Pearl, I could have done better

On Sunday morning, March 12, I was talking with my long time educator friend, Bruce Watson. We were in the Welcome Center at our church catching up for a few minutes.

Bruce asked me if I remembered Pearl Clark. Pearl had been an assistant principal at Hermitage High School where I also served as an assistant principal. Prior to coming to Hermitage, Pearl had been an exceptional English teacher at Douglas Freeman High School.

Sadly, Bruce told me that Pearl had passed away on March 3. A visitation had been held on Friday, March 10, and a funeral service on March 11 at Good Shepherd Baptist Church.

I was floored at this news.

I couldn’t believe that I had missed Pearl’s obituary in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The announcement had been in the paper on Thursday, March 9, and yet somehow, I skimmed right over the on-line listing in the paper. I was really angry at my carelessness.

As an assistant principal at Hermitage, we could not have had a better teammate. Pearl was everything that an assistant principal was supposed to be. She was fair, consistent, a good listener, diplomatic, gracefully supportive, a hard worker, a professional.

Additionally, Pearl was respected in the community—a role model, a person who always cared for the well-being of all.

In her fifty three years of marriage to her husband, Shady, they made a good pair. Shady’s work with the Virginia Department of Education and his leadership as a pastor for a local church complemented their giving personalities.

Pearl loved their daughter, Shanetia. She was always humbly proud of Shanetia’s academic accomplishments, earning a PhD, and becoming a tenured university professor.

One summer, I remember catching a ride with Pearl to a staff development program. It was quite a nice ride in Pearl’s four door Mercedes sedan.

When I left Hermitage to accept an appointment as principal at Lakeside Elementary School, if our students met their reading goal for the year, I always tried to do something wacky on the last day of school.

One year, Pearl, and Hermitage’s Director of Guidance, Casey Berry, showed up to watch my attempt to be a ballet dancer in a pink tutu. I was horrible up on that auditorium stage, but the students roared in laughter at my pitiful performance. That’s a good way to end a school year with laughter, better readers, and two loyal friends watching my foolishness.

As I began to tinker more with words, our first book, The Last Pumpkin, was developed. I asked Pearl if she would be willing to provide me an endorsement that would be featured on the back cover.

I was honored that Pearl accepted, and she wrote these perfect gentle words: “A timely autumnal reminder for all of us to acknowledge the positiveness in all children; they are all keepers.”

As an educator, wife, mother, sister, and friend, Pearl was a keeper too.

Unfortunately, the cruelness of Alzheimer’s disease wore Pearl down.

In the few brain cells that I have left, it seems extremely evil and heartless for Alzheimer’s to claim an educator. The brains of educators spend their careers remembering hundreds and thousands of names of students, parents, and staff members. Because of the depth of this recall, I would argue that God should issue a pass on Alzheimer’s attacking educators.

Since Pearl was a Deacon in her church, maybe she can make an appointment in Heaven with God and discuss this suggestion.

Pearl, I’m sorry I missed your obituary. I should have done better with that whole process. And, I apologize for not attending the visitation and funeral. Again, I could have done better.

I have good days and bad days when I read the Bible. Yet, there are some verses that I continue to hold deep inside my imperfect heart.

Pearl, when I ponder John 1, verse five, I think of you: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Alzheimer’s might have made the last days of your life dark for you and your loved ones, but its meanness could never overcome the light that Pearl Clark brought into this world.

When I see the sun rising in the East, the moon sparkle off a dark silent bay, a star streak across the Western sky, and the flicker of a candle reflect off a window pane, I will think of you, and the light you brought into this world.

Thanks for being my friend, and thanks for being a light to us all.

From left to right: Pearl Clark, Betsy Pike, Lauren Pike, Casey Berry.(Photo from a last day of school in the lobby of Lakeside Elementary School)

The correlation between guns, school violence and the erosion of American families

In August of 1975, I started my first teaching job at Martinsville Junior High School in Martinsville, Virginia. Nothing in my education classes, student teaching, or orientation to the school system communicated, “Look out for students who might have a gun.”

Almost fifty years later, school systems across Virginia and America are dealing with students bringing guns to school. Countless tragedies have occurred involving students and guns. No matter what we have learned from these tragedies, we still haven’t learned enough. 

Shockingly, that learning continued for schools and their communities when on January 6, 2023, a first grader at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia brought a gun to school and shot his teacher. How does this continue to  happen? Are we as parents, school personnel, and citizens incapable of learning from our past tragedies?

