Monthly Archives: August 2017

The Continued Success of the Petal School District is not Luck!

Is the only constant in this world the success of the Petal School District?  I was blessed to serve twenty-five years as a teacher, coach, and administrator in the Petal School District, and it was a great school district before I arrived on the scene, it was a great school district while I was there, and it is a great school district today.  Recently, the state released school accountability scores and rankings, and the Petal School District was once again ranked in the top five school districts in the state (number one in mathematics).  No one was surprised because no one can remember when or if there was a time in its history that Petal was not ranked at the top.  The mark of a great school district, athletic team, or great business is the ability to sustain success over time regardless of who is at the helm or in the trenches, and the Petal Schools have done a remarkable job of maintaining success even when key personnel have changed.

In the past four years, the District has had two superintendents, changes in directorships, and multiple changes in school principals and assistant principals, yet, it has remained a top-rated school district.  That is amazing!  However, what is more amazing is the District has maintained its success even with the loss of some great teachers who have retired or moved elsewhere due to family and career decisions.  Common sense says for a school to be successful it must have great teachers in the classroom.  In fact, research supports a quality teacher in the classroom is the most crucial factor in the education of a child.  However, in an era of state and nation-wide teacher shortages, it is not easy to find quality teachers to replace outgoing quality teachers even for a school district, like Petal, with a strong discipline and academic reputation, so how does Petal do it?

Having worked in the school district, I am very familiar with the “movers and shakers” (great educators) among the teachers and administrators, but until recently, while browsing the District website I was unaware of the turnover that has occurred over the past four years.  The school websites are filled with new teacher and administrator faces at almost every school.  Most of the old guard is gone!  The people I always believed made the schools great were missing, but success marched on without them.  How could that be?  Maybe, there is truth to the adage, “One monkey does not stop the show.”

Before I retired, I often bragged, the key to my success at Petal High School was the quality of teachers that lifted me and the students on their shoulders and made what sometimes appeared impossible possible.  Although many of the administrators and teachers who carried me to success are now gone, Petal High School and the District continues to be successful.  That is not only a tribute to the recruiting efforts of the District, it is a tribute to the foundation on which the District is built.  Superintendents, directors, staff, teachers, principals, and school board members come and go, but the two constants, the two non-negotiables, that never change in the District are “everyone is accountable for learning” and an undying attitude that “ALL children can learn.”  These constants result in a successful school district year after year regardless who leads the way in or outside the classroom.

Faces change, but as the battle-scarred veteran teachers gradually move on to another phase in their lives, fresh faces arrive to grow into their shoes.  Like those before them, they pick up the banner of excellence, refuse to lower standards for themselves or their students, and rise above the crowd.  They do so because that is the PETAL WAY; the only WAY for a Petal educator!  Petal educators expect the impossible of themselves and the children they teach, they rise above their imperfections and the imperfections of their students and show them what may seem impossible is but a grain of sand in their shoe.  They lift kids – their own and the kids of others – on their shoulders and carry them – sometimes kicking and screaming – to heights they would never know unless their teacher sacrificed a piece of their life, their heart, and their soul to show them the way.

However, where does the district continue to find quality teachers who have the ability to pick up where the masters left off and walk in their shoes?  Contrary to widespread belief, good teachers are not a dime a dozen; they are few and far between.  They cannot be contracted through Amazon and arrive in the classroom in two days, so where are they found?  Maybe, there is a secret door hidden under a green moss laden bluff somewhere along the Tallahala Creek where teachers with iron nerves who do not know the meaning of “quit”, teachers with hearts of glass kids can look into and learn trust, and teachers with eyes that say, “I am here for you – take my hand” stand waiting patiently for their time to step forward and cultivate our tomorrow.  Or, maybe quality teachers are born somewhere off the Gulf Coast in emerald waters salted lightly with rock flour and wisps of dreams and hope.  More likely, there are no secret doors or emerald waters, only a one-time school boy or girl who grew up to be a teacher with dreams to save the world one child at a time, and was fortunate enough to find like-minded people in a place that has yet to give up on its children and their dreams – the Petal School District.

