Saturday, November 10, 2012

For gay marriage, a quiet historic night

It arrived in somewhat muted fashion, tucked in the fine print of an election night. You might even have missed the results that flashed briefly on your television screen, or the commentators using words like “milestone” before moving on to the bigger news of the day. History doesn’t always reach out to shake us.
But history did arrive Tuesday, not once but again and again. Voters in three states – Maryland, Maine and Washington – approved laws legalizing same-sex marriage. A fourth state, Minnesota, rejected an amendment that would have added a same-sex marriage ban to the state constitution.
That’s four states nodding yes to equality, after 32 consecutive states said no.
So here’s what history looks like: Eight years ago, not one state allowed homosexuals to marry. Now, as of next year, 15 percent of Americans will live in such states.
North Carolina, of course, isn’t one of them. In May, we passed Amendment One, which recognized only marriages between a man and a woman. In doing so, we banned civil unions and endangered health insurance and other benefits for gays. Instead of being the first state to vote for same-sex marriage, we were the last to turn our backs on it.
There may be others, too, that follow our path. The ride to equality is often filled with dips and disappointments. That’s what gays felt in California in 2008, when voters rejected gay rights legislation that had been signed into law. That’s what gays felt in Maine three years ago, when voters rejected a marriage rights law their governor had recently signed.
But on Tuesday, the voters in Maine did something simple and profound. They changed their mind.
This is also what history looks like: In Wisconsin on Tuesday, Democrat Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay or lesbian person elected to the U.S. Senate. Baldwin’s sexuality, according to reports, was never really a campaign issue. Voters were worried about jobs and health care and the debt. The fact that Baldwin was gay was strikingly unremarkable.
And this is why North Carolina didn’t settle this year for a mere law banning same-sex marriage. Lawmakers, along with the constituents nudging them, saw that America is undergoing a pronounced shift on homosexuality. So they pushed for something more difficult to change – a constitutional amendment. But their legislative levee was and will be folly, because the water already is rising behind them. Take a look around you. Our schools have long had openly gay teachers. Our offices, too. We work with gays, laugh with them, celebrate their milestones – even marriage. It’s becoming so very ordinary, as it should be.
So it’s no wonder that when Tuesday’s milestones arrived, they were met with some hugs and cheers, but nothing terribly grand. It was victory, yes, but it also was an acknowledgement of where many people already are, each day.
That’s what history looks like sometimes – not only the marking of big moments, but the realization that they’re following the smaller ones. Is it over? Certainly not, and certainly not in North Carolina. We live in a country that, like many, takes its time granting rights to its minorities. But eventually it happens. Eventually, history arrives.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Race, a cartoon, and a missed conversation

It’s probably smart to begin with a disclaimer: We need to talk more about race. We need to talk about its role in the education we provide, the health care we offer, the jobs that still can be elusive to blacks. Whether you want to see it or not, race still finds it way into lending and housing and the administering of justice. It’s real. We need to talk more about it.

Or maybe we just need to do a much better job of it.

This week, Observer cartoonist Kevin Siers decided to poke his pen at the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. The team and quarterback Cam Newton have been playing below expectations, and there’s been some murmuring about Newton performing his standard touchdown dance – pretending to pull his jersey apart to reveal Superman’s “S” – when trailing badly in the Panthers’ most recent game.

So Siers did a cartoon mashup of sorts: A player with “Panthers” on the front of his helmet pulls his jersey apart to reveal the decidedly less fierce Hello Kitty. A plus B equals a clever C.

Some fans didn’t like the joke. They complained about criticizing a second-year quarterback so harshly, especially one who’s brought the buzz back to Bank of America Stadium. Fair enough.

Then, on Thursday morning, ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith took it a step further on air. He noted, somberly, that Cam Newton is black. He pointed out, helpfully, that the Charlotte Observer is in the South. “It makes me uncomfortable,” he said, arranging the letters together without actually saying what they spelled. Let’s do it for him: Racism.

We should note that Smith, along with others who subsequently said the cartoon was racist, didn’t say the drawing itself contained racist cues. The problem was the criticism of Newton, a black man, by an editorial page in the South. A plus B equals an ugly C.

The response was predictable – complaints about blacks seeing racism in everything, followed by complaints of intentional white blindness to race. It’s where these conversations end up – with each side pointing to the other as evidence of their rightness and fuel for their outrage.

