Friday, December 24, 2010

Messages turn tree into a beacon

Four dozen ornaments, hanging from a dogwood tree on a Myers Park front lawn.

Stars and snowflakes and colored balls.

On them, handwritten in marker, are messages.

Hope you have an awesome Christmas

We love you guys

They started appearing eight days before Christmas - first a few dangling from branches, then a few more. The owners of the tree were delighted to discover their front yard display. Then they went out for a closer look.

Peace, love and health to you

I love you so much and have been praying for your family

Last month, difficult news came to the house. A husband and father of two had advanced cancer.

Their friends and church family at Myers Park United Methodist have done what friends and family do, planning visits and organizing meals. A couple of those friends, during a walk in the neighborhood, wondered if they could do more. One remembered a family receiving a Christmas tree with paper hearts one holiday.

Why not decorate their real tree, in the front yard, with messages and Scripture?

"We thought this was a way people could reach out and lift them up throughout this journey," said one, Sarah McKinney.

They sent out an e-mail.

For with God, nothing will be impossible

The ornaments have come, two or three a day, with a small flurry of them on Christmas Eve. Sometimes they appear overnight. Sometimes they're being hung just as someone is going out for the mail.

The illness is still new and still raw, so family members don't want their names revealed now. But one, standing next to the tree Friday morning, wanted to say how much the ornaments have meant, how much hope their words have carried, and how beautiful they are to see. "They twinkle at night," she says.

May you know the peace that passes all understanding

Peace. It's the message of the season, a promise delivered by angels to shepherds long ago. But on this day and many days, we wonder how on Earth we can find this peace. We're battered by wars and staggered by suffering, and even in our homes, the joy of the holiday can instead be hollowed by financial strain, a fractured family, a diagnosis.

But the promise we've received is not the promise of peace, but the opportunity to find it, if we choose. And if we choose, it's out there in small and powerful ways. A moment of quiet beauty. The kindness of strangers and friends. Four dozen ornaments on a dogwood tree.

Embrace hope with all your heart

Not enough to erase sadness, but to discover, at its edge, some joy.

Let all those rejoice who put their trust in you

And peace.

Merry Christmas

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Mayor's choice: Private school, public scorn?

Would you feel better this morning if you knew Charlotte’s mayor sent his child to public schools?

Anthony Foxx’s oldest child goes to Charlotte Country Day this year, and he’s not talking about why. But lots of others have been, including the man who used to have his job.

Earlier this month, former Mayor Pat McCrory blew on the public- vs. private-school embers a bit during a taping of the WCNC-TV news show “Flashpoint.” In a conversation about budget cuts at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, McCrory called for leaders to “step up and lead by example.”

“(They) are actually sending their kids to private schools...,” he said. “That’s why we have a difference in the economic status. That’s why we often have a difference in the racial status is because a lot of the leaders are not sticking with public schools.”

McCrory was careful to include business and community leaders in his poke, but the only people he identified were Foxx and Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon, who has two children at Charlotte Christian.

Let’s get something out of the way here: McCrory is childless. He’s never signed a report card or sweated a parent-teacher conference. So yes, the bolts are a bit loose on his parenting soapbox. But he’s not disqualified from speaking about how the current mayor’s choices are perceived.

McCrory, a Republican, spent seven terms cultivating what people think about Charlotte, and he’s right about CMS. The schools are facing a public crisis of confidence, and much of that crisis comes from a tangle of race and socioeconomics. The people who can help our schools are often the people who are fleeing from them – taking their children from public classrooms to private, leaving CMS as a majority minority district.

Foxx, a Democrat, knows this, too. He’s a West Charlotte High grad, and he’s spoken passionately about the importance of our public schools. What statement could be more powerful, McCrory and others wonder, than if he expressed confidence in those schools with his child’s presence?

McCrory hasn’t said, however, which public choice would be the right one for Foxx.

