Learn the strategies for a rising city: Memphis Boot Camp

High Ground News

April 23, 2014

Sprawl, burdensome regulations, rising property taxes, and decreasing levels of municipal services – these challenges are the focus of the inaugural Strong Towns Boot Camp happening in Memphis this week. At these events our local leaders are being immersed in out-of-the-box civic planning that can save a fragile city with shrinking resources and growing demands – and you can learn along with them.

On Tuesday, the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team and its partners gathered together some of Memphis’s biggest developers, business and civic leaders, philanthropy groups and investors to suggest they do one thing: think small.

The mantra is “tactical urbanism,” and it’s a focus of the three-day workshop Boot Camp Memphis, led by the Minnesota-based nonprofit Strong Towns. In town to speak to a nearly full auditorium at the Memphis Bioworks Foundation were Chuck Marohn, President of Strong Towns, and Mike Lydon, Principal of the Brooklyn-based The Street Plans Collaborative.

Participating partners include the Urban Land Institute, the Chairman’s Circle of the Greater Memphis Chamber, Community LIFT, Livable Memphis, theCommunity Foundation of Greater Memphis and the Hyde Family Foundations.

After remarks by Mayor A C Wharton, Marohn opened the executive session by asking the audience whether or not government should try to make a profit and likened a city’s investment versus return exchange to that of any business. He walked through the first life cycles of post-World War II growth and the development of sprawl that began in many cities as developers moved further and further out. Such growth created an “illusion of wealth” yet left cities destitute during the second life cycle, when the infrastructure built to facilitate such growth came due for maintenance.

“We’ve been doing everything right, we’ve been doing everything by the book, we’ve been doing everything that the experts told us to do and we’ve been creating growth,” Marohn said. “The problem is it’s not long-term–it’s an illusion, and that’s what we’re struggling with today. This is what governments around the country are struggling with today.”

The idea of Boot Camp Memphis is to find answers to the problem of sprawl and solve how to create opportunity in neighborhoods to facilitate action that might lead to improved communities.

According to Lydon, the process is three-fold: Build. Measure. Learn.

It’s this method that has worked for Binghampton and the Broad Avenue Arts District, a model now studied nationally: Think small and invest minimal capital in an idea, see whether or not that idea works and why and then implement it on a larger scale . . . (read more)


A sense of place

Rhodes Alumni Magazine

Spring 2014

Grant examines ways to enhance gateway programs

(with Lynn Conlee)

For Rebekah Barr ’16, the discussion-based classes of the Search for Values in Light of Western History and Religion program (Search) gave her the skills to more diplomatically address issues of poverty in Memphis public schools. The roots of western civilization studied in Search helped political science major Cecil Brown ’14 better understand politics. Sumita Montgomery ’15 made connections with Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, studied in Search, when she experienced a reality of Memphis that she had never before seen while conducting a Crossroads to Freedom project. And it was the skill of synthesizing conflicting perspectives learned in Life: Then and Now (Life) that helped Mary Catherine Cadden ’15 prioritize and process information during her Summer Service Fellowship.

A grant-funded study currently under way on the Rhodes campus aims to shore up these critical links between classroom and experiential learning by taking advantage of Rhodes’ Memphis location to enhance the college’s foundational Search and Life programs. As part of a four-college consortium awarded $250,000 by the Teagle Foundation, Rhodes will draw on its strength of place to ensure that the big questions of human existence studied in Search and Life classes remain part of a student’s fabric of learning throughout his or her education—and beyond.

The Rhodes Twist

Learning that takes place in the classroom informs an equally important aspect of a Rhodes education—that of experience gained outside the gates. Whether through internships, fellowships, or research projects, the Memphis community at large becomes a veritable petri dish of learning opportunities for Rhodes students.

“Something that is unique to Rhodes College is the experiential learning component and how Memphis plays a role in that,” says Dr. Russ Wigginton ’88, vice president for the Office of External Programs and member of Rhodes’ Teagle team. “That’s not a factor at most liberal arts colleges around the country. If you’re asking ‘What’s my purpose in life?’ and you’re reading Plato and Socrates and Martin Luther King as part of thinking about that question, and then you’re volunteering at Cypress Middle School or an impoverished community or at the Church Health Center, that’s a unique kind of education. That’s our individualized twist.”

