. The books were dog-eared, torn, and worn, and out of date. But his teachers had made the best of what they had, and the students had been eager to learn. He was a testament to the fact that poor school did its job well.
I took his story to heart. I learned that when I was given a gift, a blessing, I should use all that gift, not just the part I liked or had hoped for. There is nourishment even in the core and the seeds of apples, so they too should be treasured.
One other thing Walter Battle taught me. Our Special Education Department at Suitland High School was small. The department chair was an African American man well twice my age. He had been in education a long time, and like Mr. Battle, he had been educated during the time of very separate and not equal schools. Mr. Reid was good with our students. He knew how to talk with them and how to reach them. He, however, wasn’t very comfortable with the ever increasing documentation and paperwork that our field required.
One day Mr. Battle called the department into his office for a meeting. He asked Mr. Reid how everything was in the department. Mr. Reid gave a synopsis of our progress, and gave me credit for being on top of the IEPs and federal documentation. Then to everyone’s astonishment, Mr. Battle announced he was appointing me as the new department chair. I don’t think anyone was more surprised than me, except Mr. Reid. I’ve always wondered what Mr. Battle said to Mr. Reid after that meeting. It must have felt like a betrayal, and treachery, to Mr. Reid.
But I realized that Mr. Battle had to do what he felt was best for the forward progress of the entire department. For him, that meant I must be the leader in name as well as actions. I was forever grateful to him for his faith in me, and his courage in acting for the greater good.
Mr. Battle died recently. It was at that time that I found how deeply he had been involved in education for his whole life. He touched tens of thousands of young people as a teacher, an administrator, a fund raiser, and a mentor. He also touched and guided hundreds of educators, like me. For that experience, I am thankful.

BAMorris

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Mother Echo

31 Aug 2014

BAMorris

8/31/14

Mother Echo

I am my mother’s echo.
Her shadow self and
Her dreams come true.
I look in the mirror
And see her face in mine.
Her eyes blink back at me.
And I find I am content.
Being my mother’s
Daughter feels right.
Thinking her thoughts;
Living her dreams fit.
Every action colored
By what she believed.
I have stepped into
The woman she was.
I hope she is pleased.
I know I am.

BAMorris

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Mother Mirror

31 Aug 2014

8/31/14

Mother Mirror

Losing a mother is harder on a daughter, I think, because a mother is a mirror of who the daughter may become. We watch our mothers to see our own shadow as it grows into the woman we will become.
I remember watching my mother apply lipstick, the only makeup she used. How often I mimicked that pursing of the lips to get the correct tension for the lipstick. Years later when I tried such additions as blush, eyeliner, and mascara, I had no blueprint for how they were applied or how they should look. I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten it right! But I know about lipstick. Apply just to the edges of the lips. Carefully wipe away any that drifted over the ridge of the lip, and then blot the lips with a tissue by putting the tissue between the lips and compressing (or kissing) the lips on the tissue.
Even when as teenagers we said we would never be like our mother, we have slid right into the template of their personalities as we aged. Our face starts to assume the familiar shape of hers. Eventually someone will say casually, “You look so much like your mother!” And when you look in the mirror, you realize you do. Then her opinions and beliefs you tossed to the side when you were younger begin to gravitate back to your mind, and become yours now. You’ve become the echo of your mother.
Losing a mother feels like the opening of a bottomless hole in your being. Where she was your foundation and balance, there is nothing. It doesn’t matter that for many of us, our mother was gone in soul long before the body left. As long as she still breathed on the earth, we had something strong to shore us up. And then one day she’s gone, and we are as adrift as if were flotsam on a massive ocean. Nothing is secure. Nothing is sure. It takes months, sometimes years, to find our place again in this world in which we are left to live. For if the mirror of who we are is broken, who are we?

BAMorris

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Virginia and James

31 Aug 2014

8/18/14 and 8/22/14

Virginia and James

This has been a summer of family reconnection. I’ve been meeting the descendants of James Henry Payne and Virginia Wise Payne all summer. James and Virginia were cousins who married in 1876 and had ten children. Those ten children had a total of forty-six children. Some had only one or two children, while others had eight, nine, or fourteen.
Those forty-six grandchildren went on to have great-grandchildren, of which I am one. I have no accurate count of the original forty-six’s offspring. I know of seventy-five, but it could be one hundred or more.
I didn’t set out to do this. Most of the meetings have just happened. Many of those great-grandchildren I knew as a child, but that was over fifty years ago. Now we are all grown men and women, with children and grandchildren of our own. I’ve met them individually. I’ve met them in groups. With each meeting I look for features that tie them to me, hints of the “Payne look” that all the original ten children had. Some still carry that look within their genes: that tall, thin body with a serious face. Most don’t. We look like the mothers and fathers whose blood mingled with the Payne’s over the generations.
No matter how we look, we are all bound by our ties to Great-grandmother Virginia and Great-grandfather James. To all my Payne cousin out there: I know our blood connection and I salute you.