Would it be OK, symbolism-wise, if the mayor moved his family to a different school zone – perhaps farther south in Charlotte, as many parents have – so that his children could have an academically stronger or more stable public school path?

How about one of CMS’s magnets – or does that send a poor message about neighborhood schools?

Those aren’t the considerations parents ponder when we’re sitting at our kitchen tables with our spouses, looking at school profiles and statistics, trying to find the best fit for our son or daughter.

Maybe we want a school where teachers push a gifted child harder – or one with a nurturing environment for a child who struggles. Maybe it’s one that can nourish an artistic-minded boy or girl – or a school with a spiritual grounding that complements our household’s.

It’s difficult enough figuring out what’s best for our own family – let alone someone else’s – but surely we understand this: You don’t play politics with your children’s future.

Anthony Foxx has chosen not to. He’s also decided not to speak publicly on the topic, so we don’t know what considerations he’s needed to ponder at his kitchen table.

But he knows, as do we, that while symbolism can be powerful, it also has its limitations. Would you feel better about public schools if our mayor sent his child to one tomorrow morning? Probably not.

Because symbolism, sometimes, is the gap between what we wish and what we know, and Foxx’s choice is an acknowledgment of what the rest of us know about most private vs. public schools here. He’s just fortunate enough to do something about it.

That’s his duty as a parent, and we shouldn’t expect different from anyone, even if he happens to be mayor.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A forgotten star's time to shine, finally

On Thursday morning, at Charlotte’s oldest country club, Paul Grier swapped his work jacket and corduroys for slacks and a pullover shirt. He walked past the stately clubhouse columns to the main ballroom. Handshakes and backslaps were waiting for him.

Grier has worked at Charlotte Country Club since 1972, when a friend recommended him for a job on the maintenance crew. He’s done some caddying through the years, and he’s done some landscaping on the side for members. On this morning, about 50 of them were hosting a luncheon in his honor – not because he was retiring, but because they wanted to tell him what they thought of him.

And if you think 38 years is a long time to wait to do something like that, well, a lot of us have been overdue with Paul Grier.

He is, some think, the best basketball player Charlotte ever raised, which is what the Observer noted when it featured Grier in 1987 – 31 years after he graduated from West Charlotte High. We waited almost another quarter-century before writing about him again – this time on Thanksgiving 2010, as the lead story in a package about black basketball players in the era of segregation.

We called the package the Forgotten All-Stars, and the stories chronicled ballplayers across North Carolina who were ignored by local media and shunned by the state’s major college basketball programs. Fifty years later, we could give them recognition, at least.

And so, at 74, Paul Grier is getting his moment, finally – in the paper, on the radio and, on Thursday morning, at the Charlotte Country Club, where he shared a room with people he called “Mister,” and they lunched on chicken and barbecue near a framed copy of his newspaper story.

In basketball terms, it’s a “make-up” call. Grier has been gracious through it all – and more than happy to talk about his playing days. But when the topic of missed opportunities comes up, he falls quiet. “I never thought about it much, then or now,” he told me for our story. Not long after, when WFAE’s Mike Collins and his radio show guests explored those injustices, Grier shook his head. “No,” he said politely. “I really don’t want to join in.”

Maybe he realized the conversation wasn’t so much about Paul Grier being recognized, but about those doing the recognizing.

When we tell these stories and relive that era, it’s not only about acknowledging our errors (or making ourselves feel better by doing so.) It’s about reminding ourselves that this isn’t ancient history, that every day we sit among people like Grier, who felt the blunt of discrimination. Those experiences, and those scars, still shape the discussions we have about things more important than basketball.

But sometimes, it’s good just to talk about the games.

That’s what Grier likes best, and it’s what he got to do Thursday. When lunch was finished, club members raised their hands to share a story about Grier. Some knew he was a Charlotte playground legend. Some had heard about his high school accomplishments, quite possibly from Grier himself.

“My one regret is that I never got see Paul play ball,” said one.

