50 years

Fifty years ago today, on June 14, 1970, my parents drove me onto the campus of Wesleyan College in Macon, GA, and left me there for eight weeks. I was one of 400 students selected for the seventh Governor’s Honors Program, and I was attending as an art major.

It changed my life, as we say in the business.

As is well documented elsewhere on this blog, GHP was a major part of my life from that day forward, culminating in my being hired as director for the program in 2011. Alas, in 2013, after the 50th summer, Governor Nathan Deal pulled the program out of the Dept. of Education into his own Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, and I was retired.

In one of the great ironies of my life, even if I were still the director I would not be able to stand in front of this year’s students and welcome them with the words, “Fifty years ago, I sat where you are sitting,” because like everything else GHP has been canceled for this year.

So here’s my speech.

Nearly 60 years ago, a woman named Margaret O. Bynum began pushing for more to be done for Georgia’s gifted and talented students. She spearheaded not only gifted education in schools and in colleges of education, she initiated, implemented, and developed what the Official Georgia Code describes as “an honors program for students in the public and private high schools of this state and for resident students who attend a home school program who have manifested exceptional abilities or unique potentials or who have made exceptional academic achievements.”

And so in the summer of 1964, 402 students from all over Georgia came to the campus of Wesleyan College in Macon, GA, and Margaret O. Bynum became the first ever Governor’s Honors Program director.


[boilerplate welcome: GHP is the largest, longest-running summer program for the gifted, etc]


“GHP is a life-changing experience.” Yeah, fine. Let’s talk about that for a moment.

Fifty years ago, I sat where you sit today. Think about that. When I was your age, “fifty years ago” meant before the stock market crashed, before The Grapes of Wrath or Gone With the Wind, before Stalin’s great purges or FDR’s first term.

For you, it means before the fall of Saigon, before Watergate, before the United States was even 200 years old. It was a long time ago.

In fact, let me make a little detour and tell you a quick story. Did you see the photos on the poster in the lobby, all the boys and all the girls at Wesleyan College in the very first GHP in 1964? They were sent to me by Gail Leven Pollock, whom I met a couple of years ago at a reception given by the GHP Alumni Association. She and another lady from that first summer were there, and I was really excited to meet them.

Because—I wanted to know what it was like, that very first summer. I know the program has changed a lot since my year, but what was it like that very first year.

And so I asked them: What was it like? How did it work? What did you get out of it?

As they began to tell me, I experienced the strangest time warp: their eyes lit up, and without hesitating they started talking about how it turned their world upside down; how freeing it was to be in an environment where everyone around them was as passionate not only about their subject matter but about learning in general; how it changed their lives forever. It was like listening to a student from last summer, not from 57 summers ago.

So here I stand, still saying the same thing I imagine you’ve heard from every person who ever attended the Governor’s Honors Program: “It changed my life forever.” And you’re wondering, “Are they all for real? Will it happen to me? Can it happen to me? What’s going to happen to me? How will it happen to me?”

That last question I can answer. For fifty years, we’ve been guided by the same two mandates. First, we must provide instruction that is significantly different from the regular high school classroom. Second, we must empower our students with the skills, knowledge and attitudes to become independent lifelong learners.

We do that. Do we change lives? Let’s do a quick demonstration. Faculty, if your life was changed forever as a student at GHP, please stand… Thank you.

Wait, there’s more. Faculty, if your life was changed forever as a teacher or staff member in this program, please stand… Thank you.


Take your ID… I said, humor me here. Take your ID… and look at that picture. Are you looking? Good. You’re looking at the only person on this campus who can stop you, stop you from taking full advantage of this program, from succeeding in ways you never realized you could, from failing in ways you never thought you would risk, from changing your life forever.


