Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Genius of Stacey Campfield

Cutting public assistance to people whose kids do poorly in school is just common sense.

Posted By on Tue, Jan 29, 2013 at 8:24 PM

State senator Stacey Campfield is on to something with his recent proposal to cut Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) benefits to Tennesseeans whose children receive low grades, but I don’t think his solution really goes far enough. We all know kids are impractical and tend to be focused on luxury and entertainment items, so is taking away short-term funding for items like food, utilities, and shoes going to provide enough incentive to get that GPA up? I mean, do kids really care if their homes are heated? If we truly want young, poor Tennesseans to succeed, we need to cut access to the material items they value. I propose, therefore, that all students who fail to maintain a minimum GPA, as defined by such educational experts as Senator Campfield, be denied access to publicly funded desks. And chairs. Also, pencils and paper.

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Sitting on their classroom floors, committing all instruction to memory because they’re unable to write anything down, will force these underperforming students to really focus on their lessons. The physical discomfort and mental strain will surely crystallize their powers of concentration. The cognitive impairment, inability to focus, lack of energy, and increased illness rate sometimes found with children receiving TANF (and, for some reason, those experiencing even minor malnutrition) can be overcome by this productive denial of services.

If students cannot improve their performance under these beneficial circumstances, their families should of course continue to be denied full TANF assistance. Nothing sharpens the mind and academic prowess like the weight of your family’s well-being on your underage shoulders. Emotional distress really gets the I.Q. peaking. Science says. (By which I mean Kirk Science of Moscow, Tennessee).

Critics may suggest that such suffering will lead these students to leave school and pursue some form of employment, perhaps in an effort to pay for their own frivolous furniture and writing utensils. If such is the case, then we have only gained as a community from the addition of motivated employees to the workplace. TANF is, after all, a welfare-to-work program, so what better way to get its youngest beneficiaries to work? Surely beginning their careers at such an early stage will lead to a lifetime of advancement and success.

This program should be especially effective in Memphis, where all public school attendees can receive free breakfast at school and more than 90 percent of those children are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch based on household income. We’re clearly dealing with an epidemic of overly comfortable students here. The 1,200 calories a day (hmm, I seem to recognize that as the same amount recommended for inactive adults attempting to lose a pound a week) required by the federal school meal guidelines is creating a population of complacent youth, likely unable to see their textbooks beyond their overstuffed bellies. That time they spend in food-insecure homes during the evenings, weekends, and school breaks can hardly counteract this in-school excess.

It makes sense that Campfield, the genius political mind behind the proposed “Don’t Say Gay” bill, would expand on the idea that taking away what children need most is a direct path to health, happiness, and lifelong achievement. It’s a logical step between denying reality and denying the basic tools for survival. I only regret that he didn’t go far enough with this plan. His proposal leaves the possibility that children with severe learning challenges or unstable housing or any other outside factor that could contribute to poor academic performance are only punished for it at home. If we really want our children to excel in school — indeed, in life — we need to keep the empowering force of deprivation on them 24 hours a day.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Wisdom From the Mind of a Child

Martin Luther King's dream may be realized by the coming generation.

Posted By on Wed, Jan 23, 2013 at 7:29 AM

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The story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by my 5-year-old son:

“Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream. It was that black people and white people would get together. They were apart because there were signs saying that only white people could go in some places. Also, a little boy wanted to play with Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was a little boy and his mother said he couldn’t because Martin Luther King, Jr. was black. That made Martin Luther King, Jr. very very very sad. Also, there was a lady on the bus who had to move seats because she was black.”

I was down by the National Civil Rights museum this past weekend and thought about taking my children — ages 9 and 5 — through, but I thought it pretty unlikely that my youngest would understand the story it told. Turns out, I should have asked him. As a Memphis public school attendee and child of the new millennium, he’s got a grip on the essence of the struggle for civil rights.

The story probably resonates quite strongly with most children, really. After all, they live in a world where they’re constantly having limits put on who they can be, where they can go, and what they can do. It feels unfair to them, as they’ll be quick (and loud) to point out. The only way they have out of this controlled world is to grow up and make their own rules. It must therefore seem terrifying to them to think that those restrictions could last your whole life.

In Monday’s inaugural address, President Obama hailed — and represented — the progress we’ve made toward Dr. King’s dream, but he also pointed out that every dream is not yet reality. We haven’t even reached full equality for the female half of the population, let alone any minority group.

As frustrated and impatient as that makes me, I have to admit that when the president’s speech referenced the Stonewall riots, a watershed moment in the contemporary gay rights movement, I got actual goosebumps. I felt much like I did when Obama expressed his support for gay marriage: cynical enough to know that there was politics behind the message, but excited by the fact that the politics were finally on the side of reason.

Shortly after the historic October 2012 voting season legalized gay marriage in a slew of new states, my son came across me quietly tearing up as I flipped through online slide shows of same-sex couples standing in line for their marriage licenses and civil ceremonies. When I explained what I was doing, he said, “Can boys marry boys?” Yes, I told him, in some places. “And girls can marry girls?” Yes, same deal.