BAMorris

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8/18/14

The Common Denominator

I am no experience in using the Common Core educational standards. I have not had to work with them; teach using them; or be tested on their mastery. But I have friends who have. They are both experienced teachers and excellent educators. And they like the Common Core.
Having been a teacher for many years, I have seen public education change. Therefore, I feel confident in saying that there is a need for a standard across the country to insure that all students are receiving the same quality education. The Common Core seems a step in that direction. It provides benchmarks to insure all children are performing at an equitable level as they progress through school. It also looks back to the days when students left school strong in writing, reading and ‘rithmetic.
Whatever the reason, students today are not gaining firm foundations in those 3 R’s. They are not able to read critically to understand the dynamics of character interplay, the plot, or the messages woven into a story. They can’t express themselves in the written language. Often, they can’t write a complete, coherent, correctly punctuated sentences, much less a paragraph. And they struggle with mathematics concepts because they haven’t mastered the basics of adding, subtracting, multiplying, or dividing. If they don’t know their multiplication tables by rote (as my generation was drilled to learn), everything else becomes a challenge to learn.
There have been many articles written about states and school systems struggling to align to the Common Core standards. As rapidly as they adopted the Common Core, like children following behind the Pied Piper of education, they now are falling out of the line and rejecting it. Everyone seems to have an opinion about a national standardized plan of education. The Republicans, of course, are against it because it has President Obama’s stamp of approval. Tea Partyers hate it because it’s Big Government trying to control the states. The Bible Belters decry it as anti-Christian. And so on and so on. Everyone has their own reason to reject it.

What I know for sure is this: if the United States does not reexamine and overhaul its education system, we cannot continue to compete in world markets. Colleges are admitting freshmen who can’t think critically; who can’t write; and who can’t even start their college classes until they do remedial work to pull them up to college standards. Employers lament the fact that high school graduates are not ready to step into the workforce. Across the board the majority of young people who graduate from high school are nowhere as prepared for life, be it college, work, or military, as my generation was. So what do we do to fix this? The Common Core seems like a step in the right direction. It may not be the answer, but at least with it we are pulling our heads out of the sand and looking around.

BAMorris

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8/4/14 and 8/5/14

“Little Pitchers Have Big Ears”

My childhood was immersed in listening to women talk. Before I went to school, there were the voices of Helen Crutchfield and Rachel Johnson and my mother talking in the rhythm of shelling peas or peeling peaches in preparation for canning. I would have been sitting at their feet as they made clothing for their children or remade something from an older child to fit a younger child, or mended their husband’s work clothing. Gentle words of babies and weddings, or sick old people; and veiled coded sentences about scandalous behaviors between men and women.
When my aunts came to visit with their families, their conversations were spoken over making pies and biscuits, and frying chicken. They talked of life in the city: of jobs, and relatives who had also gone there for a better life; of the cost of everything being more there. It was from their conversations that I learned where I fit in the flow of family. My mother’s aunts and uncles and their children. First cousins and second cousins. Great-uncles who once lived there but were now back home in the country. Names rolled off their tongues of people I’d never met: maybe would never meet. But they were still family.
It was from my mother’s stories that I learned about human nature. Which
great-uncle beat his wife. Which cousin had been raped by her own daddy. Which two sisters had married two brothers. Which relative, a woman in her mid thirties, had married a boy of nineteen. Whose wife left him with three small children to raise alone. Whose children weren’t really theirs, but some sisters or brothers in reality. Scandal and drama. The stuff of life. So, is it any wonder that the frailty of human nature no longer shocks me? I had heard it all before at my mother’s feet all those years ago as the woman talked.

BAMorris

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Silence

07 Aug 2014

6/5/13
4/16/14

Silence

The gaunt, ghastly body
Is a silent stranger.
Fifty years of absence
Lay separating us.

Years ago I passed him
Walking a distant street.
Didn’t recognize him.
No way to know his name.

He was an “Ever Man.”
Until great-aunt queried.
“Don’t you know who that is?”
And I had to say no.

Shouldn’t blood call to blood?
Shouldn’t a woman know
Her own father’s face, form?
But I didn’t. No clue.

Now, I watch the rise, fall,
Of his chest in breathing.
His Spirit fluttering
To escape earthly shell.

