Saturday, April 23, 2011

After tragedy, a message in the music

By 7 p.m., the choir is robed, and Jimmy Jones goes over some last-moment details. Always, there are details – who will sit where, when their voices will rise in unison, when harmony will deliver their message.

In 30 minutes, they will be performing John Rutter’s Requiem, one of eight Holy Week services through Easter Sunday at Myers Park United Methodist Church. “This is a mass for the dead,” says Jones, the church’s director of music. “It’s kind of a singing someone to heaven.”

It’s something he doesn’t often reflect on during the bustle of his busiest week. But now, yes.

Last Saturday afternoon, as Jones was driving back from Winston-Salem, his phone began ringing with calls from Lee County, where he was born and raised. It’s where his family still lives – parents and sister, aunts and uncles and cousins, all within a mile or two of each other in an unincorporated farming community southeast of Raleigh.

Some of them had watched minutes before as a tornado destroyed his sister Susie’s house and a cousin’s home next door. Susie and her family thankfully weren’t home, but his cousin, Mike Hunter, was pulled from his house and dropped in the woods nearby. He was 42 years old, a lover of the outdoors, and now, one of 22 fatalities from Saturday’s storms.

“They’re still in shock,” Jones says. “We’ve never had a tragedy like this.”

He drove back home, of course, to the community that’s about half the size of his congregation here. It was where his mom would take him to choir practice, where he fell in love with sacred music and the organ that made it. He was the baby of the family, a prodigy on the electronic organ his parents eventually bought for their basement.

Now, they picked through the rubble of his sister’s house. They cut up fallen trees in the yards. They mourned.

“Hold that note,” he says Thursday, back in Charlotte with his choir. The church is filling. The choir is rehearsing, one more time, pieces of the requiem to come.

Jones, who is 28, came back Wednesday night, after his cousin’s wake, to prepare for all the services this week. In a way, he says, it’s been good to busy himself with the usual worries about tempo and timing.

But this year, he also has noticed the requiem’s plaintive cello – “an anguished kind of sound,” he says. The voices and the songs are a warm hand on his shoulder. “I hear it and I conduct it differently,” he says.

And the message? He remembered this week a sermon at his last church, in Greensboro, where his pastor talked about the 23rd Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” We don’t just walk into that valley, the pastor told him. “There is another side,” Jones says.

In moments, his 45-member choir will sing those words in the requiem. And no, the music doesn’t provide the answers to his questions – why this tragedy happened, how God allows you to mourn a cousin but be thankful about a sister. But it is a reminder this holy week of what he does believe. “A strengthening,” he says.

And this is what he tells his choir. “A requiem,” he reminds them, “is a Mass for the dead. It’s not happy. But in the end, there is hope.” Then he leads them to the sanctuary, and he leads them in song, blending in harmony and rising in unison. Grant them rest eternal, Lord our God, we pray to thee.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

After tornado comes roar of attention

In each of Lowe’s 1,725 home improvement stores, managers and staff are trained for catastrophes. During hurricanes, for example, managers complete preparedness checklists that include items such as boarding up store windows.

For tornadoes, that checklist can be boiled down to this: Get everyone in the store to a safe place, pronto.

Three days after accomplishing just that, Mike Hollowell is a little stunned at the celebrity that comes with doing what you’re supposed to do.

Hollowell is manager of the Lowe’s in Sanford destroyed Saturday by a tornado that was among several storms claiming 22 lives in North Carolina. None of the deaths was at the Sanford Lowe’s, however, and Hollowell has since received hugs and thank-yous from customers and co-workers, along with dozens of interview requests and one phone call, Monday afternoon, from the president of the United States.

“Man,” he said Tuesday, “it’s been amazing.”

On Tuesday afternoon, while Lowe’s honored the Sanford staff by announcing a $250,000 donation to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, Hollowell tended to his own relief efforts. He, along with Lowe’s officials, transferred each Sanford employee to one of four nearby stores, and employees also were offered trauma counseling.

He’s relived the tornado hundreds of times, he says, especially in the immediate hours following, when rescue workers combed the piles of metal and broken glass that were once his store. “I thought we got everyone to a safe place,” he said. “But there were one or two that I wondered, ‘Did they listen to me and go?’ ”

Hours before, it was a normal Saturday, with the lighter crowd of do-it-yourselfers that comes with a rainy forecast. Near 3 p.m., about 10 minutes before the tornado struck, an employee told him of a tornado warning in Lee County, home of Sanford, about 40 miles southwest of Raleigh. Minutes later, he saw employees and customers running.

