My friend, Mike Cross, invited Joe Andrews, and me to join him at the Veterans Memorial Garden on the grounds of Trinity United Methodist Church in Henrico County, Virginia.
This quiet gathering was to take place on Monday, May 30, 2022—Memorial Day.
All Joe and I had to do was to show up. Mike provided three chairs and three cold beers.
Mike and Joe know something about Memorial Day.
During the Vietnam War, Mike served in the Marines and Joe in the Army. Both made the long journey to Vietnam. Luckily, Mike and Joe survived and returned home to their families.
That wasn’t the case for the 58,220 Americans who did not return home. Consider this perspective. Harrisonburg, Virginia has a population of 52,062. In the Vietnam war, we lost the equivalent of a Virginia city.
On this warm, but pretty May afternoon, I had the privilege of enjoying a beer with two of the finest men I’ve ever known. Under the watchful eye of a graceful American flag and the shade of quiet dogwood trees, I sat and listened.
There wasn’t a lot of chatter about the details of their assignments in Vietnam. I’ve learned enough over the years to respect a Veteran’s right to remain silent about what he might be carrying deep inside his heart.
But just a few feet away from us, sits a bronze plaque with the names George W. Jinkins III, John N. Ranson, and James Oscar Olzer, Jr. In 1974, this garden was established in memory of these three young men from Trinity. They lost their lives in the service to our country in the Vietnam War.
By November 2006, this garden was restored and rededicated as the Veterans Memorial Garden. Among the improvements were new plantings, retaining wall, gravel path, bench, flag pole with lighting, and the marker. Mike Cross and Joe Andrews were instrumental in this transformation.
All parents expect to outlive their children. I can’t imagine the apprehension that the parents of the Jinkins, Ranson, and Olzer families felt while their sons were doing their duty. I know these parents must have been crushed when they received official notification of their losses.
In Pat Conroy’s book, My Losing Season, he writes about Captain Joseph Eubank from Concord, North Carolina. When Pat Conroy played basketball for The Citadel, Captain Eubank was one of the team managers. His nickname was “Rat.”
Captain Eubank was a combat helicopter pilot in Vietnam. In his Huey helicopter, Captain Eubank lost his life coming to the aid of an Army unit that was surrounded by the enemy. Captain Eubank entered into this ferocious firefight three times. It was his third assault that his helicopter was shot down and Captain Eubank was killed.
With great embarrassment, Pat Conroy states: “Not a single member of my basketball team attended his funeral, and we can barely forgive ourselves for that indefensible fact.”
Pat Conroy’s teammate, Doug Bridges, encouraged Mr. Conroy to include Captain Eubank’s story in his book, stating, “your book will not mean anything unless you tell them about Rat. More than any of us, Rat turned out to be the real Citadel man.”
In visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., Mr. Conroy carries with him a list of names. When he finds the names on the wall, he takes his fingers and traces them over the names of his fallen friends. Captain Joe Eubanks is Mr. Conroy’s last stop. At this stop, Mr. Conroy breaks down and weeps uncontrollably. (My Losing Season, Conroy, pages 301-302)
Those tears of gut wrenching loss drop all across America on our families.
This past week, at the Historic Woodland Cemetery in Henrico County, I spent a couple days with Trinity member, Ken Hart, furiously running weed eaters around tombstones and grave markers. At these gravesides, African-American families honored their loved ones with inscriptions listing rank, branch of service, and wars served: WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam.
Thousands of miles and years away from the turmoil of Vietnam, I sit under the shade of dogwood trees, with two Veterans whose loved ones shed tears of joy upon their safe return to America.
I’m not a Veteran, but, like Pat Conroy’s fallen friend, Captain Joe Eubank, Mike and Joe mean the world to me.
Their decorum, honesty, perseverance, humble courage, and selfless sacrifice have shaped many hearts.
I’m truly thankful that their fortitude has touched my heart too.
For America on this Memorial Day, I wonder how many of our challenges might be solved by rededicating ourselves to decorum, honesty, perseverance, humble courage, and selfless sacrifice?
