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Memphis

Divine Intervention

Last week, I received the sad news from home that my Grandma Dot had passed away. Even though she had been in poor health for some time, it is never easy to hear news like this. It’s impossible to ever be fully prepared to learn of and internalize the news of the loss of a grandparent. I feel very blessed to have known 3 out of 4 of my grandparents for my first 27 years of life, as I realize so many aren’t able to get to know their grandparents as long as I have. I didn’t have the chance to get to know Grandma Dot as well as my Smith grandparents, but I am very happy for the times we had together here on earth. I was able to visit her in the hospital while I was home for the holidays last month, and I’m so glad we had this time together.

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Dot was born and raised in Tippah County, Mississippi, but also lived in California and Texas at different points in her life. She was a nurse during her professional life, spending her time caring for other people. I will always remember her as kind-hearted, good-humored, and thoughtful. She was the biggest Ole Miss fan I ever knew and will probably ever meet. In fact, one of the last gifts she ever received was a personalized autographed football from Coach Hugh Freeze. She was very proud of it. Grandma Dot was a special lady.

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After I heard the news, I found myself numb from shock, but also kicking into gear to organize my travel back to Mississippi for the services, and to read ahead and tie up loose ends at school before heading out of town. On Friday morning, I left my apartment at sunrise heading to Newark airport. My flight would leave at 10am to Atlanta, and then I would connect to Memphis after a 45 minute layover.

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About 10 minutes before we were set to board, the dreaded announcement came over the intercom—“Delta flight 2343 to Atlanta has been delayed indefinitely due to mechanical problems. We don’t have an estimated new departure time, but when we do, we will let you know.” As we all let out a collective groan, the gate attendant added (for good measure), “It’s not looking good, folks. Sorry. We will try to rebook everyone as soon as possible.”

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The flight to Atlanta was packed full, and 50 or so people immediately swarmed up to the gate counter to get a place in line for rebooking. As my layover was so short, I already knew that I, too, would need to rebook. However, I just didn’t have the emotional energy to push my way through this frenzied crowd, so I sat back in my seat and decided to watch, at least for a minute. Through the hullabaloo, I heard (or imagined I heard) an announcement—“Elizabeth Smith, please report to Gate 44.”

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I didn’t think anything of this. First of all, I have never, ever been paged in an airport, and I fly pretty frequently. And there was no reason I would be being paged right now. Secondly, I feel like Elizabeth Smith is a pretty common name. (Some people are shocked to find out my name is actually Elizabeth Grace, and I just go by Gracie as a type of formalized nickname, I guess. It gets confusing!) Newark is a big airport—I was sure there was another Elizabeth Smith about to miss her flight.

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The shouting, shuffling, and complaining continued at the Atlanta-bound gate, and I stayed seated, watching it all unfold. I was about to call Delta’s customer service line to try to rebook to arrive at a decent hour, when I heard it again. “Elizabeth Smith, please report to Gate 44.”

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Why not? I thought.

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I walked over. “Hi, I am Elizabeth Smith, but probably not who you’re looking for?” I started.

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Without missing a beat, the gate attendant looked directly at me and said, “You’re flying to Memphis, right?”

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“Yeah, I am!” I said, surprised. I looked over my shoulder at the 50 other people still waiting to rebook at the Atlanta gate just a few feet away. I was fortunate to be singled out in the best way possible.

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“Great,” she said. “I’ve already rebooked you on this flight through Cincinnati that will still get you to Memphis this afternoon. We’re about to board now.”

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As someone who has been stranded overnight and/or had to cancel weekend trips due to airline failures on multiple occasions, I was truly surprised and deeply grateful. “Wow, that’s amazing! Thank you so much!”

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She smiled as she printed my new boarding passes.

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Then, half-jokingly, I said, “You’re like my guardian angel!”

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As soon as the words left my mouth, goosebumps covered my arm and my hairs stood on end. I thought of my Grandma Dot. Tears came to my eyes.

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Maybe she wasn’t always physically or logistically able to take care of me here on earth as much as she may have wanted to, but this was Grandma Dot’s way of looking out for me now. I had arrived at the point of emotional exhaustion—the point where you need a grandmother’s hug, and maybe some fresh-baked cookies. And, in a different way, that’s exactly what I got there in the Delta terminal. I felt taken care of and looked after in that moment, and I felt my grandmother’s love. I laughed as I pictured her pulling some strings for me up at the pearly gates, intent on making sure I could arrive and reconnect with our family with the least amount of frustration and exhaustion possible.

