Lessons from the pandemic

04 BoyStudyingHC1408 sourceIt is not like we did not know this was coming. It is just that now we know how bad it really is. To absolutely no one’s surprise, North Carolina’s public school students have fallen behind during our state, nation and world’s year-long ordeal with COVID-19.

The numbers do not lie. A majority of our state’s high schoolers did not pass end-of-course exams last fall. Younger students are not faring well either. Almost 60% of third-graders scored at the lowest level of the beginning-of-grade reading exam and a full 3/4s of them tested not proficient in reading.

Results vary, of course, among individual students, schools and school systems, and no one is cheering. Said North Carolina’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Catherine Truitt, “It has been a year of lost learning."

But what did we expect?

Under even the most favorable circumstances, students have been outside classrooms and physically away from teachers and each other for a year. Some are contending with difficult family situations such as job losses, reduced income, food insecurity, illnesses and even death. All are dealing with the reality of a worldwide pandemic unlike any in an entire century. My own Precious Jewels are long out of classrooms, but I spent some time during the spring with two little boys, ages 10 and 7, contending with virtual school. The 10-year-old, a thoughtful boy able to concentrate for more than a few minutes, did his sparse online work, if for no other reason than to have it behind him. The 7-year-old, a live wire with two speeds—full-tilt boogie and asleep - learned nothing except how to operate his iPad, and the mom overseeing all this was stressed to the max herself. That mother and millions of other parents and educators will now admit that virtual learning is not optimal for many students, especially younger ones and those with special needs.

It feels now, though, that we are turning a corner on COVID-19. More vaccine shots are administered daily, and schools are beginning to reopen for in person classes with various precautions. The road ahead nevertheless looks long full of challenges. In a letter to state school superintendents last month, acting assistant U.S. Education Secretary Ian Rosenblum wrote, “To be successful once schools have reopened, we need to understand the impact COVID-19 has had on learning and identify what resources and supports students need … We must also specifically be prepared to address the educational inequities that have been exacerbated by the
pandemic …”

It is hard to find a silver lining in any of this, but there may be some. Having life as we have always known it change in a matter of days a year ago offers lessons not necessarily taught in classrooms. Students may have learned that life brings hardships, and not all of them are under anyone’s control. They may have learned resilience — that when life brings on hardships, do the best you can and keep going. They may have learned to enjoy their own company and that of their family members and friends. Not every moment in life is scheduled like a busy school day, and using time wisely and pleasurably requires thought and effort. They may have learned that not all food comes fully prepared from restaurants. More and more Americans cooked in during the pandemic, with families sitting down to meals together in ways we may not have done in years.

Only a handful of living Americans actually experienced the flu pandemic of 1918, and because they were children, they remember little of it. COVID-19 is fresh for all of us and will be for a long time — the fear, the sadness, the seclusion, the loneliness. We are changed people in so many ways, and we now know to appreciate our lives before COVID and after.

Anonymous letters carry no credibility

10 psst cartoonOver 16,000 residents live in the Town of Hope Mills. It's one of the friendliest and fastest-growing communities in North Carolina.

Unfortunately, there are about a dozen residents who find it extremely difficult to get comfortable with the existing and competent Hope Mills leadership and the progress the community has made during the past decade.

These malcontents choose not to speak up in public with innovative ideas or constructive criticism. They prefer to operate subversively by lurking in the shadows and taking guerilla style potshots at the current leadership.

It has been a strategy that has proved flawed and ineffective, forcing them to resort to a more direct and sinister tactic — character assassination via trumped-up conspiracy theories.

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Postal Service delivered a letter to my office without a return address or signature. As many as five of these anonymous letters were circulated in Cumberland County, all of which made false, derogatory and disparaging claims and accusations about unsuspecting citizens in Hope Mills leadership positions. All were without substantiation or merit.

These letters were written purposely to cast aspersions, ruin their reputations, rob them of their livelihoods and embarrass them publicly.