Then there are the others, the ones who know we need to talk honestly about race. Especially now. Especially in cities like Charlotte that find themselves resegregating in schools and neighborhoods. They know that our differences, which once brought such collective promise, seem poised again to pull us further apart.

But embarking on that conversation means trusting that it will be a conversation. If you’re black, you fear that bringing up race will elicit that exasperated sigh from whites who believe the fairy tale that racism is a relic, that we’d all get along if we stopped bringing up the reasons we’re not getting along. And if you’re white, you worry that a misstep – or even some candor – will bring that wagging finger. You worry that disagreement will bring that name you don’t ever want to be called.

Here’s an example: In a web video this week for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Walter Dalton, North Carolina blacks talk about how policies favored by Republican candidate Pat McCrory aren’t friendly to them. Those policies include mandatory voter ID and cuts in pre-Kindergarten programs, so it’s an appropriate point for Dalton supporters to make.

But in the video, the speakers and policies are emphasized with a backdrop of pictures from the Civil Rights era. The message is unmistakable – McCrory as today’s George Wallace or Orval Faubus. A legitimate policy debate gets shoved to the inflammatory fringe. It’s done everywhere by both parties. Who wants to get caught in that kind of crossfire?

This year, new Charlotte schools superintendent Heath Morrison wants to try. He says Charlotte needs to have a “courageous conversations” on the role of race in academic success and failure. In Reno, Nev., and Montgomery County, Md., he brought in consultant Glenn Singleton, the author of a book by that name.

Morrison is right. We need to have those conversations. We need to talk about the challenges we face and the obstacles we place in front of each other. But to do so, we need to take the discussion back from the people who see racism everywhere or nowhere at all. As this week showed again, we’re a lot better at pointing than talking.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Getting the 'W' without the win

Let’s begin with an important distinction about Lance Armstrong’s fight against doping charges: He did not merely quit that battle this week. He lost it.

On Monday, a federal judge dismissed Armstrong’s suit against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, clearing the way for the case the agency had built against him. On Thursday, in the face of public testimony from at least 10 eyewitnesses that included his closest teammates, Armstrong said he was tired.

This from the athlete who summoned unfathomable strength in the same hills of France that wilted his competitors. This from the man who vigorously trashed and threatened with litigation any author or athlete or agency who suggested his Tour de France victories were anything less than legitimate.

And now he’s tired? No. Armstrong is acknowledging that this time, he isn’t going to get the win.

That’s the thing about cheaters – getting the win, the “W,” is more important than actually winning.

For some, that’s almost understandable. Cheating can be transactional, a way to keep a paycheck coming. This month, Major League Baseball players Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon were suspended 50 games for taking performance enhancing drugs. Until recently, Cabrera was a mediocre hitter on the back half of his playing days, and Colon’s career had stalled because of age and weight. They decided to game the system pharmaceutically.

That’s how we euphemize dishonesty, sometimes: “Gaming the system.” It’s what the brokers and bankers did a decade ago when they began filling the housing market with toxic loans that took down the economy. At the time, it was good business, working at the edge of the rules – and occasionally over that edge. We like to celebrate things like that.

We also have terrific powers of rationalization when it comes to the W’s in our lives. We talk about getting what’s ours, and we applaud those who “beat the Man.” We condemn the college football program that’s cheating until that program is the one we cheer for. Then, of course, “everyone is doing it.”

A decade ago, a teacher in a Kansas high school gave F’s to a group of students caught cheating on an assignment. Parents were outraged – not at the students, but at the teacher. They harassed her with late-night phone calls and complained to the school board, which finally ordered her to take back the punishment.

Said one of the students: “It probably sounds twisted, but I would say that in this day and age, cheating is almost not wrong.”

Not as long as we can get the win.

This month, I wrote an item criticizing Barack Obama because he didn’t condemn a political ad implying that Mitt Romney contributed to a woman’s death from cancer. Readers emailed to remind me that Romney, too, was releasing factually iffy ads. One insisted that the offending pro-Obama ad was necessary, because a Romney presidency would bring great ills to the country.

And that’s worth a shameful accusation? “Whatever it takes,” he said.