“I looked over and there it was,” he said. “It was so massive; it didn’t look like a tornado.”

He and other managers immediately began herding 100 or so customers and staffers to a safe room with no windows, while another manager got on the microphone to do the same. When Hollowell finally made his way toward the room, he looked back and saw the store’s roof peeling off.

Now, he tells everyone the same thing: It wasn’t just he who saved people. It was the staff. Of course, the public likes a face on its heroism, so the 30-year-old Hollowell has stood before cameras and notebooks and taken phone calls, including one Monday on his cell that showed up as “Unknown.”

When he answered, he was asked to hold, which he did until a woman picked up and said, “This is the secretary of the president of the United States.”

“Um,” Mike Hollowell replied, “this is Mike Hollowell.”

Moments later, Barack Obama said “Hello, Michael,” then thanked him for Saturday.

“Unbelievable,” said Hollowell by phone Tuesday, but he wonders, still humbly, why everyone is making a big deal about doing what his training told him to do. In a way, though, he understands. He has since watched a YouTube video at the store taken after the tornado hit. The video showed his staff helping customers out of the building.

Single file, Hollowell notes proudly. At their best in the worst kind of moment.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The price we pay for our mistakes

Caleb Allen seems like a decent guy, a polite and well-spoken guy, sitting on his mother’s couch in a middle-class Huntersville neighbhorhood. But heroin, we know, takes the decent kids, too.

It first grabbed Caleb four years ago. He went from casual user to heavy user to jail, where he rediscovered God and has started the slow path to a clean life. It could be a moving story, if you believe in it.

You may have read about Caleb, 25, and his mother Diana. Caleb was arrested in February in a south Charlotte break-in, and Diana didn’t believe it. She called people from records she’d kept when her son was using drugs. When one man gave her a tip, she staked out and chased a red Jeep like the one police say was the getaway car in that crime and several others.

The duo she led police to have been arrested in South Carolina. Charges against her son have been dropped.

The response to the story fell into two camps. The police screwed up, some said, enthusiastically. Others noted that Caleb Allen contributed to his mess. “We’re not talking about a saint,” said one commenter.

Allen has read those comments.

“I’m definitely not a saint,” he says.

This is what he is: An addict. It began, he says, after high school. He had moved from South Carolina to Charlotte, where he’d lived most of his life. He worked the club scene, where temptations were plenty and he was willing. Alcohol and pot turned into ecstasy and prescription pills. Then one day, a friend of a friend introduced him to heroin.

“For a while, it was a once-a-month thing,” he says, but heroin was a hot, available drug in Charlotte. Allen began to use it every weekend, then every other day. He was busted for possession after a traffic stop, but that didn’t slow him down.

Then last November, he was charged for something worse: possessing and selling heroin. The reality, he says, is less sinister – in the addicts’ world, you get someone this if he can get you that. But the charges were real, and he found himself in Mecklenburg County jail. “I kind of just gave up,” he says.

Eventually, he traded his food tray to a fellow inmate, who had some books to read. Allen got “A Purpose Driven Life,” the spiritual bestseller by Rick Warren. Caleb had grown up a church-goer, a believer, and reading the book brought him an overwhelming peace. “I’ve never felt anything like that before,” he says.

The feeling stayed with him. He started going to church again, he says, and he showed up for the counseling and drug tests set up by Mecklenburg’s Drug Court program. He says he’s been clean since August, and he’s thought that once he’s ready, he could use his story to help others avoid his mistakes. “I told him, Caleb, this can be your gift,’” says his mother.

But on Feb. 16, police came to his house, cuffed him and took him downtown. His mug made it to the TV news. He was booted immediately from Drug Court.

He’s not sure why police paid little heed to his mother’s calls. Maybe they already had a drug addict with a red Jeep and thought A plus B equals C. But CMPD, coming off high-profile detective errors in a police shooting case last year, can and should be better.

No apologies have come, Allen says. In fact, the opposite – papers dismissing the charges say that police said they couldn’t prove that Allen wasn’t involved with the pair eventually arrested – but that they couldn’t prove he wasn’t.

But Caleb Allen isn’t bitter. Even some family members are skeptical, he says, and he understands. This is another struggle of the road he’s just beginning. The price you pay isn’t just time served, but that for a long while, people will assume the worst of you.

“I don’t have any credibility right now,” he says, on a Friday in Huntersville. Right now, what he has is the next clean day, and God willing, the next.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

CMS 'field tests' our patience

A one-question test on testing in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools:

How many hours does a typical fourth-grader spend on tests in a year?

