#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.

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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.”

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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!

~Daleen

A Wheelchair for John

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — One month later, John has a new set of wheels. The motorized wheelchair, a gift from a local woman who knows exactly how essential such a chair is, has given John back his freedom.

I met John four weeks ago on a snowy Sunday, at the intersection of Route 119 and the Exit 1 off-ramp for Interstate 68. Mine was the second car to stop at the traffic light, which had turned red. That position placed me right beside a man in a wheelchair, asking for donations. When I saw he had a disability—one which could cow even the strongest of individuals—my heart went out to him.

John, you see, has no legs, and only one arm. But he has a smile that will melt your heart, and not one ounce of self-pity.

I couldn’t drive away without giving him something. Without any cash, I offered him the only thing in my car worth having: a leftover cinnamon roll from a nearby Cinnabon. We introduced ourselves and John gratefully accepted my meager gift. But as I reached out the window to hand him the boxed dessert, John dropped it. I watched as he tried using his club hand to pick it up, insisting he could do it.

He couldn’t. Torn between heartbreak and not wanting him to feel helpless, I finally opened my car door. Before I could get out, though, the driver in front of me ran toward us. He picked up the box, and then handed John some cash.

During that brief minute or two, I asked John if he received help from our local social services. That’s how I learned he needed a new wheelchair. His electric chair broke, and he was using a manual one that he could barely maneuver on his own.

When the light turned green I drove away, in my warm, dry car. Wearing nice clothes, my belly full. All I could think of was how cold and snowy it was, how light John’s clothing was, and how much he struggled to accomplish such a simple task. A task that, for most of us, would be as mindless as taking our next breath.

I wanted to reach out to other people, to tell them about John’s plight. Before I even changed out of my dress clothes, I posted John’s story on Facebook. “So, since this is supposed to be the season for giving, if you can, please do. After all, it’s Sunday. And it’s really cold outside,” I posted.

Within minutes, several people commented. They wanted to know if he was homeless. Another woman from Clarksburg, about 45 minutes away, was ready to drive here with a wheelchair for John. The only problem was, it was a manual chair, too. By the time we figured that out, I had driven back to the intersection, where I learned that John wasn’t homeless. In fact, he just obtained housing. I took his phone number and promised to help him find a working electric wheelchair.

That happened today, when Tammy Belldina from Rainbow Tire, over in Preston County, finally met John, when she gave him his “new” electric chair. This chair, however, isn’t just another mode of transportation. It’s John’s legs.

Tammy and I, fellow Prestonians, have been working together for weeks now, trying to make this happen. Tammy has a heart as big as Texas. Which is why she insisted on buying a new $200 battery for the chair—so John wouldn’t have to. (Most of us wouldn’t know how expensive such equipment is; Tammy told me these chairs can cost $5,000 or more.)

Along the way, we’ve both gotten to John better. I learned that he knows how to, and can even drive, a vehicle. In the past, he’s held down various jobs. One year ago, though, his other arm was amputated due to blood clots—the same thing that happened to both his legs. I can’t go into details, but John has what seems like a good medical malpractice case, and I hope we can find a good attorney for him.

Meanwhile, Tammy suggested we begin a fundraiser of sorts. That fundraiser begins right now. John supports his family of three (including his daughter) on less money per month than I live on myself. We’re asking you to send him checks or even gift cards that will help him purchase some essentials for his family.

Tammy has a special request. “Let’s make sure that little girl gets some Christmas presents, and John has some warm clothes to wear,” she said.

I’m personally asking you to help John because, for the last month, he’s helped me. He’s given me a reason to focus on someone other than myself and my own problems. Problems that include the death of a spouse and a lost daughter. After a year away from my typewriter, I’m 5,000 words into the trilogy that began with Sister of Silence.

Jesus Christ was right: there is more happiness in giving than there is in receiving. Helping John has helped me. Plus, as Steve Maraboli says, “a kind gesture can reach a wound that only compassion can heal.” Who knew, that in giving a stranger some leftover food, I would be the one who was healed?

If you can spare a few dollars to help, I will be indebted to you. Please send any donations to: “Daleen Berry, in care of Friends of John,” Citizens Bank, 265 High Street, Morgantown, WV 26508. I will personally see that John gets every penny, and acknowledges your gift.

After all, ‘tis the season.

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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!