Yes, year after year, it amazes me how superintendents, directors, staff, principals, teachers, and even school board members can change, yet, the school district continues to not only be successful but thrive.  Working hard and smart with kids as the bottom line while plugging in a sincere love for them and passion for learning is a surefire formula for success, and that success becomes even more sustainable when everyone from the superintendent to the custodian understands everything a school district does is about kids.  “Doing what is best for kids” is what ensures success for the District regardless of who the superintendent or the teachers in the classroom may be.  When a school district asks, “What is best for the kids?” prior to every decision it makes, it cannot not help but be successful year after year.  That single question puts every decision and every action in the proper perspective for a school district.  It enables a small, underfunded (by the state) school district like Petal to succeed where others fail.  My hat is off to those who laid the foundation, to the old guard who remain as models of commitment and excellence, and to those brave new faces that are carrying on the tradition of Petal excellence.  My hat is off to the Petal School District for always putting kids first.  By doing so, the District will always be a success!  Congratulations, Petal educators for another successful school year! You deserve every accolade laid upon you!  Your success is not luck!  You work hard for your success, so take a few minutes to enjoy a job well done, then get back to work – the kids need you.

JL

©Jack Linton, August 24, 2017

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Trip of a Lifetime:  War Eagle Goes Home

I could not wait to get to the Black Hills of South Dakota!  I didn’t know what to expect, but a part of me felt I was going home.  As a boy, growing up in rural Mississippi, I was a fanatic for cowboy and Indian movies, and in just about every one of those movies, the Indians lived, hunted, and fought in the Black Hills or those hallowed grounds were at least mentioned.  Unlike most other boys, I did not take up the role of John Wayne, James Stewart, or Randolph Scott; I played the part of the Indian.  Although I did not have a clue where the Black Hills might be, my backyard and the woodlands bordering my grandfather’s pastures became those hills.  All I knew was the Black Hills had to be a special place if Indians and buffalo lived there.

With a chicken feather tucked in a worn leather shoestring from my father’s work boot tied around my head, mud war paint smeared across my face and shirtless chest, and strips of an old sheet hanging in front and back of my shorts, I was a Sioux warrior fighting for my home.  I made tipis from ragged towels and the remains of the sheet that lent itself to the loincloths, bent oak saplings into bows with line cut from my father’s spinning reel, and sharpened the points of my featherless arrows with a buck fifty Barlow pocket knife.  My war cries could be heard from my parent’s little acre at the bottom of the hill to my grandfather’s front porch at the top of the hill where he grimaced with each yell, spat Redman chewing tobacco in a pint fruit jar or in grandma’s azaleas, and wiped strings of brown tobacco swill from his chin with the back of his hand.  My cousins said he thought I was a bit touched in the head, but that never deterred the cry of War Eagle.  Grandfather did not concern me, the great white fathers never truly understood the spirit and way of the Indian.

Over fifty years later, I finally saw the Black Hills of South Dakota.  My wife and I, along with our traveling companions, reserved a campsite for five nights at Beaver Lake Campground in Custer, South Dakota, smack in the middle of the Black Hills.  War Eagle had been put to rest years ago, but the urge to strip the sheet off the bed in my travel trailer and tear it into loincloths tugged at me.  I struggled to keep War Eagle contained as I set up the aluminum tipi, fearing my wife and friends would be even less understanding than my grandfather if I broke into a war dance and accompanying cries and chants.  I was like a child in a candy store, or on Christmas morning – my dream had finally turned to reality.

