How Love Can Overturn Hate, Following Pittsburgh Anti-Semitism Murders


I am not Jewish. Either by birth or religion.

Still, I felt compelled to attend last night’s public memorial for eleven people who were murdered in a Squirrel Hill neighborhood in Pittsburgh, PA. The service was held at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, where thousands packed the hall and thousands more stood in the chilly rain outside. Once I managed to squeeze inside, I thought how fitting that Abraham Lincoln’s words from his Nov. 19, 1863, Gettysburg Address are inscribed on its walls.

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…”

I live ninety minutes south of Pittsburgh. I still remember family trips we took there, beginning in the early 1970s. But more recently, one of my daughters reintroduced me to the melting pot that is Steel City, a place built and inhabited by immigrants from all walks of life. Thanks to her, I probably spent more time there during the last six years than all the other years combined.

So I felt the city’s loss keenly.

At first, I tried not to think about it. Then I learned that four police officers who tried to stop the gunman were shot in the line of duty. My entire adult life has been spent with and around law enforcement, so I felt a sense of camaraderie, for them and their families.

Finally, I heard that the victims’ names had been released—and I thought about all the people I had met during recent visits to Pittsburgh. Wonderful people, many of whom are Jewish. I recalled the warm and cozy times my daughter and I dined at Dobra Tea, one of her favorite Squirrel Hill haunts.

Given that, there was no way I could not go. Paying my respects was the least I could do.

I don’t hate anyone. However, I do hate the actions that some people take, like happened Saturday afternoon when Robert Bowers, 46, opened fire and killed eleven people at the Tree of Life Synagogue.

Why did this happen? Because Bowers looked at those parishioners and saw only a label: Jewish.

It also happened because there really is evil among us. I know a little about evil, having covered a local murder here a few years ago. Evil is the only explanation for how two bright, talented and pretty teenage girls could murder a third teen who had once been a close friend.

Hate is evil.

Following the 2016 presidential election, my blog was one of the first about hate speech, a particular flavor of evil. I tweeted and blogged about two gay men who were the target of a hateful, homophobic act. (Ironically, I, too, received a few hate-filled tweets after I reported this news.)

Since then, hatred for people who are different than us has only increased. Especially is this true for those of the Jewish faith.

“Us,” as I use it, is anyone who aligns himself or identifies with, a specific group that spews hate speech toward people who are different, or with whose views they disagree. Not everyone who identifies with a particular label (think alt-right or even Democrat or Republican) feels or acts on hatred—but many of them do.

I know about hatred inspired by labels, because I grew up in a religious home. And while wearing that label as a child of eight, a woman chased a friend of mine who was thirteen and me from her porch—with a broom. About ten years ago, I was with a developmentally disabled youth, knocking on the door of another home, in a different community. In return, the man let his vicious dogs loose to chase us away.

In both cases, we didn’t speak badly, or retaliate, against either homeowner. We acknowledged that, while morally wrong, their actions arose from ignorance. Because, after all, we came in peace, offering a message of love. Had they stopped to listen, or think, they would have realized this. And perhaps our compassion would have won them over. I like to think so.

Hate only incites more hate. A person filled with hate for his fellow man will only spew more hatred, if that’s all he surrounds himself with. But compassion can change people. Even a hate mongering, conspiracy theorist like Bowers. So far we know he spewed hate for Jews and immigrants (whom he and some others have taken to labeling “invaders”). He did this online, at a social media site called “Gab.”

Given that none of Bowers’ neighbors really knew him and people who attended high school with him recalled him as a loner—if they remembered him at all—is proof that a little compassion could have gone a long way. For instance, mental health experts know that isolation is dangerous. Whether self-imposed or not, people cut off from family and friends tend to become unstable.

How could they not? Humans are tribal people. We came from family units, and were designed to be part of a society. That’s why people like Bowers are called anti-social. Another label, one that need not exist—if only people would stop and pay more attention to the outcasts and loners among us.

I am reminded that when the Jews and others were loaded into cattle cars and placed into concentration camps during World War II, they were known not by their names—but by numbers, and labels sewn onto their prison garb. A yellow triangle for Jews, a purple one for Jehovah’s Witnesses, the letter “P” for Polish prisoners.

Labels allow us to dehumanize our fellow man: white, black, Jewish, Catholic, straight, gay, handicapped, decrepit, rich, poor, or immigrant. What if we stop using labels altogether, and simply view each other as we are: human beings? That is to say, people from the same species, who are just like you and me.

We are all just human beings in need of kindness, especially now.

What if, every time we’re in the company of someone who appears different from us—whether we’re merely passing each other in a crowded crosswalk or sitting down in a classroom, sports stadium or movie theatre—we instead think: this person is my brother? My sister?

Or, what if we go a step further and speak to those strangers? Invite them for coffee or a meal? Offer them a shoulder to cry on?

Ah, but that’s when the power for change really happens. R&B musician Daryl Davis knows this. “Establish dialogue. When two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting,” he told the Daily Mail in 2013.

I heard Davis speak a few months ago, while listening to an episode of Snap Judgment. I was fascinated as I heard the blues musician tell how he became friends with a high-ranking member of the Ku Klux Klan. That man later resigned his post. Why? Because through his friendship with Davis, a black man, that previously racist white man came to know a basic human truth: no matter our race, religion, gender, or ethnic background, we are more alike than we are different.

Knowing this truth, and then acting on it, is how love can overturn hate.

* * *

Dear Readers,

My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my memoir was released May 2016. That’s on the heels of Tales of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang, a collection of my newspaper columns from 1988-91, which came out in April 2016.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!


Immigrant Families: Forever Scarred by Forced Separation

Note: Some of the following comes from book three in my Appalachian Families series, which I’m in the process of finishing.

Never mind that President Trump signed an executive order today to stop families from being separated at the border—because, at this moment, they still are. For these families, the damage is already done. I know this only too well.

That’s because the day my children were torn from my arms, I cried so much it’s a wonder I didn’t turn into dust and blow away.

It was 21 years ago, and yet the pain was so great it sometimes still haunts me like it happened yesterday. Then my heart feels so full that I am afraid to cry, to shed my tears, worried they will sweep me all the way down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico, where I will end up floating in the Atlantic Ocean. Except once there, I will still be crying, unable to ever stop, becoming one with the water.

I heard the judge that day, the day my world changed forever. But his words didn’t make it all the way to my cerebral cortex. They sizzled inside my ears, bouncing back and forth while my brain tried to grasp their meaning.

How can you take my children?

Before my thoughts could even become words, the judge spoke. “You can appeal the decision.” Then, a few words from my attorney. I didn’t even hear what she said. All the energy I had been holding tightly inside dissipated as quickly as if I was a balloon animal that someone stuck a pin in. My knees gave out and I crumpled to the floor.

I’m sure this decades-old pain haunts my four children, as well. The scars are hidden beneath our skin, and riddled with shrapnel that no one sees. But we know they’re there.

Our scars remain today, and while we tried to overcome the damage done, it was impossible. Too many things happened during our three months apart, words spoken, actions taken, that were irreversible. But the most crucial element, I believe, to hinder our healing, was the individual thoughts we carried with us from that day forward. Why did you leave me? How could you do this to me? When will you come get me?

And then, when I couldn’t go get them—because the law forbid it—this: What did I do wrong? Why don’t you want me anymore? Why don’t you love me?

What I’ve personally heard about the current family separation, which is amoral and inhumane, hit me so hard it took me a good long week to even write about it. My first thought, upon learning that parents were told their children were being taken for a bath—only to not be returned—was of the Holocaust. Similar lies were told then, too. Jews, Poles, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsies, many of their families were torn apart, never to be reunited. My first public comment, on a friend’s Facebook page, was “Can anyone say Gestapo?”

Make no mistake, following a forced separation, these immigrant families will never be the same again. It is unnatural for children to be separated from their parents in this way. The child, the mother, the father—all three will carry these scars for the rest of their lives. Such a separation creates a hole in a child’s heart. A hole that will be filled with sadness, self-doubt, and anger. Anger that may later turn into rage.

While these feelings may diminish over time, they will never completely disappear. At best, they will rise to the surface during stressful situations, boiling over like a pan of hot milk left unattended on the kitchen stove. At worst, they will be buried deeper than our cemetery dead, so far down in the dark earth that you cannot see or feel them.

Being plagued with a gnawing sense of hopelessness condemns you to a life lived looking over your shoulder, forever trapped in the past. This failure to process your feelings will impede your ability to grow, to move forward. Even after you are reunited—if you are. But make no mistake, you won’t be the same person ever again.

Neither will your children.

The best you can hope for is to tap into your own well of resilience, to keep going. To try and thrive. Counseling can help. But even a trained therapist cannot always dispel the fear, or reverse the damage done to these children. Or their parents.