No doubt this Dirty Dozen of mean, ruthless, hateful, self-serving malcontents are extremely desperate to destroy what they can't control.

Well, here's my message to this cabal:

1. We know who you are! Your letters may be anonymous, but you are not. The content and context of each piece of correspondence point directly to its authors, who are the same mean-spirited ugly trolls that dominate the Hope Mills social media scene with fake news.

2. Unsubstantiated and unsigned letters of this nature carry no credibility. Only cowards and criminals use this method of intimidation.

3. Responsible, respectable and ethical people, businesses, organizations and institutions will continue to reject this tactic, exposing it as the ruse it is.

4. This unethical tactic of utilizing anonymous conspiracy letters to defame people has the opposite effect. Someone not willing to sign their name to a document means they cannot own up to its content. This is why we have whistlerblower laws— to protect the innocent from retaliation for coming forward with a truth or injustice.

These hostile and vile anonymous attacks on innocent and unsuspecting citizens can only be viewed as "desperate people, doing desperate things."

They will never, I repeat, never, be in leadership positions because their character will not allow it.

The Town of Hope Mills has excellent leadership, and the town is growing and prospering.

The Dirty Dozen are on the outside looking in, and that's where they will stay.

Thanks for reading Up & Coming Weekly.

I thought blacklisting was bad

04 N1902P33009HI’ve never really been a victim of cancel culture. But that’s not to say my critics haven’t tried to make me one.

I began my syndicated column in 1986. It ran initially in a couple of newspapers in eastern North Carolina, then spread to dozens of others over the ensuing decade. On several occasions, left-wing activists have tried to get editors to drop my column. It never worked. In my experience, local newspaper folks didn’t like obviously orchestrated attempts to dictate editorial decisions.

During my quarter-century as a regular panelist on TV shows, I can’t say producers or stations were never subject to political pressure. They were. But I was never silenced.

I am, of course, just a relatively obscure scribbler and pontificator. At the national level, cancel culture has become a real and pervasive threat in universities, business and media. Teachers, writers, actors, and even low-level employees have been fired not for doing their jobs poorly, or for truly egregious personal behavior that reflected poorly on their judgment and their employers, but simply for expressing or even tolerating political views that online bullies didn’t like.
Before you jump to the conclusion I’m only talking about political conservatives, I’ll offer two cases of non-conservatives who’ve lost their jobs at just one outlet, The New York Times, for reasons that can only be described as ridiculous.

The first example, James Bennet, is someone I happen to know slightly. We were both reporter-researchers at The New Republic at the same time, just as the Reagan administration was drawing to a close, although the number of meaningful conversations we had could be counted on one hand.

During the riots last summer, Bennet ran an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas that advocated deploying the military if necessary to protect lives and property. Many people had a strong negative reaction to it. I disagreed with part of Cotton’s argument myself. But it was an obviously newsworthy column by a sitting U.S. senator that expressed a mainstream view held by many millions of Americans.

No doubt Bennet disagreed with Cotton, too. But he was editorial-page editor of a national newspaper. It was his job to run such op-eds. In fact, the Times even solicited the piece! But Bennet was forced out over it.

More recently, you may have heard, Times science writer Donald McNeil Jr. was cancelled because he used the “n-word” in a conversation with a student. Was McNeil engaging in some racist fulmination or treating the student in a creepy way? No. The student asked McNeil for his opinion about the fate of another student who’d been suspended for using the n-word in a video made when that student was 12 years old. While asking for clarification of the question, McNeil repeated the word. For that, he was forced out.

To be sure, there is a lot of hyperbole, hypocrisy, and shoddy reasoning to be found among current condemnations of cancel culture. When Sen. Josh Hawley lost a book contract with a major publisher after the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, he said, “This is not just a contractual dispute. It’s a direct assault on the First Amendment.”

Nonsense. The constitution prohibits the government from restraining our right to speak or publish, or to punish us later for expressing political views that government functionaries dislike. It has nothing to do with the decisions of private actors.