Every moment of silence and tear shed on this Memorial Day is grounded in those attributes.
And, we can’t afford to forget them.
Author’s note: Dear readers, if this post offends you because three beers were consumed on the grounds of a church, I apologize. My hope is the post might make us think more deeply about the families who lost loved ones to the horrors of war, and for us to contemplate the decorum, honesty, perseverance, courage, and sacrifice found in those losses. Finally, if this piece touches your heart, I humbly ask that you consider sharing it. Love, Bill
Today in Virginia, a classroom teacher will meet with the school’s principal. This dedicated teacher will deliver a letter of resignation. Disrespect for the profession, poor faculty morale, and lack of support working with challenging students are among the reasons for resigning.
Also today, a school bus driver, who back in September responded to the desperate pleas by school systems for bus drivers will resign. The driver cites uncooperative students, lack of support in working with those students, and exasperating parents.
And before the day is over, a conscientious student will meet with a school counselor. The student will express to the counselor how difficult it is to concentrate in the classroom with unruly students who constantly disrupt instruction.
And, there’s more.
This is the time in the school year when human resource departments make difficult decisions. Not renewing teacher contracts, reviewing internal teacher transfer requests, and finalizing teacher projections for the upcoming school year are priorities.
Superintendents and their staffs are completing plans for high school graduations and summer programs for students. Also, they are keeping a careful eye on the annual budget process from local governments.
And those same superintendents and school boards hope their school systems can make it to that last day of school without imploding. Firearms, disruptive fights, community incidents, deteriorating buildings, non-accredited schools, lawsuits, banning books, and the undertow of low morale are among potential heartburn headlines.
For years, our public schools have become quite skilled at accumulating unfavorable headlines. No school system is immune from challenges. School systems pivot off people, and too frequently our human imperfections create problems.
During my thirty-one years and beyond of working in the public schools of Virginia, I encountered the resigning teacher and bus driver, and the frustrated student. Human resource personnel, superintendents, and school boards were in my interactions too.
No matter how many good days school personnel and students have, it’s the tough days that wear school people down. I put my heart and soul into my work as a principal. But, I felt like the lousy days drained me mentally and physically. I sensed I was less effective. That’s not good for my own morale, nor the morale of the school.
Schools were on a slippery slope before the pandemic. Those pre-pandemic challenges haven’t disappeared.
Virginia’s Department of Education must have endless amounts of data about those challenges. However, that data is worthless unless we use it to initiate reforms. How can that data be used to retain skilled teachers, reduce unacceptable student behaviors, and make the school environment effective and safe for all?
Honestly, I think the data will affirm that we can’t legislate or money our way out of school problems. But, I believe superintendents and school boards can address those problems by investing in the time to listen.
Before school ends, superintendents and school boards must implement individual and small group listening sessions. These sessions can’t be pity parties that are grounded in winless whining. The focus must be on the following: what works, what doesn’t work, and recommendations for change.
Clearly, learning from teachers who are resigning or who have requested an internal transfer should be a priority. But, I believe that opportunity to listen must include instructional assistants, secretaries, nurses, custodians, bus drivers, food services personnel, social workers, psychologists, family advocates, conscientious students, disruptive students, principals, and parents.
Yes, this is a big homework assignment. But failure to invest in this time to listen will guarantee more challenges for our schools. Honestly, we are at a point where we can’t afford more of the same.
From these sessions, I’ll be surprised if the erosion of our families and low morale fail to emerge.
Erosion of families and low morale are vicious silent cancers that fuel recurring challenges in our schools. Not only does poor morale impact school personnel, it shapes students and their families too.
To counter poor morale, superintendents and school boards must commit to unyielding support in all schools. Unyielding support means working collaboratively to find sensible solutions.
To halt the erosion of our families will require the forming of cooperative partnerships with school system personnel and community agencies. Without question, these community partners must have a track record of success in working with struggling families. That potential partnership work should be framed in practical, user friendly templates for helping families.
Yes, the last day of school is marked on the calendar.
However, for superintendents and school boards essential listening homework remains.
This is an urgent assignment, an assignment that can’t be ignored.
