Notes from my graduation address

One of my students, Lidia Davis, wrote this about my last lecture. It’s not a lecture so much as a 10-minute imparting of life lessons and a message about how much I appreciate the honor of teaching the class. Many professors do it. I tend to change the lessons every semester, updating them and refining them. And because I don’t want to be repetitive.

This semester, I geared my comments specifically to graduating seniors.

1. Don’t compare yourselves to your classmates. You’re unique. Screw the B-school students who think they have their lives figured out. I lived with six guys through college. We all had grand hopes on graduation day – doctors, lawyers, business magnates. Three years after graduation, two were in med school, two were in law school, two were in business and one – me – was a reporter in a small town. That year, I mentioned to a professor friend how I considered myself fortunate to be part of this group that was so impressive. He said, “Are you kidding? You belong. You more than belong. You help anchor these guys. Look, people bloom at different times in their lives. They simply bloomed earlier than you. Your time is now.” The truth – and belief in me – in his comment inspires me even today. (I doubt he remembers the conversation; more evidence of the point of the video Lidia references.)

2. Everyone hates their first jobs because first jobs suck. They are supposed to suck. No one falls in love with their first jobs. Their purpose is to calm your parents, add a resume item, provide some money, and give you time to find your second job, which will be a little better.

3. When you get that job, be on time, work hard and be kind to everyone. (I stole this advice from Ashton Kutcher.) Your bosses will notice. It’s also a habit you should practice to live a good life.

4. Listen, listen, listen. Listen better and more actively than you do in class. By listening, you learn. Listening helps you connect the dots and see around corners. And seeing around corners — anticipating the meaning of events and developments that will change your work — is how you make a difference.

5. Embrace change. It’s the obvious one. You think you do now, and you may, but you probably don’t. When Snapchat changed, did you groan or did you adjust and figure it out? You’re about to enter an environment where everything is Snapchat change, for good or worse. Help your business see the future and move ahead of it.

The one thing I never change is this video, which apparently affected Lidia in the same way it affects me. The video by Drew Dudley has nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with realizing your place and your power in the world.

“It’s not about what we do,” Lidia wrote. “It’s not about where we go. It’s about the people we impact along the way—it’s about those in-between moments we don’t even consider relevant half the time.”

My students give me “those in-between moments” every day, and I’m enriched by them. It’s a big reason why I teach.

Sunday sampler

Asheville: The Citizen-Times is staying on top of two stories that I suspect are of interest to Asheville: the police beating of an unarmed black man and the investigation of the former county manager on embezzlement charges. Today, the paper explains to readers, as best it can, how Wanda Greene became an accused thief. “As county manager, Greene was never regularly evaluated as county manager. And she never provided a detailed, line-item budget to commissioners — meaning the board for years approved ordinances that provided only summaries of the county’s annual spending plans.”

The outrage over political spending continues with the News & Observer’s reporting….

Raleigh: Bad enough that millions of donations to the president go toward paying lawyers to defend him in court. At the state level, donations to politicians go toward new clothes and expensive food, including a $600 bar tab at the Players’ Retreat, a longtime Raleigh sports bar. “That was for a reception after a basketball game that takes place every other year between members of the North Carolina and South Carolina legislatures. Dobson said he has taken on a leadership role in that game, which includes paying for the reception. As part of those responsibilities, Dobson also paid $450 to outfit the North Carolina team with jerseys.” (The story ran on the front page of the N&O and the Charlotte Observer.)

Sunday sampler

Asheville: It’s an interesting development in which good-hearted citizens help people hiding from the law. Makes you wonder who’s right — the people or the government. The Citizen-Times writes of the efforts of a small community of volunteers to feed and inform people hiding from Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. “I’ve been getting messages that immigration is checking West Asheville, in Hendersonville, in Flat Rock, in Arden and Candler,” he said. “There is a lot of fear in the community that I’ve never seen in the 14 years that I’ve been here.”

Fayetteville: Every city has panhandlers, and certainly some are truly in need and some are scammers. The Observer takes a look at a new law in Fayetteville which it says is aimed at banning roadside panhandling. The ACLU says it is unconstitutional. The city says it is aimed at safety and keeping traffic moving. And the panhandler? They say it’s bad for business.

Greensboro: A week ago, a tornado cut a swath through the city. “Thirty-seven structures destroyed, another 162 nearly so. Hundreds of people displaced, including students from three elementary schools who will finish out the school year in unfamiliar classrooms.” News & Record writer Margaret Moffett channels her inner-Jim Schlosser to write about the mood and spirit of the city a.k.a. “Greensboro Strong.”

Raleigh: The N&O runs a compelling Charlotte Observer story about prison employees charged with crimes — and how they tend to get off or get lenient treatment. “From 2013 through 2017, 57 prison employees were charged with crimes while on duty, according to the state Department of Public Safety’s review. Four of the 57 employees got prison time. Thirty got probation. And most of the criminal charges — about 60 percent — were dismissed.”