~Daleen

Day 32: Stopping to Smell the Roses

I’m nearing the end of my long, literary journey, having driven more than 2,500 miles to date, from West Virginia to Arizona, and complete strangers have turned into new friends, as I stop and smell the roses – both literally and figuratively. The roses, you see, are the people I meet along the way. Each one unique, with his own fragrance or other gift of beauty.

Like Mandy (not her real name), a single mother of three who did what I did when her children were in danger: she took them and ran. But to do this, Mandy had to give up an excellent job. Although she’s since found another one in Pascagoula, Mississippi, her situation isn’t ideal. And her take-home pay isn’t enough to live on. So she and her brood currently live in a shelter. Not ideal circumstances. Not by a long shot. This woman is not only lovely inside and out, she is kind and smart and clearly a good parent. I met her when I stopped for the night in Mississippi. Even though she was at work, she didn’t have a babysitter so her children were with her. Undeterred and determined to provide for them, she went about her duties while they looked after themselves, until the middle child came up and politely interrupted us.

“I need a time out,” he said, after admitting what he’d done to one of his siblings.

I believe you can tell a large measure about a parent by her child, and that blew me away. How many children honestly admit their mistakes – and ask for discipline? I observed Mandy’s kids while they were there and found them to be quiet, well-behaved and very respectful. Clearly their mother has done a remarkable job. In fact, other guests were enjoying their company, too. Immensely.

But I was taken back in time to 1988, when I covered my first homeless story. Then, a woman and her daughter were living in the mother’s car, after also escaping an abusive relationship. It dawned on me then how dangerous it is for homeless children, whose parents may have to leave them inside a vehicle while they go on job interviews, or who are trapped inside a shelter and often targeted by homeless predators. Those dangers are above and beyond the daily psychological and emotional stressors, of not having your own home to go to. Of not having a routine, or a safe place where you can simply be yourself.

That first story taught me something, so since then I’ve given away my leftover (and utterly too large) restaurant portions to the homeless, and tried to help them in other ways. I know that the biggest percentage of homeless people are themselves either runaways, military vets, or mentally ill. Some of these folks also have addiction issues, often self-medicating to try and relieve their pain. This is yet another danger for the children exposed to these problems.

I’ve also been homeless myself, for a couple of brief moments in my life, but never to the point where I had to rely on a public agency for temporary housing. I was fortunate, because friends and family came to my aid. Mandy? Not so much. Like many women who protect their children when abuse comes into play, her family turned its back on her. Thought she was crazy to go to such lengths to keep her little ones safe.

There is a very long waiting list for Section 8 housing, which is all Mandy can afford, so I’d like to ask for anyone reading this who knows someone in the Pasmagoula area to reach out and help me find Mandy and her children a nice, safe home. So they don’t have to continue living in a shelter, which is not conducive to safety or good health – especially for little ones. You can contact me directly, using Facebook or Twitter or my contact info.

I believe people naturally want to help others. They just have to know when a need exists, and what they can do to help. I believe no one wants to let a hard-working mother like Mandy and her three little ones live in a shelter, so let’s help them.

We can do this!

Note: The photos accompanying this blog were taken on the road, at coffee shops or rest stops, or simply (and safely) while in traffic. Next time, I’ll share some of the stories – and more beautiful scenery, captured with my iPhone – during my visit to the Cochiti Reservation and Santa Fe, New Mexico. If you’d like to guess where I’m going next, and why, I’m hosting a contest at my Facebook group page.

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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!

I’m White, But I Wish I Had Been #momoftheyear

I am a white woman but I’ve wished more times than I can count that I had been #momoftheyear. That’s because Toya Graham, who can now add that hashtag to her bio—and my black female friends—disciplined their children in such a way that their offspring knew better than to misbehave. Or else. It wasn’t that their mamas meted out abuse; it was just that those black women didn’t take any sass from their kids. Had their children even tried, they would have found themselves on the receiving end of a smack across the mouth, their bare bottom bent over a knee, facing a whipping with a belt.

So why, I’ve asked myself, did I get so upset when I saw video footage of the now famous Baltimore mom smacking and swearing at her teenage son, Michael Singleton, earlier this week? I posted on Facebook that Michael probably wouldn’t have been involved in the riot if not for the violence he surely learned at home. Violence I thought Graham probably dished out even worse in private. But in the days since I posted that, and after seeing Graham’s interview on national TV, I’ve given it a lot of thought—and realize I was wrong.