 Guns aren’t new in schools. In the late 80s and early 90s, I served as an assistant principal at a large high school in Henrico County, Virginia. Usually a tip from a caring student alerted administrators that a student had a gun on school grounds. Luckily in those discoveries, we never had a shooting.

 School systems have responded to this firearm crisis with assorted tactics. Conduct codes have been revised. New local, state, and federal laws have been implemented to curb firearms on school grounds. Comprehensive safety plans are in place. Budgets support the hiring of school resource officers. Often, budgets include metal detectors for scanning students and visitors.Despite these interventions, a student can still arrive at school in possession of a gun. 

Why? Simple answer: America loves guns.

 A June 2021 survey of 10,606 American adults conducted by Pew Research Center found  four-in-ten  adults live in a household with a gun, including 30% who personally own one. That’s a lot of firearms. This doesn’t account for how many firearms are in a person’s ownership without documentation.

Compare those firearm ownership numbers to this data reported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in August 2022: nearly 24 million children live in  single-parent families in the United States, or about one in every three kids across America.

I wonder if there is a correlation in gun ownership and the erosion of American families and the parenting skills within those families? No matter a single parent, a blended family, or a traditional family, parenting is tough, demanding work. How many of the school shooting tragedies and possession of a firearm on school grounds are linked to that erosion and the challenges of parenting? 

Students, parents, teachers, school system administrators and community leaders have a right to be concerned about school safety, but that safety goes beyond a student bringing a gun.

Somewhere in a school today, it’s likely that at least one student will violently disrupt the learning environment. Disruptive confrontations can include  student to student, student to teacher, student to school administrator interactions. A fight involving multiple students can result in injuries to students and the school and security personnel who intervene.

No matter if a student is in possession of a firearm on school grounds or involved in violent disruptive behavior, both impact morale for non-disruptive students, parents, teachers and administrators. Additionally, that low morale factor seeps into the school’s community when these disruptions are reported in the news and social media.

 Do these disruptive outbursts push parents to withdraw their children from unstable schools and  switch to homeschooling programs or private schools?

The same question must be asked when a teacher resigns; was that resignation grounded in fear of violent students and personal safety concerns?

Meeting the educational needs of our children is challenging work. At this very moment, I think the tension, stress and pressure on teachers in our schools to deliver quality instruction while managing the classroom environment has become unbearable. Despite their valiant efforts, respect and support for teachers are  absent. 

How do we address these challenges?

Acknowledging the erosion of our families is an important step. Yes, in my career in public education, I worked with many supportive single parents. Sadly, that isn’t always the case.

Vicious generational cycles linked to poverty, inadequate housing, low employment, poor physical and mental health, insufficient nutrition and lack of safety are at the heart of this family and community instability.

In acknowledging these shortcomings, we must ask this question: are our current education templates and essential community services at local, state, and federal levels effective in meeting the needs of students and their families? If these templates are ineffective, we must have the courage to do our homework and initiate overdue changes.

Most critical is realizing that our divides, differences, incivilities and inadequate listening skills will only continue to hurt children.

 Pat Conroy, the late American novelist and former educator, wrote: “I want you to know how swift time is. There is nothing as swift. A heartbeat, an eye blink, this is the way life is. It is the only great surprise in life.”

Mr. Conroy is correct; time isn’t on our side.  

We are overdue to acknowledge our public education challenges, but schools cannot be the sole repairer for all that ails our country. 

 Diligent collaboration from every segment of our communities will be needed to improve our schools.

If we continue  to align ourselves in denial, distrust, and division, we will likely destroy the schools that helped to build America.

That isn’t acceptable.

A note from the author: Friends, I was honored that my commentary: The correlation between guns, school violence and the erosion of American families was published in the Virginia Mercury today Friday, March 10, 2023. A special thanks to Commentary Editor, Samantha Willis, for her patience in working with me. 

More long and messy days for churches?

For many years, our church hosted the Upward basketball and cheerleading program for young children. During the last two years, the pandemic prevented us from making this offering.

But, in January of 2023, Upward returned with two nights of practice and games on Saturdays.

Quite a bit of work goes on behind the scenes for the eight week season.That work is coordinated by congregational volunteers, church staff, and the league’s commissioner, Angela Verdery.

Angela and I always carve out time on our Friday schedules to make sure that Trinity Hall will be ready for the players, cheerleaders, coaches, referees, and the families and friends who come out on Saturdays for the games.

