Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Saying 'Thank You' to All the Ms. Sandras

Saying 'Thank You' to All the Ms. Sandras

Every school day just after 2 p.m., Sandra pushes her cart into my classroom to clean the bathroom and empty the trash cans. She is the school custodian and my students love her. When students hear her squeaky wheels in the hallway outside our door, they listen for her kind giggle as she enters the room. "Ms. Sandra! Ms. Sandra! Can I help you empty the trash? Can I help you?" they yell out with their hands waving in the air.
She responds, "Jennifer, you look so cute today! How you doin' VicTOR? Francisco, baby, you look like you're doing a good job for Mr. Barton. You come on over and help me today. Anna, honey, that's okay, you can help me tomorrow." She knows all of my students by name.
So I asked Sandra what I had been wondering for a while. “What do you like best about working at our school?" She put her hands on her hips and said, "It's the kids! I only take home about $20,000 a year, so it's not the money. I have to work second shift, so I don't like the hours. And people see me as just a janitor, so I don't like the way I'm treated sometimes. But I love the kids."
She does love our students. Last Friday, one of our second-graders was having a tough day. He hated teachers, he said.  At lunch when a teacher asked him to pick up trash he’d left at the table, he threw his tray onto the floor, stomped over to the corner and refused to budge. It was Sandra who helped put him back together again. "Now, you know you can't act that way. I know your momma,” she said in her precise, slow, southern drawl. “I'm gonna put her number in my cell phone and call her and tell her you're not actin' right." Soon, she had him cleaning up his tray and washing the table where his class had been sitting.
One day, I saw her give an extra milk to a student. "Sometimes, I buy my lunch and sit beside a child I know is hungry," she told me. "Then I can say, 'You can have some of this if you want it, or, ‘You can have some of that.' Children can't learn if they're hungry."
When she leaves my classroom, she walks across the hall. "Hello A," I hear her say. "Look at those new glasses on you. They make you look so handsome." She knows all of the names and stories of the students in that class, too.
"Mr. Barton," she said to me during a quiet moment after school, "I know 'bout these children because I come from where they come… Are you feelin' me? Sometimes, they need somebody to talk to them who understands them."
I see the way Sandra loves our students, the way she knows their names. How she talks to them and helps them.  I just want Sandra to know that someone noticed. I told her, “I'm glad you're at our school and I'm thankful for you."
Here’s to all the Sandras in our schools!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Listening for the Civil War's True Legacy

Listening for the Civil War's True Legacy

I walked down the newly plowed row with my grandpa, feeling the warm, red clay on the soles of my bare feet and listened to his stories and words of advice. I held a tomato plant in my hands, the rich, black potting soil falling off of the small, vulnerable roots, as he knelt and dug a place for it in the garden. “Hey,” he’d often start, “here's something my daddy told me when I was little. ‘God gave you two ears and one mouth because He wants you to listen twice as much as you speak. If you do that, you'll learn something. If you don't, you won't.’”

The memory of walking with my grandpa in his garden came back to me after I read Maureen Costello's Teaching Tolerance blog post, “What To Do About the Civil War?” I especially remember grandpa’s stories about his childhood on the family dairy farm in Greenville, S.C. in the 1920s. I liked to hear stories about the black folks who came and worked with him and his family. I heard hard work in his voice and saw struggle in his face when he talked about those times.

Remember, my grandpa was a son of the South Carolina soil, a soil that had produced slavery and Jim Crow. And his stories reflected his philosophical shift from the idea of white supremacy to the idea of equality. He described the black folks he’d grown up with in words both simple and stark.

“I guess I looked around our farm and saw them as tools,” he told me once. But “there was a teenager, about my age, who worked on our place. His name was Billy, and he helped me with my work. One day we were in the barn together, cleaning up the milking area, when he cut his hand on a piece of metal. Daddy wrapped it up in a rag soaked in kerosene, as was the remedy for most farm accidents at that time, and asked me to drive him home. As we headed toward the black folks part of our town, I thought to myself, ‘Billy must get up very early in the morning, earlier than me, to make it to our house on time.’ As we drove up to his house, which was what we called a shack, I thought, ‘I wonder if Billy can stay warm in there.’ As I saw him holding his injured hand and watched his momma hold him up and lead him up the creaking steps and through the rickety door, well, it seemed to be one of the first times I knew that black folks had hands and feet and needs just like me. They weren't tools. They were people.”

My grandpa didn't fill my mind with the idea of white supremacy. He filled my heart with the stories of humanity. For that, I am thankful.

So now we are walking down the row of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Unlike in my grandpa's garden, this row is not newly plowed. It has been gone over year after year, decade after decade, with the same rhetoric. A group just met here in South Carolina to remember the 1860 convention where the first Secession Ordinance was signed, creating the Confederate States of America. A group will meet next week in Charleston for a Secession Ball to remember, as the organizer of the event said, that "the secession movement in South Carolina was a demonstration of freedom."

I think about my students—who are 7-, 8-, and 9-year-olds—listening to the stories around them. What will they hear? Will they hear hard work in the voices and see struggle in the faces of the storytellers as they explain what happened 150 years ago? Will they hear that white supremacy was a blight on everyone it touched and undermined the notion that all people are created equal?

I hope they will. I'm listening. So are the children.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Teaching As Human Rights Work

Teaching As Human Rights Work

Abel Barrera Hernández has worked tirelessly to bring justice to some of Mexico’s most marginalized communities. For his work as founder and director of the Tlachinollan Center in southern Mexico, Hernández received an award from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights last month.

That, coupled with the fact that Friday is Human Rights Day, got me thinking how I, as a teacher, must also fight for human rights.

Human Rights Day is a good time for educators and students to commit to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly 62 years ago. It is also a good time to think creatively about ways we can build a better world for all people.

Article 26 of the declaration states, “Everyone has the right to education" and goes on to define education in a human rights context. One of our responsibilities as teachers is to turn the words of this declaration into deeds, to help our students embrace and embody its ideals.

