It's a safe bet nobody left yesterday's MeckEd community breakfast yawning. The education and advocacy group brought in a speaker whose style is as much smackdown as uplift, quite a jolt to those accustomed to Charlotte's "bless your heart" style.
Steve Perry is a working principal in Connecticut, having founded a magnet school that prides itself on sending African American and low-income students off to college. Several teachers who attended the $50-a-person fund-raising breakfast as guests of MeckEd told me that gave him more credibility than your average research/policy/political type.
Perry is also very much a public figure, appearing regularly on CNN, writing books and preparing to launch a TVOne show called "Save My Son." According to the Hartford Courant, he spends a good bit of his time on the road doing speaking engagements like the one in Charlotte, and has a minicam and studio lighting in his principal's office.
So yes, Perry knows how to grab an audience's attention. He raised plenty of deep, thought provoking issues about the community's responsibility for all children, the need to stop tolerating failure and the importance of loving the students you teach (read the news article here). He also waded right into racial and gender issues and took pokes at almost everybody involved in education: Interfering administrators, principals who don't know how to lead, excuse-making teachers, lazy custodians and parents who come to school dressed in pajamas.
An audience member's question about dealing with all the regulations that encumber public education led Perry into a long riff on his disdain for central-office staff. He talked about how he ignores directives and ducks meetings. "The problem with central offices is they exist to serve the central office, not the community," Perry said. "They don't seem to find solutions. They only create more problems." He went on to lament the distraction created by a series of superintendents bringing new programs: "They come in and they're a swashbuckler and that stuff makes our job very, very, very difficult."
When Perry finished, Morrison reached for the mike. He said he wasn't going to disagree with Perry. Instead, Morrison talked about his "loose/tight" supervisory style that gives leeway to successful schools while keeping a tighter rein on those that aren't working. He said he's listening to his employees and the community, rather than charging in with his own agenda. And he talked about "one of the most frustrating things in North Carolina," the calendar law that requires most public schools to operate between Aug. 25 and June 10. At-risk kids need more time in school, Morrison said, and if he can't pay teachers to work longer school years he at least needs the latitude to spread the 180 days out so there's not such a long summer break for learning to slip away.
On the racial front, Perry left the audience with an interesting conversation-starter to take away from the session. While he was talking about the importance of loving and motivating African American students, he offered an observation he said the black folks in the crowd would understand: "You know when a child is loved with one word: Vaseline." There were chuckles from many African Americans and blank looks from many whites. "They'll explain it to you later," Perry said, and moved on.
Actually, the first four African Americans I asked -- two who were there and two colleagues back in the newsroom -- said they were stumped, too. Reporter Celeste Smith offered the likely explanation: Moms and grandmas rub Vaseline on their children's skin to avoid the dry, pale "ashy skin" that can be seen as a sign that kids aren't well cared for.
My colleagues who had been stumped countered that most families just use lotion now. Vaseline is an old-school approach, as confirmed by this tweet from Perry I encountered while trying to google the answer: "My grandmother used to think rubbing alcohol, epsom salt and vaseline was all we needed to cure us of everything."