It requires listening with compassion and understanding.
Superintendents and school boards, that teacher, bus driver, and student need your time and ears.
Don’t miss an opportunity to initiate change, do your homework.
Author’s note: I started writing this piece back in mid-April 2023. I wrote it after a conversation with my wife. She had recently spoken with a dedicated instructional assistant at a challenging elementary school. No matter their location, if you know an educational leader, I encourage you to share this post. That loyal instructional assistant like all school system personnel deserves to be heard and supported.
Final details and assignments had been discussed, shared on Google documents, reconfirmed in Zoom calls, texts, and transcribed to mental and paper checklists.
When Monday, May 8, 2023 arrived, in Florida, Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia, we were packed and ready to deploy, and quite possibly, we were as giddy as children on Christmas morning.
Our navigational devices contained the same information 145 Upland Shores Drive, Smith Mountain Lake, Penhook, Virginia.
Since our 1975 graduation from Greensboro College, Steve Boone, Dan Callow, Steve Hodge, Doug Kinney, Bill Pike, and Butch Sherrill have maintained a tradition of gathering once or twice a year to reconnect.
Those gatherings also included our wives and with time our children. Yes, calendar conflicts have occasionally prevented some of us from attending a reunion, but not even mechanical failures of automobiles and airplanes have disrupted our loyalty.
This morning, my wife Betsy and I left Richmond headed for the airport in Lynchburg, Virginia. If we synced our departures properly, and the travel gods cooperated, we hoped to pick up Dan and Judy in a window of time from 10 to 10:30 a.m.
Following a lifelong love of airplanes, Dan had earned his private pilot’s license. They would be flying from their home in Maryland to Lynchburg.
On Sunday, Dan had texted us a link to Flight Aware. This would allow us to know exactly when they landed at the Lynchburg Regional Airport.
Routes 6, 288, 60, 460, 24, and 29 guided us into Lynchburg. We were slowed a bit by a few big trucks on two lane roads. Even though the Callows landed ahead of us at 9:24 a.m., at 10:10 a.m. we were at the airport.
With sparse signage, I didn’t go quite far enough to reach the terminal building. But with some guidance from Dan on the phone, I soon saw his long arms waving at me.
It was a good flight to Lynchburg. We had a quick load of luggage into the back of our car. Everyone made a final check to make sure nothing was going to be left behind, and we were off for Smith Mountain Lake.
With lots of conversation, the fifty-five minute drive zipped by us. Soon, the rural landscape was transformed into the manicured grounds of the Water’s Edge Golf Course. We made familiar turns based upon the recall of our three previous visits, and within minutes, the last left turn onto Upland Shores Drive was completed.
I always thought Upland Shores would make a good name for a craft brewery. Plenty of good images abound for an artist or a graphic designer to turn into a label for Penhook Pilsner, Lazy Lake Day Lager, or Shoreline Stout.
Butch and Marian had arrived earlier. They greeted us, helped us unload, and directed us to our rooms.
Next, Steve Boone and his wife, Kathleen arrived.
We received an update from Steve Hodge and his projected arrival time. Our friend, Doug Kinney was scheduled to arrive around midday on Tuesday. He opted to split the long drive from the east coast of Florida into two days.
For lunch turkey, pimento cheese, and egg salad sandwiches were available. We learned from Butch’s wife, Marian, a new kitchen technique for making egg salad. Marian walked us through the steps for No Peel Hard Boiled Eggs.
As the afternoon progressed, Steve Hodge arrived, and we all worked our way down to the boathouse. The boathouse sits firmly on the water with pleasing sight lines. The architect designed the space for the sun worshipper and the sun shy.
We uncovered the comfortable dock furniture, and for the next hour, reading, conversation, and some nodding off took place.
At some point, a suggestion was made that we needed snacks and beverages. Orders were taken, and in a blink, those requests were met.
We talked, laughed, and embraced the beauty of the lake and its surroundings. Whatever stress that we might have been carrying before our arrival was slipping away into the picturesque afternoon.
