Friday, April 25, 2014

"You listen to kids too much"

"You listen to kids too much."

I've had this said to me more than once. It's almost always been by fellow educators or parents of the kids I have taught or coached. I've always thought it was the strangest criticism possible.

My response is always the same. "If I don't listen to them, who will?"

It's a response I learned from my mother. Her mother, who was hell-on-wheels and far from being mother of the year, once told her she listened to her children too much.

To be fair, my mother believed in firm discipline, and her will was absolute iron. She demanded and commanded respect. Yet, she knew kids need to be heard and listened to and respected.

She knew kids also need to be able to communicate with people who have their best interests at heart. These are people who will listen to them and tell them what the truth is.

If that was true years ago, when nuclear families were common, and supposed morality was supposedly better, what does it mean now?

I'm sorry to burst everyone's bubbles, but very few families are now run on strict discipline. Relationships between parents and children are just different somehow these days in most instances. Kids don't know how to respond to authoritarian tactics. If parents and grandparents aren't using such methods, why would anyone think schools, teachers, and coaches are going to succeed in implementing "when I say jump, you ask how high." 

Here's the good news: kids respond well to clear boundaries and also to the concept of mutual respect. You know why it works? Because children are people, too. They get you're in charge as the adult, but you still have to show them you deserve their respect. 

If you show children and young adults you care about them, that you want the best for them, that you respect them as people, they will generally reciprocate. I can't imagine working with young people and not actually valuing them, but there are many who don't, unfortunately.

Football coaches, in particular, walk a fine line. Most coaches came up in an era when every youth coach thought he had to imitate Bear Bryant or Tom Landry in the length and ferocity of practices. Young people of today and their parents, for that matter, are just not going to put up with long, drawn-out, abusive practices. There are too many other things families can be doing, and mommas and daddies are less likely to support your drill sergeant tendencies.

So, am I telling you to have “soft” practices? Of course not. I am encouraging you, however, to think very carefully about every minute of your practices and what it is you are trying to accomplish. 

I hope your goal, in every practice and in every game, is to get better. Complacency kills success in sports and, for that matter, in other phases of life. If you cannot tell you are improving every time your team gets together, you are doing something wrong. It’s that simple. 

"The football coach has a captive audience and can teach these lessons because the communication lines between himself and his players are more wide open than between kids and parents." -Paul Bryant

Friday, April 18, 2014

Snakes on (the same page as) a Train

“M’dville Council hears flooding brings snakes: ‘Snakes were everywhere,’ said Bonner”

“Could train cars blocking M’dville streets cause death?”

If those two headlines on a front page don’t grab you, nothing will. But, we’ll get back to that in a minute.

Writer’s block is particularly fun when you make your living largely by your ability to turn events into stories.

For example, the ol’ “please kill me” feeling comes in when I have to make a BOOOORRRRRRRIIIIINNNNGGGG governmental meeting into something at least somewhat interesting. 

I’ve written more about garbage than I care to admit: coal ash, toxic waste, leachate, garbage routes, garbage carts. Some of this has been interesting, both to me and evidently my readers, while most of it is painfully boring. Painfully. Boring. Like a toothache during a bad play.

Or, maybe my challenge is trying to write about a blow-out loss by an area high school football team. I really want to write something like this sometime:

“The XYZ Fierce Cats lost 56-0, embarrassing themselves, their fans, and their mommas while failing to gain a single first down and fumbling the football on every possession. This is the worst football team anyone could imagine seeing.”

Instead, this is what I might magically produce:

“The youthful XYZ Fierce Cats put up a tremendous effort but had a rough night on the road, losing 56-0 in a hard-fought game.”

The only “tremendous effort” put forth may have been them trying to figure out how to get their pads on correctly, that’s true. The only thing “hard-fought” may have been the Fierce Cats finally being able to break through their run-through sign on their second effort. But, there’s no glory in beating up kids in their local newspaper with such brutal truthfulness.

OK, back to snakes and trains. Those are the two headlines my publisher came up with for this past week’s Moundville Times, and I love them. Is it sensationalized news? I don’t think so.

Our job is to get people in our area talking about the issues. If the flooding brings snakes, and people are concerned about snakes, then they’ll be concerned about flooding and what it takes to fix the problem. They’ll stay around to read about the rest of the city council meeting, too.  Attention-grabbers are good things for the bottom line of a newspaper, no doubt, but they also help us spread the good or not-so-good news in a community.