So now we have Lance Armstrong, finally losing this week. The USADA wants to take his seven straight Tour de France titles from him. He may also see the inspiring work he’s done for cancer victims darkened by this official taint of doping.

Or maybe not. Armstrong, after all, is not that unusual. He got the “W” – even if he didn’t win. How much does that really matter anymore?

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Making a statement with our sandwiches

Saturday's column in the print O:

Found myself near a Chick-fil-A one day this week. Not Wednesday, when drive-thrus were backed up with supporters for Chick-fil-A appreciation day. Not Friday, when some of the chain’s restaurants were hosts to a gay “kiss-in” protest. It was Thursday morning. I was hungry. I wanted a sandwich.

But Chick-fil-A orders come now with a mandatory side of self-evaluation. CEO Dan Cathy told an N.C.-based Baptist publication last month that he believes marriage should be between a man and a woman. His company donates millions to organizations that support that notion. None of that is new, but the uproar over it is. Hence the appreciation day. And the kiss-in. And my suddenly weighty chicken sandwich.

Actually, it’s not just my chicken sandwich. If Americans want to make a statement with the purchases we make, we have plenty of opportunities.

Take this week, for me. Do I buy that replacement kitchen faucet I need at Lowe’s, which gave in to extremists last year by pulling their advertisements from a benign cable TV show about Muslim-Americans? Do I use the nearby ATM at Wells Fargo, which paid $175 million this month to settle claims of targeting minorities with predatory lending?

What about our iPads or iPhones, which were built at Foxconn, a Chinese manufacturer where conditions were so grim that despondent workers committed suicide? And don’t even start on our gasoline, much of which is refined from oil we import from countries that oppress women and treat homosexuals far more harshly than here.

Make no mistake: I don’t agree with Dan Cathy’s implicit views on gay marriage, and I don’t endorse some of the platforms of the organizations Chick-fil-A donates to. Certainly, each one of us can spend our money in a way that makes us feel better about ourselves and our world. But do we want to live in a country where people won’t do business with people who don’t share their beliefs? And how far down do we want to dig – to the causes your lawn guy supports, or the contributions your neighborhood pizza joint owner gives to politicians?

Making a statement – no matter how self-satisfying it may be – is not nearly as clean as we think. Take those chicken sandwiches. In Charlotte, there’s a married couple who run a Chick-fil-A. They have a fine family with a deep faith and deep compassion, and they don’t share the headquarters’ views on gay marriage. It’s not a prerequisite to being a franchisee.

This week, customers came to make purchases and say how happy they were to support the company’s stand. Others were angry, including one who approached a cashier – a single mom working 40 hours week – and seethed: “I don’t know how you can work here.”

“It makes my heart heavy – all this hatred,” the owner told me, but she was uncomfortable talking much about it, and she didn’t want to have her name published. Who can blame her? Any words she says publicly would be met with the same onslaught of judgment, the same abdication of nuance that passes for debate these days.

It’s no longer enough to argue our point and our beliefs; now we must make one-dimensional those who don’t share all of them. You’re a liberal or a conservative or a bigot or a socialist. Gone, too often, is the subtlety of shared values – that, by the way, Chick-fil-A supports worthy causes and doesn’t practice discrimination, or that even among Christians, there is genuine sorting and struggling about what their Bibles say about homosexuality.

Instead, we yell and boycott and demonize – and are demonized in response. And on we go, turning each other into caricatures, so much less than we actually are. And a chicken sandwich becomes so much more.

Monday, May 21, 2012

EOGs: Love, hate or all of the above

In preparing for this week’s End of Grade tests, the fifth-grader in our house took sample exams that called on him not only to grasp early algebra and geometry, but to show comfort with comparing and contrasting data and identifying complex numerical patterns. 

In reading, he needed to demonstrate the ability to identify fictional plots and themes, to understand and explore words through the author’s perspective and intent, and to use deduction to sift meaning from non-fiction material.

So why is it again we don’t want teachers teaching to these tests?

This is the week to officially hate our North Carolina EOGs. Go ahead. They’re too high-stakes. They don’t measure different kinds of learning. They’re stressful for students and teachers and parents.

At our house, for our student, the tests will be a factor in classroom placement for middle school next year. That means his parents have attempted the delicate balance of noting the importance of EOG focus and care – without freaking our 10-year-old out. Youth sports parents might recognize this strategy – the “have fun out there, but it’s more fun if you do these 11 things correctly” approach. Not exactly Dad of the Year stuff.