It was this twist that led to Rhodes’ collaboration with Lawrence University in Wisconsin, College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, and Ursinus College in Pennsylvania to share the Teagle grant titled Gateways to Liberal Education. The initial consortium meeting of the grantees was held in August 2013 at Ursinus to work on a plan and establish a mutual understanding of their respective gateway programs; each campus will host subsequent conferences as the process unfolds. For Rhodes, those gateway programs are Search and Life . . . (read more)


Finis Langdon Bates

Elmwood Cemetery

2014 Writer-in-Residence

Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, in the Ford’s Theatre by the actor John Wilkes Booth. Booth escaped that night and would make his way through the federal troops that ringed the city as the manhunt increased. He eventually found his way across the Potomac River to Port Royal, Virginia, and the farm of Richard Garrett. The barn where he hid was set ablaze but not before Sergeant Boston Corbett was able to get a shot off, mortally wounding the murderer.

Booth’s corpse made its way from Virginia to the ironclad USS Montauk and on to the Washington Navy Yard where it was said to be identified by more than 10 associates before an autopsy.

Abraham Lincoln is not buried in Elmwood Cemetery. His remains are in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Ill. Booth, likewise, is not in Elmwood. The assassin’s body would first be buried beneath a cell in the Navy Yard before being exhumed later and finally finding its resting place in the family plot at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.

But Finis Langdon Bates is buried in Elmwood. Bates is the man who claims that most of what happened after Booth entered Virginia is not only speculative, but untrue. Bates claimed – in a 310-page book, mind you – to have met Booth, now John St. Helen, in Texas in 1872. And more than that, he claimed, after a period of time, to have had St. Helen’s (Booth’s) mummified corpse at his home at 1234 Harbert in Midtown Memphis.

The two men became acquainted while Bates was just beginning his career as an attorney. “ … I was entering the threshold of manhood, a lawyer yet in my teens, in the active practice of my profession, having settled at Grandberry, the county site of Hood, in the State of Texas, near the foothills of the Bosque mountains,” Bates wrote in his 1907 book, “The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth.”

In the working of a case, Bates requested that St. Helens to go to federal court to testify on behalf of his client. St. Helen adamantly declined and refused to give a sufficient reason until he’d retained Bates as his own lawyer. Once that was accomplished, he said, simply, yet with a flourish of the theatrical as Bates points out: “I say to you, as my attorney, that my true name is not John St. Helen, as you know me and suppose me to be, and for this reason I cannot afford to go to Tyler before the Federal Court, in fear that my true identity be discovered, as the Federal courts are more or less presided over in the South and officered by persons heretofore, as well as now, connected with the Federal Army and government, and the risk would be too great for me to take …”

The two became friends, yet it wasn’t until five years later, as St. Helen, sick and thought to be dying, called Bates to his bedside, saying, “I am dying. My name is John Wilkes Booth, and I am the assassin of President Lincoln. Get the picture of myself from under the pillow. I leave it with you for my future identification.”

St. Helen recovered and lived, and Bates kept his confidence, not hearing the entire story for some time later when the two men took a long walk on the Texas prairie. It was there that St. Helen told the story of his life as Booth, born on a farm in Maryland outside Baltimore, of his father, Junius Brutus Booth Sr., and about the family business of acting, as well as a vivid account of the conspiracy, which involved Vice President Andrew Johnson as co-conspirator, to kidnap, and then murder, the president. “I entered the President’s box, closed the door behind me and instantly placed my pistol so near it almost touched his head and fired the shot which killed President Lincoln and made Andrew Johnson President of the United States and myself an outcast, a wanderer, and gave me the name of an assassin.”

Bates did not immediately believe St. Helen’s story. Bates told him, in fact, that he believed he may have known Booth and the secrets of the crime and escape, “… and it is possible that from your brooding over this subject your mind has become shaken and you imagine yourself Booth.”