Even though our pace had slowed at the boathouse, at some point after five, Butch headed back toward the house to start prepping for dinner.
For years, Butch has tantalized our taste buds with his self-taught culinary skills. Tonight grilled salmon encased in a special rub, fresh asparagus, oil and sea salt rubbed baked potatoes, and homemade Key Lime pie would once again make us content.
We took a short before dessert walk through a section of the neighboring streets. The walk only made the Key Lime pie more scrumptious.
Between the travel, the soothing fresh air from the surrounding hills and lake, and the filling meal, bedtime came early.
Day Two Tuesday, May 9, 2023
On Tuesday morning, I went for a run. Even though I had run here before, I can’t tell you had good it felt to run in a different environment.
After the run, we had a healthy spread of food for breakfast. Marian reached out to Doug who had spent the night in Florence, South Carolina for an update on this arrival time.
Mid-morning, the pontoon boat that Dan had reserved for us arrived. Dan spent almost an hour going over how to operate the boat including the safety requirements with the manager of the rental company.
Prior to 12 noon, I was headed back to Richmond. At the church where I work, I was responsible for our last Community Conversations program for the year. I had some final preparations to complete that afternoon to make sure we were ready.
In my absence, Doug arrived, Dan took everyone for a ride on the pontoon boat, and the adventurous Dan and Steve Boone braved the nippy lake water and tried out their paddle board skills.
This excursion went well until the usually steady Steve Boone lost his balance and fell into the water. Unfortunately, Steve had forgotten to remove his glasses. When he hit the water, the glasses came off too. This unexpected splash happened so quickly that Steve had no chance to try and retrieve the glasses as they slowly sank toward the lake’s bottom.
Tuesday night for dinner, Doug Kinney and Steve Hodge fixed meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and a salad for dinner.
After dinner, the group gathered on the top deck of the house around a propane fed fire pit for conversation.
Back home in Richmond, Community Conversations had gone well. By nine, I was ready for some sleep.
Day Three Wednesday, May 10, 2023
I wanted to get an early start out of Richmond on Wednesday morning. I had been given a short list of items to bring back with me to Penhook. Heading out Patterson Avenue toward 288, I made a quick stop at Food Lion, and shortly after 7:30, I was on my way.
Despite following some driving directions from my high in the sky navigator that I thought were “nuts”, I arrived at the lake house by 10:30. I was just in time for a three mile walk around the neighborhood. Apparently, exercise was on the mind of everyone as Judy had just led the group through a yoga class.
By the time we completed the walk, it was almost noon, and I was treated to a meatloaf sandwich from the Tuesday night meal.
At some point after lunch, we had the urge to explore the lake some more. This time, the goal was to find what would turn out to be the Crazy Horse Marina.
Marian and my wife, Betsy, opted not to go on this trip, so eight of us loaded on to the pontoon boat with Captain Callow at the helm. The boat started properly, we shoved off without the dock coming with us, and we took off into the bright sunshine and blue skies.
No matter where we looked the shorelines were appealing, and gradually, the navigation devices pointed us toward the Crazy Horse Marina.
As the marina came into view, Captain Callow scouted a place to dock the boat. To the starboard side of the boat, he saw a series of empty docks/slips where we could off load and tie up.
The Captain was successful in his first attempt to land the boat. However, out of courtesy to the passengers, he opted to re-maneuver the boat for a smoother disembarkment.
With the boat secured, we made the short walk to the Los Amigos Bar and Grill. A polite and patient staff seated us.
Chips and salsa arrived, drink orders were placed, and Butch ordered two platters of an appetizer—Seared Ahi Tuna de la Playa.
We enjoyed our fellowship, and the kindness of Butch and Doug who covered the cost. Our old bladders told us to hit the restroom before getting back on the boat.
Back at the dock, we reloaded onto the boat, loosened the lines, and shoved off.
About a thousand yards from the marina, the boat’s motor cutoff. Without a sign of panic, Captain Callow attempted to restart the motor. For whatever reason, the motor would not cooperate.
A few minutes passed, again our Captain tried to persuade the motor to start, and again the motor responded—I’m not cooperating.