Over the following five days, we drove the main and back roads of Custer State Park watching the buffalo, long prong sheep, and prairie dogs.  We relaxed at iconic Sylvan Lake surrounded by rock formations designed in heaven and tossed rocks across the lake from leather shepherd slings my buddy and I designed and made at our campsites one morning.  The Iron Mountain Road drive with its hairpin turns, cut backs, and tunnels barely large enough for a modern-day vehicle to pass through gave us our first taste of mountain driving.  Mount Rushmore filled our hearts with awe and pride in our American heritage built upon the wisdom and sacrifice of such visionaries as Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln.  From there we drove the Needles Highway made accessible only by the engineering wonders of man!  The grandeur of the highway with its spiraling rock fingers reaching for the heavens, narrow tunnels, and landscapes draped in the mastery of the Maker was possibly one of the most beautiful drives we have experienced on our trip, and we have experienced many.  All that, along with elk and mule deer moving through the evening shadows along the roadways, was more than most people experience in a lifetime.

It did not end there!  The Crazy Horse Memorial erected almost single handed by one man and his family with no government assistance, only private funding, and the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota Indians’ commitment to preserve not only their heritage through the monument, but the heritage of all mankind took the human experience to a level of healing and spirituality that humbled the heart.  Walking the streets of Deadwood, a cowboy town famous for gold and the final resting place for Wild Bill Hickok, the original fastest draw in the West, helped us separate the real West from the movies.  From there, we gave a quick look at the little town that once every year becomes a big town – Sturgis.  The annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally swells the population of the town from 6800 to nearly three-quarters of a million people during every August, and as we witnessed, the preparation and the arrival of motorcycle enthusiasts from all over the world begins weeks in advance.

That was more than enough to fill five days of vacation, but we did not stop there!  After Sturgis, we spent time in Spearfish Canyon enjoying the scenery and the waterfalls, and on our final day, we visited Wind Cave National Park and toured the sixth largest/longest cave in the world.  According to legend, Wind Cave is the birthplace of the Sioux Nation, and if you listen close, you can hear the stories of their beginning whispered from the cracks and crevices throughout the cave.  Walking through underground passages cut by acidic water, I could feel the breath of the Sioux on my neck and shoulders and hear the elders speaking of birth, betrayal, and rebirth.  First came the buffalo, second came the people of the hills and plains, and then their betrayal by the white man and the destruction of their way of life.  There were other voices in the cave as well; voices that had every right to call for justice and revenge, but instead, spoke softly of hope, peace, and understanding for all men and nations – the way of the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota.  That, my friends, is the mark of a great and wise people.

Contrary to what some folks back home told me, there was no shortage of things to do in the Black Hills.  We did not run out of things to do; we ran out of time to do everything we wanted to do!  From the base of the Black Hills to overlooks more than 6,000 feet above sea level, every turn held a new discovery and experience.  Every day in the “Ȟe Sápa” (Lakota for Black Mountains) was a new beginning and new adventure.  It was a place where man and spirits walked hand in hand speaking softly to one another of hope and peace.  The wildlife, the rolling hills, rock formations, and prairies made it easy to see why the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota tribes, known to the white man as the Sioux, looked upon this place as sacred.

In the evenings, I sat alone in the dark listening to the hills.  If you listen close, you can hear the song of the buffalo, the eagle, and the elk singing to the children of the earth, “Come to me, lay your head in my meadows, sleep under the sky God has made for all peoples, stand on the pillars of the sun, and give thanks for all you see before you.”  I am thankful I had my time to gaze upon those hills and see what the boy who played with a chicken feather in his hair, War Eagle, always knew – Ȟe Sápa is a special place – a place where spirits soar – a place where a War Eagle can find peace and whoop it up (with the wife’s permission of course) and make dreams come true.  It was and is a place the Indians call home.  War Eagle was home.

JL

©Jack Linton, July 28, 2017

 

Trip of a Lifetime:  Face to Face with a Grizzly Bear

Grizzly

What would you do if you came face to face with a grizzly bear in the wild?  I am not talking about seeing one at a distance; I am talking about looking eyeball to eyeball with one less than fifteen feet away!  It happened to me, my wife, Tricia, and our traveling companions, Dottie and Mike, Glacier National Park, Montana.  If not for the level head of National Park Ranger Rebecca Merritt, the four of us may have become another chapter in Death in Glacier National Park by Randi Minetor.  I am not joking; at approximately 5:10 p.m., Tuesday, August 1, 2017, we came face to face with a grizzly bear, and the only reason I am here to chronicle this event is due to the quick actions of Ranger Merritt.