Bates and St. Helen eventually went their separate ways, the latter to Leadville, Colo., to try his hand at mining, and the former to Memphis around 1878.

In December of 1898, a Sunday edition of the Boston Globe newspaper dated the 12th of that month appeared in the reception hall of Bates’s home in Midtown. “How this paper came to be in my home is unknown to me. I did not take it by subscription, nor have I or any member of my family ever, before or since, purchased a copy of the Boston Globe …”

In that newspaper was the first published statement of General D. D. Dana giving a detailed statement of his pursuit of John Wilkes Booth following the assassination. “To my surprise the story of Gen. Dana corroborated in its minutest detail the story St. Helen told me in his confession recounting Booth’s escape from Washington, D.C., to the Garret home, in Virginia,” Bates wrote.

Bates contacted Dana and sent him the picture that St. Helen had given him on his death bed. Dana was convinced that St. Helen was Booth, setting Bates off on an inexhaustible jag of research, the minutia of which is recounted in his book. He is without a shred of doubt once he is contacted by Judge Advocate General John P. Simonton of the War Department (as a citizen and not an official representative) that he is not convinced of Booth’s death years before. It is revealed on several occasions that inadequate, if any, identification of Booth’s body was had after his death . . . (read more)


Strangers in subculture of parenthood should change that

“Because I Said So” column for The Commercial Appeal

April 10, 2014

No rule that in parents’ subculture we remain strangers

Every morning, I take my daughter to school. Every afternoon, I pick her up. And every day I see the same parents again and again. In the mornings, we’re usually tired, having gone through the 10-round struggle of getting the children up, pleading with them to eat something — anything — finding that shirt without the missing button, the socks that don’t irritate their toes, the misplaced binder.

Once we’ve made lunches and gathered up homework, that moment of dropping the kids at school feels like a mini vacation, the chance to breathe before the rigors of work, the complaints of bosses and the conundrum of where to eat lunch. We only want a few solitary minutes.

The stress shows in our faces as we arrive at and then leave the school grounds. We nod to each other, if we make eye contact at all, and might feign a smile if it isn’t raining and if we know that a still-hot cup of coffee awaits us in the car.

Despite the consistency of our muted interactions, we remain strangers in the subculture of parenthood. If we know anything about the other parents at all, it’s the name of their child and what grade he’s in, the fact that their daughter missed two days of school due to head lice or fever. All we know is what our own kids tell us.

And still we nod, we smile, we collectively roll our eyes at the challenge that is being a parent.

But Memphis is a small town in some ways and we’re bound to run into each other away from school. With no kid holding their hands, no pink and purple backpack slung over their arms at Whole Foods or messy poster board blown about as they make their way to Café Keough downtown, it’s as if seeing someone you’ve only ever seen with glasses on without them for the first time. They look a little wrong, don’t they? Maybe a bit ill.

It’s two degrees of “Don’t I know you?” We meet without a child and we have no idea who the other is or from where we know each other. We’re there, in the taproom of Wiseacre Brewing Co. or having lunch in Overton Square, and we come face to face with someone we know that we know, but can’t quite place the face or the name. It’s like as a child when you saw your father, always bearded, suddenly clean shaven. It was like a stranger in the house.

We should say hello at school. Be the first to say, “Good morning, my name is ” It only takes a minute, and we’re going to see each other for 180 days every year.

We’re all in this together, this parent subculture. It’s not the punk subculture of high school, or the jock subculture, band or drama club. This one is permanent, like it or not. It’s difficult, it’s messy and it is every single day of our lives.

So let’s stick together. That way, when we see each other out, away from the kids, we’ll recognize each other straight away and maybe we can raise a pint to toast our free time, because Monday morning comes all too quickly.