The Department of Homeland Security says that since May, 2,342 children were placed in what the world views as cages. (The practice of U.S. officials keeping children locked up is not new; nor does this number include thousands of other detained children, who entered the U.S. without their parents.)

Aside from the trauma these families must endure, what else has such a “zero-tolerance” policy wrought? Have we returned to a Dickensian era, a land fit only for the orphaned Oliver Twist? I thought internment ended with the Japanese. Have we learned nothing?

Apparently not. Even though we’ve known for more than 100 years that keeping children away from their families is traumatic. President Theodore Roosevelt convened the first White House Conference on Children in 1909. There they determined that “children should not be deprived of (home life)” by being placed in an institution. Instead, they should be placed with foster families.

Later, numerous studies found that children raised in orphanages suffered from “the inability to bond, inability to effectively problem solve, inability to turn to others for help, poor peer relations, disciplinary problems, disruptive behavior.” And the current detention camps make those orphanages look like a playground. Given that these children range in age from babies to teenager, how many of the younger ones have already been molested by an older child? Or a caretaker? Judging from the disturbing video and audio clips, the sounds and sights of sobbing, traumatized children, these places are obviously worse than orphanages, which lost favor with the American public in the 1960s. No wonder the world, including the Pope and the United Nations, has condemned the U.S. for its actions. At least orphans had trained caretakers who comforted them when they cried.

But this basic human right is being denied these children. Children who should soon be reunited with their parents—but aren’t yet.

The very notion that no one is allowed to comfort these distraught children makes me furious! How is that even possible in this day and age, when we know that such cold and callous behavior is abuse? When we know that human touch is critical to good mental and physical health? That such a pattern can lead to severe emotional problems?

As proof, consider the famous artificial mother experiment conducted by psychologist Harry Harlow. He showed how crucial comfort is to humans, when, given a choice between a cloth mother and a wire one, isolated baby rhesus monkeys preferred spending 18 hours a day with the cloth mother, as opposed to spending only one hour a day with the wire one. This, even though the wire mother held the bottle the babies nursed from!

In an op-ed to The Washington Post, former First Lady Laura Bush spoke up about this lack of compassion and empathy. There, she told how Barbara Bush once held and cuddled a crying child who was dying of AIDS, apparently when no one else would.

Let’s learn from her, and do better. We can. We must!

* * *

Dear Readers,

My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my memoir was released May 2016. That’s on the heels of Tales of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang, a collection of my newspaper columns from 1988-91, which came out in April 2016.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!


#55strong: As Strike Continues, Teachers Reflect on Their Roles as Educators

Part 3Final Day 5 of Teacher Walkout

Note: I am a substitute teacher who works part-time in Monongalia and Preston counties. I’m also writing a book about the recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. This book will look at our culture and the state of failing education—and examine what contributes to such tragedies, while exploring how we can stop them.

Update: As of noon today, teachers meeting with officials in Charleston are so angry that it’s possible the strike may continue tomorrow, Thursday, March 1, even though I wrote this based on media reports saying it will end today. If you are a parent, I’ve included a link showing state school closings. If you need food for your children, please reach out to the local agencies mentioned below. As I learn more, I will update my blog accordingly.

Update: At approximately 10:44 p.m. the last holdout fell, and all of West Virginia turned red. The statewide strike continues. As of 10:39 p.m., only Jefferson County schools remain open tomorrow. As of 9:50 p.m., only schools in Hampshire, Morgan, Berkeley, and Jefferson counties remain open. As of 9:28 p.m. schools in only 7 counties remain open. As of 9:05 p.m., public schools only remain open in 17 counties tomorrow. As of 9 p.m., public schools in 18 out of 55 counties are now closed tomorrow. As of 8:37 p.m., public schools in 33 out of 55 counties will be closed tomorrow. I look for that number to grow, as the night continues.

* * *

Having a shortage of more than 700 teachers throughout the state means it isn’t uncommon for a substitute to receive six calls a day to teach. My own phone begins ringing at 5 a.m. But in a simple case of supply and demand, where the demand greatly outweighs the supply, there aren’t enough substitutes to meet the need, either. This leaves classrooms without teachers.

What happens to the unsupervised students? They’re sent to other classrooms, increasing the teacher to student ratio. That may not seem like a problem—until you realize that some of those overfilled classrooms contain students with behavior problems.

Behavioral disorders are on the rise, leading to high rates of troubling behavior in public schools. As details emerged about the school shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, the world learned of a very troubled young man, who before that was an extremely troubled child. After being struck by a violent student while working in one of my substitute assignments, I began reflecting on the various factors that must have coalesced, long before Nikolas Cruz became a school shooter.

Sadly, I’m not alone. Many teachers and aides who work with this population leave school sporting scratches, bruises, broken glasses, or worse. This is one reason teachers are in short supply—and why more might leave the profession.

Li Cheng is one such teacher. Before coming to the Mountain State, she taught in her native Taiwan. Cheng has 15 years experience. “It’s very challenging . . . I have more kids and their behaviors are so difficult to deal with,” Cheng, a Chinese teacher at Mountainview Elementary, said. “I love the kids here, and the people . . . (but) the kids here deserve a better education.”

As a long-time crime reporter, I know that verbal threats meet the legal definition of assault. Battery is when a student physically strikes a teacher. Every day teachers are victims of assault and battery in West Virginia schools. As they are in all 50 states, leaving the nation with an acute shortage of teachers—and substitutes.

If an average citizen filed criminal charges after such an assault, the accused could wind up behind bars. Rarely does that happen to students, though. They’re simply sent to the office—where administrators often send them right back to class. Time and again, one Mon County teacher told me Tuesday. Why? In part, because there’s a lot of red tape involved in dealing with this population. Red tape that few administrators have time for these days.

Take one principal who texted me. This man, who requested anonymity, has already accumulated 182 uncompensated work hours this year. Last year he accumulated 243. This doesn’t include the two hours per work he spends working from home—a limit he set “to save my marriage.”

So teachers aren’t the only ones whose salaries are sharply reduced, by continuing to work long past a normal 40-hour workweek. Principals likewise suffer.

Given this, and the fact that—hour for hour—teachers here earn less than the state minimum wage, that they are regularly attacked by students, and don’t always have support from administrators, why do they do it?

In a word, love.

In spite of all the above and more, teachers dearly love their students, whom they view as their own children. I know this because I’m a fourth-generation teacher. Before the onset of Parkinson’s, my mother was a regular classroom teacher, as were her mother and grandmother. Mom was in her late 40s when she began her teaching career at West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind, driving all over the state to help preschoolers who had special needs. I recently met the mother of one of my mother’s former students in a local school where I was subbing. “We loved Miss Eileen,” this parent told me.

And “Miss Eileen” loved her students right back. As do most teachers. I already knew this, but when I asked fellow teachers to send me personal stories testifying to that love, one teacher’s words stood out. In telling what her workday is like, she speaks for all teachers. That teacher, who requested anonymity, sent me the following raw and unedited text message:

“I arrive at work up to an hour early each day. I spend most of my planning period answering emails, following up on notes from colleagues, or preparing for the afternoon classes so I do planning and grading at home, usually an hour each week day, and I set aside 5-10 hours on the weekend to finish it up and review the prior week’s progress or what needs reviewed. Some grading sessions are longer than others because of the projects I like to assign. I have graded papers during my daughter’s lacrosse game. I have held parent conversations via text message while sitting in a thin hospital gown with an IV in my wrist and a monitor on my unborn child. In fact I’ve had parent conversations everywhere from standing at a gas pump to the checkout aisle of the grocery store, from waiting in line to watch my kids in a parade to literally having to shush someone because they wanted to talk about their kid while we were in church. My husband often laughs when we go to local football games because I never see the game… I am always talking either to parents or students and making sure to be there for them all.

But the thing is…I do not mind any of that. I only begin to mind when told how teachers are lazy and don’t deserve reasonable health care or an adequate income. During the summer I regularly review my lessons and standards, researching additional things of interest, shop for kids and classroom, stockpile some things I keep on hand, such as snack packs of crackers, feminine hygiene items, and deodorant. WV does not require parents to provide supplies, so each summer I keep an eagle eye on every possible back to school sale. I purchase no less than 100 spiral 1-subject notebooks. I also purchase pencils, highlighters, my own copy paper, sanitizer, clorox wipes, kleenex, index cards, etc. A local church often supplies some things when we have a severe deficit, for which we are grateful. I have also purchased posters, resources, videos, and games related to what we are learning. I also pay for a quizlet teacher account, along with planbook, and a few other things. My classroom has over $1000 of my money on bookshelves, invested in scholastic books and yard sales so I can provide reading opportunities for my kids. I like using scholastic, because accrued bonus points can be spent on special items or supplies. Until recently I worked a part time job in addition to make sure what I spend didn’t impact my family negatively.