Saturday, February 11 was going to be a busy day for the church building.

After the basketball games, our church staff and volunteers would be doing their final preps for Parents Night Out. A program designed to give parents a couple of hours away from their children.

Our children’s director, Jenn Williams, invested many hours working with a team of volunteers to plan every minute of this event. Registering families, planning activities, ordering food, and supervision are a part of this evening.

Both the basketball games and the Parents Night Out were a success. For sure, it was a long day for all of the volunteers. Some started early that morning, and others finished their support when the last child was picked up in the Welcome Center.

When two large scale events are over, it is interesting to walk the building and grounds to see how they held up. Here are somethings I noticed.

Despite two parking spaces being clearly marked for the pastor and associate pastor, I’m always amazed that a guest will ignore the printed words on the curb, and park in these reserved spaces.

Some might argue that it is Saturday, and the pastors aren’t here. But, I can counter that point with a real possibility—the pastor meeting with a family who unexpectedly lost a loved one.

I guess at times pastors must feel like comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s famous line: “I want to tell you, I get no respect.”

Then there is the youngster who every Saturday pops the hinged top off the heat register in the hallway entrance to Trinity Hall.

I can imagine a Saturday morning when the youngster pops the top lose, and instantly the long, rusted cast iron arms of a monster draped in spider webs lurches out from the dark of the register. The cast iron monster gently grabs the perpetrator, and politely asks— please don’t play with my hinged top.

And finally, I’m amazed at the inconsiderate nature of people who: can’t flush a toilet, put trash in a trash can, or drop an empty plastic bottle in a recycling bin.

Yes, I’m aware of the scripture from Matthew 7:3: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”

No doubt, I’m guilty of whining about the shortcomings of others when my faults are countless.

Coming out of the pandemic, I sense churches are at a crossroads.

This surge of post pandemic energy doesn’t mean that churches have completely rebounded and found their old, reliable friend —normal.

Every week, I stare into our Sunday attendance numbers.

Of particular interest to me are the number of people watching a worship service on-line. In reviewing those totals, quite often we have more people watching on-line than we have attending in person.

I wonder what churches are doing to build a relationship with the people who tune in each week for a worship service? How does a church communicate with these viewers? How might a church follow-up with them, or invite them to other church events?

In the Winter 2023 edition of the College of William and Mary alumni magazine there is an excellent article by Noah Robertson titled Data Revolution. Among the points that caught my attention were data fluency and understanding the multiple variables available for using data.

William and Mary graduate, Nami Choe, Google’s director of marketing data science, notes how the advertising and marketing world are in constant change.

From that change, Choe has learned “that constant change demands more creativity, and you have to be more creative in how you use data to tell stories, because in her mind data’s always messy.”

Choe’s comment about data being “messy” should resonate with churches. Rightly or wrongly, churches in the past and present have been a bit “messy.” Their current messiness is related to a variety of challenges like human sexuality, political division, decline in attendance, shrinking budgets, aging congregations, and tired facilities.

I wonder if churches might benefit from having a director of marketing data science?

Could researchers who mine and analyze data be able to assist churches as they navigate their post-pandemic search for normal?

My hunch is that churches with deep endowments could hire someone to analyze their data.

Yet, it doesn’t take a keen data purveyor to recognize that churches pivot off people.

The success that our church experienced on February 11 was grounded in three essentials: people, time, and program offering.

As churches continue to figure out their post pandemic path, the pursuit of normal should not be a goal.

Churches will be better served if they can offer programming to all age demographics. It will be the creative uniqueness of those offerings that will nudge a person to commit a block of time to attend a noteworthy program.

Churches unwilling to change, adapt, and pursue new possibilities can expect long messy days in their futures.

Churches that continue to offer more of the same, who stubbornly remain grounded in the redundancy of past programming should go ahead and make plans to shutdown.

Saturday, February 11 was a long and at times messy day for our church.

And yet, there was some good news in that day—we had new people in our building, and we never know when the creative quality and uniqueness of a program might inspire a return visit.

Photo by Bill Pike

In fear of March, “maybe”

In Richmond, Virginia on December 24, 2022, the high temperature was 24 degrees. That night, the low reached 8 degrees. The air was bitterly cold.

Six days later on December 30, a high of 69 degrees was recorded.

Tomorrow, Thursday, February 23, 2023, in Richmond, we are expecting unseasonably warm temperatures. We could hit 83. That might be a new record.