[boilerplate tough talk about expectations]


On a more pleasant note:

I’m a huge Lord of the Rings nerd, or as most of us prefer to be called, a Tolkien scholar. The summer I attended GHP was the crest of the first big Tolkien revival wave, and when I got home the first thing I did was to go to the public library and ask for these books I’d been told about. Mrs. Wood had never heard of them, but she dutifully ordered them, and when they came in I checked them out, I went to my room, and I didn’t come out for a week.

Now, oh so many years later, after dozens of re-readings and close readings, I can discuss with you the difference between the Noldor and the Sindar, or how it’s not really a “trilogy,” or how Frodo was originally named Bingo, or why Peter Jackson can be forgiven for leaving out Tom Bombadil but should be horsewhipped for omitting Merry’s oath to Theoden or changing even a single word of Éowyn’s scene with the Nazgûl… but I digress.

Near the end of the movie version of The Return of the King, there’s a scene where our hobbit heroes are sitting in the Green Dragon, just sipping their half-pints while behind them their friends are discussing the merits of an admirably large pumpkin. There’s a look they give each other—I call it the GHP look—that you may have missed before, but that when you next see the movie, will break your heart: they know what the others don’t, because they’ve been there.

You’re about to go there, and back again.


Now, it’s time for our next activity. Please listen carefully. After we are dismissed, we will proceed directly to the Palms Dining Center for supper. And I know what you’re thinking: “With whom will I sit?”

How many of you have a blog? Look around.

How many of you play a sport of some kind?

How many of you play a musical instrument? See, the music majors weren’t expecting that.

How many of you believe that Star Wars: Episode I was a complete mistake and a waste of all right-thinking people’s time, even in 3-D?

Well, good, now you have something to talk about with your 600 new friends in the longest line you will wait in this summer.

You will now go directly to the Palms for supper. This will be the longest line you will wait in this summer. But they will move you through quickly. Remember, that you must be on your respective halls promptly at 6:30 p.m. for hall check.

We are dismissed.

A realization

Recently, the Library of Congress published a beautiful book, The Card Catalog: books, cards, and literary treasures.  Because I am a catalog card porn junkie, I immediately bought it—pre-ordered it, in fact—and devoured it when it came in.

It is lovely: the Walt Whitman catalog card you see across the bottom of the cover is actually a paper wraparound, and it has an honest-to-Melvil-Dewey library card checkout pocket in front!  It is full of images of fascinating books and their catalog cards throughout, and is beautifully laid out on quality paper.

I wish I could say it was the sheer physical experience I’d always dreamed of, but alas, the book is a bit of a dud in bed.  It starts at the dawn of recorded history with Sumerians and their cuneiform tablets, and there was a lot about Melvil Dewey’s empire building I didn’t know, and the impact of the LOC’s cataloging efforts on public/school/university libraries across the nation is not underestimated, but let’s face it: the world of librarians and their cataloging preferences isn’t exactly Silicon Valley.  My biggest complaint about the book, though, was not its lack of sexiness, but its failure to cater to us catalog card porn junkies in any way.

As I said, it is chock full of pictures of famous books and their catalog cards—overfull in fact.  Three-quarters of the book is taken up with these allurements, and yet they are presented without comment or context.  Were these books special acquisitions?  Do they represent one of the phases of the development of the catalog?  What is their place in American lit/publishing?

More: many of the cards have handwritten annotations on them, and most of those seem to be librarian code for something.  WHAT IS THAT CODE, KENNETH? CATALOG CARD PORN JUNKIES SEEK GRATIFICATION!!  This book left me unsatisfied, about as blue as the penciled-in cross on the handwritten card for Moby-DickWhat does it mean??

However, that’s not what I’m writing about today.  On p. 118, in the chapter about the LOC’s card service, which printed and sold catalog cards for every book published to any library—mine included—there was this sentence: “The card service lasted nearly a century, with the last cards produced and distributed in 1997.”

1997.  I was there, I thought.  In fact, I thought, that was the year I moved from East Coweta High School to Newnan Crossing Elementary School.  And that was the year that the LOC stopped making their cards.  Huh, I thought.