Also as for time spent- I have begged on donorschoose for books and supplies. Many teachers I know go to World Vision (at least an hour’s drive, after working all day) up to 4 times a year to take advantage of their free supplies for teachers and we share freely with teachers, students, counselors, and programs that need them. I can’t calculate what I spend in money or time, but my kids are worth it. However, my colleagues and I are worth more than our lawmakers think, too.”

That educator is far from alone.

Teacher Stacy Borror works “at least 55 hours a week at my teaching job if not more . . . I rarely leave before 5 most days, even Fridays.” She does lesson plans at home during weekends, and researches “better ways of presenting lessons to my students.” In addition, Borror spends an annual $300-400 out of her own pocket on students.

“Our students are like our own children. We care deeply and want the very best for them,” Borror said. “This is killing me to be out of school for the reasons that we are. I’m not sleeping well and I have a high level of anxiety right now. By no means is this fun, exciting, or something we look forward to . . .”

Kristy Shinkovich is just as dedicated. So dedicated, in fact, her young son, Casey, joined her on the picket line in Sabraton. Among the ways she has gone above and beyond is to replace a student’s broken book bag; pass along all of her own and her children’s outgrown clothing for less fortunate children; bring in items to use for Halloween costumes; and buy popcorn, hot cocoa and other supplies for “sharpen the saw” parties—designed to reward good behavior in the classroom, and based on Franklin Covey principles.

“The things I do are not unusual at my school,” Shinkovich said. “We all are there for the right reasons—all 760 of them.”

The following account of real-life educators who are heroes to their students comes from Mon County teachers who wish to remain anonymous.

“One of our students at Mon County Technical Education Center didn’t have running water for a few days during . . . the frigid cold days,” one teacher said. “Our carpentry teacher and building maintenance teacher went to his house and tried to fix it. They couldn’t get the hot water fixed. But they could get the cold water so (the family) could use the bathroom and brush their teeth.” Those two teachers were so concerned, she said, by “the conditions the student lived in, we had a food drive and clothing drive for him and his siblings.”

Another teacher has taken “papers to grade, lesson plans to write” to doctors’ appointments, soccer games, and even her own child’s basketball games.

“As a school we collect money from the staff so we can buy Christmas gifts for students. The ones we know won’t have any thing to open,” said one teacher. “We always have bread and peanut butter at school, for those students that may not get lunch.”

Our teachers “helped a student a few years ago go to prom. I contacted a local business and they donated the tux. Then we asked for donations from (fellow) teachers to help him buy a corsage, get a haircut, and pay for . . . dinner and gas.”

Such love for students is what prompted WV teachers to make sure their young charges were well fed during the work stoppage. “West Virginia is known for generations of hardship and poverty, and many children simply don’t have enough food,” Julia Hamilton, director of Monongalia Extended Day Learning, said.

After their father was laid off from the coal mines, my four children qualified for free hot lunches. Those meals were crucial since my own kitchen cupboards were then almost bare. This national program has grown in recent years, especially here in West Virginia. In 2011, according to the West Virginia KIDS COUNT program, 53-percent of West Virginia schoolchildren received free or reduced meals. (In Mon County, that number is 37-percent; in neighboring Preston, it’s 49-percent.)

But we also have an abundance of people who can and do help the less fortunate among us—especially when children are involved. Appalachians do not let children go hungry.

“It’s been phenomenal to see the support we’ve received from the community because,” Hamilton said. “It takes a village and this particular community has proved that we can provide for, not only our students and families, but our staff members who are struggling at this time.”

Parents, this state website tells you if your child’s school is closed.

When it became obvious teachers would walk out, the first thing they did was begin collecting foodstuffs to prevent hunger. Here in Monongalia County, that effort began one week ago. “Donations of food came from parents, from teachers, from other students. As the food was collected, teachers were responsible for bagging and distributing that food the Wednesday before we left,” teacher and Mon County Education Association (MCEA) rep Heather DeLucea-Nestor said. Westwood School collected 55 bags of food; South Middle rounded up another 69 bags. “After we knew we had a surplus of food and kids had what they needed, the rest of the food was taken to (local churches to hand out),” she added.

Hamilton took the lead in getting all that food to where it needed to be, dropping it off at places like Scott’s Run Settlement House, Pantry Plus, and Kingdom EMC Church. While other Mon County teachers drove to the statewide rally in Charleston held before the walkout began, Hamilton was a one-woman food maven.

Several schools contacted her last week, saying they had a surplus of food that “most of (the) elementary and middle schools could distribute. We’re very fortunate here in Mon County, that we have . . . four extra boxes of fruit (so) where are we going to take this?” Hamilton said. “But UHS (University High School) had about 900 meals they were unable to get out before school dismissed (last) Wednesday,” the same day Hamilton posted the distribution locations on her agency’s Facebook page, so parents would know where to find free food.

Parents, you can apply for free or reduced meals for your children here.

On Thursday morning, on day one of the walkout, Hamilton, UHS administrators, and maintenance staff transported those meals to her office. “We had boxes and boxes of (perishable) fruits, so I contacted (local agencies, churches, and food pantries) so they could give out to students in their care, or students who came in specifically so they would have a lunch meal.”

One of the distribution points is Atomic Grill, located at the Kingwood Pike and Greenbag Road intersection. The restaurant, under new ownership, is a favorite spot for many locals who favor farm-to-table cuisine and gluten-free fare. Owner Teddy Edwards was happy to help. “I’ve always been a supporter of the teachers . . . especially in Morgantown, and I wanted to show my support and this is my way of doing it.” Edwards said. “We teamed up with them to have a centralized location at Atomic Grill for parents to come by and for (teachers) to distribute the food.” That distribution site will continue until the work stoppage ends tonight. As of 9 p.m., Mon County schools remain open tomorrow. That is subject to change, however.

Edwards also wanted to help because he’s father to two sons who have their own opinions about the strike. In addition to wanting West Virginia teachers to have healthcare that’s “on par with the rest of the country . . . (my boys) do feel like teachers are underpaid and they should be paid a wage that reflects their civic duty and … their dedication and obligation to the schools and kids.”

Edwards pointed out that many teachers are a family’s primary breadwinners, unlike how society views the profession. “It’s almost looked at as an alternative income in some places . . . That’s what’s sad about it,” he said.

Unlike teachers here, Edwards said, “with their tips, (my staff) earn much more. They average closer to $16-18 an hour with us.”

The four-day work stoppage has finally resulted in what looks like a decent pay raise for teachers. But the last week has also reaffirmed some vital lessons about Almost Heaven itself.

“West Virginia is a state that’s pretty well known for its struggles and Appalachia is a place that’s routinely suffering, most notably economically,” Hamilton said, “but it’s encouraging to see our state leading the charge in … addressing labor concerns and economic inequality.”

Too, she said it’s “heartwarming to see not only that, but the response from the communities we served. Because the Appalachia I grew up with is one that had endless neighbors that are willing to pitch in and help when times get tough, even if they themselves are struggling.”

Hamilton speaks for many of the business owners, parents, and even students who have shown support for the state’s educators. The last week “has been no exception. We’ve had endless lines of parents and community members who are dropping off breakfast and coffee and ponchos to our teachers who are standing on the picket lines or calling our office to see how they can support kids during their time away from school. So no matter what kind of struggle it is that we’re facing—and it seems to always be something—we do have a tendency to face it together.”

* * * * *

Dear Readers,

My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my memoir was released May 2016. That’s on the heels of Tales of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang, a collection of my newspaper columns from 1988-91, which came out in April 2016.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!


#55strong: “Rumor Has It . . . Legislators Said We Could Rot”

Part 2—Day 3 of the Teachers’ Walkout

Note: I am a substitute teacher who works part-time in Monongalia and Preston counties. I’m also writing a book about the recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. This book will look at our culture and the state of failing education—and examine what contributes to such tragedies, while exploring how we can stop them.

* * *

Preston County native Ashley Jenkins was substitute teaching by day and waitressing by night when she was struck by an epiphany.

It happened while waiting for her dream job, which was not in education. “That’s when it occurred to me that I would be really sad to give up teaching,” Jenkins said. “I really like my job.”

Jenkins’ first foray into the classroom was day by day, as a temporary sub. Then a position as a long-term Spanish substitute opened up. It was only a half-day of work, and required her to drive between Kingwood and Rowlesburg schools, a distance of 12 miles each way. But then, Aurora Middle School reopened. With that came the need for a Spanish teacher. Jenkins finally had a full-time job, but she was commuting from Kingwood to Rowlesburg to Aurora—and back again. That’s 50 miles a day.