Sunday sampler

Many North Carolina newspaper featured the gun control rallies on their front pages. There were also other interesting pieces.

Asheville: I can’t read this story in full because I’ve reached my limit of free articles at the Citizen-Times. However, the paper has gotten hold of some Snapchat videos of a boy shooting his pistol into the woods and making threats against his high school. He was arrested months later. The Times says the videos “show how obvious warning signs can go unreported for so long. The videos also illustrate how threats of school shootings have become pervasive in the age of social media.”

Charlotte: I wasn’t going to read this story about a Charlotte woman anguishing over having her foot amputated; I have enough sadness in my world. But I got sucked in. And inspired. “I Move for Jenn.” “The fact that I went out in public over the weekend twice like this,” Jenn Andrews says, sweeping her hand across legs dressed in capri sweatpants, “without a maxi dress, that is like not who I thought that I would be. But in a good way. … I went into this depressed – this sad, broken person – and I’ve come out this stronger version of the old me.”

Raleigh: The story in the News & Observer starts this way: “Some rural North Carolina counties are planning to have former law enforcement and military police officers serve as armed volunteers at schools….” Armed volunteers. What could go wrong?


Sunday sampler

Asheville: The beating of a jaywalker in Asheville last year has recently gotten national attention, thanks to good Citizen-Times reporting. Now the paper asks whether the man should have fled the police officer who beat and tased him. And the answer, as you might suspect, is complicated. An interesting sidenote: The tag on the story is “Asheville Police Beating.” Something no city wants.

Charlotte: In North Carolina, state legislators must live in the district they represent. (I almost wrote “serve” there. Haha.) If you’re like me, and marvel at the convolutions politicians will make to get a job or hold onto a job, you’ll enjoy the Observer’s story about candidates stretching the meaning of “live.” The lead: “One candidate lives on the beach, more than 300 miles from the district in which he’s running. An Asheville City Council member rented a Charlotte mailbox for his race in Mecklenburg County.”

High Point:  Gerald Hege was sheriff of Davidson County until he was convicted of obstruction of justice 14 years ago. He wants to run for the seat again, and argues that a law barring felons from being sheriff doesn’t apply because his record was expunged. Having an ex-con makes some kind of sense, I guess, in this political environment. (Password protected. Here’s the story on the front page.)

Equal access to the lunch counter in Greensboro

In January 2010, when I was editor of the News & Record, we were preparing to publish a special section on the 50th anniversary of a pivotal moment in the history of Greensboro: the sit-ins at the Woolworth lunch counter. We were pulling out all the stops with historical pieces, where-are-they-now stories, comments from readers, photography. We even got President Obama to reflect on the event.

I thought about that when I read about the editor of the National Geographic writing about the magazine’s racist past.

One of my tasks was to search the newspaper’s editorials about the sit-ins in 1960. I hoped to find some desk-pounding stem-winders demanding equal treatment and integration of the city’s lunch counters.

I was disappointed.

I don’t have access to the morgue any longer, but, because of the historical nature of the event, the Greensboro Public Library helps out with pdfs. (Aren’t libraries the best?)

The first sit-in involving four N.C. A&T students occurred on Feb. 1. Nothing made the paper’s though, until Feb. 2 when the afternoon paper, the Greensboro Record, reported on the second day of the sit-ins. That story appeared on the local front of the paper. The next day, Feb. 3, the morning paper, the Daily News, published its first story, also on the local front. (Of note, white & African Americans are referred to as “students” and “youths.” One person is referred to as “a white boy.”)

The first editorial appeared Feb. 3 in the Record. It wasn’t against the event, but it wasn’t particularly supportive, either. “Another obvious fact is that the ‘sit down’ demand for service, which went unheeded, served the cause of race relations badly. While the incident was without violence, it was nonetheless an attempt to force an issue by public demonstration.”

It ends: “The white leadership of the community can ill afford to be passive and indifferent under the circumstances. There is a dangerous vacuum in the relations between the races in Greensboro, we fear.”

The Daily News didn’t editorialize until Feb. 5. “Negro patrons occupying seats at the lunch counter have a position which demands consideration. In downtown Greensboro, there are few, if any restaurants or cafes where they can be served. Resentment against this dearth of facilities is not without justification.

“But the way to remedy such a situation is through petition and negotiation, rather than through a sit-down strike. No effort has been made to contact the Woolworth management about providing such facilities. They are made available in Woolworth stores elsewhere. We suggest that a delegation of potential lunch counter patrons get in touch with the management and see whether something can be worked out.”