He looked unsure and a little unsettled. I gave him my best liberal mom voice and asked if he had any questions about that. “But … can they both wear dresses?” I pulled him on my lap and we looked through the pictures together, noting the full and diverse collection of wardrobe options. He didn’t bat an eye at the physical affection shown by the couples. I don’t take credit for that, but it lifts my heart nonetheless. He is what’s coming next.

I don’t presume that an inaugural address sets legislation in motion or even makes headway with anyone already in opposition to everything the president believes. Our elected leaders don’t tend to jump out ahead of the trends, however. The wind is at his back.

I don’t think that a speech will magically make things change. But even a child can see that things already have.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Winter is Here. Be Very Afraid, Memphis!

Posted By on Tue, Jan 15, 2013 at 3:40 PM

The National Warning Service has issued a Severe Overreaction Watch for the following counties: Haywood, Madison, Chester … oh all of them, okay? Everybody is going to freak out. Because it’s going to be below 32 degrees. And also? Precipitation. AAAAIIIEEEEEEE! Go take your children to school for half a day so you can get to the store for some bread and milk without hearing them ask if there’ll be a snow day for the zajillionth time. Go now! Go! You have so much bread pudding to make!

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Be careful on your way, though, because visibility is low. Not because of the slushy rain, but because you used a CD case or credit card or the back end of a Desitin tube to scratch an eight-inch-diameter peephole through the ice on your windshield.

Speaking of ice, there may be some on the roads. That happens in the winter sometimes, even in the South. That’s why there are all those signs saying “Bridge May Ice In Cold Weather.” What they really mean to say, however, is “Slam On Your Brakes If Bridge Is Icy!” We just couldn’t get that to fit in the space allotted. So by all means, throw it into a fishtail as soon as you and your fellow drivers are suspended above 240.

It’s disastrous out there, and you need to act accordingly. No one has ever, in the history of meteorology, experienced a winter storm of this magnitude. Well, except for everyone north of St. Louis, who would call this frozen typhoon by its more common name: January. In fact, some residents of Northern climes might even be tempted to mock this warning, just like they mock you for complaining about the cold when you’re not wearing socks.

Additional Ridicule Warning: Those (former) residents might even tell you boring stories about how they went years on end without a snow day during their public education, since the requirement for closing a Minnesota school is that the snow be higher than a kindergartner. They may also brag about how they literally walked a mile uphill both ways in the snow (and sub-zero temperatures) to school, being foolish enough to have attended a university on the frozen banks of Lake Michigan. The only reason you will tolerate these stories is because that defected Yankee is the only person in the parking lot with an actual ice scraper in her car.

Don’t run off too fast, however, since that may be your only source of outside interaction for the next 24-72 hours. (Plus you’re about to get to an overpass. Slow down! Immediately!)

Sure, it will seem nice to be at home at first, all cozy in your soft pants with your loved ones. But then the cookies will be eaten, the hot cocoa will run out, and your Snuggie will start to feel like a giant fleecy straightjacket. Because the reality is, even before a flake hits the ground, you’re trapped. You have nowhere. Else. To go. Your office will be closed. Your yoga class will be canceled. Even your church will be shut down, which sort of seems like a conflict of interest in the Act of God department.

It’s just you, your co-habitants, and the Action News 5 Weather Team, all growing increasingly shrill until the spring thaw. By which we mean Saturday. That doesn’t seem far away now, sure, but just wait until your fifteenth round of Apples to Apples. Suddenly “Reasonable” and “Jack Nicholson in The Shining” will seem like a winning hand.

So seriously. We’re warning you. Not about the weather – which in fact already seems to be improving – but about the surrounding panic. All it takes is a stock photo of a tree branch encased in ice to incite fear, confusion, and spontaneous reminiscences of the ’94 Ice Storm. The NWS has been researching this phenomenon for decades and so far has been unable to prevent it. The good news, however, is that we’ve found a successful treatment based on the genetically coded disaster response of Midsoutherners.

The bad news is, it’s Wonder Bread.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

"Threat-of-Gunpoint"

Lessons from an in-store robbery.

Posted By on Wed, Jan 9, 2013 at 9:38 AM

I was five months pregnant and alone in the natural parenting store I owned when a young man walked in. It was a cold evening in February and he wasn’t wearing a coat. I didn’t consciously realize that detail until later, though, when I went over all the red flags I should have seen.

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He lingered around the racks of nursing tops, saying he was looking for a gift for his girlfriend. I knew he wasn’t. I knew something wasn’t right. But I was polite and agreeable while he hung around waiting to see if anyone else was likely to come in. No one was.

By the time he told me to empty the cash register, I was on edge, but some part of me still thought this didn’t have to happen. I actually tried to reason with him, explaining that I worked for myself, didn’t take any salary home, and was barely paying the rent. In some movies, that may have worked, but that night, all it did was make the man reach for his pocket.

“Don’t make me take it out,” he said.

That was enough. I still feel foolish saying I was held up at threat-of-gunpoint, but that was all it took. Even though I never saw a weapon, the entire dynamic changed. He was already larger and stronger than me, and once he made a direct reference to my safety, there was no avoiding the reality of the situation.