There are two ways to reach Aurora from Rowlesburg. Neither of which is for the fainthearted. You can take formidable Route 50 or take Route 7, and crawl up Caddell Mountain to Terra Alta. But that route often leaves drivers stuck in long lines of traffic following logging trucks going 35 miles per hour. Coming back down the steep hillside, it’s not uncommon for a trucker to burn up his brakes, leading to a fatality like the one I covered in the late 1980s. (Which resulted in a runaway truck ramp being carved into the side of the mountain.)

Taking Route 50 involves driving up and down Laurel Mountain, on one of the windiest roads in the country. Just ask the truck drivers who make a living traversing it. And watch out for those infamous Preston County winters. Route 50 is famous for its hairpin turns, nicknamed “kiss your butt” curves because truckers can see the rear axels on their trailers at one end, even after the tractor they’re driving has come through the other end. These perilous stretches of road are known to result in many such jackknifed vehicles.

Route 7 isn’t any better: the snowstorms that strike Terra Alta, which in Latin means “high ground,” blow bitter and hard, sweeping snow so high the white stuff completely closes Evans Curve. This doesn’t even take into account the Aurora Pike where, although offering panoramic views of scenic farmland, is far narrower and not as well maintained as the two state highways.

It’s a trek many a teacher must make to reach their classrooms.

“On paper they give you 30 minutes between schools,” Jenkins said. “But it took longer . . . I was physically exhausted every day, so when this (full-time Spanish) position opened at Preston High School, I felt like I had to take it.”

That’s just one of the ways Jenkins, like many Preston County teachers I interviewed, goes above and beyond for her job. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. Jenkins drove 50 miles a day for more than two years because of the children she teaches. As a whole, teachers don’t seem to care much about the nuts and bolts of their jobs, such as how much money they earn. If they did, they’d be in another profession entirely. They care about their young charges, and the hungry minds entrusted to them, the ones they strive to instill a love of learning into.

In addition to those miles, Jenkins made other, after-school trips to attend her Aurora students’ cross-country track meets and school dances, “which was brutal.”

By the time teachers throughout West Virginia walked out last week, severe cuts in Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) benefits—to all state employees, not just teachers—had already reduced take-home pay. In terms of income, West Virginia teachers rank 48th in the nation, and further cuts proposed by this year’s session of the legislature would have slashed their paychecks even more.

The situation is more dire than the 1990 strike I covered, in which 47 out of 55 counties took part.

Considering that the majority of teachers go above and beyond, they felt like they simply couldn’t remain silent. They had to stand up and fight.

You don’t have to look very far to find such dedicated teachers. I know one retired teacher who devoted an entire bedroom to her students, storing classroom supplies there. Supplies she bought and paid for with her own money.

Teachers do this all the time—especially in West Virginia, where education dollars continue to shrink. I’ve even known teachers who have brought toilet paper from home, since notebook paper isn’t the only kind schools can’t afford to purchase.

“I would buy posters and papers and notebooks for my kids,” Brian Bailey, a former special education teacher, said. “Decorations for the classroom, ink for the printers. I spaced it out so not too much (came) out of a paycheck. When Walmost ran back-to-school sales . . . single-subject notebooks went down to 10-cents each,” Bailey said.

Barb Stafford, another retired teacher, did likewise. “I did a lot of that in the summertime, before school started. You could get them in bulk and squirrel them away and hand them out during the school year.”

If the average West Virginia teacher makes $45,622, as state officials say, then that amount is reduced at least a few hundred dollars by these purchases. If not more. But most teachers here simply do not make nearly that much. “I’m not making $45,622, I’ll tell you that right now,” Jenkins said. I don’t know anyone in my hallway, with the possible exception of the guy with 30-odd years of experience, who might be.”

Tom Bane, a regional staff rep with WVEA, said “that number seems high to me personally, but there’s no way to dispute it.” Even if the figure is correct, Bane said it’s going to begin dropping dramatically. “So many teachers are within five years of retirement that, as they retire, it’s going to lower (the average),”

This is because hundreds of West Virginia teachers retire every year. So the lower average will come about because teachers with less seniority will make up the majority. Since first year teachers with a bachelor’s degree earn $32,675, it’s possible we could see the average salary dip closer to $40,000. Or less.

There’s more to the salary issue than meets the eye. For example, teachers can’t just stop working after a 40-hour week. Their classroom time may equal 40 hours, but they also have papers to grade, and prom duty and sporting events to attend. Add to that workload the task of answering students’ email.

“With things becoming more digital, our commitments outside the classroom are changing,” Jenkins said. “We use LiveGrades (an online student grading system) now and my students expect me to answer messages. I tell them if you send it after school, I’m not likely to get it.”

Teachers are rarely paid for additional hours spent outside the classroom. But they say that time isn’t optional—their students’ grades depend on it. This fact is borne out by Jenkins’ experience. As a new teacher, she couldn’t understand why her students weren’t performing well. In that class, which she acquired after another substitute left, 50-percent of the students were failing.

Jenkins thought she doing something wrong. Not knowing what else to do, she sought advice from more experienced teachers. “Jim Davis was a teacher on my floor and he helped me so much. Anytime I had a student who was just refusing to do work or acting out, instead of locking horns with that student right away, I’d go down the hall and talk to Jim and say, ‘Hey, what’s the deal with this kid? What can I do?’” Jenkins said. “A kid who would dig in his heels and do nothing for me, Jim could sit down with and five minutes later, the kid will do whatever you want because (Jim) knows the family, he’s had that kid’s older siblings, he knows the kids’ parents, he’s driven that kid to little league when nobody else would take them. That’s the advantage of a senior teacher.”

Senior teachers like Davis pass along this knowledge to new teachers, which helps successive generations of children succeed.

“I was under the impression that I was not preparing (the lesson plans) well enough. So I (put) in a ton of time after school coming up with better ways to teach, and more comprehensive assignments,” Jenkins said.

Until Davis told her “that’s probably not the problem.” Instead, he suggested she show personal interest in her students.

“Have you gone to any of the youth league games yet?” Jenkins said Davis asked her, the first time she approached him. His simple advice led her to begin attending those games. The result was nothing short of amazing.

“By the end (of the year), most (students) were passing,” she said.

Because of his seniority, Davis knew that poverty could interfere with a child’s ability to learn—something Jenkins had yet to discern. “They might not necessarily see the value of an education, yet they do eventually,” Jenkins said Davis taught her. “It’s your personal connection with the students that makes them want to try, to work, for you.”

Educators who put this knowledge into practice find it pays off. Showing personal interest in a student, his interests, and his family is crucial. That’s why so many teachers don’t mind not getting paid for putting in extra hours at a late-night sporting event. “The good news about a large staff at Preston High is,” Jenkins said, “I know some teachers go to volleyball, so I can do track . . . We represent all sports.”

Still, Jenkins admits the hectic schedule can take its toll. “If I’m overworked and have to grade papers until 8 p.m., you ask (yourself) if you can do it—or do I need to go home and sleep so I can teach again tomorrow?”

Today’s teachers understand that their workload isn’t decreasing. “We have very full classrooms, and 45 minutes (to a class). It’s really hard to have the time between managing (what we do). We’re really starved for resources,” Jenkins said.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t try to continue to do the best we can because they’re (the kids) our number one priority,” Bailey said. “But it is hard with limited resources and more (certification) requirements to meet those needs. And when we’re short staffed, that hurts as well.”

Still, Bailey’s attitude is shared by most teachers I know. By the teachers who taught me, and other teachers who taught my children. “I work with kids to help them succeed and achieve. Does it make it harder? Do I come home exhausted where I can’t take care of things (like family responsibilities)?” Bailey said it does, “but I prioritize so the kids come first.”

These same teachers know that, hour for hour, compared to what state lawmakers make, they themselves earn a pittance. West Virginia legislators earn $20,000—for 60 days of work in the statehouse. It’s the equivalent of a part-time job. And on top of a salary, those lawmakers receive $131 per diem for each of those 60 days, which adds another $7,860 to their pay.

Before becoming dean of students at East Preston Middle School in Terra Alta, Davis spent 26 years in the classroom. “I usually worked 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., sometimes longer (plus another) six to eight hours in the weekend,” he said. In addition, he worked “two weeks in the summer and two to three days (each) over Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks.”

The total? Davis estimates he worked an average “55-60 hours a week.”

Besides her time inside the classroom, Jenkins spends two hours at home each Sunday creating lesson plans. She estimates she works eight or 10 hours a week outside the classroom. Three days a week she doesn’t leave PHS until 6:30 p.m. Those are the days she grades papers.

“During cross country season, I try to attend as many as I can,” Jenkins said, “(but during those weeks) or prom week, it could be 15-20 additional hours.”

Here’s the kicker: Jenkins made more money as a food server. “My take home was higher as a waitress (and) in general, I was treated with more respect,” she said. “People appreciate that waiters are working hard for their money. It’s very rare that you ask a customer to pay and they roll their eyes and say ‘no.’ You might take a significant amount of disrespect from the students.”