Both editorials express concern that the sit-ins could result in violence — and given the anger of the white students protesting the protesters, that concern is valid. Yet, the bigger picture — that black patrons are being discriminated against — goes largely unremarked.

The Record’s editorial on Feb. 6 expresses concern about violence once again as it suggests that both sit-in participants and those who object to their presence should be in school. “We can see nothing but possible trouble resulting from the sitdown tactics being employed by the Negro students. What has been made into a grim sort of ‘fruit basket’ game is not only time-wasting, but it is potentially dangerous and expensive.”

(Who knows what the writer would say about high school students walking out to protest gun violence today.)

On Feb. 15, the Daily News wrote:  “To any Tar Heel with common sense the best answer would have been to clear the stores of three groups: customers anxious to be served, the press, TV and radio and sundry curiosity seekers. That policy would have been to serve the handful of Negro customers who first came and sent them on their
way as rapidly as possible. This was not done for a variety of reasons, some of
them understandable.

“But now that the issue still hangs over the individual stores and communities,
creating dark clouds of uncertainty, the only sensible course is to find some way
to serve all those customers who want to be served. It should be done if it means
setting up little separate but equal areas as a start, or ripping out all the seats
and letting everybody eat standing up or simply at some unannounced time initiating
a policy of service for all.”

Both newspapers were careful in not telling the city or the business community what action to take, other than to negotiate. To put it gently, it’s a particularly light touch for an editorial page these days.

Then, on Feb. 27, the Daily News writes an editorial headlined: “An idea whose time has come.” 

“The idea’s moral force—that colored men no longer will tolerate being served at nine counters and rejected at the tenth—cannot be denied. All of Greensboro’s largest white churches had sermons on the subject Sunday—and invariably they recognized the moral sanctity of the ends sought, if not the means employed, by the protesters.

“Sometimes the truth hurts. This is such a time. Sometimes the spirit, rather than the letter, of the law prevails.”

There are others, and you can read the entire coverage here.

I didn’t live in Greensboro at the time, and probably wouldn’t have paid it much attention if I had because I was 7 years old. I’m schooled enough in the history of the South to know that a newspaper in a Southern town had a tightwire to walk when it came to civil rights. William Chafe wrote an excellent book on Greensboro at the time titled “Civilities and Civil Rights.

I don’t think the papers have anything to apologize for their editorial stands. They  weren’t overtly racist. Perhaps they helped the city avoid racial violence. But the call for justice was weak and took a while. Looking at history and society now 58 years removed, my guess is that the editorial writers wish they had pounded their desks, demanding equal service for all races. I know that I wish I had written about this for the 2010 50th anniversary section.

President Obama nailed it in his piece, referring to the Greensboro Four:

“They knew they would be the subject of ridicule and bigotry upon taking their seats. But they also knew that what was happening in Greensboro and throughout the country was an affront to America’s founding ideals of freedom, equality and justice for all.”


Sunday sampler

Raleigh and Asheville: Both the News & Observer and the Citizen-Times have stories about guns and gun control. The Citizen-Times asked its Washington representatives about gun control proposals and got the predictable 2nd Amendment defenses. Note that N.C.’s senators get millions from the NRA. The N&O explains the state’s gun laws. “Before 2015, local law enforcement officials were allowed to use their discretion in denying someone one of those permits – for example, if the applicant had never been convicted of a crime but the county sheriff knew he was a gang member, or if the sheriff simply didn’t want any locals owning machine guns. But that changed after former Gov. Pat McCrory signed a wide-ranging gun bill into law that included several changes, including one requiring sheriffs to approve those NFA permit applications as long as the person meets all the guidelines.”

Asheville: The Citizen-Times continues its reporting on the behavior of the former county manager, this time detailing her county-issued credit card expenses. She ate well.

Greensboro: The News & Record’s first graph: “Dr. Gregory Levitin finds dangerously enlarged blood vessels — each the size of a man’s finger when it should have resembled spaghetti — as he starts to remove an 8-pound tumor off the face of 22-year-old Lucas McCulley, who is under anesthesia.”

Sunday sampler

Charlotte: The Observer tells us what most of us know: Gun control ain’t happening in N.C., as far as the General Assembly is concerned. I post it because of this bananas quote: “Folks want to try to drag the gun debate into it,” Republican House Speaker Tim Moore told a TV interviewer last week. “Look, that’s a discussion for another time.” He’s talking about the president of the United States. And that “another time” is called “never.”

Fayetteville: “So far, no state or federal agency is looking at whether the potentially dangerous compound has contaminated crops and livestock for miles around the Chemours plant.” That’s the beginning of a story in the Observer that ought to frighten everyone from Brunswick County to Cumberland County. More, maybe. “So far, nobody knows whether GenX may have been contaminating crops and livestock for years around the Chemours plant, where the compound is made.”