Unbelievably, two days later on Saturday, February 25, forecasters are predicting a wintry mix.

This winter, except for a surprising light dusting of snow on the morning of February 2, frozen precipitation has been missing.

Photo by Bill Pike

For several weeks, the yellow blooms of winter jasmine on the sloping banks below a retaining wall in the back parking lot of our church have been a bright spot on dreary gray winter days.

Photo by Bill Pike

On February 8, some of the daffodils in our yard were blooming, and two doors down in a neighbor’s front yard a saucer magnolia tree was in full bloom.

Photo by Bill Pike
Photo by Bill Pike

West of Richmond, out in the valleys of the Blue Ridge, farmers who harvest summer peaches and fall apples are nervous with this early unusual hint of spring.

I keep asking myself where is winter? When are we going to be punched with the right mixture of cold air and moisture colliding to form a winter weather event?

Right now, the original winter storm panic conspirators, grocery stores and the producers of milk and bread are quietly thinking—maybe there is something to this global warming business after all.

And then there is March, an unstable month, whirling with madness. Winter tries to hang around, and spring works to push winter away. This seasonal tug of war is a rollercoaster. A spectacular spring day can be followed by the gray encore of winter returning for one last swipe of misery.

Burlington, North Carolina is featured in the book series Images of America. I was born and raised in Burlington. In the book, on page 125 is a photograph of downtown Burlington in March 1960.

In that photo, streets and sidewalks are covered in a deep snow. In fact, the first three Wednesdays in March of that year, Burlington was hit with consecutive snowstorms. Author, Don Bolden, wrote in the caption: “Spring seemed a distant dream.”

Those consecutive snowstorms are why I fear March after a bewildering mild Virginia winter.

And yet, March brings other fears too.

For college basketball fans March Madness arrives. Fans hope their favorite team will be selected for the NCAA men’s tournament. Those same fans hope their team doesn’t experience the madness of an early upset.

When baseball players report to spring training, they are probably carrying a bit of fear around in their travel bags. Players hope to be injury free, and they hope to earn a spot on a team for the upcoming season.

Mad weather, and the whims of basketball and baseball gods are nothing compared to the fears some people experience.

Today, a student will attend school with the fear of being unmercifully teased and bullied.

A single parent working one full and two part-time jobs, silently wonders how much longer can she maintain this schedule while trying to meet the needs of four school age children.

A doctor will deliver the bad news to a patient who beat cancer once—the cancer has returned, and this time the doctor has no treatment options.

At this very moment, the darkness of fear will push a person to die by suicide.

Over in Ukraine, brave families wonder when the next barrage of Russian fired missiles will hit their neighborhood.

In Syria and Turkey, people who survived the earthquakes fear more instability as their governments struggle to deliver assistance.

Fear is nothing new in our lives.

Fear is a persistent foe.

Fear is in the light, shadows, and darkness.

Depending upon the source, the Bible references fear a lot. One source I checked had 336 citations related to fear.

I think we are supposed to find comfort in scriptures like the following from Isaiah 41:10: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

I wonder what the bullied student, the single parent, the cancer patient, the death by suicide person, the people of Ukraine, Turkey, and Syria might think of those holy words?

And in truth, those holy words, and the challenges found in everyday living in every corner of the world are why I struggle with my Christianity.

Perhaps like me, you have lots of fears deep inside your soul.

One of my biggest fears is America.

I fear our division, our incivility, our disrespect of the truth, our inability to acknowledge, and our reluctance to work together are going to be our end.

Olla Belle Reed was born in the mountains of North Carolina in 1916. Miss Reed became an accomplished folk singer, songwriter, and banjo player. Her song, “I’ve Endured” is a beauty. I became familiar with the song on The Steep Canyon Rangers’ album North Carolina Songbook. At the end of each stanza, Miss Reed asks an important question: “How long can one endure?”

Whether we want to admit it or not, I believe that question is pivotal for each of us. How long can we, our country continue to endure our challenges?

In William Faulkner’s short story “Race At Morning,” the character, Mr. Ernest, makes this observation as the story is ending: “Maybe,” Mister Ernest said. “The best word in our language, the best of all. That’s what mankind keeps going on: Maybe.”

Even though our division, our differences are as wide as the disparity in temperatures from December 24 to February 23, and our irrational thinking can be as maddening as March, maybe, we’ll find the courage to humbly acknowledge our shortcomings and promise to work cooperatively with each other to solve America’s problems.