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Grandma Dot, thank you. I love you. I hope you are at peace and enjoying good health, and are reunited with many loved ones in a place of joy and happiness. Hotty Toddy.

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A Race to the Top, or to the Bottom Line? My Concerns with President-Elect Trump’s Secretary of Education Appointment

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I have to admit, President-elect Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos to the Secretary of Education post was his first that didn’t make my jaw drop in disbelief instantly. I decided to keep an open mind and research her background before making up my mind, even as I immediately started seeing pro-DeVos and anti-DeVos posts in my Facebook “echo chamber.” After all, as President Obama said, if President-elect Trump succeeds, our country succeeds. So, between studying for finals and seeing friends and catching up with family over the last few days, I began my research…

She is a big Republican donor with 0 experience in a public school or in education period. Still trying to keep an open mind, I kept researching…

President-elect Trump said that Ms. DeVos will work to “reform the U.S. education system and break the bureaucracy that is holding our children back so that we can deliver world-class education and school choice to all families.” I am all for this, but what does this mean, exactly?

Since my time in Teach For America, I have had a love-hate relationship with charter schools. During my time in TFA, I had the privilege of teaching at one of the oldest public high schools in Memphis (Melrose High School in Orange Mound). I also had several friends who taught in charter schools—some of which were were providing great learning environments and opportunities for their students, and others which were poorly run and were failing at achieving this vision. Charter schools are unique animals—they are publicly-funded, privately-managed schools that are free from the directives and oversight of the local school district. Many times, this independence and freedom equates to a greater latitude for visionary school leaders to run schools that outperform their public counterparts (shout out to Soulsville Charter School, Libertas Academy, Freedom Prep Memphis,  Memphis Grizzlies Prep, Veritas Memphis, and the many other amazing charter schools) . Other times, this independence and freedom leads to schools that perform at a lower rate of achievement than their public counterparts, with minimal course-correction directives from the district. screen-shot-2016-11-25-at-9-33-32-pm

While in TFA, and since then, I have bristled at the idea that charter schools are the end-all, be-all solution to the grave issue of education inequity in our country. Partially because I saw what some of my friends saw and dealt with at poorly run charter schools, and partially because I was teaching at a public school whose students deserved the very best in funding and policy from our government as well.

Ms. DeVos is a proponent of charter schools as well as “school choice” via vouchers. What is wrong with giving vouchers to families who may not be able to afford private school tuition to be able to send their children to higher performing private schools in the area? Here’s what’s wrong—no matter how much “school choice” our government finances, there will be students left behind in increasingly failing public schools because of this measure. Money will go to vouchers instead of improving our existing public schools. Not every student will get a voucher, and even if many do, our public schools, and the students remaining there, will be left even farther behind, and the inequity will grow even deeper and more serious. We can’t afford to go down this path for 4 years—children’s livelihoods and opportunities are at stake.

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On an end-of-semester bowling field trip with some Honors Students!

It is true that in the 8 years of President Obama’s leadership, our country has not solved this grave issue of educational inequity. I was able to teach during a time when Tennessee was one of President Obama’s Race to the Top recipients, which saw mixed results—positive outcomes (some increased student achievement) as well as negative outcomes (increased bureaucracy and mandates on over-worked teachers). All-in-all, I thought it was a step in the right direction for the federal government, even if it didn’t solve all the many, complicated issues of educational inequity overnight. And as much as I love TFA and its vision as an organization to strive for the realization that “one day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education,” I hope and pray, and will continue to work toward, making sure TFA goes out of business.

What do I mean? I mean I don’t think our country should need TFA— we need to continue to address improving our public schools ASAP to meet TFA’s vision, which I think encompasses what we all want for all of our children as Americans. [I personally think the first steps towards this are 1) addressing issues of systemic poverty that directly affect low-income students (healthcare, access to food, safe neighborhoods, economic opportunities for families) 2) raising teacher pay and increasing benefits for teachers through classroom resources and professional development, 3) adopting higher national standards for curriculum (Common Core or an improved curriculum), and 4) limiting class sizes and/or decreasing the teacher/student ratio in every classroom (I regularly had 30+ students in a classroom all by myself, and all of these students were on various learning levels.) But that’s for another blog…]

For today, I hope Ms. DeVos focuses on improving our current public schools instead of trying to throw money at the problem through vouchers and increasing the presence of charter schools, some of which may work but others of which will be free to fail at their leisure because of a lack of local school district oversight, but at deep costs to their students. We should not take our focus off improving the educational outcomes and life trajectories for our current and future public school students.