And then I realized: that was the year I was offered the job of assistant program director for instruction of the Governor’s Honors Program.  I was given the chance to structure and mold the life-changing experience to 700 gifted/talented high school students every summer, which I did through the summer of 2009, followed by a three-summer stint as the actual director of GHP.

And 1997 was 20 years ago.

Time is a wormhole.

Drawing the Circle: a ritual meditation on ‘community’

Every summer, I would go to the eastern entrance to the campus, and I would begin to draw the circle.

Walking to the front arch, I would stand there with the great lawn at my back, facing where the sun would rise, and consider the element of air: the mind | intellect | breath | inspiration | creative breakthroughs | beginnings.  I would invoke all these attributes for the children who were heading my way.

I would walk to the north side of the campus and consider the element of earth: concreteness | stability | the body.  The fact that I was facing the student health center added another invocation: Please don’t let us have any broken bones this summer.  (It rarely worked.)

Around to the west side, facing down the broad avenue that would soon bring families who were entrusting their children to us, with my back to the fountain, I considered the element of water: love | hope | fear | dreams | change | ebb | flow | gateway.

On the south side, with the Fine Arts building behind me, I would consider the element of fire: energy  | passion | determination | transformation | peak experiences.

Finally, I made my return to the front entrance and finished my meditation.  The circle was now drawn.

This was the Magic Square.  And into it we invited 700 of Georgia’s brightest, most talented, funniest high school students.  For six weeks they lived out all the attributes of the elements—and more—and created a community, one that ebbed and flowed and transformed them into something more, something that would remain with them for the rest of their lives.

And then we sent them home.  We exiled them.  We broke the circle and dissolved the Magic Square and broke their hearts.

One summer, on the last day, after most students had gone, a viola player who had formed an attachment to me found me as I walked across campus.  With tears streaming down her face, she asked, “Will we ever have this again?”

“Yes,” I told her, but I didn’t want to lie to her.  “Yes, it’s possible, but it’s very hard—and you have to make it happen.”


created at an InterPlay “performance jam,” Dec 8, 2014


Some feels

So these:


Quick recap for those just joining us: to celebrate turning 60 this year, a friend and I decided we would go to Burning Man.  You can read all about it if you like.  Against all odds, I snagged two tickets and vehicle passes, and then Craig ended up not being able to go.  Since the trip was going to be a buddy movie, I decided to postpone the experience until 2015.

Fortunately, there’s no such thing as being “stuck” with Burning Man tickets.  I already have sold them to a friend of a GA Burner acquaintance.  But I had to open the package yesterday and at least take them out and hold them once.


(This is not as sad as it might sound, since we’re heading off to Alchemy Burn in October as a simpler intro to the Burning Man world.)

And then today is the first anniversary of losing my job with GHP.  I’ve done a lot of grieving in this one year—and I suspect I’m not done—but I am grateful to all of my friends who have grieved with me and supported me with their kind thoughts through the entire cycle of this year’s program (which just ended last Saturday).  Thank you all, and thank you, GHP, for all the wonderful years—this would have been my 30th year.  I am who I am today because of GHP, from attending as a student in 1970, to starting there as an instructor in 1984, becoming assistant director in 1997, and finally becoming the director in 2011.  It was a good run.

A realization

I set out from work this afternoon in Carrollton, heading to Atlanta to hear John Tibbetts II sing in GSU’s production of Massenet’s Werther. It turned out to be a bit more of a journey than I had anticipated.

I was not long on I-20 before I realized that I was heading straight past exit 44, Thornton Rd in Mabelton. In a perfect world—where naturally neither you nor I live—I would not be driving from Carrollton to Atlanta, but from Atlanta to exit 44: tomorrow is the first weekend of GHP state interviews.

I was not unaware of this, of course. Despite my silence on the matter since August I have been going through the various stages of grief, and the big dates did not pass unnoticed by me: deadlines for nominations, forms, etc.