He took the money – ignoring the laptop computer sitting on the counter between us – and told me to turn around. I don’t know why it took so long, but at that moment, I realized how deeply, badly in trouble I could be. Luckily, he ran out the door (and, I found out later, put on a coat that covered the shirt I’d described to police). Despite near-immediate response to my 911 call, he wasn’t found, and in the week afterward I was visited by a TBI task force member who said a similar robbery had occurred at another woman-owned business the next day.

Many people would say I could have prevented both my own and the subsequent robbery if I’d had a gun, but I can say with certainty that I would not have been able to access a weapon in time. I owned a business patronized by women with babies and toddlers. It wasn’t a shotgun-under-the-counter kind of store. And regardless, the crime happened because of his choices, not mine.

With the recent gang-rape horror story coming out of India, the Internet has been awash with information about how women can protect themselves from violence. So far, however, I’ve yet to see a meme on how men can be prevented from becoming rapists or armed robbers or murderers. Gun control is a piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the whole picture. Less than a year after I was held up, my business partner was robbed in our store by a man who threatened her and her baby with a screwdriver. That shitbag was caught, and it turned out he’d recently been released from prison … after killing someone with a screwdriver.

I had nightmares for months after my robbery, and in the course of remembering and writing this piece, I’ve had them again. It’s an experience that reprogrammed my personal wiring. The feelings of powerlessness and fear inflicted during an act of violence aren’t unique to women, of course, but women experience them much more frequently.

All in all, I was lucky. All I lost was cash. (You know, not counting my general sense of security.) I’ve sometimes wondered what I could have done differently, but mostly I’ve just been grateful that it wasn’t any worse. And I hate that. I hate that I feel fortunate to have only been threatened and frightened and robbed, because that feeling of fortune comes from knowing what other women are subjected to every day, from Delhi to Dyersburg.

I’ve spent five years feeling embarrassed about the red flags I missed. It’s only just started to occur to me that I – and all women – deserve to live our lives without having to look for them in the first place.

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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Gator Bowl Redux

Cheering Once Again for Dear Ol' Northwestern U.

Posted By on Wed, Jan 2, 2013 at 9:18 AM

In case you weren’t spending your New Year’s Day morning watching the Gator Bowl on ESPN2, let me sum up: The mighty Wildcats of my alma mater, Northwestern University, swatted down the Mississippi State Bulldogs for their first bowl victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl. Also in 1949? My mom was born. NATO was established. The World Series saw the New York Yankees beat Brooklyn. So, you know, it’s been awhile.

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When I began my college career, however, Northwestern hadn’t even been to a bowl since 1949. It was a tough slot, being a selective private school wedged among the huge state universities of the Big Ten. The football stands were sparsely populated of a Saturday, the students taken to entertaining themselves by having marshmallow fights and using our higher test scores as justification to chant derisively at the opposing teams (“That’s alright, that’s okay, you’ll all work for us someday.”) Victories were so rare that a goalpost was uprooted and marched into Lake Michigan pretty much every time we got a win.

But my freshman year, something strange happened: we started to not suck. It wasn’t a winning season or anything, but after three victories, we had to stop tearing up the field every time. The very next year, we went to the Rose Bowl.

I wasn’t good at college. I did fine academically, but I didn’t take advantage of the freedom and foolishness like a normal American teenager. Northwestern’s motto is “Quaecumque sunt vera,” meaning, “Whatsoever things are true,” and I was probably a little too hung up on truth at the time. Even at 17 years old, I knew what was reckless, what was careless, what was probably not a good idea. The mistake I made, however, was thinking that all those things were also pointless. Now more than twice that age again, I can see that some recklessness might have done me some good.

The closest I came was on those Saturday afternoons at Dyche Stadium, bundled up against November lake gusts, cheer-screaming with my classmates for Schnur and D’Wayne and Darnell, dancing along with the marching band to stay warm. As I watched the game in Jacksonville this week and saw today’s students doing all the same things (well, except for freezing their asses off), all those numb-toed, sore-throated hours came spinning back to me. When Coach Fitzgerald choked up in the post-game interview, I was right there with him, because I knew he remembered those Saturdays, too - he was our star linebacker during those shockingly triumphant seasons.

People say “we” in reference to their athletic teams, but for the first and last time in my life, college represented a point where I really felt camaraderie between myself, my team, and other fans. The players weren’t distant celebrity figures. They were the guys I met during visits to my big sister’s dorm, then the guys in my sociology class, then the guys asking my roommate out. They were kids and we were kids and watching them play was exhilarating and a little terrifying because it made us realize how fast it was all going by.

Time has taken that fear, but also some of that excitement. Is there ever another phase in our lives like that? I’ll never be the person who says college days were the best time of my life, but I can see now that it was a time like no other. I know all those students who were at the Gator Bowl – the ones on the field and the ones in the stands – have finals and frat parties and (if they’re not like me) a few hangovers to get through between now and graduation. A lot of it will blur together and someday, 15 years from now, they may have trouble remembering the names of their dorm-mates, let alone their senior thesis topic. But maybe, on one wintry afternoon, the sound of the fight song will bring it all back, and they’ll smile to remember who they once got to be.

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