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Touched Down in the Land of the Delta Blues: My Memphis Highlights

Memphis is second to none when it comes to boasting a rich tradition in music, culture, and history. The city, immortalized by Marc Cohn’s classic song “Walking in Memphis” (yes, I love this song and I’m not ashamed!), is probably most famous in pop culture for being the home base for musicians such as B.B. King, Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Justin Timberlake. I love Memphis because it never pretends to be something it’s not—it’s a city as authentic as the sounds that come from it. Although I moved away a few years ago, Memphis still feels like home to me, and the two years I spent there teaching high school were life-changing. One plus of my family’s recent move from Alabama to Tupelo, MS, is that I can visit Memphis even more frequently (Tupelo is an hour from Memphis!). Below, I’ve listed some of my favorite Memphis highlights.426709_10200402062906670_1149355756_n

  1. 398936_3509378325686_890617298_nVisit the Orange Mound neighborhood. Located south of Southern Avenue and east of Lamar Avenue, Orange Mound is the oldest community in the south founded by African Americans, and the second largest in US history (behind Harlem in NYC).
    While the neighborhood has had its challenges with poverty and crime, the tradition and strength of community is tremendously strong. As a teacher at Melrose (Orange Mound’s only high school) for two years, I was honored to get to know and work with so many of the teachers and community members who make Melrose and Orange Mound so special. Melrose has produced a number of famed athletes, such as Olympian Rochelle Stevens and basketball legend Larry Finch, as well as entrepreneurs such as the Neely family and academics such as Alvin Crawford, an internationally recognized expert in childhood bone disease and Lawrence Madlock, medical director at the UT Medical Center. I recommend a visit to the old Melrose High School, which is designated as a historic landmark. If you are around on a Friday night, nothing beats a Melrose Golden Wildcats home football game! A great documentary about Orange Mound came out a few years ago, and you can watch it here.
  2. Go for a run through Tom Lee Park along the Mississippi River. The views of the city and the river are stunning. In particular, the view going downhill from Riverside Drive at the south of the park is my favorite! You will be treated to this view if you run in the St. Jude marathon or half-marathon, as it’s included in the route. Apart from this hill, the route is relatively flat, so it’s good for your knees! Be sure to notice the statue that honors Tom Lee, the river worker who saved 32 passengers when their steamboat sunk in the river in 1925.

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    I was so excited to round this corner while running the St. Jude’s marathon last December–the view is much better in person!
  3. Spend a night on Beale Street. Whatever your taste in music is, Beale Street has it and does it well. That being said, the blues rule here. My favorite blues spot on Beale Street is the Rum Boogie Café’s Blues Hall. If clubbing is more your style, Club 152 offers the closest thing to a “club” on Beale, and it’s a lot of fun! Visit Silky O’Sullivan’s for dueling pianos, a “beer drinking goat,” and an outdoor band, and visit one of a few karaoke bars along Beale if you’re inspired to start performing on your own. Drinks are cheap, and you’re allowed to carry your drink in a plastic container outside along the street (visit Wet Willie’s if you want a to-go slushie with a punch!)
  4. 577219_3423660262788_1045711115_nCheer on the Grizzlies at FedEx Forum. I really think the Grizzlies are a microcosm of the city itself. The mottos “Memphis v. Errbody” and “Grit and Grind” personify both the Grizzlies and the city of Memphis—both are often considered underdogs, yet both win, even if the process of winning is not always pretty. The Memphis community really gets behind the Grizzlies, and this is beyond evident when you attend a game at the Forum. The atmosphere at a Memphis Grizzlies game is electric! No offense to the NY Knicks or Nets, but those game atmospheres do not hold a candle to the atmosphere at a Grizzlies game! In fact, whenever I’ve attended a Grizzlies game since moving to NYC, it is always easy to spot the other Grizzlies fans, as we are always the most excited, cheering the loudest, and decked out in Grizzlies blue! The Grizzlies have been crushing it recently, and have made the playoffs each year for the past 5 years. Here’s hoping that the trend continues.
  5. Visit the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum is located at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. The museum has preserved his room exactly as it was that day, which was the day after his prophetic “Mountaintop” speech. It is incredibly moving to not only view this room as he lived in it during his last few minutes on Earth, but to learn about the long history of the American Civil Rights movement, as well as the ongoing struggle (you can read here about how Memphis educators are succeeding in closing the achievement gap). The museum has a special focus on the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, which brought Dr. King to the city in 1968. I have visited the museum twice, but not since it was renovated in 2013. The museum is a must-visit for any first-time visit to Memphis.
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    Raiford’s will turn anyone into a disco queen!