And the interviews always loomed large, because they’re huge. Three thousand students and their parents/entourages descend on two high school campuses over two weekends to be interviewed and auditioned by hundreds of volunteer interviewers. It’s a massive undertaking even in a good year, and this, if I may be pardoned for being blunt, is not a good year.

So my realization as I sped towards downtown was that I had in no way been thinking about/gnawing over all the preparation in which I would have been engaged over the last week or so. In a perfect world (vid. sup.) I would have been printing out boatloads of schedules, team score sheets, score sheets, instructions—cases and cases of forms and paperwork, all of which would now be in my car as I traveled from Luella High School in Henry County to Pebblebrook High School in Cobb. I would have been coordinating with the great subject area folk down in Curriculum on the 17th floor. I would have been rounding up last minute interviewers. I would have been calming nervous parents and coordinators. I would have been lurking in the Facebook GHP Nominee Support group, quashing rumors and directing kids to appropriate sources of info.

OK, so I’ve been lurking. But I have not thought once about the rest of any of that until I found myself heading towards my annual pilgrimage spot. Well, I thought, that is odd and interesting.

And I approached the exit, Pandora began to play a track called “The Kiss,” from the movie Last of the Mohicans, a sweeping piece of sad music that Joe Searle used to play at Convocation, the last morning assembly at GHP. Joe had this fabulous playlist of all this beautiful, sad movie music to play as our kids entered Whitehead Auditorium for the last time, just get them well on their way to weeping. Genius!

So there was that.

I realized that while I had been paying attention to the looming day of the interviews themselves, I had given no thought to all the other crap that I did in preparation, crap that I did well and with joy. That struck me. Perhaps I should try to assign meaning to that. Perhaps.

Why I cried at a Gaelic music video

I came across this video yesterday, and it had a curious effect on me: I cried.


The video was produced at Coláiste Lurgan, which is one of several summer schools in Ireland established to teach high school students Gaelic.  (Astute readers can see where I’m heading with this.)  The song itself is by Avicii, a Swedish DJ/remixer/producer, and apparently Lurgan developed a habit a couple of summers ago of doing Gaelic covers of popular songs.

This one has gone viral, and it’s not hard to see why.  It’s infectious even if you don’t know the background, and the professionalism of the production is impressive.  Frankly, I found it more appealing than the original.

You might reasonably suppose that it brought tears to my eyes because of my recent dismissal from GHP, but that is not entirely the case.  It would have brought tears to my eyes anyway, just as each summer’s group of GHPers make me weepy the entire last week.

Here’s why: the video is an exceptionally pure example of the white-hot intensity of that kind of experience.  These young people have bonded over that life-changing experience; they are a tribe in the best sense of the word.  They are extremely talented—remember, this video was produced at a summer camp—and you can see the joy and commitment they bring to the project.

And I at least cannot escape the sad underlying truth that this kind of thing is so very, very impermanent.  Part of the sadness stems from their youth: everything is intense, so beautiful (and let’s admit it: the lead singer is gorgeous), and it will not last.  We old folk know that, and kids who live through a GHP learn it too, painfully.

Full admission: there is a small number of songs that make me cry for exactly the same reasons.  Each summer, the RAs have dances for the kids on Saturday nights, and each summer they select a “last song.”  It’s usually a power anthem with a rousing, heart-rending chorus, and it closes out the dance.  It also becomes a symbol for the entire experience, and whenever it plays, 700 kids (and me) get misty-eyed.  My lovely first wife and I were dancing at a wedding reception last fall when the DJ played one of those songs, and I just had to keep dancing with Pavlovian tears streaming down my face.

Perhaps my loss of GHP made it even more painful to grok this video than it might have been otherwise, but I don’t think so.  I’ve been mourning its loss for years, right along with each generation of kids.  Go raibh maith agat, daoine óga!

Mugshots: No whining!

And I mean it.

This mug is actually more ritual than neurosis.

I found this mug in the gift shop at Montreat, the Presbyterian mountain conference center.