Part of the charm of a community, weekly newspaper is the ability to have a little fun with the news, but we have to remember to be respectful of people. Stories about deadly situations or circumstances are not the place for bad puns or clever headlines. “10 Dead Near Kellogg’s Factory; ‘Cereal Killer’ Feared” is great for a cheap laugh but not much else.

So, if being too clever is a danger, what if you can’t seem to produce anything? What if you stare at your notes and your screen and nothing happens? It’s an impotent, stupid feeling.  Writer’s block is a horrible feeling. Part of it comes from fear. What if I say something stupid? What if I misunderstood what happened? What if someone think I’m a horrible writer? What if someone complains? And, part of writer’s block comes from writers taking themselves too seriously. I figure somewhere around 10,000 people pick up our newspapers every week. Is what I’m producing good enough? Shouldn’t it be better? Why can’t I be perfect?

I finally got over the worst of my writer’s block by realizing what I write doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s ok to screw up a word or a grammar rule on occasion. It’s fine if I don’t have perfect parallel structure or if I let my participle dangle from time to time. Haha. Ha. Snicker. 

While I take my job seriously in that I really feel a heavy burden to accurately record the area’s history and to tell stories well and impartially, copies of the newspaper are recycled in gardens and used as puppy pads and bird cage liners. That’s humbling.

So, write. Lose your fear of expressing yourself. Just write.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


“There's no way around grief and loss: you can dodge all you want, but sooner or later you just have to go into it, through it, and, hopefully, come out the other side. The world you find there will never be the same as the world you left.”

― Johnny Cash

Monday, April 14, 2014

Why "The Old Lessons"?

“The old lessons (work, self-discipline, sacrifice, teamwork, fighting to achieve) aren’t being taught by many people other than football coaches these days. The football coach has a captive audience and can teach these lessons because the communication lines between himself and his players are more wide open than between kids and parents. We better teach these lessons or else the country’s future population will be made up of a majority of crooks, drug addicts, or people on relief.” Coach Paul W. Bryant

You can't swing the proverbial dead cat without hitting something about Paul Bryant in the state of Alabama. You can't coach football in Alabama without somebody mentioning him, usually in the sense of "who the hell does this guy think he is--Bear Bryant?". Still, I'll risk the cliche of being a former coach who starts his new blog with a Bryant quote.

"The old lessons" aren't about being "old-fashioned." I'm not really concerned about some outdated sense of Victorian-era morality, and I certainly don't think morality enforced at gunpoint or with a badge is worth a damn. The old lessons are about what works, about what endures, about what's worth fighting for. 

Work, self-discipline, sacrifice, teamwork, fighting to achieve....these are things bigger than the self, but they involve the self. They are neither selfish nor selfless. The individual has value in and of himself (or herself), and the individual brings that value into the associations he or she voluntarily enters.

Sometimes, this blog will be about politics (Alabama or national or international), or policy, or a funny something I saw, or lessons I learned from someone. Sometimes, it will just be a place to share a story. This is my outlet to share what's on my mind, so I really don't know where this might go. And, yes, sometimes it might be about football.

So, back to football: the relationships between me and my players have always been meaningful to me, and I take great pride in the things we have been able to accomplish. The teams I was an assistant with (Marion Military Institute, "Marion Schools", and Marion Academy) never saw a great deal of success as far as wins and losses, but I remember the trips and practices and individual moments with great fondness. Those young men and my coaching buddies taught me more than I ever taught them. More recently, as head coach and principal at Marion Academy, our teams saw more success on the field, but we learned lessons from each other throughout the process of establishing a new program, learning how to win, and also how to try to overcome distractions and obstacles. So, this blog exists to honor them in some small way.

But, the old lessons mean most when I consider what they mean to the most important young man I'll ever have the honor of coaching: my son. I'm proud to say I was his first coach and even prouder to be his father. He is a wonderful young man, and I learn from him every day. "The Child is father of the man," wrote Wordsworth, as Dr. Kevin Elko often quotes, and I think I'm beginning to get it. My memories of the old lessons I learned as a child, the things that made me who I am, are reawakened every day with my awesome son.