There was no panic, but a gentle humor about our situation started to surface.
Captain Callow left a phone and text message for the manager of the rental company. The manager who we trusted last year as a quick responder did not answer.
Steve Boone conducted a search of the boat for paddles, there were none. But, he did find an anchor with a long yellow rope line.
Of course, the line was all tangled and twisted. It took a few minutes to correct the entanglement, and this moment initiated more pitiful humor: “How many Greensboro College graduates does it take to untangle an anchor line?”
The anchor was secured and tossed overboard, and it did catch to prevent our further drifting.
Another attempt was made to reach the manager of the rental company, and again, we had no response.
In the interim, Captain Callow began to research how we might acquire a proper tow if we did not hear back from the manager.
Out of the Crazy Horse Marina, there was a Sea Tow operator. According to Wikipedia, Sea Tow was founded in 1983. It is based out of Southold, New York. The company provides assistance to stranded boaters around the world.
Captain Callow explained our situation to the local Sea Tow representative, and she provided us with information related to their pricing and what to expect upon Sea Tow’s arrival. We also learned that we could call off the tow if we heard back from the boat rental company manager.
Another attempt was made to reach the boat rental company, and we had no luck. At this point, we opted for Sea Tow to assist us. A return call was made to Sea Tow. Captain Callow and Butch provided all essential information including a payment via credit card. It took several minutes for this information to be properly collected.
While we were waiting for our rescue, Steve Boone’s wife, Kathleen, kept us all busy playing a game called “scar.” The concept behind “scar” is that each person shares the story of any scars the person has on his/her body from accidents or surgeries.
As our luck would have it, the manager of the boat rental company called just as the Sea Tow boat and crew arrived.
We explained our dilemma. The Sea Tow personnel could not have been nicer as we shared our decision not to use their services. And to make it even better, the Sea Tow manager opted not to charge us the full amount for calling off the tow.
We updated Marian and Betsy about our mechanical challenge, and explained how we had chosen to resolve it. Our wait time for the rental company’s boat to arrive wasn’t horrible. In the distance, we could see a fast moving boat angling toward us.
When the rescue boat arrived, both boats were parallel to each other as we carefully stepped on to the other boat.
We found our seats on the boat, and in a few seconds, our fifteen year old fully certified captain had us roaring toward home. It felt like we were riding in a supersonic jet fighter with the afterburners kicked on. We were blazing across the lake’s surface.
I was reminded of an Andy Griffith episode when Gomer talked about his cousin Goober outfitting a boat with a car motor. Gomer said, “ That thing will do 80, and on the water that’s fast.”
I felt like we were doing a 160. At any second, I expected the wash of exploding through the sound barrier just like Chuck Yeager did in 1947 to hit us.
The young man at the wheel looked like he had been doing this since he was five. He watched the water, checked his map guidance on the cell phone, and seemed oblivious to his wind blown passengers who were hanging on for dear life at a mere 37 miles per hour.
Finally, our cove came into sight. Our captain kicked off the afterburners and slowed the engine. He confessed that he wasn’t the best at docking, but with guidance we gracefully snugged up to the dock.
We thanked him profusely. Steve Hodge and Doug tipped our young hero, and he was pleasantly surprised by their heartfelt gesture. I briefly thought about stooping down and kissing the dock when I stepped off, but my brain talked me out of that.
The fifteen year old captain made a quick loop and headed out of the cove. He had to return to the stranded pontoon boat and tow it back to its berth.
While Steve Boone and his wife Kathleen were preparing a black bean casserole for dinner, the rest of us sat on the deck giving Marian and Betsy a blow by blow account of this adventure. We laughed, and laughed, and I’m sure this excursion will bring even more laughter at our next gathering.
The black bean casserole and the accompanying accoutrements provided us with a delicious meal. After dinner, Butch quietly mixed some single shot glasses containing the oddly named Duck Fart. This layered drink contains Crown Royal, Bailey’s Irish Cream, and a tequila based coffee liqueur. Sweet and smooth, it would be easy to have more than one, but I held to a single shot.