Greensboro: The DA in Rockingham County used state money for his own benefit, was convicted of a misdemeanor and resigned his office. Then his successor found problems with some of his convictions. That’s old news. The new news is that “He was assigned to nearly 96 defendants and a staggering 396 cases during his 26-month tenure.” The News & Record takes look at some of the cases and what might happen with them.

Greensboro: This isn’t good for the Guilford school system, is it? It doesn’t seem good. “An analysis Love presented Wednesday showed worse outcomes for black and Hispanic students in school discipline, test achievement and class placement than white students in Guilford County Schools. It also showed that black and Hispanic school employees are more likely than white employees to have a salary that is below the average for all district employees (the analysis lumps all jobs together).”

Raleigh:  On Oscar day, the N&O examines the status of N.C.’s faltering film industry. (As did students in one of my classes.) You can thank the General Assembly for running the film studios out of the state.


Sunday sampler

Appreciations of Billy Graham and responses to the Parkland killings dominated the front pages of N.C. papers today. Here are some:

Asheville: As Billy Graham lived nearby, the Citizen-Times was all over his motorcade. The more interesting story is about efforts to keep children in schools safe. And here’s the compelling lead: “When Tony Tipton considers the idea of arming schoolteachers, what comes to mind is this: What would it be like for a teacher to face down a former student, also wielding a gun? ‘To actually take a gun, pull a trigger and shoot who may have been a student you had a year ago, or yesterday, would be a lot to ask,’ the Yancey County school district superintendent said.”

Charlotte: The Observer has a 14-page section on Graham. The more interesting story is about the racial disparities in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. It isn’t surprising, but I’m glad the Observer put it on the front. “White students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s low-poverty schools have the best shot by far at getting top-notch teachers and graduating ready for college, while black and Hispanic students in high-poverty schools are left behind.”

Greensboro: The News & Record followed up the Parkland killings with a story about guns and mental health. Or, rather, mental illness. And, it’s complicated. “Information from a denied concealed carry permit from the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office wasn’t readily available to police to illustrate why Tokazowski shouldn’t get his guns back, Scott said. Tokazowski had been denied the permit because he had been ruled mentally unfit by the courts. Scott said the sheriff’s office could not tell police why Tokazowski had been denied the permit because of privacy laws.”

High Point: The Enterprise examines U.S. Supreme Court rulings on the Second Amendment. (Story behind a paywall.)

Sanford: The Herald details what school safety procedures and technology are in place already, including locked doors, cameras and school resource officers (Story behind a paywall.)

Raleigh: You know that “fake news” that the NRA and gun nuts spout about the government coming to take our guns? The N&O features a story about the number of assault rifles out there. “No one has any idea how many assault rifles are in circulation. That’s intentional. By law, the government isn’t allowed to gather that metric and put it in a modern, searchable electronic database.”

Winston-Salem: Try to imagine the man who killed your husband being up for parole. The Journal helps with a story about a woman whose police officer husband was killed 26 years ago. The murderer is up for parole. “When the hearing rolls around, probably in mid-April, members of the commission will have reviewed the contents of a parole investigation including records about the crime, Crews’ previous criminal record, his conduct while in the prison system and input from court officials, interested parties and the victim’s families.

“’Records is all they have to go by,’ Tise said. “I want to tell them that I lost the love of my life. That’s what I lost, and I’m a different person because of that. You either stay down or you get up and move forward. And it doesn’t take much to knock you back down again.’”


Sunday sampler

Asheville:  A headline that should outrage everyone except, I guess, rapists: “North Carolina unsure how many rape kits are left untested.” Here is the Citizen-Times’ elaboration: “DNA evidence, which medical professionals collect and file in rape kits, is one of the most powerful tools at the disposal of district attorneys prosecuting rape cases. But in spite of their utility, it’s estimated hundreds of thousands of these kits sit untested in police evidence lockers across the country. In Asheville alone, police have 573 untested rape kits.”

Charlotte: Jim Bakker used to peddle eternal salvation. Now he peddles preparation for End Times. There’s a sucker born every minute. “One day you’re going to shake your fist in God’s face and you’re going to say, ‘God, why didn’t you warn me?’ He’s going to say, ‘You sat there and you made fun of Jim Bakker all those years. I warned you. But you didn’t listen.’ 

Raleigh: The N&O does an excellent job explaining the impact of the Republican takeover of the General Assembly has had on public school education. And more is coming. One paragraph won’t do it justice here. Read it for yourself.

Winston-Salem: So many things these days are “a parent’s worst nightmare.” The Journal describes one: a child who has vanished. In this case, it was two years ago when an Appalachian State University student left a note saying he needed to get away and disappeared. “He was standing there on the corner making plans, talking about the next semester and how excited he was about it,” Roberts said. “Then boom, he’s gone.”