Permanent link to The Commercial Appeal



Tylur French sculpts a future in public art

High Ground News

April 9, 2014

On the eve of the Bike Arch dedication in Overton Park, we look at what sculptor Tylur French has on the horizon. The artist has a decade of civically-minded work in Memphis and he looks forward to more of the same.
Before it was even complete, Tylur French’s bike arch sculpture heralding a new, pedestrian-friendly entrance to Overton Park, had become an icon. With the scheduled dedication and ribbon cutting set for April 19, the question of “what’s next?” is like a mantra for French. The fact is, he and his team at Youngblood Studio LLC, a full-service fine arts production studio, never quit working, never quit looking to the next opportunity even as they’re up to their protective eyewear in work.

In a 5,000-sq. ft. warehouse located just off Airways Blvd. in South Memphis, planes come in so low on arrival to Memphis International Airport that one feels he could reach up and touch the landing gear. It is here, among presses and drills, hammers, blow torches and all manner of metals and stone, making it feel more adult playground than workspace, that French has fashioned art both large and small. It’s something he’s been doing his whole life, beginning as a child growing up in Memphis and Kansas City, Missouri.

“I was raised a lot by my grandmother and she did everything. She was a painter and she did upholstery and she did leatherwork, wood carving, just about everything,” says French. “So she really raised me with ‘If you want to do something, you just have to figure out how to do it.’”

As a child, the lessons may not have resonated, but in hindsight as an adult, he says, “it stuck.” He eventually went on to the Kansas City Art Institute for a BFA in Sculpture and received an MFA in Sculpture from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. From there, he apprenticed under artist Dan Yarbrough in New Mexico for a year and a half and then ran a sculpture fabrication shop in Seattle for two years.

“And then I just took a bunch of jobs that were along these same lines,” he says.

Though the plan wasn’t necessarily to return to Memphis, he’s been back and working steadily for about 10 years with his current set up on Airways for the past two years. In the end, he says, the success he’s found could have only happened here.

“I do like Memphis, and Memphis has a really perfect chemistry for what I do here. It’s not like a Chicago or an L.A. where, if you haven’t been there for 15 years, you have no chance to get a foot in any door.”

Working with French are full-time employees Andrew Meakin and Amanda Nalley, and contract help and interns are used as projects warrant. It’s the collaborative nature of the city that energizes French and that can be seen in a number of prominent works around town. He worked on the Cancer Survivor’s Park at Audubon Park with Yvonne Bobo, “The Wave” sculpture at Tobey Skate Park withMark Nowell and helped install Chris Fennell’s “Steel Guitar” at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park . . . (read more)


Links to connect to black organ donors through ‘Be the Match’ event

The Commercial Appeal

April 8, 2014

Organ donation has been a hard sell in the black community, but progress is being made, said Kim Van Frank, executive director of the Mid-South Transplant Foundation, the federally designated organ procurement organization serving West Tennessee, East Arkansas and North Mississippi.

“Back in 2007 — this was an ‘aha’ moment for our organization — we had a 27 percent authorization rate for donation when we approached African American families, and this last year in 2013, 59 percent of the African American families we approached said ‘yes’.”

Education and outreach are credited for the increase, and this month — April is “Donate Life Month — The Links, among other organizations, are extending that outreach.

The “Be the Match” drive, sponsored by local River City Chapter of The Links, Inc., will be held from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Saturday at LeMoyne Owen College, 807 Walker Ave. And on April 26, the Mid-South Transplant Foundation will hold its “Linking Hands for Life” concert at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park.

The global network organization Be the Match is a leader in bone marrow transplantation, research, support and resources. Chapters of The Links, a women’s volunteer service organization that seeks to enrich and ensure the cultural and economic survival of African Americans, across the country have joined with historically black colleges and universities, and Be the Match, to raise awareness about the need for donations.

At LeMoyne-Owen, there will be a live radio broadcast, and “all the colleges in the Shelby County area will participate through their Greek letter organizations, so we’re hoping to have a pretty sizable crowd,” said Carla Stotts-Hills, president of the Links River City Chapter. The Sickle Cell Foundation will be on hand to conduct screenings for sickle cell and the American Red Cross will distribute blood drive materials.