It’s not something I would have done—but then, maybe I never would have needed to: my only son is white. So we never had “the talk,” that preventative, protective chat that black parents all around this country recite to their teenage sons when they come of age. I’m sure Toya and Michael had the talk years ago because for her, the fear that her black son could be killed by a police officer is very real. And I certainly have no idea what that fear feels like.

It’s a moot point whether Graham “lost it,” as she says, because she was afraid Michael would be killed for throwing a brick at a police officer, or because he could become a casualty at the hands of a fellow rioter. What is important is how she acted like a mother bear when she saw her son in harm’s way. The fact that he put himself there is irrelevant.

Or is it? Graham warned Michael not to get involved in the riot. Many mothers—white and black—commented on my Facebook thread, saying if their child disobeyed their orders to stay away from a riot, they would have done the same thing she did.

Their comments made me question my own views, and the way Toya parented her son in public. They took me back to 1990, shortly after I fled my abusive white husband. One day I was so frustrated by the fact that he continued to manipulate my children, just as he kept psychologically battering me, that I inflicted my own pain on my daughter, Jocelyn. She was nine, and threw such a fit that I took a switch to her backside. I left bruises. It is the only time I ever remember losing control like that.

My own actions that day hindered my ability to use corporal punishment on my children forever after. I tried to occasionally, but only if I knew I wasn’t angry, so I wouldn’t repeat that terrible mistake of 1990. But mostly I used time-outs, or made them write sentences, or took away their TV-watching privileges. By the time their father decided he wanted to try to be a real dad and sued me for custody, he had been sabotaging my own parenting for years. (His parenting experiment failed miserably, since Child Protective Services intervened in 1999 when he and his second wife abused two of my daughters so badly they were removed from his home.)

You see, long before my children became teenagers, the man who had punched holes in our walls and trashed our furniture told them if I tried to discipline them, they could call 911 for help. In so doing, he essentially handicapped me as a mother, and prevented me from disciplining them—all while he continued terrorizing them during their weekend visits to his home.

However, if I had been a black woman, I wouldn’t have let his attempts to undermine my parenting stop me from doing what I knew was best for my children—and I feel certain they would respect me more today, as a result.

Graham’s actions have certainly earned her respect from many other people, that’s for sure. Chuck Yocum, a Baltimore area parent and educator, was watching the riots unfold on TV not far from his home when he wondered where all the parents were.

“Then, there she was, doing what every parent watching said they’d do,” Yocum said. “She represented hope. Hope that other parents might do the same thing yes, but in a larger sense, hope that Baltimore may not be totally lost after all. There are still parents who care about their kids.”

Graham’s desire to save her son comes at a time when people are saying this country’s race riots are starting all over again. When, depending on what neighborhood you’re in, it’s dangerous to be a black man. Or a white cop. When police have become cynical about black men with rap sheets, and when they arrest first and ask questions later—as apparently happened with Freddie Gray.

I worked with law enforcement from 1991-96, writing police journals for the West Virginia Deputy Sheriff’s Association and the West Virginia Fraternal Order of Police. Most of the men and women I rubbed shoulders with were white. Most of them—but not all—were good officers, who would never intentionally harm anyone simply because of his race. Like my friend K.C. Bohrer, an officer whose conduct has always been unimpeachable and who can’t forget the murder of a West Virginia teenager. Who would like nothing more than to see that girl get justice, even though she’s been dead for more than thirty years.

Some of the officers I know have also worked in big cities where they see blacks killing blacks, and where they know that many black youth have no hope. Most of these (predominantly white) officers are just as saddened by that as are the parents of these black teens.

Whenever I think about the growing divide between white and black, I remember my friend Paul. He was black. When I was twelve, he gave me my first kiss. Two years my senior, Paul was going places. He was intelligent, handsome, and—even more important—he was from a law-abiding family who reared their black sons to treat women with kindness and respect. Who instilled in those sons a healthy fear of displeasing not only their parents but other authority figures.

Paul and his brothers were the kind of boys who grew into men who would never dream of calling me anything other than “Ms. Berry,” because they were so well trained. I know that, because every so often I gently chide them to use my first name. “My mama would throw a fit if I did,” they say, laughing.

And still, in spite of the stellar parental training my friend Paul received at home, something went wrong.