I have a third-grader named T in my reading group who struggles to read. He is an African-American male, so he is one of the most vulnerable people in America’s public school system. T is small in stature but big in heart. So far this year, his greatest accomplishment (according to him) is the moment in P.E. when he became the first third-grader to climb to the top of the conditioning rope.

T can be silly and easily gets off task, two things that make him a tough student for any teacher. However, he is also highly motivated to learn. One day he asked, "Mr. Barton, can you give me some homework tonight?" How many times is a teacher asked that question? Just months before, I found that he could only read four words per minute from a story written for second graders.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently wrote that nearly a  million students leave our schools for the streets each year. He reminds us that teachers are nation builders, and that the future of our country and the world will be built up or torn down by the students making their way through our classrooms. But for students like T, there is a still a great deal of work to be done before he can think critically, problem-solve, collaborate and communicate well.

On a personal level, I understand that my work is similar to the work of Abel Barerra Hernández. I borrow from his courage and commitment and dedicate myself to protect the human right to education for all of my students. This is vital for my school, where more than 90 percent of our students rely on free and reduced lunch and Medicaid.

On an academic level, I have to have high standards—especially for my tough students who get distracted. As Thomas Friedman said, we teachers are builders. The building is under construction. We all have a big stake in its completion.

Friday, December 3, 2010

International Day of Persons with Disabilities

International Day of Persons with Disabilities

One of my favorite places in the world is the classroom across the hall from me. This room full of wonderful children and teachers is affectionately known throughout our school as 'Mr. David's class.' Each morning, as I pass by their door on my way to pick up my second grade reading group, I hear music.

Today, I heard the sound of that music and stopped to listen. I looked through the window in the door and saw the students and teachers sitting in their chairs in a circle. They saw my bespectacled face smiling at them. Mr. David called out, "Come on in, Mr. Barton! We like to have visitors!" I'm shy by nature but their music and their hospitality drew me out of my proverbial shell and into their circle.

They were singing The World Is A Rainbow by Greg and Steve. Mr. David and Mrs. Fuller were signing the signs that go along with the song and the kids were singing and signing along. The classroom is a mixture of students who have Down's Syndrome and Autism and they were out of key, off rhythm, and loud. But the finest of choirs and the masters of art couldn't have created a more beautiful sound or a more splendiferous picture than they did together.

My favorite moment was when L, a little boy with autism who has never spoken to me, looked over from Mrs. Fuller's lap and stirred his arm around and around to the words, "Now you be you, And I'll be me. That's the way we were meant to be. But the world is a mixing cup. Just look what happens when you stir it up!"

Paul Farmer is one of my heroes. He is a medical doctor and an anthropologist who has spent most of his life and work between Harvard University and Haiti. He has written an insightful book titled Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. In Chapter 5, "Health, Healing, and Social Justice: Insights from Liberation Theology," he works out the idea that doctors are called upon to make 'a preferential option for the poor,' to take best practices in medicine to the smallest and most forgotten people in our world. He inspires me to work out the similar idea that teachers are called upon to make this same preferential option for the poor, so I ask myself each day, "Where are the smallest and most forgotten children and teachers in my school?” I find them tucked away on our 2nd, 3rd, and 5th grade hallways, working in their special education worlds.

Even though I am a regular education teacher, I try to meet every special education student in my school and become friends with their teachers. We eat breakfast and lunch together and try to do special projects together during the school year. One of the greatest compliments I have received as a teacher was when one of our TMD teachers told me, "Mr. Barton, the Mom of one of my students asked, 'Who is that nice teacher who speaks to us every morning and who knows our kids by name?' and I told her it was you!" Knowing the names of all of our special education students and hearing them call, "Hey Mr. Barton!" is my badge of honor as a teacher.

In the preface to the original edition of Awakenings, the great neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks wrote, "My aim is not to make a system, or to see patients as systems, but to picture a world, a variety of worlds - the landscapes of being in which these patients reside." I believe our special education children aren't nameless asteres planetai (wandering stars), moving in seemingly aimless ways, with no gravity to keep them in orbit. They are worlds in our system waiting to be explored, wanting to be known by name, hoping to be friends with other people who will visit the landscapes of their being and say ‘hello.’ As Greg and Steve say in their song, “the world is a rainbow with many kinds of people and a place that takes all kinds of people to make it go around.” I’m thankful for the special education students and teachers at my inner-city elementary school and the colors they add to my world.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Rosa Parks

55 years ago today, Rosa Parks was on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The next day, there was a small headline on page 9 of the Montgomery Advertiser that read, "Negro jailed here for overlooking bus segregation." I hope there will always be committed, courageous, creative people who overlook unjust laws. Here's to the overlookers!

Rosa Parks

Friday, October 29, 2010

Helping All Kinds Of Families

Helping All Kinds Of Families

I wrote this piece for the Southern Poverty Law Center and they posted it on the Teaching Tolerance website. I love to write and writing for the SPLC is my "political impulse" motive for writing, my desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people's idea of the kind of society they should strive for.

The small essays I write for the SPLC often deal with controversial topics, as political writing often does. They are confrontational by nature and are bound to meet resistance from people with different thoughts and feeling on the subject matter. I welcome this confrontation and resistance because it is through them that we grow. I always welcome your opinions and feedback - both for and against my ideas - and value your friendship!

Helping All Kinds Of Families

It was meet-the-teacher night at my elementary school. The room was ready for a new class of second-graders. The rubric for grading paragraphs and stories was on the wall around the writing center. A scientific method poster hung on the wall in the science corner. Essential questions for numbers and operations were on the chalkboard in the math area. And a picture commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education was on the social studies wall. I was ready to help my children become successful students.

Seven-year-olds can be gregarious when they get to know you, but they are typically shy when being introduced to people. I smiled as my new students hid behind their parents and grandparents upon entering my room. I looked into their eyes, shook their hands and told them how happy I was to be their teacher. “Who are you?” I asked myself about them, “And who will you become this year in my classroom?”