We’re talking assessment tests – End of Grade tests, National Assessment of Educational Progress tests – also known as the only tests kids tend to like more than parents.

Kids like the tests because they’re not graded, and because their teachers often don’t assign homework the night before so students can be test-fresh. Parents, however, range from fretful to impatient that the emphasis on these tests seem to be leaving less room on the chalkboard each year for other kinds of learning.

This week, some of those parents – along with many CMS teachers – are spitting paper clips with the administering of 52 new “field tests,” which are part of a program that eventually will supply another measure of how well teachers are contributing to student progress.

Parents threatened to pull students from the tests. Teachers complained about the time spent on them. Even some test-weary high school students threatened to muck things up by filling in wrong answers.

Enough, everyone seems to be saying.

But is it?

The field tests, called Summatives, will be given in subjects that are not covered by N.C. End-of-Grade and End-of-Course tests, CMS says, which means that teachers can be better evaluated in most every class, not just the current 10 percent.

Plus, officials say, those tests will add only one to three hours of testing time per year for students – depending on grade.

Which brings us back to your one-question test: How many hours a year does a fourth-grader spend filling in the bubbles and such?

That number is 17, says CMS. Out of 1,035 instructional hours. That’s less time test-taking than some of us fourth-graders spent reading Sports Illustrated inside our textbook. (Sorry, Mrs. Berry.)

Except that 17 hours isn’t really what students lose to testing.

“It’s not even close,” says Jenn O’Kane Fenk, a teacher at Ardrey Kell High School and mother of a CMS elementary student.

What the 17 hours doesn’t include are those homework-less nights before and during testing days – or the intentionally light workload students get during testing days. It doesn’t include how some schools pretty much take the month of May to prepare for End of Grade tests – often at the expense of other subjects and topics.

It also doesn’t include the annual exhale near the end of the school year – the weeks of field trips and movies that fill the time after EOGs, when there isn’t a test to teach to anymore. I’m still trying to determine the educational significance my third-grader received from watching “Stuart Little” – twice – after EOGs were through.

Add to all that the new Summatives. “It pretty much kills your whole spring,” says Fenk.

Superintendent Peter Gorman and his staff say the numbers gained from the new tests are worth it – that they provide more precise insight into teacher performance. They have credibility here – the less talked-about CMS story this week is that the system again is a finalist for the Broad Prize, which rewards innovative, measurable achievement in urban school districts.

But Gorman and his staff also are data-driven people – and data-driven people almost always believe that more numbers are better than fewer numbers.

The rest of us? We appreciate the value of numbers, if they provide a sound and clear understanding of performance. But we know that even accurate numbers don’t measure all the other kinds of successes that come during a school year – a teacher’s well-timed nudge, the warm encouragement during a difficult moment. We worry that the more tests we have, the more evaluations are pushed toward uptown and away from the schools and principals, the teachers and parents.

CMS needs to make a better case of how more numbers will complement the classroom, instead of merely measuring it. Because the problem with numbers is that when you rely too much on them, a number is all our children seem to be.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Our oldest and youngest readers?


The Observer is about to celebrate its 125th anniversary, and we'll be publishing some stories acknowledging the milestone. Part of that will be profiles of some of our oldest subscribers and readers - as well as some of our youngest.

First, we have to find them.

If you know of someone who has been reading the Observer a loooong time - or a youngster who already has developed a newspaper habit - let us know at or 704-358-5029. And yes, online counts.



Saturday, April 2, 2011

A proposal: Give yourself something to remember

A little more than a decade ago, I drove up to Greensboro on a Thursday night to have dinner with my girlfriend. We were planning a fishing trip that weekend, so I brought an old green tackle box we shared. I told her I had a new lure to show her.

She opened the box. There, among the hooks and rubber worms, was a diamond engagement ring.

We’ll pause while the men out there nod admiringly.

You can guess the rest. My wife-to-be gasped, I grinned, and we had ourselves one of the best kinds of currency – a fun story to remember.

The Observer’s Elizabeth Leland told you another one of those this past week – about Patrick Allen and Josalyn Lowrance of Charlotte. Not long ago, Patrick decided to propose to Josalyn, and when he told her parents and friends, they wished wistfully that they could see her reaction.

That got Patrick thinking. He hired a photographer for a tricky assignment: shoot the proposal without Josalyn realizing what was happening. The photos are terrific. The smiles catch the light like jewels. The story made it on the Observer’s front page.