A better argument is that even perfectly legal private decisions to cancel will, over time, weaken the culture of free expression. We need that culture. We need it to foster good journalism, to create great works of art, and to lubricate our daily interactions within a society of diverse opinions.

Remember the Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s? It’s been denounced repeatedly ever since. But now I can’t help wondering: were those denunciations really about the injustice of people losing jobs because of their political views and friendships? Or is cancel culture okay as long as the victims aren’t communists?

Standing in the gap

18 MomGirlCarSeatHC1408 sourceI never really understood the story of Rip Van Winkle. Until recently, that is. It seems the more I look around, the less I recognize any more. It's not that progress or change bothers me. In fact, I'm a huge fan of many things new and emerging, but I've come to regret some of the things we choose to abandon. Namely values.

Back to Mr. Van Winkle. When he awakens on a mountain after a 20-year nap, he discovers shocking changes: his musket is rotting and rusty, his beard is a foot long, and his dog is nowhere to be found. He returns to his village, where he recognizes no one. He arrives just after an election, and people ask how he voted. Never having cast a ballot in his life, he proclaims himself a faithful subject of King George III, unaware that the American Revolution has taken place, and nearly gets himself into trouble with the townspeople until one elderly woman recognizes him as the long-lost Rip Van Winkle.

When it comes to music, entertainment and even transportation, I'm completely on board with the changes. I like the new. I like the path we're taking, and can still enjoy the fruits of a harvest gone by without bothering anyone else with my sense of melancholy. Technology? A little different, but I am usually quick to embrace the latest, and keep my eyes peeled for whatever is coming over the horizon. It's just that the devices we used before become more quickly obsolete.

Then we come to values. I can't really discuss values without mentioning how closely aligned they are with the morals I live by. Those morals come from the Bible. Love God. Love others more than you do yourself. Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly. These are not catch phrases to me – they are the basis for the moral code I feel like we've begun to abandon.

One Sunday a couple of years ago, I found myself having insults bounced off me while I was saluted with a single finger more than once by numerous passers-by. The offense? Holding a sign which simply read, “Pray to end abortion.” Four written words. I didn't speak a single one. I didn't confront anyone. I wasn't blocking an entrance or a roadway. Just standing on the public right of way near a closed clinic at which abortions are offered.

This February my wife was at the same spot, with the same four words on a sign and was approached by a young woman who beckoned her to her car. Hesitant at first, she moved closer to the car as the woman said, “I want to show you my miracle.” She said that four years ago she was at the clinic to have an abortion, but stopped to talk with one of the people with a sign, and changed her mind. And that changed her world. The miracle was a child.

After a 20-year career standing in the gap for the defenseless as a soldier, standing in a similar way for the unborn is somewhat natural for me. It's how I pray. It's how I think. It's one way I place value on others more than myself. When I observe our legislators considering whether a human child in the third trimester of gestation is worthy of drawing its first – or second – breath outside the womb, I am grieved at what we've abandoned. Our culture lines up for programs promising a better future for children, while granting legal access to murder of the very children who could have taken part in that future.

As for us, we'll continue to stand. That's our choice. And it's a choice we can all live with.

Hercules' dirty half dozen, part two

03 IMG 5933Welcome back to both of my readers.

As you two may recall, in the column two weeks ago we enjoyed the first six labors of Hercules in an effort to make you feel better about your own lives in comparison to Hercules’ cosmic troubles. For those of you who came in late, the nutshell version of Herk’s story was that he was the illegitimate child of Zeus. When Mrs. Hera Zeus learned Zeus was Herk’s Baby Daddy, she was sorely vexed. Hera tried to kill Herk in his crib with some snakes, failed, made Herk insane, and made him kill Mrs. Herk and his kids. Herk came to his senses and sought forgiveness by Apollo by doing penance in the form of 12 difficult labors.