Our close encounter of the grizzly kind began Monday evening, July 31.  Tricia and I were sitting outside our camper talking about our drive that day over the mountains on Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park.  The drive was exceptionally beautiful, but it also fit nicely into the “white knuckle driving” category.  The road built in the 1920s, climbs over the Montana Rockies to the Continental Divide at Logan Pass and down to Apgar Visitor Center at beautiful Lake McDonald.  The views are extraordinary for everyone but the driver who must keep his attention riveted to the narrow twisting road.  Drivers cannot afford to sight-see on Going to the Sun Road unless they are looking for a quick pass to the hereafter.

The road hugs the side of the mountains at altitudes of 6,600 plus feet and meanders around hair-pin turns, switch backs, and roadways so narrow truck side mirrors must be folded in against the doors.   Failure to fold the mirrors could easily result in tearing the driver side mirror off against oncoming traffic or tearing the passenger side mirror off on rock outcroppings.  There was just enough room for two vehicles to pass.  Although very doable, the Going to the Sun Road has its challenges, and according to a very nice lady ranger at the St Mary Visitor Center, being a little apprehensive the first time you drive the road is normal.  We were exceptionally normal – it scared us to death.  Therefore, that evening, we were pumped after completing the drive without incident.  After driving the Going to the Sun Road, we were certain we could handle anything Glacier National Park threw our way.  Boy, were we in for a surprise!

That evening, Bill and Jane, our camp neighbors, came to visit us from their motorhome – no, condo on wheels – parked across the street from our travel trailer.  Bill was curious about a bucket light I had made from a five-gallon bucket.  He was amazed at the amount of light such a contraption could produce, so I proudly showed it to him and told him how to make one.  From there, the conversation turned to the events of the day.  We talked of our trip to the Going to the Sun Road, and they talked of taking a short hike to a lake to watch moose.  Up to that point, we had seen elk, buffalo, and a grizzly bear in our travels, but not a single moose, so they had our attention.  They told us how to find the lake and the best time to see moose there.  After they left, we told Dottie and Mike about the conversation, and the four of us made plans to go moose watching the next afternoon.

Tuesday, August 1, at around 3:30 p.m. we headed for Many Glacier to watch moose.  The trail was about a ten-minute hike west of Swiftcurrent Motor Inn in an area of multiple trail heads.  We took the trail to Red Rock Falls, but left the trail a few minutes later and walked down to Fishercap Lake where Bill and Jane said they watched moose drink from the lake three afternoons in a row.  As they instructed, we brought our chairs, cameras, and binoculars, and because we thought it made us look the part of real trailblazers we also carried our walking sticks.  We arrived at the lake around 4:10 p.m., and Tricia and I set our chairs about three feet from the water’s edge under some overhanging pine branches.  Dottie and Mike set their chairs two or three feet behind and to the right of us.  We settled into our chairs and readied our camera and binoculars for the moose we were certain we would see.  We were careful to be as still and quiet as possible to avoid scaring the wildlife, especially moose.  Little did we know that “still and quiet” would get us into serious trouble within the hour.

Within fifteen minutes, we saw a buck across the lake (maybe a hundred yards) walk from a thicket to drink at the water’s edge.  I watched through my binoculars while Tricia snapped pictures.   I remember thinking this is heaven.  Life does not get any more peaceful and enchanting than this!  After a few minutes, the deer returned to the thicket and disappeared.  Maybe, five minutes passed, and I heard Tricia say, “Look,” and start snapping pictures.  Across the lake in the same area the buck had appeared, a huge grizzly bear moved from the shadows into the lake clearing.  By now there were several other people at the lake pointing and talking loudly, but the bear either could not hear them across the lake or didn’t care.  I suspect he didn’t care.  He remained in the light of the clearing for a minute before disappearing into the shadows only to reappear minutes later a few feet down the shoreline.  From there, the bear slipped into the lake for a swim.  After a brief swim, the grizzly slowly climbed back to the shore and ambled back into the shadows and vanished.