Organ donation is of particular interest to African Americans in Memphis due to the high rate of kidney transplants in the area. Leading factors of kidney failure — high blood pressure and diabetes — affect the black community in disproportionate numbers.

In West Tennessee, Van Frank said, “82 percent of those waiting for a kidney are African American. Nationally, it’s 34 percent African American, so we have a tremendously higher number here waiting on a kidney.”

As of mid-March, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Organ Procurement and Transplant Network reported that at Methodist University Hospital in Memphis there were 692 people of all ethnicities awaiting organ transplants. Of that number 544 were African American and 527 of them were awaiting kidneys.

And at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, “Most of the patients on the kidney transplant list in our centers, almost three-fourths, are African American,” said Dr. Satheesh Nair, professor of medicine at the center and director of Transplant Hepatology at the Methodist University/University of Tennessee Transplant Institute. “If our donor population increases, it benefits us directly.”

.Donor recruitment is difficult but crucial, Van Frank said. “It’s a rare opportunity that someone has to be an organ donor; it’s about 2 percent of the population that are ever going to die in a manner that allows them to be a donor. Currently, we only have 33 percent of those with drivers licenses in the state of Tennessee that are actually signed up to be a donor, and we’ve been striving to make that number 50 percent for the last four years and, basically, we have made little progress in that.”

Organ, blood and tissue donation isn’t as simple as asking, however. It requires education and, in some cases in the African American community, a battle against long-held faith and beliefs . . . (read more)


Renovated National Civil Rights Museum opens

National Endowment for the Humanities

April 7, 2014

On a crisp, cool spring day, hundreds crowded in front of the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis, Tenn., to hear politicians and activists herald the grand reopening of the National Civil Rights Museum.

The cause for celebration was the $28 million renovation of the museum first opened in September 1991, on the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder in 1968.

While many were responsible for raising the capital towards the total goal of a $40 million endowment launched in 2008, longtime museum president Beverly Robertson on this day singled out the National Endowment for the Humanities and its commitment to the cause of civil rights education in America.

An NEH Challenge Grant awarded in 2010 for $750,000, was meant to build long-term endowments. Such grants are intended to support the continued strength of humanities institutions by encouraging fundraising for permanent endowments and capital improvements. The grants also stimulate non-federal giving by requiring a three-to-one match.

A $352,000, grant for the period of 2009 to 2014 was awarded for the renovation of the Lorraine Motel Permanent Exhibits. The official description states it was “ . . .  for the implementation of a new 14,500 square foot permanent exhibition for the history of African American efforts to gain freedom and equality, and the interpretation of the Lorraine Motel historic site at the National Civil Rights Museum.”

“One of the really distinctive things about our review process is that proposals are peer reviewed,” said Karen Mittelman, Director of Public Programs for the NEH, regarding how such grant projects are decided upon. “We convene review panels of experts in the field, so it would have been museum curators and directors, and civil rights scholars that reviewed this and they tell us that it’s worthy of support. I will say that the NEH panel that reviewed the proposal for the new exhibits … gave the project the highest possible ratings, excellent across the board, and that’s very unusual.”

The new exhibits include more than 40 new films, oral histories, and provide increased interactive options for museum goers, bringing the story of struggle and the fight for human rights into the 21st century. Despite such technological advances of touch screen displays and multimedia presentations, the tour begins where it all began, with the exhibit “A Culture of Resistance: Slavery in America 1619 – 1861” and its replicated slave ship’s cargo hold. Here, visitors are encouraged to crouch down into a space the size and shape that men and women abducted from their home would have been forced to inhabit for months during that journey across the middle passage.