Again the filling meal, the Duck Fart, and the afternoon excitement on the lake made me sleepy, so I headed off to bed.
Day Four Thursday, May 11, 2023
Early on Thursday morning, I took another run. It was a perfect morning for a run, a bit on the cool side with the sun rising over Penhook. I enjoyed it as much as my Tuesday morning run.
And I found my standard greeting that I use at home when I encounter a walker or runner worked here too. When people ask how I’m doing, I state: “Slower, older, and no wiser.” They chuckle, and I wish them a good day.
Thursday morning’s breakfast had been reserved for Butch’s famous oatmeal—steel cut oats, cranberries, chopped apples, and walnuts.
Breakfast, my favorite meal, was yummy every morning, and that was because Dan and Judy were the coordinators and suppliers of all the breakfast goodies.
We were hoping our pontoon boat might return, but that wasn’t happening.
Before we took off on a mid-morning walk to explore the side streets in the neighborhood, we had a treacherous task—taking a group picture.
Our intrepid boat captain, Dan, took the lead in coordinating our cooperation.
It was a tough job. He had to —stage us, set the timer on the iPhone’s camera, scurry into a predetermined spot for himself, hope that no one’s eyes were closed, that no one snarled instead of projecting a smile, and that no one was slouching.
Despite consecutive imperfect photos, we finally got the hang of it, and a couple of photos were accepted.
After the walk, Butch, Dan, and I tried fishing off the dock of the boathouse. We added canned kernels of corn to some of the casting lures, but these mountain lake fish were too smart for us city slickers. Steve Boone was hoping that we might miraculously snag his lost glasses, but that wasn’t happening with these lightweight lures.
After lunch, we gradually found our way back to the deck of the boathouse. It was a lazy afternoon. This setting was the perfect place to daydream. In any direction, at that very moment, the sky and lake had the capacity to cast us many miles from here.
As the afternoon pushed on, some dozed, and at just the right time, drinks and snacks magically reappeared. In my sluggishness, I realized that unlike previous visits, we hadn’t pitched horseshoes or played corn hole. Maybe we really are getting older.
For our last dinner, Betsy and I provided grilled chicken, a pasta salad, and a marinated salad featuring green beans, peas, shoe peg corn, green peppers, and red onion. For dessert, we continued to enjoy a variety of baked chocolate treats courtesy of Betsy and Kathleen, including oatmeal raisin cookies that Doug loved.
Unfortunately, some of the dinner conversation revolved around packing up and making sure the house was back in shape before our departure.
Once the kitchen was cleaned up from dinner, I asked Steve Hodge if he would let me take a closer look at his vintage 1966 Epiphone twelve string electric guitar.
In the fall of 1971 during our freshman year when I first met Steve, bands and guitars were a part of his life. Even now, he regularly plays in two bands, and yes, he still has quite a collection of remarkable guitars.
Before bed, we gathered on the deck outside the kitchen for more conversation.
Day Five Friday, May 12, 2023
Of course, Friday morning arrived to soon.
After breakfast, everyone scurried around to repack suitcases and coolers.
A vacuum cleaner wailed loudly, trash cans were emptied, bathrooms tidied up.
The boathouse and house decks were rechecked.
One by one our cars filled back up.
Slowly, we said our goodbyes and started our exits up the steep curvy driveway.
Doug was first. Of course, once out of the driveway, Doug turned his car the wrong way to leave the neighborhood, and on cue, we all started waving and yelling at him. He figured out his mistake, and quickly redirected his car.
Steve Hodge made it halfway up the driveway when he started to angle off into a landscaped bed, Again, our voices rose to stop his misguided ascent.
At the base of the driveway, outside the garage, I repositioned our car. No way in hell was I going to attempt to back up this driveway.
But in defense of Doug and Steve, aside from my return to Richmond on Tuesday, none of our cars had left the neighborhood since we arrived. We were to content to stay put and relax in our friendships and the beauty of the setting.
We made it to Lynchburg safely, and dropped Dan and Judy off where we had found them on Monday.
During the afternoon, we received confirmation that our pals had returned safely to their destinations. I miss them already.