And that, anti-test folks say, is part of the danger of high-stakes testing – that it steals the joy from learning and teaching. It’s a message that’s finding real traction. A national resolution condemning high-stakes testing is circulating the country, with hundreds of school boards approving. In Charlotte, advocacy group Mecklenburg ACTS has asked the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board to give the resolution a nod. The group’s thoughtful co-chairs, Pamela Grundy and Carol Sawyer, wrote an op-ed for the Observer this week echoing the resolution and calling for testing to be only “a periodic sampling of schools and subjects.”

Doing so, advocates say, would allow us to return to classrooms in which teachers were free to lead engaged students through diverse curricula filled with deep thinking and innovation. (Translation: Not teaching to the test.)

But in that idyllic world, too many teachers weren’t doing those wonderful things, and too many students weren’t learning what they needed to know. No Child Left Behind, flawed as it is, introduced testing that shone a light on struggling schools and forced change by providing something measurable to improve.

Deemphasizing those tests does a disservice to parents who otherwise don’t know their children are falling behind compared with other classrooms and other schools. It’s a disservice to teachers whose classes are slowed with students improperly promoted through subjective evaluation. It’s a disservice, most of all, to the students – whether they’re the ones who see a teacher’s attention directed elsewhere, or the ones unprepared for all the next steps they take, including college.

Yes, CMS sometimes splashes around too much in the test data pool, including last year’s 50-plus “field tests” the district quickly abandoned. But our classrooms still have plenty of time for other learning. My sons’ excellent teachers have launched their students on projects about the environment and history, on book discussions that promote real depth of thinking. Great educators across Charlotte have told me about similarly engaging projects. The best of them understand the need for a classroom blend of basics and breadth.

For many of those teachers, the issue with tests isn’t how you measure learning, but how to measure teaching. They worry that high-stakes tests don’t calculate the intangibles they provide, or the challenges students bring from home environments. They worry, too, that tests don’t measure all the things and ways students learn.

That’s true, but it’s an argument for better tests, not few tests. Because unless CMS chops its classes in half, standardized testing is the best way to measure broadly how students are learning. The alternative is knowing less about what our children know. It’s trusting that all of our teachers and principals are as good as we hope, or that they’ll tell us if they’re not.

Our schools have already taken that test, and we know the result.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

An anthem for a lifetime of passion

Sunday's Observer column:

Fifty-seven years ago, Harriette Thompson walked up to Eugene Craft, the director of music at Myers Park United Methodist Church, and asked to sing in the choir. Thompson and her husband, Sydnor, had joined the church shortly after moving to Charlotte from New York. She had formal training as a singer and pianist, but Craft told her he had no more paid positions on the choir.

“I’ll sing for free,” she remembers telling him, and so she did. Then she did much more.

Harriette and her husband had noticed a dearth of classical music in their new city, so Harriette went to UNC Charlotte and Sydnor to Davidson, where each helped to start the schools’ public radio stations. They also contributed to arts around Charlotte, not only with money and fundraising but with her talents on the piano, which she played for the Charlotte Symphony and others.

All the while, she sang on Sundays in the choir. For 50-plus years. “She is,” says current music director Jimmy Jones, “a force.”

But two years ago, on a visit to the dentist, Harriette learned that parts of her jawbone had deteriorated. By last year, cancer had spread toward her right ear. “I could tell I was on pitch,” she says, “but I couldn’t tell if I was blending with the other voices.” She told Jones she could no longer sing with the choir.

When Jones couldn’t talk her out of it, he talked instead with choir members about how best to honor her. The choir raised money, and Jones made what he calls a “Hail Mary” phone call to Stephen Paulus, a renowned composer who has written for soloists and symphonies around the world. Paulus, hearing her story, agreed to write Harriette an anthem.

“I don’t deserve this,” Harriette told Jones last October, when he called.

“Yes, you do,” Jones said.

She does, choir members say, not only because of her devotion to their music, or to the arts in Charlotte, but because neither waned with a diagnosis of cancer. Instead, she has taken what life allows her, and then some. An example: This June, at age 89, she’ll fly to San Diego with one of her sons to run in the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon. It’ll be her 14th straight year.