As usual, a little history: growing up at First Baptist, I was aware of Ridgecrest, where Baptists had their summer music camps.  I never went to one, and I’m not sure why.  It’s possible that my family could not afford it, and very probable that I was too insecure to go to something like that.  (Maybe there is more neurosis here than I thought: I was in many ways a blighted child.)

Montreat is right over the ridge from Ridgecrest, and I became aware of it while serving as music director for Newnan Presbyterian Church, a position that I discovered I had been appointed to while I was away at GHP in 1990.  Because of GHP, though, I was not able to attend that music camp either.

However, in 1995 I was not doing GHP, and it was decided that the church would send me to Montreat.  I was actually excited about this: a week in the mountains with 300 musicians, studying music and conducting and arranging. Plus, we got to sing!

There was a select chorus, but you had to send in an audition tape, and I was too insecure to do that. When I got there, though, it seems that a lot of people were too insecure to do that, because they were having auditions the first afternoon.  So I went, and I made it into the group.  That was cool, because we were singing the Duruflé Requiem and a couple of other pieces, and our conductor was a British man whose name I forget—he was John Rutter’s conductor.

There was also Alice Parker—yes, Alice Parker of Robert Shaw/Alice Parker fame—and she was awesome.

Anyway, on Wednesday, I got a phone call: Ginny’s paternal grandmother died.  I had to leave to drive to Abingdon for the funeral.  The only time in my life that I got to go to music camp, and I couldn’t even stay.  Not that I’m bitter or anything.

So, the mug: I found it in the gift shop at Montreat and I snapped it up.  It’s perfect for a church choir director, of course, because choristers are notoriously whiny.  I won’t say mine were.  I will not say that.  Just not going to say that.

Two years later, I was the assistant program director for instruction for the Georgia  Governor’s Honors Program, and as I was packing for the summer this mug made the cut to go.  It became my ritual to bring the mug with me to the first staff meeting on Thursday morning while wearing my Space Ghost “Don’t make me use the spank ray!” t-shirt.  Those two items were my staff management policies in a nutshell, and I think they were effective: a firm hand, but a light touch.  [Jobie, do not go there.]

Whining is pointless and should be stamped out wherever it occurs.  Whining is, as far as I’m concerned, just a way to tell me that you don’t want to be there, and for GHP staffers I can make that happen.

Whining is not bitching.  Bitching is OK, because bitching is targeted.  Bitching can identify a problem that I will then invite you to help solve.  Feel free to bitch to me.  But whining?  Go do that somewhere else.

And please don’t be like Jobie, who strives to provoke me into using the spank ray.  Such a nerdvert…

All those years

I’ve been meaning to post on how much I am enjoying my job these days. “Director of the Governor’s Honors Program”–I never get tired of saying it, and those of you who have had to endure my saying it know that I can’t manage it without grinning.

I’m still petrified that I’m going to screw up in a major way, but so far my blunders have been minor and the kind that only someone a lot more anal than I would have caught. Nothing irremediable yet, so I think we’re OK.

One of the projects I’ve been working on is adding all the GHP participants ever to a master database. For the past 15 years or so, it’s easy: you just import the students from that summer’s database into the master database. (Remind me to tell you how Galen Honea and John Tibbetts II saved western civilization.  It’s true!)  But there are 35 years of students who don’t fall into that category.

My predecessors, who started the project, got a lot done, but this week I discovered I was missing about 20 years. Not a problem. Earlier, I had organized all the archival files, so it’s a piece of cake to go pull a folder and start typing in the list. It’s not that big a deal, since all we’re including is the year, the campus, the major, first name, last name, and school. The database looks up the system, and I can make it auto-enter the year, campus, and major. I also have devised it so that it will auto-fill the name and school based on what’s already in there, so I can rip through an entire year (about 600 students) in an afternoon.