We started to get to know each other in the fall of 1971, our freshman year at Greensboro College.
And while, I’ll probably never figure out the gravitational pull that aligned these friendships for all these years, I think it might have something to do with the game that Kathleen introduced us to as we waited for a tow on the tranquil Smith Mountain Lake.
Kathleen’s game “scars” pushed us to recall the exterior scars from injuries cause by accidents and suture skirmishes with doctors.
But, I think, the longevity, the endurance of our friendships is grounded in our loyalty to each other when our hearts have been scarred by life.
No matter our hardships, regrets, shortcomings, frustrations, hurts, mistakes, and the flat out meanness of life, the loyalty in our hearts for each other has never wavered, and God willing it never will.
And there is one more piece to that loyalty, with deep respect, we know how to make each other laugh.
As Americans, we should be disgusted with this headline: Another School Shooting. Additionally, we should be angered by the predictable post-school shooting coverage: what we know about the shooter and the victims, shooter purchased guns legally, shooter’s family sought help, legislators at an impasse on firearms.
In 1975, I started my career in public education. Nothing in my undergraduate education classes, student teaching experience, orientation for my first teaching job, nor my post-graduate courses prepared me for a student bringing a gun to school.
But by the late 1980s, when I was an assistant principal at a large high school in Henrico County, Virginia we started encountering the random student who brought a firearm to school. Luckily, from those discoveries, we never had a shooting.
As school shootings began to increase, school systems and legislators scrambled to address school safety. Student codes of conduct were rewritten, schools developed safety plans, police resource officers were assigned to schools, and legislators attempted to enact laws to make schools safer.
Despite these efforts, we have failed our students, their families, and our teachers. No matter if a school shooting is on the grounds of private or public schools, this is unacceptable behavior.
School shootings are horrendous tragedies, but schools have another challenge in their environments— disruptive students. Students who violently disrupt the school day create another level of trauma for their peers, teachers, administrators, and their communities. Their outbursts create fear, impact morale, and cause injuries.
School systems in Virginia are required to report student discipline infractions and subsequent dispensations to the Virginia Department of Education. We have lots of data about our public schools, but I wonder how we are using that data to make our school environments safer and more conducive for learning.
This combination of firearms and unruly behaviors does not help the morale of teachers and staffs, nor the recruitment of new teachers. How many teachers resign at the end of each school year because of these on-going discipline challenges, and how many prospective education majors rethink their career choice for the same reasons?
Additionally, we must ask how do shootings and violent outbursts impact parent decisions as to how their children receive their education. Will these parents more carefully consider home schooling programs or private schools?
I don’t sense that we can legislate or fund our way out of these very serious recurring problems. So, what can we do?
For too long, our public schools have been asked to solve our societal problems. I’m sorry, but schools can’t solve the on-going malignant cycles related to poverty, employment, housing, nutrition, mental/physical health, and the erosion of our families.
That erosion and the instability of our families can no longer be ignored. In an August 2022 report issued by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “nearly 24 million children live in a single parent family in the United States, or about one in every three kids across America.”
Parenting in the best of circumstances is challenging work. Yet, how many of our school shootings and aggressive disruptive behaviors can be attributed to an unstable home or ineffective parenting? The erosion of our families can also be seen from another angle in the staffing of our schools. Many schools now employ a family advocate.
Furthermore, we must ask— are our current education templates working? Can our present education models meet the extreme needs of disruptive students who have not found success in school? How can we use our unlimited data to develop more effective models of curriculum and instruction for unruly students?
As far as guns, it is very clear to me that we care more about our right to bear arms than we do about the rights of our children and teachers to be in safe schools.
A June 2021 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found: “Four-in-ten US adults say they live in a household with a gun, including 30% who say they personally own one.” How many of those guns might find their way to a school shooting?
In a few weeks, we will forget about the tragedy in Nashville. Sadly, the families impacted will never forget. Our brains don’t have an erase button.
And before we know it, we’ll be reading about another school shooting catastrophe.Right now, you, me, we, us—we are all the skunk on the table.