Soon afterwards, a second young buck stepped from the edge of the pine forest into the light.  The deer appeared to be nervous, which I attributed to a talkative group of people about ten yards east of us pointing across the lake to where the bear had been and the young deer now stood.  At that time, I noticed Ranger Merritt at the edge of the lake to my left.  She said she had been watching the bear and us from the trees behind us.  Her job was to make sure the bear was not a threat to people and people did not do anything stupid like approach a bear.  We assured her we had no intention of getting anywhere near a bear.  She commended us for staying put, and said she had been showing her uncle around, nodding to a gentleman with a walking stick at her side, when she spotted the bear across the lake at about the same time we did.  She spoke to some other people at the lake edge, and satisfied everything was in good order and people and wildlife were both safe, she and her uncle headed back up the trail toward the trail head.

Approximately, four minutes later, I heard a commotion on the main trail to my left and behind us.  At first, it sounded like a bunch of kids yelling and making noise, and I remember wondering why parents would allow their children to ruin such a peaceful setting.  The young buck across the lake suddenly looked up and momentarily froze before darting into the shadowed undergrowth.  Instantly, the noise on the trail was on top of us, and we realized it was Ranger Merritt yelling.  None of us could make sense of what she was saying until Mike said, “Bear!  She said bear on the trail!”  The four of us wheeled around, and the first thing we saw caused the hair to stand on our necks – not one, but two bears were running straight for us.  I yelled, “There they are!”  Dottie and Mike bolted from their chairs.  The grizzlies stopped, apparently surprised by the sudden movement of people in their path.  Tricia and I stood and stepped back to the water edge face to face with grizzlies not more than fifteen feet from where we stood.  I grabbed my hiking stick (Not that it would have done much good).  However, Tricia, being Miss Cool to the Bone, Nothing Bothers Me, stooped below the pine limbs we had been sitting under and took the most fabulous grizzly bear photo of the century.  I pulled her toward me to the edge of the water, but by that time she had her picture, and needed no coaxing, guidance, extra weight to tie her down, or anyone in her way to prevent her from getting the hell up the bank and away from the bears.  As she would say later, at that point, it was every man for himself.

At that moment, a strange set of events occurred.  Ranger Merritt yelled at me not to leave my backpack, so I started back to the chairs we had just vacated.  The grizzlies were still on the rise a few feet above us.  Tricia yelled at me to leave the backpack, but the ranger yelled again for me to grab my backpack.  Ranger Merritt later told us that if a bear even sniffs a backpack, the trail is closed to everyone for at least a week.  The closure is a precaution to keep bears from associating backpacks with “easy food” when it sees someone with a backpack on the trail.  I did not know that at the time, so the significance of retrieving the bag escaped me.  Caught in a crossfire between two strong willed women yelling orders at me – I am very accustomed to one, but two was simply too much to handle – I did something I still do not understand.  With my backpack leaning against my chair not three feet away, I took off my favorite hat in the world, my genuine Stetson Royal Flush, and set it in my chair.  It seemed like the logical thing to do at the time.  I left the hat in the chair and backed away keeping an eye on the bears.  Maybe, I thought I was leaving the bears a peace offering; I honestly don’t know.  Both women went speechless until Ranger Merritt who by that time was back at the water’s edge looked at me strangely, and said, “Well, alright, leave the backpack.”

In the meantime, by far the scariest part of the whole ordeal was taking place.  Our friends who were to our right and slightly above us when everything started unraveling, were in a dilemma.  When the four of us first turned to see the two grizzlies literally breathing down our necks, Dottie and Mike were closer to the bears by two or three feet than we were.  Somehow, in the commotion they became separated from each other.  Tricia, Mike, and I reacted to the bears by moving to our right away from the bears angle of travel, but Dottie was confused and ran to our left directly into the path of the bears.  Thankfully, she had the presence of mind to jump behind a tree, which the ranger later said was a good thing.  However, her mistake focused the bears attention on her, which placed her in grave danger, but by the grace of God the grizzlies did not go after her.