Today we learn what Herk had to do in his last six dirty jobs. Job Number 7 was to capture the Cretan Bull. The Cretan Bull had an interesting family tree. The Bull’s mom was Pasiphae who was the Queen of Crete. She managed to aggravate the Sea God Poseidon. Poseidon put a spell on her that made her fall in love with the Cretan Bull. From this interspecies love affair, she gave birth to the Minotaur who was half bull, half man. Their family reunions were a caution. The Cretan Bull was raising heck all over Crete messing up fields and knocking down walls. Being a superhero, naturally Herk caught the Cretan Bull.

Labor 8 was to steal the Mares of Thrace. These were no ordinary cayuses. Instead of eating grass these horses ate people. Capturing a herd of giant carnivorous horses was a challenge even for Herk. The herd belonged to Diomedes the King of Thrace who wasn’t inclined to give them to Herk. Word on the street said Alexander the Great’s very own horse Bucephalus was a descendant of the Mares of Thrace. Herk whipped Diomedes’ cowboys. He unchained the horses and drove them down to the sea. Herk then left his buddy Abderus in charge of the horses, leaving to fight Diomedes himself at High Noon. Unfortunately, the horses ate Abderus. Herk was displeased and fed Diomedes to his own horses. Chowing down on humans had a calming effect on the horses. Herk duct taped their mouths shut and got them under control.

Number 9 was to steal the girdle of Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons. This was no mere panty raid. Hippolyta was an upper crust Amazon debutante who proudly wore her girdle that her Daddy had given her at her coming out party. Ever the ladies’ man, Herk sweet-talked Hippolyta out of her girdle. Herk’s old enemy Hera disguised herself as an Amazon to spread the fake news that Herk had kidnapped Hippolyta. The other Amazons attacked Herk’s ship thinking to save Hippolyta as a result of Hera’s lying mouth. In the confusion of the battle, Herk mistakenly killed Hippolyta. Luckily, he did get to keep her girdle.

Labor 10 was a doozy. Herk had to rustle the cattle herd of a three-bodied Giant named Geryon. A Giant with only one body is major trouble. Imagine what a three-bodied Giant could do. The mind boggles. There is some confusion as to whether Geryon had one body and three heads, or three bodies and three heads. He may have had six legs and six arms. Accounts vary. But whatever, he was a warrior. He owned a two-headed dog named Orthrus who guarded his cows. When Herk got near the cows, Orthrus attacked him. Herk smote him with a club sending Orthrus to doggy heaven. Geryon heard the ruckus and rumbled with Herk. Herk shot Geryon square in the head with a poisoned arrow causing his demise. To cover his tracks with the herd, Herk made the cows walk backwards all the way to the
stock yards.

Job 11 required Herk to steal the golden apples of the Hesperides who were three or more beauteous young nymphs of the female persuasion. They were sometimes called the Nymphs of the West because they lived at the edge of the world. Not only could they grow golden apples but they were excellent singers. When the occasion called for it, they could turn themselves into trees. Herk ran into Atlas who was holding up the sky. Herk volunteered to give Atlas a rest from sky holding if Atlas would steal the apples for him. Atlas shrugged and stole the apples. Atlas didn’t want to go back to holding up the sky. Herk tricked Atlas into holding up the sky again and ran off with the apples to make a really large pie.

Herk’s final job was to be a dog catcher to catch Cerberus the dog that guarded the Gates of Hell to keep the dead inside. Cerberus had three heads with a poisonous snake as his tail. He was meaner than a junk yard dog. Herk strode down into Hell setting out to capture Cerberus. Herk used his lion skin cape to wrap around Cerebrus to squeeze him into submission. Herk put Cerberus on an iron leash and his labors
were over.

Editor’s Note: No bulls, carnivorous horses, Amazons, Giants, two or three headed dogs were injured, nor were any golden apples bruised during the writing of this column. Now don’t you feel better about your own tasks in life? Now get back to work.

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