I was surprised when a little boy named D walked into the room, looked up at me, and said, “Hey!” He started talking as if we had known each other our whole lives. He was a living definition of the word “gregarious.” Soon, his mom caught up with him. “I can already tell I'm going to have a good year with your son,” I told her. She looked down at the floor, and I saw that she was the shy one in their family. “Um, can I talk with you?” she asked.

We sat down at the writing table. “D's dad doesn't live with us,” she began. “He has two moms. I have a partner. We've been together for two years. I wonder, what do you think about that?”

I remembered reading an article a few years ago about the way we feel the world. The author pointed out that the thoughts and emotions we develop about economics, culture, religion and politics are formed by what we see out our back screen doors. I was born and raised in the Upstate of South Carolina, so the world around me has formed me to see D's mom as—what?

One of the U.S. senators from my state, Jim DeMint lives in my town. Recently, he reaffirmed his belief that gay people should not be public school teachers. I wonder what he would have said to D's mom. I wonder how he would see lesbian and gay parents and students if he were a teacher. Can you treat people with dignity and respect, can you treat people as human beings, if you cannot accept their sexual orientation as a part of who they are?

“I am here to help D become the very best student he can be,” I answered. “And I am here to support you, I am here to support your partner, I am here to support your family. I am here. Let's work and see what good things we can build together.” I hope for the day we can work and build good things together—all of us.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

United Farm Workers

Library on a Donkey

I came across this story about a teacher in La Gloria, Colombia named Luis Soriano Bohorque.  He puts a library on a donkey and takes the books to children in the countryside around his village.  He saw that many of the students at his school didn't have books in their homes so they didn't have stories to take them to new places or information to help them do research on topics of interest to them.  He didn't turn a blind eye to the problem.  Instead, with compassion and creativity, he set up a library in his house and made a portable book shelf/table to use to take up to 100 books up to four hours away from his village.  He lets children read those books while he helps them with his homework.  He is a saint in our world today.

I hope for the same kind of compassion and creativity that comes from Luis' heart for all of us!

Gotta Keep Reading - Ocoee Middle School

Monday, September 20, 2010

Passin' By

Passin' By

There is a wonderful scene in Harper Lee's monumental novel To Kill A Mockingbird where the all white jury has returned an unjust verdict against Tom Robinson. Atticus begins to wearily walk out of the courthouse. Jem, Dill, and Scout are in the balcony with the black folks of the town.

Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus’s lonely walk down the aisle.
“Miss Jean Louise?”
I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes’s voice was as distant as Judge Taylors’s:
“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”

During the first weeks of school, Scout's story came back to me as I was benchmarking the reading levels of our 1st and 2nd Grade students. One of our 1st Graders named M sat down and looked across at me with clear, brown eyes. She is one of our many English as a second language students. Her parents speak only Spanish in the home. Canola and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco have written brilliantly and eloquently about children like her in their book Learning A New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society where they remind us how valuable and vulnerable our immigrant students are in the first years they are in America. M is indeed learning a new land.

"M, do you speak Spanish at home? Do your Mommy and Daddy speak Spanish at home?


"And you speak English at school."

"Yes, I'm bilingual!"

"You are bilingual. You have to be so smart to be able to speak two languages and to help your Mommy and Daddy understand your teachers."

You do have to be smart to live in one land and learn another.  After M finished her benchmark test, after she translated my English into Spanish and the Spanish back into English for me, and stood up and walked with me to her classroom, I felt like saying, "Teachers and administrators, stand up.  M's passin'."

Monday, September 13, 2010

New Moses

New Moses

We made a circle for our guided reading time. I sat down in my trusty old Hinkle rocking chair, and my students sat down crisscross applesauce on their red carpet squares. My second-graders’ stomachs were full and their energy level was low. They were ready to hear a story.
I held up our book, Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, by Carole Boston Weatherford,and they looked with wonder at Kadir Nelson’s cover illustration. I use reciprocal teaching in my guided reading lessons, so I move from powerful predicting to careful clarifying to quizzical questioning to super summarizing to help my struggling readers develop the skills they need to become great readers. I began the powerful predicting part of the lesson by saying, "Let's take a picture walk through this book and predict what we think is going to happen in the story."
When we turned to the fifth picture in the book, we looked at Harriet Tubman sleeping under a full moon among foxes, raccoons, and possums in the underbrush of some woods. One of my students raised her hand and said, "It looks like she's hiding from somebody." Another said, "She looks worried so somebody must be chasing her." I was guiding my students to know the life and work of Harriet Tubman and to understand the contributions she made to the South and to the North before the Civil War. I was trying to help them understand how to make, revise, and confirm predictions in a story. These understandings are parts of the state academic standards for social studies and reading.
As we took our picture walk, though, something happened that reminded me that I'm not only a teacher in my classroom. I'm a learner, too. J, a serious and soft-spoken Latino child, raised his hand and said, "That picture reminds me of my dad. He tried to come here from Mexico. The police chased him and made him go away. He was scared like Harriet Tubman." Wow. I will always remember the sincerity in his eyes as he connected his life to this great children’s book. He helped me understand that the story of Harriet Tubman is still being lived out today in the lives of Latino families in my school and across the country.
The political climate in my state, South Carolina, increases the chances that our state legislature will follow Arizona's lead and pass a strict new illegal immigration law in 2011. We already have a law that Republican Gov. Mark Sanford touts as one of the strictest in the nation. People who scapegoat Latinos for our nation’s problems foment resentment and hate against them. My school is susceptible to this disease of resentment because we are surrounded by it on television, radio, the Internet and in the words of some of our neighbors.
Mary Bauer and Sarah Reynolds authored the report Under Siege: Life for Low-Income Latinos in the South for the Southern Poverty Law Center. They explain that "Latinos in the South—many of whom came here to escape crushing poverty in their home countries—are encountering wide-spread hostility, discrimination and exploitation." This report helps us understand the struggle for life that many of our Latino students take on, a clandestine struggle like the one Harriet Tubman made all those years ago.
Learning from my children is a vital part of what I do as a teacher, too. The last picture in the book is of Harriet Tubman sitting with a staff in her hand. She is looking straight ahead with calm, courageous eyes and a weathered, compassionate face. Below her are the words, "Well Done, Moses, Well Done."
On that day in a guided reading class in a small inner-city elementary school in Greenville, South Carolina, J was our Moses. "Well Done, J, Well Done."