The bears continued to look around as if disoriented by the flight of humans in their path.  The sight of humans on either side of their path temporarily paralyzed them.  With coaxing from Mike and Tricia, Dottie retreated from behind the tree to the water’s edge where she quickly made her way to Mike’s side.  The moment she left the tree to her husband, the grizzlies broke for the water as if after her.  However, they had no interest in her or anyone else in our party.  They hit the water and immediately started playing like two playful puppies.  The grizzlies swam to the other side of the lake stopping to play two or three times while crossing.  Once on the other side they disappeared in the lengthening shadows most likely unaware they had left four rattled and badly shaken humans on the other side of the lake.

The whole ordeal lasted maybe thirty seconds.  Ranger Merritt explained to us afterwards the pair of grizzlies were two-year-old siblings the mother had forced out on their own about three months prior to our encounter.  Although only two years old, the bears probably weighed between three and four hundred pounds each; they were not small by any stretch of the imagination!  According to Ranger Merritt, the bears were never aggressive on the trail where she first encountered them, or even after they stumbled upon our group.  They were as surprised and confused as we were!  Tricia later read grizzlies have a keen sense of hearing and smell, but poor eye sight, which explained the behavior of the bears that day.  Due to a strong westward wind putting us downwind from the bears, they did not smell us.  That coupled with our being quietly hidden beneath the pines prevented them from hearing us as well.  They did not detect us until they almost ran us over.  Personally, I believe they were amused by the frantic humans scrambling for their lives, and did not feel threatened in the least.  Seriously, I do not think the bears ever intended to harm us.  We just happened to get in the way of their play.

However, that does not make the incident any less serious.  Thanks to Ranger Merritt’s warning, we moved just in time to prevent a tragedy or tragedies.  Without the warning, the bears would have run directly over the four of us resulting in possible serious injuries due to the size of the bears alone.  If a collision had taken place, the bears would have done what any wild animal would have done – become aggressive and defensive, which would have been deadly for one or more of us.  The bears were in their home environment; we were the visitors who unknowingly became intruders in their domain.  It was our responsibility to watch out for them, not the other way around.

Fortunately, thanks to Ranger Rebecca Merritt, we survived and in the process learned some valuable lessons.  First, there is a reason, hiking literature says make a lot of noise when hiking.  We went to the lake to see moose, so we thought by being quiet and still, we would increase our chances of seeing one.  We forgot moose use the same trails and habitats as bears, so being quiet was not smart.  Second, we learned we were visitors to the world of the animals; therefore, it was our responsibility to stay alert to everything around us.  We were so transfixed on the animals on the opposite side of the lake that we forgot animals lived on our side of the lake as well.  Third, short trails should be treated with the same awareness, preparation, and respect afforded much longer trails.  All trails can be potentially dangerous if the proper precautions are not taken.  Fourth, never hike in bear habitat areas without bear spray at your side or if possible a ranger, and fifth, never hike any trail, especially in National Parks without first taking part in a ranger led hike or sitting in on a trail wise safety class conducted by a ranger.  Failure, to do any of these could possibly put your life and the life of wildlife in danger.

We were lucky and fortunate our guardian angels as well as a well-trained National Park Ranger, Rebecca Merritt, was there to watch over us.  THANK YOU Ranger Rebecca Merritt for being there for us Tuesday, August 1, 2017.  THANK YOU and all rangers for all you do daily to keep wildlife and foolish humans safe.  Your alertness, professional knowledge, and quick thinking most likely prevented a terrible tragedy!  THANK YOU for giving us a second chance.  You are greatly appreciated, and you will always be a hero in our eyes.

Forever humbled believers, Tricia, Dottie, Mike, and Jack.

JL

©Jack Linton, August 2, 2017

©Photography – Patricia Linton, August 1, 2017