Until we find the courage to break the silence lodged in our hearts on school safety, that skunk’s stink will continue to reek all over America. Our hearts know this silence is unacceptable.
Late on the afternoon of Sunday, April 9, the whirlwind started.
My childhood pal, Joe Vanderford, arrived from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
For the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Richmond, Joe and I would be presenting a two part class on The Beatles.
On Monday evening, the first part of the class was a screening of the Beatles’ film, Let It Be.
Part two of the class is focused on the Beatles’ album Abbey Road.
Joe and I started our final preparations after dinner on Sunday evening. We picked up again on Monday, and made a few last minute tweaks early on Tuesday morning to our scripts.
Our class started at 10, and by 12 noon we had completed our presentation. On the drive back to our house, we critiqued our work.
At the house, Joe prepped his belongings for an afternoon of flying. He was traveling to Toronto for a NBA game where he would be one of the camera operators.
We drove to the Richmond airport without a hitch, and later that evening Joe texted to confirm his safe arrival in Toronto.
I spent Tuesday evening in a whirlwind of packing. The Commander Supreme and I were driving to Summerfield, North Carolina on Wednesday.
We would be providing childcare for two of our grandchildren, while our oldest daughter and her husband took a trip to Napa Valley, California. This was an early birthday celebration for our daughter who was turning forty as was a dear friend from Chicago. The friend, her husband, and two other couples from Chicago were heading to Napa as a part of this birthday weekend too.
Clearly, I over-packed, but I wanted to be able to do some yard work in Summerfield. The back of the car had a few tools, some deer proof plants for an empty border in their backyard, and lots stuff purchased by the uncontrollable shopper, Nana, who is always looking for ways to spoil her grandchildren.
Since we last made this trip on March 24, the rolling landscape along the four lane highways 360, 58, and 29 had filled in nicely with assorted shades of spring green. That thickening green was now concealing the sight lines into deep forest and side roads that veered in multiple directions
By mid-afternoon, we had arrived safely in Summerfield. We unloaded the car, and started to learn the details of the calendar and the schedule we would be keeping the next four days.
Thursday morning came early for our daughter and her husband. They quietly left the house for the short drive to the Piedmont Triad International Airport.
When I was growing up in Burlington, this airport was named the Friendship Airport. In the kitchen of our house, a radio sat on a formica countertop. It was tuned to a station in Greensboro.
I recall hearing from the airport early morning broadcasts of the daily weather forecast. In the winter time, as a student, I was always hoping for a prediction of snow.
After lunch on Thursday, we drove to the Greensboro Science Center on Lawndale Drive. If you have never been to the Science Center, you must go, it is a jewel.
This was spring break week. The Science Center was packed with children and families. Assorted day cares and private school students were on the grounds too.
I saw lots of children and students wearing a wide range of matching colorful t-shirts. The variety of colors among the t-shirts reminded me of the array of spring floral colors exploding around Greensboro.
After the Science Center, we visited Ollies for ice cream. Ollies was busy too. Their staff was hustling to keep up with the steady flow of customers. I always struggle to make a selection from all of the flavors. Staring into the display cases, more bright colors from all those flavors catch my eye, and I finally settle on key lime pie.
For the next three days, chalk art on the driveway, shooting hoops, puzzles, trampoline jumping, playing with neighborhood kids, quiet time, and making Nana laugh kept us busy.
No matter the role Nana was given to portray in playing with Caroline and Hudson, I could always hear laughter from her. Sometimes, Nana laughed so hard at Caroline and Hudson’s antics and comments that she was on the verge of tears.
The return flights to Greensboro had no hitches.
Monday morning, it was back to school routines for Caroline and Hudson.
We heard how nice the trip to Napa had been, and we delivered a good report about taking care of Caroline and Hudson.
The Commander and I packed up our car, said our goodbyes, and retraced our drive to Richmond.
Taking care of grandchildren is a different kind of whirlwind.
But, neither of us would exchange anything for this opportunity to wear ourselves out burning energy with grandchildren.
And, I would never trade anything for Caroline and Hudson making their Nana laugh.