This attitude can be seen everywhere. “You just have to watch a teen movie to know that public perception of teachers is not in your favor,” Jenkins said, citing the popular teen movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. “Between the legislature and popular culture, teachers seem to get a bum rap.”

Thus the problem of low morale affecting West Virginia’s teachers.

Plus, teachers here don’t even make the state minimum wage of $8.75 an hour. Not even if you take the average salary of $45,622 and divide by 55—the average number of hours several teachers calculated they work each week. This means teachers here earn roughly $8.29 an hour—to carry out a job that involves training tomorrow’s leaders. They do this in an increasingly dangerous environment, as the recent school shooting in Florida makes evident. Inside schools, where teachers turn into human shields, in a desperate attempt to protect children from bullets.

These problems, this disparity, have educators fuming. And in large part, it’s due to politicians who continue to show they do not value education, or the teachers behind it.

“We did everything we could,” Jenkins said. “They had between 10-15,000 of us on a Saturday, in the rain, standing out in front of the Capitol saying ‘do something,’ and . . . I’m no longer getting responses back from my legislators, from anyone. We’ve all emailed, called.”

Bailey said teachers feel even less appreciated, when they hear what legislators say about them behind closed doors. “Rumor has it (there were) three or four legislators who said we could rot. They were probably the same ones who last year said teachers could get a second job, (or) turn off (the) Internet.”

* * * * *

Dear Readers,

My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my memoir was released May 2016. That’s on the heels of Tales of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang, a collection of my newspaper columns from 1988-91, which came out in April 2016.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!


“We’re at Critical Mass”—West Virginia Teachers Love Their Jobs, But Say They Can’t Stay

Part 1—Day 2 of the Teachers’ Walkout

Note: I am a substitute teacher who works part-time in Monongalia and Preston counties. I’m also writing a book about the recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. This book will look at our culture and the state of failing education—and examine what contributes to such tragedies, while exploring how we can stop them.

* * *

In spite of the fact that West Virginia teachers are at the bottom of the barrel—their salaries rank 48th out of 50 states—the two-day, #55strong walkout was never about money.

Nor is it a strike. “This work action did not originate on the basis of salary. There are many issues,” Cassandra Sisler, president of the Preston County Education Association (PCEA), said. “It’s a work action because it’s only two days. Strikes are illegal.”

Whatever you call it, at the heart of the matter, the real reason West Virginia teachers stood outside being battered by yesterday’s rain is because they care about your children. After interviewing Preston County teachers, I’ve summed up five reasons every public school in the state remains closed today.

Teachers want:

1) Classrooms staffed by educators who are qualified and experienced, so students can learn the skills they need to enter the workforce and compete on the world scene;
2) Consistency and continuity, so children will feel secure, which creates a better environment in which to learn;
3) To feel like their efforts to help shape these young minds are valued, which they say will be reflected when government leaders stop PEIA (Public Employees Insurance Agency) premiums from rising, and prevent benefits from being slashed;
4) To keep those same politicians from interfering with union dues;
5) And finally, since they felt forced to abandon their classrooms to protest the broken promises of legislators, they want more money.

Let’s look at these issues one by one, beginning with the problem of keeping qualified, experienced teachers in the classroom.

The Legislature wants to “RIF or transfer older teachers, which takes the value out of experience,” Sisler, who teaches fourth grade at West Preston Elementary said. “Because . . . seniority really . . . is experience, and I can’t think of any other profession where experience is not valued.”

RIF stands for reduction in force. Currently, teachers are riffed (transferred) or laid off based on seniority. “When transfers or cutbacks happen, administrators must begin with the newest, least qualified teachers,” Sisler said. But a bill legislators are looking at this session would eliminate seniority, making older, more experienced teachers eligible for transfer, or layoffs.

The students will be the losers in this equation, she added. “This affects students by taking experience out of the classroom. Who wants to have uncertified teachers, especially in high school math or science classes, and (while) being prepared for college?”

Removing seniority will cause other problems. “This lets them take one teacher with lot of certifications, like Brian (Bailey), who might make $50,000, and get rid of him,” Jenkins, a Spanish teacher at Preston High School said. “Then they hire two teachers at $25,000 each.”

While the bill has been tabled “for now. . . we want it gone. We want to see that go (away), because it removes any job security we have,” Jenkins added. “It also gives struggling schools a way to balance the budget.”

In other words, a school that is failing financially might look at getting rid of a more experienced teacher as a solution to money woes. Which leads us to the second reason teachers walked out.

When teachers in border counties like Preston and Monongalia cross state lines for better benefits and pay, West Virginia’s children are the clear losers. Why? Because fleeing teachers removes consistency and continuity from the classroom.

It is a fact that insecurity makes for a poor learning environment, meaning insecure children struggle to learn as well as their more stable peers do. When kids are stressed about getting to know yet another new classroom teacher, this diminishes the energy they should spend on learning. The same holds true of children in classrooms where the teachers aren’t qualified to teach. In fact, many substitute teachers who enter West Virginia classrooms each day lack an educational degree, or even the required certification, to teach topics such as science or special education.

“We have 700 jobs in this state right now that are . . . unfilled, because we don’t have certified people to do them because they’re going elsewhere,” Brian Bailey, who taught special education for 21 years, said.

In part, the large number of open positions is due to not having competitive pay and now, as Sisler said, “not having great benefits, either.” There’s another problem: legislators are currently trying “to loosen the requirements for teaching qualifications, to where anybody could teach.” While this will “also impact students . . It’s almost treating us as a pseudo-profession,” she added.

Educators are among the most highly trained professionals in society. “In addition to taking classes on subject matter, we take a lot of classes on child development and how to teach,” Sisler said. “So to say that just anybody can walk into the classroom to teach, it’s really a slap in the face. Especially when you look into the field of special education, because that’s a very specialized field.”

The emotional cost of inconsistency is also taking a toll on students. Jenkins has seen this repeatedly. She, like her fellow educators, has seen classrooms with three or four teachers over the course of a year. When those teachers leave, to take better jobs elsewhere, students suffer.

“The kids really do feel abandoned by that, especially in the smaller schools when they get really close to those teachers and that teacher isn’t going to be there next year,” Jenkins said. “I’ve seen tears at the end of the school year over stuff like that and I feel terrible for the kids.”

Substitute teachers have a learning curve that’s difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. One reason is because regular classroom teachers have built-in times for long-term planning. As an example, “math teachers sit down and figure out where are we deficient and (so on, but) if you have a new sub every year, they don’t get to participate in that planning,” Jenkins said. “So even if they are qualified, they don’t necessarily have a roadmap for where they’re trying to (go).”

And the problem of teaching without a roadmap is only exacerbated when teachers are unqualified.

“If you have multiple subs in multiple areas (of academics), you have a consistency issue. That’s a problem, especially if the sub is not well versed in the content area they’re filling in for,” Bailey said.

Because regular teachers know a sub is rarely trained for a specific class he’s teaching on any given day, other teachers will step in and try to help. It’s a common occurrence for teachers to drop by classrooms before, or even during class, and offer advice or assistance to sub teachers. They also warn students, who are known for giving subs a hard time, about the need to behave.

While this is helpful, it isn’t as productive as having a qualified teacher there. “A few years ago, in one elementary school class, there was a new sub every couple of weeks. So in first grade, (where) you’re focusing on developing reading skills a lot and consistency in social behavior . . . with that kind of inconsistency, that . . . doesn’t happen,” Bailey said. “So you have all that development at that age, and it puts them behind.”

This inconsistency is one matter teachers have learned to live with—even though they don’t like it. But when it comes to paying costly health care premiums, their collective foots are squarely on the picket line.

When teachers see their PEIA premiums increase from $261 to $571 a month and their deductibles rise from $250 to $1300 a year, all while their medical benefits are slashed, they say they don’t feel valued. A state entity, PEIA manages the health care needs of all public employees—including West Virginia State Police and West Virginia Department of Highway workers.

“It’s the worst insurance around,” one state employee who is not a teacher told me.

Proposed changes by legislators have frozen PEIA for now. Still, Sisler said this doesn’t provide “a permanent fix, so that would just push things off for a year to a non-election year for our delegates.”

Just how bad is it? The above example showing premiums and deductibles is what Sisler said her family would personally pay—if state lawmakers hadn’t frozen PEIA. “So when they say (our) insurance is increasing, that’s not a clear picture as to what this means,” she added.

Currently, public employees in West Virginia have no say in selecting their health care insurer. “That’s set by the legislature and finance board,” Bailey said, “which currently has no employees on it. It’s all businessmen running PEIA. There used to be public employees on the board, but no longer.”

So the public sector is not represented, leaving teachers and other state workers without a voice.