Heather Bryson hears these kinds of stories occasionally. She’s a partner and wedding planner at Carolina Wedding Design, so she’ll have a hand in some of the ceremonies we’ll see spilling out of Charlotte’s churches in the coming months.

She tells her clients often to slow down, to remember to be in love. And this: “Don’t look back and say I don’t remember a thing.”

She says she’s heard amazing proposal stories and funny proposal stories. One client took his fiancĂ©e-to-be to New York, where he had flown in her friends for the big moment. Another convinced the sellers of the house they were going to buy together to let him propose in the living room they would soon share.

Not bad. But it’s no tackle box…

It is, however, a reminder about memories – that we should give ourselves as many as we can, big and small ones, gasps and grins. Life will deliver plenty that aren’t so easy, of course. Not only the harshest challenges – the job that’s taken away, the bad diagnosis – but all the usuals that overfill our days and make us wonder if our lives don’t really belong to us.

And in that crunch, we can sometimes lose the better moments – no, not lose, but tuck too far away. At least until a story like Patrick and Josalyn comes along and reminds us about living room proposals and tackle boxes.

Actually, the lure/ring wasn’t the best part of that story. After I heard “yes” that night, we went out to a nice dinner, and I promptly was overcome with nausea from a bad meal I’d had earlier that day. It was food poisoning, but my wife still raises an eyebrow and wonders if it was remorse. Of course not, I say, each time we remember.

Friday, April 1, 2011

On Skeens' biggest basketball day, humility

Be humble, she’s told her children. On good days and on challenging days. Because both will come.

Stay humble, Jackie Skeen says to each of the four, but especially lately to her son, Jamie.

He is a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University, the best basketball player on a team that has made an unlikely run to Saturday’s NCAA Final Four in Houston. His week has been a swirl of interviews and autographs and attention like he’s never known.

It is, says Jackie, wonderful to see her son rewarded for his talent and work. But she and her husband, Eric, also have told him to remain the Jamie that they know, no matter what happens this weekend.

It’s the lesson they’ve stressed forever in the Skeen house, after school and after church. But humility isn’t always the easiest concept to explain. How do you show your child what that means, when you already live in humble surroundings?

This is how:

Jackie Skeen is a preschool staff member at Gateway Academy in the University area of north Charlotte. Her husband, Eric, is a cable technician, and her mother, Rosa, was a schoolteacher. "She also taught children how to sew and how to sing," Jackie remembers. "She loved the energy from young people when they learned."

Jackie and Eric’s four children were raised to consider education important. In 2005, when their oldest, Angelica, was about to graduate from North Mecklenburg High School, Jackie was tutoring students there. The next year, Angelica attended Western Carolina with the help of academic scholarships.

Then Jamie, a star basketball player who won a state championship at North Meck, earned a full ride at Wake Forest. Jackie and Eric, who had expected to take out loans and help pay for their children’s college education, found themselves unexpectedly without that burden.

It was, Jackie says, a blessing - and with that surprise they decided to bless others. They started a scholarship fund, giving one North Mecklenburg student $500 to attend college. The next year, with the help of their church, New Birth Charlotte, they funded two.

They’ve since kept the scholarships going with fundraisers - car washes, raffles, attic sales. This year has been difficult, with everyone’s budgets strained, but the Skeens are pushing forward. They’ll be holding a basketball camp soon, with Jamie helping as always.

Except this year, he’ll be Jamie Skeen, Final Four participant - or better.

"This week has been crazy," says Jackie, beaming. Her phone is buzzing constantly. She has dozens of Facebook messages that she will answer as soon as she figures out how to use Facebook.

It’s also a joy for her to see Jamie and his team everywhere - in newspapers, on TV - because he has had his ups and downs. From being a top national high school player to learning that Wake Forest wasn’t a fit academically or socially - to now.

They talked to Jamie before everyone left for Houston. They wished him luck, then Jackie reminded him that the rest of the school year awaits. "She’s very special to me because she keeps me level-headed," Jamie told the Observer this week, "and she keeps me grounded."

This is what humility is, Jackie knows. Not something you decide on when you’ve found your best moment, but an acknowledgement that you don’t always control those highs - or how long you can hold onto them.

Be humble. Jackie nods. "That’s who Jamie is," she says. The star recruit who didn’t hold a press conference when he chose a college to play ball. The young man who will be home soon, blowing a whistle at a basketball camp, giving like his mom and dad, no different on the best week of their lives than any other.