It is humbling, and the exhibit on the slave trade is a reminder of the economic circumstances that begat such a shameful chapter in our nation’s history. But it is also the sort of full-scale storytelling the designers and museum curators hoped to instill in the renovation. It’s the telling, not just of the 1950s and 60s-era civil rights moments that so many are familiar with, but from the very beginning and an up-to-the-minute conditions . . . (read more)




Love and death at the river’s edge: The story of Alice Mitchell and Frederica Ward

Elmwood Cemetery

2014 Writer-in-Residence

April 4, 2014

On the banks of Memphis on January 26, 1892, where cobblestones from an Illinois quarry had been laid not long before to facilitate commerce flowing into the city via the Mississippi River, visitors disembarking a river boat might have expected to see throngs of people coming and going. There would have been men groaning beneath the weight of cotton bales being loaded on and off barges while others, dressed in all their finery, waited to board vessels of the Lee Line, bound for Vicksburg or New Orleans. On a bluff above the activity, construction of the Cossitt Library being built of red sandstone and taking on the shape of a modern-day castle, would have impressed and awed the new arrivals.

What they wouldn’t have expected, what no one could have imagined there on a day filled with the excitement of travel and the thrum of the masses, would have been the murderous scene played out before their eyes. It was on that day at 4 p.m., on the railroad tracks at the bottom of the Customs House Bluff overlooking the cobblestones, that 19-year-old Alice Jessie Mitchell cut the throat of 17-year-old Frederica Ward.

These young women weren’t strangers to each other, they’d been schoolmates at the Higbee School for Girls at Beale and Lauderdale. But they were more than friends. In a time when such things were kept behind closed doors, whispered about in hushed voices, if at all, Alice and Freda, as she was known, were lovers.

The two had elaborate plans to run away together to St. Louis where they would live as husband and wife with Alice dressing the part and taking the name “Alvin J. Ward.” They’d discussed it, they’d dreamed of it all along, and an engagement ring had been exchanged. But Freda’s family had moved upriver to Gold Dust, Tenn., and when her sister, Ada Ward Volkmer, became aware of the affair, she wrote a letter to Alice ending it.

Freda came to Memphis the next winter with another sister, Josephine, to visit a family friend, Mrs. Kimbrough. During their stay, Alice had developed a habit of driving her buggy back and forth in front of the house on Hernando Street to catch a glimpse of her former love. On the day Freda was to leave Memphis, Alice followed her and her sister from Kimbrough’s house to the top of the bluff where they began the descent to the river on foot. Alice came up behind Freda, reached around her body and slashed at her throat with a straight razor. Leaving Freda bleeding on the train tracks where bystanders gathered her up to rush her to a doctor, Alice made her way back to the top of the bluff and home to 215 Union Street, where she told her mother what she’d done . . . (read more)


The Memphis brand of ‘young professional’ makes its mark

High Ground News feature

April 2, 2014

As the city works to attract and retain young talent, High Ground takes a look at the unique experience of the working Millennial in Memphis. Read on to discover what keeps these individuals engaged, happy and successful in the Bluff City.
Memphis is not a buttoned-up city. It was built high up on muddy banks in a time when it was a jumping off point for the untamed West. A bit untamed itself, the city would, in time, give its best and its brightest to the world. And they weren’t buttoned-up, either, with their sideburns and pompadours, gold chain overcoats and bejeweled jumpsuits.

As we’ve striven lately to bring in the best and the brightest to lead Memphis into the 21st century and to claim its place as a leader in industry and art, we should take a look at what that “young professional” might look like.

In this monthly series, High Ground will get to know these men and women to find out what makes them tick, what drew them to the city if new, and what keeps them here if native. To get a head start, though, we’ve spoken with some experts, those in contact with entrepreneurs, leaders, job seekers and employers. While organizations such as the city’s Office of Talent and Human Capital and the New Memphis Institute seek to recruit and retain Memphis’ future, we hope to learn exactly what it is they’re looking for and what it is they want.

“We see that young professionals in Memphis want the same thing as young professionals want everywhere – they really care about working for organizations that make an impact, they want to see themselves as more than just cogs in a machine. They are really hungry to add to their skill set,” said Mac Bruce, communications specialist with The New Memphis Institute. “For them, work isn’t just about income, it’s about personal enrichment, about fulfillment. Which means that having flexibility in their work schedules, and things like that, are things that these young professionals value more than their predecessors.”

Meg Crosby has experienced this from both sides of the employment fence. Now a principle of the boutique human resources firm PeopleCap, Crosby was hired as Google’s first HR generalist in 2003, overseeing a department of only 14. The paragon of the tech world with its laid back office environment is held up as a benchmark by Millenials today.