“It was something to see,” Grier replied, and everyone in the room laughed hard.

They talked more, however, about the Paul they knew. The one who made people smile. The one everyone wanted for a caddie – not only because he knew golf about as well as he knew basketball, but because of his infectious laugh, his good spirit.

Grier, flanked by his daughter Paula and grown grandson DeMario, nodded proudly and laughed some more and, finally, stood to accept an envelope from the members. And when they all rose to applaud and shake his hand once more, he bowed his head and covered his eyes with long fingers. This time, it was their turn to wait, and they did so gladly – not for the basketball player who had been forgotten, but for the good man they know.

•  Forgotten All-Stars: Read the full series

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A picture. A gift. A chance to see progress.

A picture.
Mike is almost ready for his.
He has a collared, pinstripe shirt and a nice pair of pants and an appropriately somber expression. Or maybe a smile would be better. He’s not sure.
It’s been a decade since a camera was pointed his way – in high school, before he lost himself to drinking and drugs, before he realized, as he says: “I don’t know how to live life on life’s terms.”
Now he lives at Hope Haven, a center that gives the homeless and addicted a place to live and relearn how to live. Mike has been here 60 days, and already he has improved, and on this Sunday afternoon in November, he’s about to get tangible evidence of that progress.
A picture.
Three years ago, Kathy Pickard’s church, Covenant Presbyterian, put together a day in which members fanned out across Charlotte to perform service projects. A church staffer suggested that Pickard, a professional photographer, might use her gifts for the event. Who among us might need a picture the most?
Now, one Sunday each year, Pickard sets up an impromptu studio at Hope Haven’s activities center, and residents line up for a professional portrait, free of charge. They wear sweatsuits and dresses, jeans and ties. Some are new residents, just beginning the climb out of their abyss. Some are on the back end of their two-year stay, ready to apply their counseling and life training.
For each, the pictures are a marker. “It lets them see themselves,” says Pickard, “and see what they’ve become.”
But, she knows, the portraits represent something else, too. Pictures are what you have done when you’re a regular person, with a regular life.
“Almost 20 years,” says Cindy, now 47, when asked how long it’s been since she had a picture taken. It was with her daughter, who was just a baby, and the man who was then her husband.
“I’m not really sure,” says Edward, now 43, when asked the same question. But he knows he’s had just one, and he remembers what it was for. “My prison ID,” he says.
“Never,” says George, who is 60. Never had a photo done? “No,” he says. “It just never was something I got to do.”
But now he is in a blue suit and tie, as sharply dressed as anyone on this day. “You’re looking good,” Pickard tells him, then motions: Chin down. Hands on legs. “There you go,” she says, and George smiles through the click.
A picture.
There will be 80 taken on this day, so many that Pickard doesn’t have much time to hear the stories behind the faces she choreographs. Instead, those stories come in small glimpses, quick as a shutter. One man tells her his picture will be a reminder that he’s still here – as in still alive.
Others ask if they can peek at their photo on the back of her camera. “I like that,” says one, surprised. “That’s right,” says another, nodding.
Some will hang these portraits in their apartments as a reminder of how far they’ve come since their lives washed up to Hope Haven’s doors. Most will order extra photos for family.
“I’ll give them to my sisters,” says George, of the picture that will be his first. “They knew me at the lowest.”
“My sister in Virginia,” says Edward, of his first picture since prison. “She’s going to be like, ‘Whoa, look at my brother.’”
“My little girl,” says Mike, who decides on a cautious smile to go with his collared, pinstripe shirt. Mike says he’ll also send copies to his family, some of whom last saw him more than two months ago, when he came to Hope Haven. “I looked like death,” he says.
What will they see now?
Improvement, he says.
And: “That I’m really trying.”
The camera clicks behind him. Another picture, against a simple brown backdrop on a Sunday afternoon. The gift of progress – and the opportunity to see it.
Mike glances over, then back at the question.
They’ll see, he says, “a better me.”