“I come in first every year in my age group,” she says.

A pause. A smile.

“Because I’m the only one.”

This is a choice you make, at some point, on some level. Some hear the word “cancer” and are locked away with the dragon. Some hear the news and decide that the next year or five years or whatever they get will be the best they can make it. So it is with Harriette Thompson. “She’s been an inspiration,” says Jones.

So last Saturday, Harriette sat with Sydnor and their sons and daughters for a private performance of My Help Comes From The Lord, based on Psalm 121 and composed by Paulus, who flew to Charlotte for the debut. The anthem was played again at three Sanctuary services the next day. “It was overwhelming,” she says now. “Beautiful.” And she dabs at her eyes.

Our collective spirit has taken a hard pounding lately. A harsh economy, a competition for resources, and we find ourselves wondering not only where we’re headed, but who we are. This is not an answer, but a reminder: We are capable of kindness that can make you marvel. Not enough to beat cancer, of course, but to share some joy at the edge of its sadness.

That’s what happened last weekend in Charlotte, and again on Friday, when Harriette Thompson signed onto her computer at home to watch a video of the performance.

She wasn’t sure how the replay would sound, but when the organ began, she tilted her good ear toward the screen and nodded. When the choir joined, her heels found a soft rhythm on the carpet. I will lift up my eyes, they sang, and she dabbed at hers again. Her song. Not so much a gift, but a trade. Spirit for spirit.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

In a difficult moment, a picture of grace

The picture was taken after the meeting began. David Knoble and Amelia Stinson-Wesley, two candidates for a Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board seat, were seated next to each other. They had met just two days before and had talked only briefly, so when Stinson-Wesley reached for his hand 10 minutes into the meeting, Knoble was surprised.

He’ll even admit he was a little uncomfortable.

But he didn’t let go.

Did you notice the photo? It was published in last Friday’s Charlotte Observer, the day after the CMS Board of Education appointed Stinson-Wesley to fill a vacant District 6 seat. That image, with its gentleness, seemed not to fit with that meeting, at which a Democrat-heavy board bluntly asserted its will by picking another Democrat to represent a majority Republican district. A lot of unhappy words have followed, including in this space, but in the midst of what went wrong that night, one thing didn’t.

Up until that moment, about 10 minutes in, David Knoble thought he had a decent chance at being Mecklenburg County’s next school board member. He and his wife, Kelli, have lived in District 6 for 14 years, and both have been active and well-regarded in the school system. At that Thursday meeting, some people prematurely congratulated Knoble and joked that they might run against him in two years.

Stinson-Wesley was sitting next to him by then. She was quiet, mostly, although the two talked a little and learned they had a mutual friend from Duke Divinity School. Then the board came in, and the nominations began.

Knoble’s nomination, from former District 6 representative Tim Morgan, was expected. But when board member Tom Tate nominated Stinson-Wesley, the room was stunned. She reached for Knoble’s hand. He smiled. He whispered to her: “You know you have the vote.” She whispered back: “You don’t know that yet.”

But she did have it, and inside, Knoble was deflated. He’d spent a couple years thinking about pursuing a school board seat, and he’d been encouraged to do so by people inside CMS. Now his hopes had dried up and blown away, and the job was going to the woman holding his hand.

He considered letting go at this point – and he could’ve diplomatically done so with a pat of the hand and encouraging smile. Instead, he thought of all the things coming Stinson-Wesley’s way. Not only a learning curve that will challenge even a smart woman like her, but the yoke she’ll carry through it as the Democrats’ pick in a conservative district.

Knoble knew this, too: People were watching them right then, watching him, and although no one could possibly be as disappointed as he was, there surely were some who were angry. He wanted to show them, too, that it was OK. “One of the great things about our country is the ability for us to choose who we want to make big choices,” he says now. “I wanted to respect the process.”

So he held on, as did she, appreciatively. “It was a connection,” she says, and when it was over, he gave her a hug and went home, where his son asked if he had won. There was no easy answer, just as there often won’t be in the next two years, in a school system with such disparate needs and populations, each kicking up storms of anger.

So he told his son “yes and no.” He hadn’t been selected for the school board seat, but he had given it his best. It’s there for us to see. A moment of grace in a moment of disappointment. Such a simple, difficult thing to find.