Monday, September 6, 2010



I like to receive letters.  When I was a little boy, I lived on a straight street and could see the mail truck coming from way down the road.  After the mailman stopped in front of our house, I ran with hope in my heart down our front walkway, through the two maple trees Dad planted when I was born, across the street to our mailbox. Would there be a letter for me? Was someone in the big, wide world thinking of me?

One day last year on the school playground, a second grader handed a note to me.  She said, “One of your students asked me to give this to you.”  I unfolded the letter.

Dear Mr. Barton, hi it Odeth from 2th  grade  I miss you a lot  I wanted to know about you so much  I am being good  I am in 4th grade  Do you miss me.  I live in __________  I go to school in __________  I hope you will come to my school…can you come visit me in school  ask for my name…I am 10 year old  I want you to come to my school.

Your best student,

Odeth was a student in my very first class as an elementary school teacher. I still remember her big dimples and her inquiring mind. I teach in a school where about 1/3 of my students are from Mexico, Central America, and Latin America. Odeth and her family are from Guatemala.  

Michael W. Savage wrote an article for the Washington Post titled “Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah may follow Arizona's lead on immigration law.” He noted that the political climate in South Carolina improves the chances that our state legislature will follow Arizona’s lead and pass a strict new illegal immigration law in 2011. In 2008, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford (R) signed an illegal immigration bill into law and touted it as the strictest in the nation. Some state lawmakers are seeking to build on it and introduced an Arizona type bill less than a week after Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed her states bill into law.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “politicians and media figures have only encouraged this environment by spreading false propaganda that scapegoats immigrants for our nation’s problems and foments resentment and hate against them. This discrimination against immigrants – primarily those from Latin America – constitutes a civil rights crisis.”

In his Foreword to Three Screenplays, Horton Foote wrote about creating a screenplay from Harper Lees monumental novel To Kill A Mockingbird and discovering “the evil and hypocrisy in this small southern pastoral town along with and through the eyes of the children.”

I hope you will join me in remembering that behind demagoguery, political rhetoric, and laws there are children like Odeth, children with big dimples and inquiring minds, children who send letters hoping to be remembered, children who see.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Think Different

Think Different

I came across an article titled "In Praise of Dissent" in the July/August issue of Ode Magazine. Have you heard of Ode? It's the magazine for 'intelligent optimists.' Isn't that a wonderful way for a magazine to describe itself? I found it in the periodicals section of the Greenville County Public Library and I'm glad I did. It has become one of my favorites.

The article by Jeremy Mercer is a look into the lives of people who 'think different.' They're the ones Apple founder Steve Jobs wrote about in his poem "Here's to the Crazy Ones."

Here's to the crazy ones.
The misfits. The rebels.
The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes.
The ones who see things differently.

They're not fond of rules.
And they have no respect for the status quo.

You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them,
disbelieve them, glorify them or vilify them.
About the only thing you can't do is ignore them.

Because they change things.
They invent. They imagine. They heal.
They explore. They create. They inspire.

They push the human race forward.

Maybe they have to be crazy.
How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art?
Or sit in silence and hear a song that's never been written?
Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?

We make tools for these kinds of people.
While some see them as crazy ones, we see genius.

Because the people who are crazy enough to think they
can change the world, are the ones who do.

Think Different

Mercers article reminds us that people who 'Think Different' are persecuted by people who think alike, are crushed in heart, soul, mind, and body by those who yell, "We hate what you think, feel, and say...we hate who you are!"

It reflects on the truth that those persecuted, hated ones are the very people who bring the compassion, commitment, and creativity to the world that change it into a more human place for everyone to live.

Along with this article, I also recommend a book by Gregory Burns, a professor at Emory University, called "Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How To Think Differently."

Let's do things that others say can't be done, especially for the smallest and most forgotten people in our world.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The federal courthouse in Charleston, S.C. - July 19, 2010


Tonight my family and I walked along Queen Street into the middle of downtown Charleston to the waterfront park at the harbor.  As we ambled along the cobbled street past Poogan's Porch, historic churches, and Meeting Street I thought about the Civil Rights Movement history of Charleston.  I saw tourists huddled around tour guides hearing stories about the places and people of the old city, patrons of pubs and restaurants wobbling along with their arms around each others shoulders enjoying their pints of beer, glasses of wine, and plates of shrimp and grits, and a young black man sitting in solitude on top of a table on the harbor walkway weaving flowers and crosses out of sweet grass in the way of the Gullah tradition and I wondered if they knew that fifty-some-odd years ago Thurgood Marshall began arguing the case of Briggs v. Elliott in the federal courthouse in Charleston before Judge J. Waties Waring, a case that would evolve into Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas and a judge who was despised by the high society folks of the city and who was offered a one way train ticket out of the state by the South Carolina legislature.  Do we still ask the old questions - What does it mean to be human?  How can we weave a more human world for everyone?  I wonder.  I hope. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

character sketch - Carver

Just tonight, he stood quietly beside his desk with a magnifying glass in his hand. I looked at him from the splintered pine frame of our kitchen door where I was standing. He turned around slowly, like a person who is in deep thought, and looked at me through the lens of the glass. His magnified eye was astonishingly big and brown – as big as the globe in my second grade classroom and as brown as the turned soil of our farm.

- Carver, why you up? It’s the middle of the night.

- I cain’t sleep.

- What you doin’?

- I’m studyin’ a tomato.

