Even though we now realized the end of my grandmother’s life was near, we also knew that could mean anything. Here was a woman who throughout my life never seemed to age a day, and it was strange to ponder that I had become as old as she was when I was born. She had certainly shown her age a bit more in the last several years with the progression of her Parkinson’s and her increasing immobility, but even then she survived her condition far longer than we ever thought possible, particularly given her prayers for God to take her from this life. However, when things took a turn for the worst, they turned fast.
Just over a month ago, on May 13, my beloved grandmother, Beulah Mae Mitchell (BuMae to most, Beauty Mae to certain close friends), passed away. Her passing has affected me more deeply than I would ever have imagined, given how long I had to prepare for it. Though I had been acting as her primary caretaker in the 16 years since I moved back to Hickory with my family, her passing makes it feel as though a pillar of support and identity has been taken from me. Her death is also the reason I have been absent from this blog and makes writing even now feel tentative and feeble in its attempt to express how I feel about the impact that her life had on me. Nevertheless, it seems only fitting that I post this on July 8, the day she would have turned 96.
I have come to praise a fine piece of legislation that’s recently emanated from the General Assembly, courtesy of Catawba County’s own Senator Andy Wells. The bill, Senate Bill 480, would prohibit public school employees and charter school board members from engaging in any political or partisan campaigning, or the use of any school equipment and/or supplies for such, during work hours. Before Senator Wells gets a wild hair and decides to spread the fun by preventing the rest of us from speaking out against current laws and the legislators who pass them like so many bad farts, I need to remind folks that if there’s one group that does not get enough due praise and credit for all the hard work they do for the great state of North Carolina, it is the members of the General Assembly. It takes not only a lot of concerted effort to steer our state through the worst economic downturn we’ve experienced since the Great Depression, but also Balls of Steel to bring about improvement by taking the state straight to the bottom (do not pass Go, do not collect $200) so that the only way it can go is up.
No doubt the NC General Assembly intended their new A-F grading system for our K-12 schools to be another nail in their “schools are broken” coffin, but to their credit the schools are not taking this lying down. They have correctly pointed out that a grade giving predominant weight (80%) to students’ performance on standardized test scores is not a true reflection of a school’s overall performance, given that a student’s academic growth over a school year is hardly taken into account, nor does it factor in societal conditions that schools must contend with beyond academics, inconvenient truths such as poverty, hunger and broken families. Upon release of the grades, the schools are doing what they do best, using the new grades as a teaching lesson for their communities. They point out that if a particular school received a D or F grade it invariably indicates the school’s predominant low-income population, and they have been busy creating alternative grading formulas that show their schools in a much more positive light. That the General Assembly gave little credence to our schools and the Department of Public Instruction when coming up with this grading formula is an outrage and a testament to their willfully ignorant policymaking regarding education, and yet I’m not sure the schools quite understand that by protesting so mightily and deriving alternative grades they are playing into the GA’s hands and reinforcing their “schools are broken” mantra. What those of us trying to make sense of all this back and forth need to understand is that it shouldn’t be entirely left to the schools and their staffs to fight for our public education system that is currently under attack. That burden falls on us, the parents of school age children and the communities that decline or thrive depending on the quality of education our schools produce.
Hickory has been trying hard of late to show that it is not a place where innovation goes to die. The proof is in the pudding, which is still being concocted, but in the mid-term election the community gave the city a vote of confidence by passing the Boost Hickory bond referendum for $40 million. Now that the wheels of government and community involvement are slowly beginning to turn (hear the grinding of the gears?), we’re already starting to see some troubling signs in the implementation of the Boost Hickory plan. As reported this week in the Hickory Daily Blotter Record, the Boost Hickory campaign team missed their third and final financial reporting deadline, and our illustrious mayor has found himself in hot water over reimbursements he received from the campaign for signs he purchased from a third party vendor as a “middleman” on the campaign’s behalf, as well as making an unreported $1,200 in-kind donation of banners from his own business that were not even in compliance with election size requirements. (His excuse? His company makes “vurry, vurry few” political signs.) Are we having fun yet?
I was born and raised in the small town of Hickory, NC (pop. 50,000) – at least until the start of 7th grade when my mother remarried and the family moved to Savannah – and I found myself returning here to live in 1999, after 20 years away, when my wife and I decided it would be a good place to raise our two children. There are a lot of good reasons to live in such a quaint community, but if you happen to be artistic and creative, progressive and irreligious, it can be frustrating and stifling as well. Typically finding myself in the minority with my views, I find myself questioning the validity of my own thoughts, which after a while causes me to wonder whether I have a voice at all. It’s not like I expect everyone to think and act the same – after all, that would be boring as hell, wouldn’t it? – but I do expect a little more consideration and respect for viewpoints that go against the majority thinking, particularly when that thinking determines and shapes policy that impacts us all, whether we agree with that policy or not. As Sherwin Nuland, National Book Award-winning author of How We Die and How We Live, puts it, “You know what everybody needs? You want to put it in a single word? Everybody needs to be understood. And out of that comes every form of love.”