It’s such a big problem that many Preston County teachers said they will only be satisfied once legislators “quit making us jump through all these hoops that no one else has to jump through, to keep our premium down,” Bailey said.

“They have got to fix and fund PEIA for the public employees,” retired teacher Janice Hirst said. “They cannot keep balancing the budget on the backs of the employees. Every year the premium goes up, the benefit goes down. We just can’t continue to do this.”

Hirst, who taught third grade for 42 years, said lawmakers have “been doing this my entire career.”

On top of the PEIA problem, teachers want to keep politicians from interfering with their labor unions—which they say is a real threat.

Teachers say the “payroll protection act” (SB 335) now winding its way though the Legislature is a misnomer. Instead, it will attack teacher unions like the West Virginia Educational Association (WVEA) and American Federation for Teachers (AFT-West Virginia).

“The (AFT) refers to it as the ‘payroll deception act’ because that’s more accurate,” Sisler. “What that says is that as an adult, I can’t sign a paper and have my union dues taken out of my paycheck. Currently I can sign up and my union dues are split throughout the year; the bill they have proposed has eliminated that right.”

Sisler says the idea is ridiculous. “They’re saying that they’re protecting my paycheck but I’m an adult. I can sign a 30-year mortgage but they don’t think I can sign to have my dues taken out of my paycheck.”

Unions are taking a hit, Sisler said, because lawmakers have also proposed that union presidents not receive any state retirement benefits while serving as president. “Currently, our union presidents are not paid by the state. They’re paid by the union. They receive the (same) salary they would be making (as teachers while) taking a leave of absence from their position. So they’re not making tons of money.”

Speaking of money, few teachers I interviewed even brought up the topic of wanting more. If they did, it was after airing the above laundry list of items they want fixed first.

However, when they did mention money, it was to say that legislators have failed to keep their promise to give teachers more of it. As a result, West Virginia teachers simply can’t compete—not when teachers across state lines earn twice as much.

Someone from Albert Gallatin School District stopped to talk to West Preston teachers yesterday. There, Sisler said, that school board member told a local teacher who is earning $40,000 a year here that she would make $80,000 there.

Being a border county means teachers don’t have to sell their homes or even relocate. They can just drive to Pennsylvania and Maryland for twice the salary.

“They do it all the time,” Sisler said. “So what we’re asking is for a plan to make our pay competitive. A few years ago they promised us that by 2019 the starting salary would be . . . $43,000, but nothing’s happened since that promise. They’ve been talking for years and have not taken any action to live up to their promises.”

Unlike the two-percent offered by legislators Wednesday night, Sisler said teachers want a five-percent pay increase the first year. They also want a plan for the following years of how to make West Virginia more competitive with (other) states.”

Is that unreasonable? Given what Hirst and other teachers shared, it doesn’t sound like it. Hirst’s son is also a teacher. He’s been teaching 10 years, has his master’s degree, plus 42 hours of additional certification. But, she said, “his take-home pay is so little he can’t support his family.”

State officials say the average teacher here earns $45,622. When the national average is $58,353, that amount pales in comparison. But most West Virginia teachers, very experienced, certified teachers, don’t make anywhere near $45,622.

Excluding Bailey and Hirst.

Still, even with a master’s degree, 70-plus additional graduate hours, and 42 years in the school system, Hirst only made $58,000 a year when she retired.

Bailey also makes more than the state average—and has the student loan debt to prove it. “I have a master’s degree plus 45 hours, and 24 years experience.” He makes $51,000 a year, and has “enough (hours) for a master’s plus 60, but (I’m) tapped out unless I want to go get my PhD, which financially is not worth it.”

What would a master’s give him? “About $500 more (a month),” he said. And more student debt.

Even with 10 years as a teacher, Sisler, who is “one class shy of my master’s . . . is only making $38,000.”

Making salaries more competitive would also help with the consistency problem. “We have more than enough people graduating college to fill those (700 unfilled) positions, but they see they can make more money elsewhere,” Sisler said. “Every year when I was attending college, other states would come in and they would recruit from the college.”

And new college graduates were swayed, she added, since those states offered such perks as sign-on bonuses and reimbursement for moving expenses.

Several teachers offered solutions for how to increase salaries. This year, proposed bills will put even more money into charter schools, home school vouchers, and education savings accounts. “Those things pull money from the public education funding,” Sisler said.

I covered the 1990 teacher’s strike. Not every county took part, but 47 of 55 did, and it resulted in many teachers losing their jobs. However, like Tucker County, which fired all its teachers, they were soon rehired. (UPDATE: Several teachers said this happened in Tucker County, but then-vice president of the TCEA said Tucker teachers were not fired.) Why? Because, as teachers here are fond of saying, “they can’t find anybody to take our jobs.” This constant refrain is sometimes said with a laugh, other times in anger. What’s obvious, though, is that 30 years later, with only one pay raise since then, they are tired of the status quo. Which is why, more and more, that refrain comes with a weary expression of resignation.

“It’s really reaching the point that we’re at critical mass,” Hirst said, “with particularly young educators, that they can’t continue to stay here in West Virginia, even though they love the state, and love their jobs.”

* * * * *

Dear Readers,

My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my memoir was released May 2016. That’s on the heels of Tales of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang, a collection of my newspaper columns from 1988-91, which came out in April 2016.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!


Reflections about ‘This Is Us’ on Super Bowl Sunday

I imagine the number of people watching This Is Us after tonight’s Super Bowl LII will be record breaking.

I will be among them.


In fact, I specifically hooked up by cable box today for just that reason. Not because I want to see Jack Pearson die, though. Because personally, I’d love it if we were treated to a Bobby Ewing moment and another shower scene like the one in Dallas, where we learn the entire previous season was but a bad dream.

No, I want to see tonight’s epic show because I love, love, love This Is Us. It’s the only show I’ve watched faithfully (binging a few episodes here and there as I have time) since I saw the first episode in 2016.

And because the crock-pot fire that left us all dangling at the edge of a mountaintop is one of the best cliffhangers in TV history. (Second only to the Dallas shower scene.) And I’m a sucker for cliffhangers.

I also love good writing, and This Is Us offers some of the best and most realistic writing on TV. Coming from a family where addiction has reigned supreme for decades, where alcoholism was my father’s best friend, and where losing someone you love is more the norm than not, I can relate to Jack. To Rebecca. To each of their children.

The writing is poignant and powerful, and seamless. Living in West Virginia, where we lead the nation in fatal overdoses, whether from narcotic painkillers (opioids) or Heroin(e) or fentanyl, I’m no stranger to the emotional fallout from such loss. Neither are any of my friends and neighbors.

The writers have captured all the raw emotions: in Kevin’s battle with addiction and recovery, and with Kate’s, too. As well as in Randall’s fight with perfectionism and anxiety—problems which distort the lives of so many ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics).

Equally important, though, is how the show’s writers have traced the non-linear path of the adult Pearson children’s addictions. They have shown us that losing a parent is a difficult trauma to recover from. We carry those scars the rest of our lives. The wounds may eventually fade, but they forever mark us as different. Our lives are permanently delineated: before and after.

Loss changes us. Losing someone like a father, a sister, or a daughter does this irreversibly. For the last year, I’ve followed the travails of the Pearson family as I’ve lived through some of my own. Watching Jack and Rebecca’s touching love story, as triplets Kate, Kevin and Randall work through their heartache, has helped me to cope with my own losses.

Death cannot be undone. We cannot go back in time and begin exercising, or eating nutritious food, or being more moderate in all things, so our kidneys don’t give out from diabetes, or our hearts from cardiovascular disease. We can only start with today and change our habits now, in this moment.

Neither can we undo the damage we caused someone we love once they’re gone forever. Kevin confronted that during his recovery, and suffered immensely for it. For opting not to talk to his father on the phone the night of the fire. To make amends, to apologize for sharp words and cold actions.

Most of us would do things different, if we had the chance. Wouldn’t we? We wouldn’t be so quick to anger, so easy to offend, so determined to nurse a grudge. Not if we knew the true and irrevocable cost. Our vision would be less farsighted. We would see that most perceived wrongs are not personal affronts. It isn’t, in other words, all about us.

This Is Us has also given us a storyline where multiple births, adoption, and a biracial family is the norm—not the exception. In all these things and more, it teaches us important life lessons about love and tolerance and forgiveness—whether the person in need of forgiving shares our bed, our genes, or our history. Even if the person is the same one staring back at us from our bathroom mirror.

It offers us a look at what tragedy, triumph, and heartache look like, all torn from the pages of real life. People like you and me, who experience all these things.

Like me. After no word from her in more than a year, my missing daughter emailed me one month ago. I still don’t know where she is, but it was a relief just to learn she is alive. But that is all I know, for her email told me nothing other than that.