I walked to him and knelt beside him. I turned his magnifying glass around and looked into his eye. I saw clearly the parts of his eye that my teacher taught to me at school – the colored part that is the iris and the black part that is the pupil. But it was Carver, my five-year-old brother, who taught me how these parts work together to give us our sense of sight. It was Carver who helped me understand how we see. His lessons always began and ended with questions and were filled with an amazing assortment of facts that came from God only knows where. Our talk about seeing went something like this –

- Carter, you know the five senses?

- Yeah. Let me think…seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching.

-Did’ya know if we divided our brains into three parts, two of the parts would be filled up by seeing?

- Naw, I didn’t know that. Seein’ is that important, huh?

- Yeah. You know what a person who studies the inside parts of the body is called?

- Naw, I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout that.

- Well, that person is called an anatomist. An anatomist is kind of like an artist whose art he’ps us know
where those parts are and what they do. Did you know there were artists like that?

- Naw, I didn’t.

- Yeah, there was this anatomist in Africa a long time ago named Rufus. He he’pd us understand the parts of the eye. Do you want me to teach you about the eye?

- Sure

- There’s a thin layer on the inside of the eyeball. It’s the retina. No one could see into the retina until microscopes were invented. When people looked inside the retina for the first time they found millions of rod and cone cells. The rods and cones find rays of light and turn them into signals for the optic nerves. The optic nerves send signals to the brain and it turns them into pictures. ‘Cause of the way lenses work, the picture is upside down. The brain turns it right side up. Idn’ that amazing?

- Yeah, it's amazing. And, you know what? So are you.

He taught me the parts of the eye that helped him see the world as everyone sees it. In that moment, though, deep in the dark of night, I tried to see the parts that I didn’t understand, the parts that woke my brother in the middle of the night to study a tomato while our corner of the world slept, the parts that helped him see the world as only Carver could see it. But those parts remained hidden to me. I gently put my arm around his shoulders and held him close to me.

character sketch - Momma

Everything was covered in white. The fields that provided food for us to eat and vegetables for us to trade, the trees that provided shade for us to rest under and lumber for us to sell, and even my Poppa's hunched shoulders as he trudged his way to the barn to milk the cows were blanketed in snow. 1948 would be a year of surprises for us in Clarendon County, South Carolina and for all of the people in all of the places in the United States of America where the Jim Crow laws were enforced by law or by practice, the Jim Crow laws that gave us black folks our place and them white folks their place and no place for us all to be together. Yes, it would be a year of surprises, the first of which was the coldest stretch of days and the heaviest and deepest of snows that the midlands had seen in a hundred years. Momma had her arm around me as we snuggled close together and watched Poppa disappear in the blinding whiteness of the pouring snow.
- My, my...look at all that snow, Carter...look at all that snow.
- It's turnin' ever'thin' white. It's beautiful.
- Yes, sweetheart, it is beautiful.
- It makes ever'thin' look so bright and clean and new.
- Yes, it does. But, you know what? I like to think about what's underneath the snow.
- But there's nothin' but frozen ground and bare limbs underneath the snow.
- And don't forget there's a Poppa under it, too!
- Hee hee hee. So why do you like to think 'bout things like that, things that're frozen and bare?
- Well, it's 'cause of som'thin' that happened to me when I was a little girl about your age. Ev'ry Sat'dy afternoon, my Daddy and Momma would take me and your Aunts and Uncles into town. We didn't own our own farm like your Daddy and I do now, so we lived in what was called a 'sharecroppers shack' on Mr. Wilson's farm. That shack was a dark, bare place that was too small for a family of nine. We all worked so hard on that farm, but on Sat'dy afternoons Mr. Wilson let us outta work to go to town. In town, ev'rythin' looked like it does now under this blanket of snow - white, clean, and new.
The som'thin' that happened that I wanna tell you 'bout is this. We were walkin' down the sidewalk, Daddy in front, Momma behind him, and the seven of us chil'ren all in a row from the tallest to the shortest. My goodness, we did look like ducks in a row, we chil'ren did. A young man and a young woman, a white young man and woman, came a'walkin' toward us arm in arm. As was the custom, we stepped off the sidewalk to let the white folks pass. I looked down at the ground, as I was supposed to do when a white man passed me, and it was then that I saw a sup'risin' thing.
The cement sidewalk had a small crack in it, and out of that broken place grew a flower, a tiny flower. Even though I was a'wearin' my Sat'dy dress, I knelt down on the ground close to the flower so I could cup my hands around it and really see it. It was the most beautiful flower I had ever seen in my life and it is still the most beautiful flower I ever saw. Its petals were red and yella, its stem was green, and the center a'holdin' it's seeds was black. The yella was the color of the sun in the early mornin', the red was the color of the sun in the late ev'nin', the green was the color of the april fields at dawn and dusk, and the black was 'zactly the color of black folks like us's skin. And there was that flower, a'growin' through the hard, white concrete that covered the earth!
That's why I like to think 'bout things that are covered up, Carter, 'bout things that're underneath. Oft'times, you cain't see them but they're there and they're beautiful and they're a'waitin' for a crack so they can grow and be seen and make the world a better place.
Now, I like to spend time with my Momma and if I have to choose the best times I spend with her then I'd choose times like this, times when she holds me close and tells me stories. Just now I felt her protective arms around me, felt my future brother or sister move and move in her belly to the rhythm of her words, breathed in the smells of buttermilk and flour from this mornings biscuits, and saw her story as if I were there with her in her mind and in her heart. Everything' was covered in white. The ground around me was frozen. But everything inside of me was full of color and warm.

character sketch - Poppa

“You always ‘a askin’ questions,” said my Poppa early to me one morning as I walked my shoeless feet through the freshly turned soil. His hands were on the plow and he was following our old mule Charlie and I was following him.