    Get into the music. Memphis is a music lover’s mecca. Of course, there’s Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. Several of his wild outfits, cars, and guitars are on display, as well as his platinum and gold records. My favorite is the jungle room—you just have to see it to believe it! I also highly recommend the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which has a replica of the dance floor used on Soul Train! You can also visit Sun Studio, where B.B. King, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley all recorded hits. To actually live the music of Memphis for yourself outside of a museum, you have to go to Paula & Raiford’s disco on Second Street (just off Beale). The club is a true disco, where you can dance the night away on a light-up dance floor, relax on red leather sofas, or even play on a drum set. Mr. Raiford will be in a sequined cloak spinning all of the best 80’s and 90’s songs!31919_4870696197782_1000994998_n

  7. Visit the Peabody ducks. An esteemed Memphis tradition, the feathered residents of the swank Peabody Hotel march to and from their day job (swimming in the lobby fountain) each day at 11am and 5pm, respectively. The march is always closely monitored by the honorable Duckmaster. If you happen to miss the ducks’ march, you can visit their sweet penthouse home on the roof. I also recommend having a cocktail in the lobby and enjoying the people (and duck!) watching.

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    The ducks are preparing for their 5pm exit in front of the crowd!

8. Eat some BBQ! It probably goes without even mentioning, but Memphis has the best BBQ there is. Period. My personal favorites are Central BBQ (both on Central Ave and downtown), the BBQ Shop on Madison, and Interstate BBQ. If you’re flying through the Memphis airport, you have to stop by the Interstate BBQ shop in Terminal B, even if it’s not lunch or dinnertime (they serve amazing Southern-style breakfast biscuits and delicious coffee!)  If you’re vegetarian, please disregard…but I guarantee you will find some delicious meat-free “fixins” to indulge in at any of these places!

This is just a short list of the things I find most special about Memphis. There really is so much more that makes this city so amazing. Do you have any other recommendations?

You’re the Only Ten I See: Memphis vs. Nashville

Separated by 200 miles of farmland, rolling hills, and interstate, the cities of Memphis and Nashville coexist as the two largest cities in the state of Tennessee. Like rival siblings, the two cities have stark differences in character and appearance, yet won’t admit to just how similar they really are. Both seem to always vie for the spotlight as Tennessee’s best travel destination. I spent 4 years living in Nashville during my undergraduate years at Vanderbilt, and then 2 years living in Memphis immediately following graduation while working with Teach For America. As a result, friends and family often ask me, “Which city did you like the best—Nashville or Memphis?”

Nashville and Memphis, a battle for the ages.   

What a tricky question! Both cities have amazing and unique experiences to offer, and I loved my time in both cities. Nashville is glitz and glamour—they don’t call it “Nashvegas” and “Cashville” for nothing. Memphis, on the other hand, is grit and grind in a way that is just as inviting, if not more so, than Nashville. Nashville is about flashing lights advertising platinum-selling legendary artists at sold-out arenas as well as up-and-coming artists playing cover on Broadway. Memphis is about the sign (that’s maybe missing a few lights…) on the street corner promising you the best live blues music you’ve ever heard, and then following through on that promise. Nashville has Broadway, featuring a bar with a mechanical bull; Memphis has Beale Street, featuring a bar with a “beer drinking” goat. Nashville will get your adrenaline pumping and your boots stomping; Memphis will invite you to kick back and drift along with the rhythm of the blues.

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A night out on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee
Above: A random night at “Mount Richmore,” the former home of John Rich from Big & Rich. He had an awesome rooftop pool! This evening was a very “Nashvegas”-like experience.

So when I answer my friends and family, I tell them that there were things about both cities I absolutely loved while living there, and it is difficult to compare two cities (although in the same state) with such different vibes. I then conclude that I am more #TeamMemphis than #TeamNashville, for the simple reason that my experience teaching high school in Memphis connected me to the city and the people there in ways that I never felt connected in Nashville. That being said, please visit both cities if you can!

My next few posts will highlight some of my favorite things to do, see, eat, and drink in each city. In the meantime, let the battle continue…Nashville vs. Memphis! I think they both win.

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