As childhood crushes go, ours lasted for all of a minute. But I never forgot him and I still remember the shock, anger and heartbreak I felt for Paul and his family, when I learned he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, when he witnessed a felony that landed him in jail after being charged as an accessory to a deadly crime.

I don’t know how or why Paul ended up rubbing shoulders with thugs, but while he was doing that, I was working with the cops. And every April my job took me to Washington, D.C., for National Police Week, where I interacted with dozens of officers and mingled with hundreds more.

That’s how I came to be in Alexandria, Virginia, one warm spring evening in 1994. As I hurried along the sidewalk to meet my friend Ruth, a young widow whose Hispanic husband was slain in the line of duty, I saw three older black teens coming toward me. They walked side by side, and showed no sign of moving over. So I moved, but apparently not enough. The teenager closest to me brushed my shoulder, jarring me. I kept walking. I didn’t look back.

That moment is etched in my memory to this day, because of what I saw in that boy’s eyes: it was anger. Or hate. Most likely because he saw only a white woman, and nothing else. Probably because he believed I was affluent, since Alexandria is home to the wealthy. Possibly because he had no hope of being able to ever eat at the restaurant where I was going to dine.

What he couldn’t know is that without the FOP picking up my tab, I couldn’t have paid for the gas to drive to D.C., much less a dinner there. As a single mother of four children, we had only recently given up our food stamps. And at that time my children still qualified for a medical card. That black teen could not have known this. The only thing he knew for sure was that I was white. In his mind, my skin color gave me privileges he would never have. It identified me as the enemy, along with the people who had enslaved his people. That was enough to make him angry.

The next morning at breakfast I told an officer I was having breakfast with what had happened, asking what it meant. “It’s a good thing you kept walking and didn’t make a fuss,” he said, and then implied I could have been killed. “Here in D.C., black boys know they have nothing to live for, that they’re most likely going to be dead by the time they reach eighteen.” At the time, he was talking about gangs.

Twenty years later, his words still haunt me. That sole conversation with a white police officer, borne from a single chilling encounter with three black teenagers, comes back to me every time I hear about another black teen being killed—whether his death came at the hands of a police officer or a gang banger.

Those words returned to me again yesterday, after reading them online. Except this time they were spoken by a black woman. “These kids have no hope,” Erica Garner said on CNN. (Garner is the daughter of Eric Garner, a New York man who died while in police custody.)

I’m a white woman and I agree: many blacks have no hope. They live in ghettos and other poor neighborhoods, like those in Baltimore, Md., and West Oakland, Calif., places where food deserts thrive. A food desert means the people of color living there have virtually no access to healthy food—but with more than 40 liquor stores in the West Oakland area, they do have access to alcohol and tobacco. And processed or junk food. This is just as true for some areas of Baltimore.

I lived in Oakland in 2009, where I gained an eye-opening education from my daughter, Jocelyn, who told me how hard it is for people of color to buy good food. That’s because there are few, if any, real grocery stores in many poor neighborhoods. In West Oakland, the average income is $21,124 per year, and 32-percent of the residents live below the poverty level. The lack of access to good food leads to other problems, such as health and behavioral issues. I learned this in my own home, when my children were preschool age or younger. They had never eaten sugar—until both sets of grandparents gave it to them. I noticed a direct correlation between the sugar-sweetened cereal my mother fed them and their behavior. I quickly learned to limit their sugar intake, which is one reason we rarely had soda pop or processed sweets in our home.

Years later, my daughter Jocelyn has made it her mission to help disadvantaged black families around the country, doing so in New Orleans (she sold her car and relocated to help Hurricane Katrina victims), Chicago (where she began a recycling program that’s still in place several years later), and Pittsburgh (where she discovered that many blacks cannot afford to buy the monthly bus passes necessary to gain a good education or employment), taught me why black youth are so hopeless. Much of it has nothing to do with the police but rather, with the lack of access to basic necessities that white people like me take for granted. Or like I used to—before working in and walking the streets nearby West Oakland.

Whether it’s danger from not having good food or from jaded, uncaring police officers, Toya Graham didn’t want her son to end up like my friend Paul—or worse. And she had the backbone to follow through, giving her son Michael a badly needed dose of tough love. It’s something I now believe many of us white mothers can learn from.

* * *
I have four books, and am currently writing my fifth, Guilt by Matrimony, 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, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at BenBella Books, Nellie Bly Books, 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!

~Daleen

Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”