“That’s a good thing, askin’ questions. Did you know questions drive the world forward, like I’m drivin’ ol’ Charlie down the row? Did you know questions can turn the world upside down, like the plow turns the hard, rocky ground into soft, helpful soil? Did you know questions are like the seeds we’re gonna plant in these rows? It takes a long time to get from seeds to fruits and vegetables and it takes a long time to get from questions to answers that can make a difference in the world. But seeds change to food that feeds people and questions change to answers that can make the world a better place. You keep ‘a askin’ questions always, Carter. Always keep ‘a askin’ questions.”

I’ve always tried to do just that, to ask as many questions as I can ask.

Monday, July 12, 2010

fireflies and soil

fireflies and soil

- Hey fireflies.

At the sound of Carver's voice the fireflies in the mason jar on the table beside our beds began flashing their lights until a warm glow surrounded us.

A surprising thing happened on the day he was born. My little baby brother was wrapped in a blanket, snuggled by Momma’s side with his wide brown eyes open. He was as still as the water in our farm pond on a mid July afternoon. A firefly came into the room with the breeze and lit gently on his nose. I watched in wonder as he blinked his eyes four short blinks and the lightning bug blinked it’s light four short times. He blinked his eyes three long blinks and it blinked its light three long blinks. Was my brother communicating with the lightning bug? Was such a thing possible? The firefly took flight and went out the window through which it came.

When he was two he was laying on his back underneath the afternoon shade of the old apple tree in the back corner of our yard. I was laying beside him, looking up into the branches heavy with green apples, a color of green that we can't rightly make with our tools and substances but that God seems to be able to create with a stroke from a divine brush and palate. I was sharing my thoughts about this with Carver, talking quietly and circling the pad of my thumb around and around his cubby cheek, when a firefly lit on his nose and flashed its soft yellow light three times. His eyes turned inward toward the firefly and blinked three times, as if he was sharing a soft light of his own that was yet unknown to human heart and mind but could only be perceived by the natural world around him. I knew then that he was special, the kind of special person who comes into the world to help it and make it a better place.

On that same summer evening, when he was two years old, with waddling walk and toddling talk, when we were holding hands under the same apple tree.

- Carver, be very quiet, look very clos’ly, and listen very care’fly, okay?

- ‘Kay!

- What color is the grass?

- Gween!

- Yeah, that's right. The color is green. Good. Do you know what's special about the color green?

- Gween is special?

- Yeah, it is special. Look under you. Look out over Poppa's fields. Look up in the trees. Green is under our feet. Green is all around us. Green is over us. Green is everywhere.

- Gween is evweewheyah.

- Uh huh.

I put my hands on the ground, pushed my fingers into the soil, and pulled away a patch of grass.

- What is this?

- It's duwt.

- Well, it's soil. Poppa taught me the difference between dirt and soil and now I want to teach it to you, okay?

- 'kay.

- The word “dirt” comes from the old, old word “drit”, which means “excrement”. “Excrement” is just a big word for “poop”.

Dirt is the ground. It is earth used to make a surface for a road, floor, or other area of ground. It ingrains and blackens people and things.

The word “soil” comes from the old, old words “solium” and “solum”, which mean “seat” and “ground”.

Soil is the upper layer of the earth. It helps plants grow. It is a black or dark brown material made up of a mixture of organic remains, clay, and rock particles.

Are you lis’nin’?

- Yeah!

- Well, I want you to remember that ev’rybody in the world is like the green grass. We’re all the same. We all have hearts and minds and souls and bodies. No person is better than another. We’re all good and we’re all green on the inside.

- ‘Kay! We’ew aw good and aw gween on th’ inside!

- Yeah, but if it’s hot ev’ry day and it don’t rain for weeks and weeks, the grass gets brittle and ugly. Some people are like that on the outside. Life just dries them up and they do ugly things. You gonna’ see them and hear them when we go to town with Momma and Poppa. They gonna’ tell us that we’re dirt, that we’re only good for being used, that we’re no better’n “poop.” Ev’ry time that happ’ns I want you to remember that we’re not dirt. I want you to reach out and hold my hand, and when you feel my hand I want you to remember that we’re soil, that we he’p the earth grow, that we’re good in the world. Can you do that? Can you hold my hand? Can you remember that? Can you remember that we’re soil?

Carver reached out his toddling hand to me. I took it gently into my own little hand. We were light. We were green. We were soil. We were brothers.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Watching in Wonder

Watching in Wonder

“Hey li’l brothers,” Corky slurred as we stepped off the sidewalk to let him pass by on his bicycle.  A broken headlight dangled from two frayed wires, the once fiery red frame was faded by rain and sun and tarnished by rust and seasons, and spokes were missing from the wobbly wheels.  He smelled of old liquor, new sweat, and days without bath or change of clothes.  A lens on his glasses was cracked but he didn’t seem to notice.

“What’s happ’nin brother?”  He stopped and leaned unsteadily on one leg to greet the minister of the little Baptist mission for white folks across the railroad tracks.  He leaned too far and crashed to the ground with a thud and a moan. The bemused minister untangled him from the thicket of arms, legs and metal, lifted him  onto his feet, and brushed the red chalky dust and tiny jagged rocks from his shirt, pants, and skin.

“Corky, are you okay?  What in the world…?”

“No…nope…yep…yes, I’m okay.  Hey, where’re you off to?

“I’m goin’ to the noon Holy Week Service in town.  It’s at the First Baptist Church today.  Let’s park your bike.  You can come with me.“

“Well hell.  You Baptists go to church all the time.  Even on a Thursday.  You all must need it more than other folks do!”

“The services are for ev’rybody…Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians…ev’rybody.  I reckon we all need it!  Come on.  It’ll do us both good.

Hello there, boys.  I almost didn’t see you.  Come here.  Close your eyes.  Hold out your hands.”