As my own story plays out, I find solace in knowing that I’m not alone. Other people have survived worse, and they’re still standing. Just like the Pearsons will, after Jack dies.

Loss can change us—but it doesn’t have to define us.

* * * * *

Dear Readers,

My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my memoir was released May 2016. That’s on the heels of Tales of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang, a collection of my newspaper columns from 1988-91, which came out in April 2016.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!


TV Shoots: All in a Day’s Work

Television shoots aren’t what you think. I enjoy doing them, because they’re about books—and anything to do with reading is sexy, right? But they are far from glamorous.

I can’t recall how many I’ve done now—for Dateline, 48 Hours, 20/20, Dr. Phil, CrimeWatch, ID Discovery—but they are all remarkably similar. Behind the scenes I sit, cell phone off, waiting for the cameraman (so far, they have all been men) to adjust the lighting, the background, and me. My mic, clipped to my shirt collar or jacket lapel, my hair, and my glasses, which usually come off, due to the glare on my lenses.

In short, TV shoots consist of long moments of conversation punctuated by short bursts of touch-up sessions, to powder my shiny nose. Or fix my flyaway, baby-fine hair. When this happens, the producer sitting across from me (so far, all women save one) will ask for clarification about a question I’ve answered, or I will provide a detail about the story that she hasn’t yet asked me. Just in case she doesn’t.

I do my homework so I’ll be prepared, having reviewed dates and timelines for that particular story, because when you’ve written several books, you can’t risk confusing a salient detail from one book with another. This is crucial, because sometimes the producer or show’s writer isn’t prepared.

That happened in Colorado in September 2015, forcing me to repeatedly correct the TV crew. These weren’t small errors, either; they had the potential to create a liability for the network. Thank goodness that was the only time I had such a dreadful experience, and worried that my book might be misrepresented on national television. Trust me, no author wants that.

The most recent TV shoot took place in Annapolis, Maryland, near the harbor, which was filled with sailboats and larger craft. I had sat on the deck at Pusser’s Caribbean Grille the night before, eating dinner and watching the sunset. The next morning, I walked around town, sightseeing, then dressed and did my makeup. More made up than usual, since the bright lights from TV cameras would wash me out if I didn’t.

Alex Haley and family in bronze

They sent a limousine service to collect me, which was one of the highlights of my day. Not because I didn’t have to drive myself, although that was certainly nice, but because it was interesting. As I chatted with the driver, I learned that he was in Boca Raton, Florida, last year while I was working a few miles away in Pompano Beach. I also learned about his business, and why his 18-year-old son will soon triple his father’s income.

By and large, it’s the people I meet who make these TV shoots most enjoyable. A cameraman named Brian, who knew my book as well as I did. Now that’s impressive! A freelance producer who changed her career track from attorney to TV, because practicing law can be downright depressing these days. Oh, and then there’s the nonprofit she runs for disadvantaged youth, which is her first love.

U.S. Naval Academy

One of the most colorful producers I met, bruised and battered from her long days behind the scenes, worked in Los Angeles, California. There, she prepped guests and helped them ward off potential meltdowns, panic attacks or, worse yet, physical fights with each another. I later heard she gave it all up for the love of her horses, and the love of a man. Now that’s romance worthy of a TV show.

I forgot to take along a jacket for this last shoot, so while the temperatures outside hovered in the high 80s, we felt like we were inside a meat locker. The room was so frigid we stopped periodically, just to go outside and warm up. That and hot coffee kept my teeth from chattering, something that would have given the sound guy grey hair, I’m sure.

Speaking of sound, when the Dateline producers, two elegant, intelligent New York City women, came to town, they turned a vacant storefront in the Mountaineer Mall into a TV studio. But during the on-camera interview, loud pounding next door forced us to stop repeatedly, causing the producer to repeat entire questions. Every time we began speaking, so did the pounding, like a metronome in perfect time to our interview. After several minutes, the producer had to ask management to quiet things down. Otherwise, we would never have wrapped up.

The same thing happened in Annapolis. Except this time, the noise was from a hotel cart rolling by, right outside our door. And then there was the family with several boisterous children. They exited the pool to wait for the rest of their group, before leaving. Finally, we had a quiet space to continue the interview.

Being on set is fun, and can be exciting, but those times are far and few between. Most of the time, like today, I’m cleaning house, replying to emails, running errands, and tending my flower garden.

Tomorrow I renew my search for my missing daughter, and continue working to settle my late husband’s estate—the little things that highlight most of my days.

* * * * *

Dear Readers,

My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my memoir was released May 2016. That’s on the heels of Tales of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang, a collection of my newspaper columns from 1988-91, which came out in April 2016.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!


Mission Accomplished . . . 5,800 Miles Later

I crossed the California state line in San Bernardino County at 3:18 p.m. October 2, not far from where the Mojave Desert meets the San Andreas Fault. “Not far” being a relative term for a woman who had already logged more than 5,000 miles on her Toyota Prius – much of it on Route 66.

Even in spite of earthquake warnings, it felt good to be home. For anyone who doesn’t know, I’m a California girl by birth, born in a city made famous by the song my parents sang to me as a toddler. Those same parents laughed at the idea that yes, the Golden State might really be hit by an earthquake that would knock it into the ocean one day. Turns out, as I arrived in California, the fear of another earthquake loomed large. That’s okay. I survived one earthquake here in 1999. I was driving on I-580 near Pleasanton, and never knew it happened until I heard my coworkers discussing it.

Driving through the desert, my car’s thermometer told the tale: it was a balmy 99-degrees outside. I was surprised, though, at how cool it felt. No doubt the dry climate was responsible, for 99-degrees in Florida (or West Virginia) would have drenched me in sweat.

Speaking of sweating it out, during my trip west I listened to the audio version of The Girl on the Train. Can you say red herring three times really fast? It was one of the most twisted tales I’ve ever heard (or read). Nothing was as it seemed.

I haven’t visited California in a while, but since two of my four children are here, I’ve been trying to return for the last three years. So I’m long overdue. But I’ve been a little busy, writing several books during that time, so no wonder it’s taken me this long. I drove through miles and miles of desert, thinking about the direction my life has taken, and looking forward to seeing my son and daughter again, when several hours later, my car’s odometer hit 130,000 miles. Not long after I holed up for the night in a little motel in Ventura, California, one block from the beach.

The next morning, I woke up in time to see the sunrise, roll up the cuffs of my pants, and enjoy a barefoot walk on the beach, where I collected beach stones and watched seagulls at play. When I returned, a woman named Cheryl caught me snapping photos and offered to take one of me standing in front of the motel’s colorful mural. In return, I gave her a copy of one of my books and we parted friends.

After I got on the road, I drove by vineyards and fields full of crops, passing migrant farm workers along the way, before hitting Highway 1 and winding my way up California’s rocky coast. I stopped at Pismo Bay, where I watched pelicans swoop and dive, as a pod of whales swam in the open waters. Further north, I dropped by Morro Bay, where sunbathing sea lions entertained me. As my little car climbed higher and higher along the coastline, distant memories of Monterey and Carmel and Big Sur returned, and in my mind’s eye I saw my four children, running into the surf, hiking through the redwoods and sequoias, and posing for the graduation photos I snapped along the water’s edge.

This coastal drive is, hands down, the most spectacular in the country. Wild and wonderful and unspoiled, with only a few commercial businesses along the way. (And nary a restroom along one particular two-hour stretch, which left me rushing to the ladies room when I finally happened upon one.)

By 4:30 p.m. I was crossing the Bixby Bridge, a suspension structure not unlike the equally impressive New River Gorge Bridge I left behind in West Virginia. I stopped along the road at several places, my shutter snapping away, and even climbed down a narrow, rocky path that offered a closer view of the magnificent architectural feat. The fog hadn’t yet moved in, so the views were breathtaking.

After spending an hour there, I tried to make it to John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, which I last visited in 1998. Alas, I arrived too late. Plus, I had many miles to go before reaching my destination.

That didn’t happen until 10:30 p.m. – after the first near-miss of my entire trip. I was traveling about 70 miles per hour on I-680 north when a car parked on the berm pulled directly into my path. The driver had not gotten up to speed, so he was probably cruising at 30 m.p.h. Regardless, he was going far too slow to avoid a collision, so I instinctively jerked the wheel and cut across one lane, grateful when the driver on my left did the same.

Other than that, I wasn’t pulled over once, nor did I run out of gas (despite a close call). In fact, the only downer during my time on the road occurred when I realized it was probably the first and last time I would experience such a journey. For the most part, I found friendly folks throughout the country, and came away with so many new stories I’ll be hard pressed to find time to tell them all.

All in all, from North-Central West Virginia to the southern most tip of Florida and back up, and clear across the wild, wild West, I drove 5,799 miles, going from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean in 34 days. The journey of a lifetime, it’s one everyone should be so fortunate to experience.