“I think, in some ways, technology and the culture of technology really brought people to that understanding that smart, successful people don’t have to conform to a certain look or to a certain work environment or a certain culture … I think you’re seeing that across other industries as well,” she says.

Scan the crowd on the street and your eye might automatically go to the tailored suit and the sculpted hair, the attaché case (a gift from the parents) and Windsor knotted tie. But perhaps your gaze should rest on the blue jeans and the faded Converse sneakers, the piercings and tattoos. Look again and pick the executives out – there’s Kat Gordon, owner of Muddy’s Bakeshop with her colorful wig; Clark Butcher, co-owner of Victory Bicycle Shop with his faded jeans and t-shirt; Kelly English of Restaurant Iris and Second Line in his chef’s jacket; Kellan and Davin Bartosch in their Wiseacre Brewing Co. coveralls; and Jamie Harmon of Amurica Photo Studios, bearded and with his shaved head covered by a tell-tale porkpie . . . (read more)


Dad takes on poster board lobby; next glue stick magnates

“Because I Said So” column for The Commercial Appeal

March 27, 2014

Words of scholars writ large on poster boards

It seems as though all of the homework my kids have been assigned this year requires poster board.

Has anyone else noticed this? I think you have because when we arrive at school in the mornings, I see all the other kids with their own homework. It looks like an armada of tiny clipper ships, their blue, red, black, white and yellow sails billowing and blown off course.

Social studies, science, math, history — it’s all being done up in 84-point type to fill these 28-by-44-inch boards. Some recent projects have included a report on Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche, geometric shapes and book reports. One poster, inexplicably, was about commas.

Why? To negate a teacher’s failing eyesight? To encourage kids to think outside their crayon boxes?

I bring the conspiracy theories outside of the comments section and right here to blame the poster board industrial complex. Those barons of wood pulp who eschew the standard 8½-by-11 sheet of copy paper, the college-ruled and three-hole-punched notebook pages of my youth. They’ve weaseled their way into the schools, probably at the legislative level in Nashville, to ensure that all assignments everywhere require an enormous, difficult-to-carry stock of lightweight cardboard.

It’s the controversial move over to common foam core curriculum in our public education system.

Perhaps this column should be completed and submitted to my editor on a poster board. I’ll type parts in varying fonts, print it, cut it all out and paste it on the slick side of a piece of poster. I’ll make notes on index cards and glue them on as well. I will utilize a vast array of Magic Markers.

I don’t normally do my work on poster board because I’m an adult and it would be a silly way to complete an assignment. I probably haven’t created a poster in nearly 30 years.

In an increasingly digital world, these assignments appear downright analog with their scribbled-out mistakes, torn edges and curled corners. Hasn’t everything moved to PowerPoint presentations? Aren’t they the poster boards of the future?

I don’t recall Steve Jobs, in his theatrical releases of new hardware and software, ever gesturing toward a poster he made in his dining room the night before the presentation was due. There is no iPosterboard. Is there? Jobs would have seemed a relic of the past; he would have appeared to have caught Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

As our world shrinks — global industries and networks a click away, communication devices held in the palm of our hand — my kids’ homework is getting larger. It’s taking up vast resources of paper, poster, glue, scissors, tape, crayons and time. It’s not a 19th century slate, but neither is it a 21st century smart board.

It is tactile, I’ll give educators that. It’s hands-on. For many of us, I think we’ll agree, it’s the parents’ hands all over it. It’s a scramble to get these projects completed and in some sort of presentable order. For some it’s hassle; for others it’s a nostalgic turn to youth when a poster was the best means to reach a lot of people about civil rights or anti-war sentiments. Now, though, it’s all math equations and Oxford commas.

OK, this rant is over. I have to run up to the Walgreen’s for more supplies if I’m going to finish this column — poster board, index cards, construction paper, glitter … don’t even get me started on the glue stick cartel.

Permanent link to The Commercial Appeal