We said hello to the minister, careful not to look him in the eyes as Momma and Poppa taught us to do with white folks.  He wore a blue shirt, ‘Dickies’ pants like the ones Poppa wore in the fields, and tattered black shoes.  This must have been his uniform because it was what he was wearing every time we saw him. His bespectacled eyes were circled by perfectly round lenses in wire frames that hooked around his ears and made him look more like a college professor than a new minister just out of minister training school and just starting ministering in our town.  We came to him, closed our eyes, held out our hands and felt the small, barrel shapes of the chewing gum they sold in big barrels at the counter of the S & H Green Stamp store on Main Street.  It was a store we couldn’t enter but that we knew well from the detailed stories of all the things inside by our white friends whose families were welcome to shop there.
“Thank you, sir!”

“You’re welcome.  Now you boys run on to where you’re going and do what you need to be doing.  Blow some bubbles along the way!”

The minister put his arm around Corky’s shoulders and they started up the road toward Main Street.  As they lumbered along side by side the midday sun sat high in the sky and cast their shadows straight down behind them.  A minister and the town drunk going to church together!  It was a sight to see.  We were finished with the chore Poppa gave us to do so there was time before we had to be home for lunch.

“Carver, I’ve never seen a drunk person go into a church before.  What ‘cha ‘spect’ll happ’n?  You reckon he’ll get struck by light’nin’?”

“I don’t know but I figure som’pin’ll happ’n.”

Carver was only five years old but he knew the scientific method like a seasoned scientist.  At home on the farm he was always leading me through the steps of his way of thinking.  We found that it helped us to think this way about people and events because it helped us work our way through our place and position in the world and ways of white folks.

“Well, we did the first step in the method.  We asked a question.”

“Let’s follow behind ‘em and see what happens.”

We’ve never been inside of the white folks churches downtown before.  We’ve only seen the outside of them.  The church we go to is plain and simple.  It’s a one-story building with a steeple on top.  It’s made with pine boards painted white.  There’s an iron bell in the steeple, a bell that rings us awake and calls us to church on Sundays.

The white folks churches, on the other hand, are beautiful and stately.  They’re the tallest buildings in town.  They’re made with bricks, stones, and oak wood and look like castles on each corner of the town square.  There are copper bells in their towering steeples, bells that ring in each hour of the day and play hymns at noontime.

The First Baptist Church is the biggest church of all.  The town doctors, lawyers, bankers, and planters go there, the men and their families who run our town, who cast long shadows over us black folks that stretch from Jim Crow to the Civil War all the way back to the slavery days.  We hid behind the grand old magnolia tree on the front lawn to watch the minister and corky climb the steps to the heavy oaken doors that opened in toward the entrance hall.

Two men in their Sunday suits stood at the doors to welcome them to the service.  We could see around them inside of the wide doors.  On the wall there was a picture of Jesus with long brown hair and a long beard with light around his face looking up to heaven.  Under the picture there was a long table with the words “This Do In Remembrance Of Me” carved into the front of it.  There were colorful spring flowers and gold offering plates on top of it.

The men reached out to shake hands with the minister and Corky.  The minister took his hand from Corky’s shoulder to offer a handshake in return.  Corky wobbled at the sudden freedom and fell into the arms of one of the shocked men. You should have seen that usher’s face!  He looked like he had just eaten a plain radish chased by a spoonful of castor oil!  He pushed Corky back onto the embarrassed minister and into the other usher.  He must have breathed in Corky’s smell because he turned his face away wretching and gagging.

The discombobulated group held onto each other and sort of jitterbugged their way into the church.  They stopped in stunned surprise in front of the table.  Corky raised his arms.  A bottle of liquor he was hiding in the waist of his wrinkled, baggy pants fell out and crashed onto the marble floor.  Streams of whisky flowed everywhere.  Pieces of glass gleamed in the flood of light.

“What the …?!”

“Get him out of here right now!”

The poor minister looked frantically around for a broom or a cloth to clean up the mess.  The smell of the whisky wafted over the lawn and burned our noses.  What were the folks in the sanctuary thinking?

“Go on.  Get him outta here!  We’ll clean it up.”

The bewildered minister took Corky into his arms and limped him down the steps and onto the sidewalk.  They hobbled away.

The men came out onto the steps.  Nervous chuckles gave way to relieved belly laughs.

“He oughtta’ve known not to bring him here.  Especially when he’s drunk. Somebody needs to sit down with that boy and let him know what’s what.”

“Yeah, the next thing you know he’ll be tryin’ to bring nig..."

We moved on around the tree and started home.

Monday, June 21, 2010



On the last day of school before summer break begins, I turn over my classroom keys to the elementary school where I am a teacher. I also turn over my 'teacher voice,' that part of me that helps me be committed, compassionate, and creative for my students for the 180 days they are with me. I take up my pen and my sketchbook where I am a writer. I take up my 'writers voice,' that part of me that helps me be committed, compassionate, and creative for my characters in my stories.

Through the summer I am a full time writer. I am researching and writing about the early Civil Rights Movement in South Carolina. The setting of my story is a small farm in Clarendon County, S.C. from 1947 until 1954. The narrator is Carter, a nine-year-old African American boy who lives on that farm with his brother Carver, a five-year-old genius with an inquiring mind and a photographic memory. The action centers on a lawsuit filed by an old farmer in Clarendon County, Levi Pearson, against the county board of education on behalf of African American children for a school bus to help them get to school. That lawsuit became Briggs v. Elliott which became Brown v. Board of Education which became a cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. In my story you will meet Carter, Carver, their Momma and Daddy, Corky (the thirty-something year old town drunk who is brilliant and articulate when sober and stupid and unintelligible when drunk and whose Mother was secretary to Governor Strom Thurmond), Junior (the sixty-something year old giant of a man who has the mind and heart of a little child), and Lillian (based on the person Lillian Smith who was arguably the clearest voice from the white folks during that moment in time. You will also find guest appearances from Larry Doby, Septima Clark, Mojeska Simkins, Strom Thurmond, J. Waties Waring, Thurgood Marshall, and Flannery O'Connor, people you may or may not know from that time and place.