From the very first year I worked on, 1976, names started jumping out at me: kids who grew up to teach at GHP (and are still teaching); kids from Newnan, etc. I’ve started seeing kids I taught. It’s neat in a maudlin, nostalgic kind of way.

Today, the full impact of my project hit me: I’m typing in 1976 through 1995. That is, essentially, from the year I started teaching to the year before I returned to GHP full time in 1996. I’m going to be seeing a lot of names in the next couple of weeks, a lot of people who have come and gone, a lot of memories of relationships that of course no longer exist for the most part.

This is a major part of growing old, of course, the bittersweet reflections on les neiges d’antan and all those beautiful times and faces that fade. Part of wisdom, I think, is the ability to look back with nostalgia but not regret. It would be very foolish to be bitter about losing the past, would it not? There are those who do, I know, but madness that way lies. You can’t reclaim it—although of course there’s always Facebook for reconnecting, which I have certainly availed myself of—so I’m thinking that kind of reaction must be pathological fear of having nothing left in you. Am I making sense?

To be sure, I had better have plenty left in me if I’m going to play at being the Director of the Governor’s Honors Program. Every day and every way taxes my ability to learn new procedures, especially the arcana of state finances. But—it’s fun. Pure, exhilarating fun. Along with the bittersweet carpal tunnel syndrome that comes from typing in 1800 kids whose lives were changed one summer.

GHP, an update

It’s going to be tough to blog for a while as I get used to the new job. The commute is two hours absolutely wasted every day; it was one of the things I dreaded most about the job. Actually, it’s the only thing I dreaded about the job, and it’s gnawing at me. If I want to get home early enough to be useful and/or productive, then I have to leave so early that I can’t get anything done in the morning.

Still, the job is a dream. The people at the DOE are wonderful and helpful, and I have yet to encounter anything that is an insurmountable problem. Of course, I meet with the budget people tomorrow.

Having said that, I will now draw a discreet curtain over my work at the DOE. I have never thought it was appropriate to blog about your workplace, especially about any problems you encounter. That’s what your diary and/or the fireside are for. I reserve the right to brag about cool things or to talk about really positive things, but this is not the place for any whining that I have to do.

Not that there will be any. I’m sure. Ever.

Summary: I’m having a great time learning the ropes.

GHP, further

More Things People Want to Know about my new job:

I will not be moving to Valdosta. This is a DOE job in the Sloppy Floyd Building in Atlanta, aka the Twin Towers. I have a cubicle on the 18th floor with a window overlooking the Grady Curve on the Connector. I actually have three cubicles, and I was daydreaming about rearranging the walls until I was told that the Georgia Building Authority (from whom the DOE rents the space) charges $15,000 to move one of those little walls. I know, set crew time, right?

There is a lot more to the job than managing the actual summer program. The program itself consumes most of the year. In August, for example, I’ll have to make any changes or updates to the Description and Criteria and get that out to the schools so we can begin the whole process again. Nominations are October through December, and then the awful part of the job: lining up all the interviewers for the 2,800 nominees in January and February.

Then there’s the calculation of which students are finalists, the invitations, and finally the part I’m in right now: collecting all the acceptance forms, hiring staff, negotiating needs with VSU, ordering supplies, and getting everything ready for the arrival of GHP 2011 participants on Sunday, June 26.

Through all of this is constant budget calculation, preparation, proposal, weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. And now part of the job is fundraising for the Georgia Foundation for Education, which happily seems to think GHP is a major deal. Yes, you’ll be hearing a lot more about that one.

Then there are the other programs I’m in charge of: the Byrd Scholarship (which is coming up in four weeks); the Georgia Scholar Program; and the Youth Senate Program. All of this requires constant communication with coordinators in every school, huge amounts of paper work, and management of volunteer readers/adjudicators. Yes, you’ll be hearing more about these as well.

I’m also part of the division of School Improvement (don’t ask: GHP has been all over the organizational chart), so who knows if I’ll get to be a part of that process out there in the field as well? That could be a fun break.

Any other questions?