Again I do not know
The man in front of me.
Strangers across abyss
Of time, deeds, neglect, loss.

I want ……. I don’t know what.
My innocence restored.
My childhood father back.
My family intact.

A chance to ask him Why?
How could he have left me?
To say, “I love you,” and
Disappear from my life.

Over fifty years of
Reaching out: Father’s Days,
Every birthday, Christmas.
Phone calls when I was grown.

Did any of those touch?
Or were they just spitting
Into the winds of the past?
Questions unanswered.

This man, from whom I get
My name, my heritage.
Lying on his death bed.
Still silent as always.

BAMorris

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Lunch With MJ

07 Aug 2014

8/4/14

Lunch With MJ

I had lunch with a former student today. Sitting across from me was a man, not the boy I remembered. We talked while we ate, taking turns leading the conversation. We talked of being an adult and adult problems. We talked of dreams and goals and road blocks, of decisions that weren’t easy. He seemed so young, with life all in front of him, and yet an old man, wise with lessons already learned and knowing he didn’t want to take the roads he’s seen others take.
I was impressed with the man he had become. It felt, to me, that he is headed in the right direction. He’s already well on the way to learning that what’s important is not what life throws at us, but how we handle those things. Many people never learn that lesson.
So I wondered, as we sat over our meal, what separated him from others very much like him, who made other choices. Choices that they could never undo or erase. Choices that limited their lives, and closed doors to them. One thing is the grounding his grandparents gave him as a child. The values they instilled in him. There is no guarantee of a child following the goals set forth by their caregivers. I’ve known children who had great parents, and still ended up being a criminal or a wastrel.
Second, is his ability to see where bad decisions have taken others, and choose something different for himself. Seeing where others have unwisely gone doesn’t stop many young people from traipsing right along down that same path as fast as they can stumble. Having a parent who is a drug addict, a criminal, or an abuser, should make their children say not to any of those ways of life. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Thirdly, I think he has a core of personal integrity that is part of his own makeup. His own need to do the right thing. And this is what sets this young man apart from others his age. He has a sense of right and wrong in his soul. His soul. Not his grandparents. Not his mother or father. Not his friends. But in his very being.
What a pleasure it was to spend time with this young man, and tell him I’m proud of him. Life isn’t through with him yet. And often it won’t be kind. But he is strong. He is centered. He knows what nurtures his life and soul, and he will make the right choices for himself when he has to.

Remember, who you are now is but the blueprint of who you will be tomorrow.

BAMorris

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I Love Yous

07 Aug 2014

8/7/14

I Love Yous

Saying I love you to someone is an unspoken promise. It implies you will be there for them; that you’ve got their back; that you are tied to them with some silken uncutable cord. It speaks of commitment. Saying those words is pledging your troth to them: it is a sacred vow.
A parent first says “I love you” to their child, meaning I will care for you, protect you, and guide you. Those magic words wrap an invisible net around the child that binds them to the parent forever. Those words create a place of safety and security where the child can always go and know that nothing can harm them. That’s why “coming home” is such a wonder feeling. You are then back in the net of I love you that your parents first wove around you when you were born.
Saying I love you means forever. It’s not, “I love you this moment, and tomorrow I may not.” It’s, “I love you for now, and for tomorrow, and for as long as I live, and for as long as my soul exists.” I remember my mother’s I love yous as a child. They were sweet and powerful. They surrounded me with her energy, and said to me, No matter what bad thing happens, I’ll be here for you. Mom is gone now. But I still hear her I love yous: in a letter I find that she wrote me years ago; in a poem she wrote about her new baby girl; in a gift she gave me for Christmas one year. Her I love yous will echo throughout my entire life.
In contrast, the last words my father said to me the day he walked out of my life were “I love you.” How do you make that promise to your child, then turn and walk away? It made his disappearance surreal. Hadn’t he just promised me he’d be there for me? And now he wasn’t. He wasn’t a man of words. I don’t remember his ever saying I love you before. So that made his promise even more painful. May be his I love you meant something else to him than it did to me. He had been deserted as a child, and I know his father never said I love you to him. So what did Daddy mean that morning when he said, “I love you”? I’ll never know. I doubt he even remembered it after he said it.
I’ve been blessed and cursed. My mother’s I love yous buoyed me though life. They gave me the strength to go into the world and dare things that scared the dickens out of me because she had my back. Daddy’s I love you kept me searching all his life. I tried to cash in on his promise to me with that I love you; to find the safety that it promised. Fool that I was (or six year old who remembered his words), I’d take a deep breath after he pushed me away, and come back to try again. Until his dying breath, I hoped he’d say one more time, “I love you,” and this time mean it.

BAMorris

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