And I loved every single minute!

* * *
My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my first memoir was released May 7. That’s on the heels of Tales of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang, a collection of my newspaper columns from 1988-91, which came out in April. Prior to those two books, Guilt by Matrimony was released last November. It’s about the murder of Aspen socialite Nancy Pfister.

My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller) and Pretty Little Killers , released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18, 2014, issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at Amazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Winding My Way through the Past, and the Petrified Forest

Last time I blogged, I promised I’d write about the drive from Flagstaff, Arizona, to Monterey, California. Well, I completely forgot about the miles between Albuquerque, New Mexico and Flagstaff. So Monterey will have to wait.

Let’s begin this leg of the journey with a story: when I was younger, I was famous for running my car out of fuel. I wound up stranded along the side of the road more times than I can count. Usually, that meant calling a friend for help. Or a husband. Not this time, though.

I had so much fun at the balloon festival that I left 90 minutes later than I planned, at 10:30 a.m. After dropping by Cracker Barrel to rent an audiobook, I stopped at Garcia’s Kitchen for brunch. There, I ordered sopapillas, which I hadn’t eaten in two decades. Not since the last time I was in Texas with family. I split open the delicious pockets of deep-fried dough and filled them full of butter and honey. And was I on Cloud Nine!

My book on tape kept me occupied, and awake at the wheel, since I’d gotten up at 3 a.m. to see the balloons. Before I even knew it, I had driven through Gallup, New Mexico, and then finally, crossed into Arizona. Where I found myself smack dab in the middle of the Painted Desert and the Petrified National Park – which carried me back to my childhood days, when my parents, my sister, Lisa, and I visited on a family vacation.

It felt like déjà vu, and when I snapped a quick photo of some pieces of petrified wood inside the shop for tourists, I was certain I had been there before. The clerk said I was actually standing in the original building, which had been much smaller. But yes, it had been there since the 1950s. How’s that for a good memory? Even as I grew more bleary eyed by the moment.

I didn’t plan to drive through the entire park, just wanted to grab a few photos and then hop back on I-40. But a nice park ranger said if I wanted to keep going, the road would lead me back to the interstate 20 miles or so later. And I’m so glad I did. It was one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring portions of my entire journey.

Having logged quite a few miles already, I really wanted to break early for the night, but every motel I passed was full. Then, as I left Winslow, I realized I had forgotten to fill my gas tank. My digital dashboard said I the tank would be dry in less than 15 miles. I hoped I would find a gas station somewhere soon, since I was already on the entrance ramp and in the midst of traffic.

I was wrong.

I even exited again, not long after, when a sign with the word “Shell” held out the promise of fuel. That sign lied – plus, I was the only soul there. So I headed west on I-40 again. By the time I drove 16 miles past the zero on my dashboard indicated the tank was “empty,” I feared each successive minute would find me stalled along the road. It wasn’t late, not quite 8 p.m., but the traffic on that stretch of lonely highway was sparse. And pitch black!

So when a road sign with the words “Twin Arrows Resort” appeared, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. Surely, where there was a resort, there would be a filling station, right? Nope. Not a single one. Instead, bone weary, I drove into the parking lot of the resort, which turned out to be a Navajo Casino. And there, the nicest young man, a valet attendant, used his walkie-talkie to contact hotel security. He wasn’t sure they would have unleaded fuel, though, or how long before security would arrive, so he suggested I grab a coffee from the café inside. Considering I’d been awake since the middle of the previous night, I did just that.

Now for a confession: I’ve been inside a couple of casinos throughout my life. But I have never even operated a slot machine, much less played blackjack or any other game. Not once. (I have, however, learned that I am a gambler. I’ve gambled twice now, on husbands. Let’s just say I didn’t hit the jackpot either time.) Instead of playing the slots, I wandered around looking at the luxury all around me, and felt compelled to take a photo of the lobby chandelier, which looked like it was created from beads of oil.

Thirty minutes later, the casino manager gave his approval and a sweet security guard poured unleaded fuel into my tank. I wasn’t even a paying casino customer, but they refused to take a nickel of my money to cover the cost. Someone has since told me that’s true western hospitality. Call me a believer.

I made it to Flagstaff after another 30 miles, and by then it was close to 10 p.m. I checked into a motel and fell into bed. All in all, I’d driven 430 miles. Leaving another 800 or 900 to go.

I hope y’all will join me next time, when we finally cross the California state line and wander up the most beautiful coastline in the country.

* * *
My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my first memoir was released May 7. That’s on the heels of Tales of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang, a collection of my newspaper columns from 1988-91, which came out in April. Prior to those two books, Guilt by Matrimony was released last November. It’s about the murder of Aspen socialite Nancy Pfister.

My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller) and Pretty Little Killers , released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18, 2014, issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at Amazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Driving Through the Wild, Wild West

Leaving Mississippi last Monday, I turned my little car west and drove across miles and miles of flat Texas land, thinking of my father and our trips south to see him each summer, before his death in April 1999. While Dale Berry’s final resting place is in our family plot somewhere up a holler at the top of a Jackson County, West Virginia, mountain, those Texas tumbleweeds I passed will be forever synonymous with the man he was.

It seemed appropriate to stop in Mesquite, Texas, for the night. After all, we used to light up the limbs of a tree by the same name, grilling many a burger and steak for family cookouts. My grown children may not remember, but nothing much beats the flavor of mesquite, when it comes to wood smoke and meat.

I got on the road quite early Tuesday morning, planning to reach Cochiti Reservation by nightfall. Twelve hours later I did, and found myself in the home of a local artist who graciously let me have the run of it for my visit. I felt like I was in a Native American art gallery, and it was exquisite.

Wednesday morning began with a big breakfast of huevos rancheros, which took me back to those authentic Mexican meals we used to eat in Texas. (And which my mother, herself the daughter of a chef and having been raised in the Southwest, often cooked for us.) Then was I in for a real treat: Lee Maynard chauffeured me to the top of mesas and all over the Jemez Mountains, turning into a tour guide as he pointed out such local sights as Cochiti Dam, the artisan town of Santa Fe, Bandelier National Park, Valles Caldera, formed by an ancient, mega volcanic eruption, and Los Alamos, not far from where the Manhattan Project was developed. And where we ate the best sushi ever.

Before I met Lee several years ago at the Annual West Virginia Writer’s Conference, he was more of a myth than a man. Once we became acquainted, it was easy to see that he was down to earth and really no different than most Appalachians. So I was happy to have him as my tour guide, and we enjoyed bouncing story ideas off each other. If there is anything a writer loves, it’s having another writer to talk literary shop with. He regaled me with accounts about the area’s colorful history and even deadpanned for the camera, striking a similar pose to one I took while holding my first book.

That wasn’t as good as it got, either. The New Mexico sunsets I captured with my iPhone were absolutely, hands down, among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. A Facebook friend wrote, telling me that the locals say, “the sky is on fire.” And so it was – every single night. If you’ve never been there, you really don’t know what you’re missing. (You can still make this year’s event, which lasts through Oct. 9.)

I didn’t plan to stay in Cochiti as long as I did, but after learning that the largest balloon festival in the world was slated to begin in a few days, I hung around. I hit the road at 4 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 1, making it to the fairgrounds just in time for the 7 a.m. mass ascension. Where 550 balloons took to flight, providing a view of the sky unlike any other.

My trusty little iPhone captured some great photos, but I only wish I’d known about the Canon booth before my morning began. The company will loan you any number of its high-powered 35mm cameras, for free, and all you need is an SD card, which lets you take away as professional a photo as you’re capable of shooting.

Hot air balloons have a longstanding legacy in my life: I read Around the World in Eighty Days as a child, rode in one as a passenger in 1988 as a green news reporter, and again a year later, at the Mountaineer Balloon Festival, and then finally, in 2002, I got married in one. In Las Vegas. So for decades, I have dreamed of seeing the Albuquerque International Balloon Feista. It was all I ever thought it would be. And more. I snapped photos of colorful silks covering the ground, of balloons in various phases of inflation, and of people watching the giant spheres as they magically floated up, up, and away. (For many more photos, check out my Facebook page and group.)

And next time I go – after experiencing this year’s festivities, how could there not be a next time? – I will be shooting with a 35mm.

Although this journey has come to its end, my last day on the road was simply amazing. I hope you’ll join me next time, as I travel from Flagstaff, Arizona, to Monterey, California. And to all points in-between.

* * *
My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my first memoir was released May 7. That’s on the heels of Tales of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang, a collection of my newspaper columns from 1988-91, which came out in April. Prior to those two books, Guilt by Matrimony was released last November. It’s about the murder of Aspen socialite Nancy Pfister.

My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller) and Pretty Little Killers , released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18, 2014, issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at Amazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!