Writing is solitary work that requires early mornings and late nights with books and ideas. It is also community work that requires listening ears and honest hearts of friends. I am thankful to be in the Brother Juniper community with you. As a writer, I hope my work is a counterpoint to the demagoguery that comes around with each generation, a building up of what makes our world and us more human. You can follow my story at Thanks for being in community with me!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Larry Doby - A Picture of Beauty, Genius and Wonder

Larry Doby - A Picture of Beauty, Genius and Wonder

October 9, 1948. 81,897 people filled Cleveland Municipal Stadium to watch game 4 of Major League Baseball's World Series between the Cleveland Indians of the American League and the Boston Braves of the National League. More people were at that game than at any other game in the history of the World Series up to that time. The Indians held a tenuous 2-1 lead in the best of seven series.

In the bottom of the 4th inning there were 2 outs and the Indians were clinging to a 1-0 lead. 24-year-old Larry Doby of the Indians dug into the batter's box at home plate and faced pitcher Johnny Sain of the Braves. Doby threw right and batted left. His arcing swing was a beautiful thing that helped him hit .301 with 14 home runs in 121 games during the season. He hit .396 over the last 20 games and that helped his team beat out the Boston Red Sox and make it to the championship series.

On the second pitch, Sain wound up and threw the ball toward home plate. Doby swung his and, "Crack!" the ball took off toward right center field. The crowd held its collective breath and let out a mighty roar as the ball sailed 420 feet into the stands for a home run. It was the decisive run in a 2-1 win for the Indians, a victory that put them ahead 3 games to 1 in the World Series they would win in game 6 in Boston.

In the Cleveland clubhouse after the game a photographer took a picture of Doby and winning pitcher Steve Gromek hugging tightly and grinning broadly tenderly cheek to cheek. That picture was broadcast over NBC, CBS, and ABC that night and published in all of the major newspapers the next day.

I think in pictures and this picture helps me write about the Civil Rights Movement in my home State of South Carolina. You see, Larry Doby was black and Steve Gromek was white. Gromek was from Hamtramck, Michigan and Doby from the Jim Crow South of Camden, South Carolina. One year earlier, on July 5, 1947 at Cominsky Park in Chicago, Illinois, Doby had become the second African American behind the great Jackie Robinson of the immortal Brooklyn Dodgers to play for a Major League Baseball team and the first African American to play in the American League. The year the picture was taken was arguably the defining year of the proverbial 'hard row to hoe' of early Civil Rights Movement. John Egerton poignantly and persuasively helps us see this in his opus that won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, "Speak Now Against The Day: The Generation Before The Civil Rights Movement In The South." It was a picture of beauty, genius, and wonder. It was a revolutionary picture because it showed the world that white supremacy and racism was being overcome.

In "Pride Against Prejudice: The Biography of Larry Doby," Joseph Thomas Moore's insightful and wonderful book about Doby's life and times, Doby says, "The picture was more rewarding and happy for me than actually hitting the home run. It was such a scuffle for me, after being involved in all that segregation, going through all I had to go through, until that picture. The picture finally showed a moment of a man showing his feelings for me. But the picture is not just about me. It shows what feelings should be, regardless of differences among people. And it shows what feelings should be in all of life, not just in sports. I think enlightenment can come from such a picture."

This blog is "a short history of losing." American culture defines a 2nd place finish as a loss. Larry Doby was the second African American player to integrate Major League Baseball. He followed Frank Robinson as the second African American manager in the major leagues. Because he was second he is often overlooked and forgotten. When he laced up his well-worn cleats and stepped into that batter's box in Cominsky Park in 1947 he also stepped into a people's history of baseball, a history that is a broader part of a people's history of the United States that shares the stories of women, factory workers, African Americans, Native Americans, and immigrant laborers, a history and stories that show losing can be transformed into winning through courage, commitment, compassion, and creativity. Lately, bad news has been coming out of South Carolina. I am thankful for the good news of South Carolinian Larry Doby's life and work. I hope to continue that good news through my writing and teaching.

Monday, May 31, 2010

the boy who harnessed the wind

oliver sacks

oliver sacks

I remember the first time I saw the movie 'Awakenings'. I was living at Jeff Street Baptist Center and working with a community of inner-city teenagers from the Clarksdale housing projects in Louisville, Kentucky. Monday nights were 'Dollar Movie Nights' for us and we would load up in our orange van (affectionately called 'The Great Pumpkin') and head out to the theater. On that Monday night I chose 'Awakenings' as our movie of the week, hoping that my kids would identify with the 'helping each other overcome' theme in the story. My dream was deferred. They hated it! Within 15 minutes of the start of the movie they were throwing popcorn at the screen! We got up and changed theaters to something faster paced and action oriented. I had to promise to check my movie choices with them before they agreed to go with me again.

I loved the first fifteen minutes of Awakenings, though, and went back to the theater to see the whole movie by myself on the next night. I identified with Dr. Oliver Sacks (played by Robin Williams) and the compassion, commitment and creativity he had toward his patients suffering with post-encephalitic disease, a 'sleepy sickness' that broke out in the world just after the First World War and left the sick in varying states of suspended animation unable to realize that years were going by, unknowing that they were 40 years older than when their bodies succumbed to the disease. I saw myself in the way he came home from the chronic hospital where he served and poured himself into the study of the little known plants he tended in his sparse apartment. I felt the community of dedicated friends around him in the asylum. I understood why the movie received 3 Oscar nominations, one for best actor (Robert DeNiro for his role as Leonard), one for best picture, and one for best writing of a screenplay adapted from a book.

The movie led me to the book 'Awakenings' by Oliver Sacks and into the literary and neurological worlds of one of the finest writers and doctors of our time. He taught me to picture people (and the characters in my stories) as worlds, a variety of worlds - the landscapes of being in which they reside. And the picturing of worlds requires an active exploration of images and views, a continual jumping-about and imaginative movement instead of a static and systematic formulation. I like the image 'landscape of being' and it helps me see the world with insight and grace. I hope it helps you, too.