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My thoughts on “About Alice”

Below is an essay I wrote as part of a writing program a friend of mine designed for me. It’s about the book, “About Alice,” a short tribute that I enjoyed. I encourage you to read the book and read the essay, if you’d like. Thanks.

- Jonathon

The stains of Calvin Trillin’s blood must have been washed and removed from the pages. His editors had to have grabbed cloths of microfibers and scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed until Trillin’s blood no longer remained on  “About Alice,” his tribute to his late wife, Alice, who died on Sept. 11, 2001, after lung cancer had weakened her heart 25 years earlier.

That is the only situation my mind can comprehend, because it is clear Trillin ripped out his heart and left it on the 96 pages of his book, never to be used in the way he used it with Alice ever again.

In his love story, Trillin recalled decades of moments to show the world, to show his family and to show himself how much he loved Alice.

In simple, crisp prose, Trillin describes what we all long for – someone to share our life with, someone we would die for and someone who loves us even as our hair grays and our skin wrinkles. With compelling details, Trillin introduces us to his wife, to her personality and to how much she cared for their children.

He shares the countless times Alice placed their children above everything else in their lives, as every parent should do. He tells us how she was not only a model human being, but also a caring parent and an ideal wife.

But what I find most intriguing about Trillin’s essay is why he wanted to pen these pages, why he wanted to bring up these joyful memories when there is no chance to create new, similar moments. Why stir the finally calmed pot of death with memories of a woman who’s gone forever?

I suppose the better question is, why not? Why not let the world know how lucky you were? Why not let her life live on for years in the form of a book? Why not tell others not only how a marriage survives, but how it prospers and how you fall more in love with your spouse every day?

Trillin did us a favor, yet this was not a project made solely for us. His tribute to Alice was something he needed to do as well.

He had to give words to his emotions of love, sadness and despair. He yearned to express his own feelings in the most personal of ways – writing.

The most telling part of “About Alice,” is the final paragraph. Here, Trillin is most honest, and because of that, we learn the most about him and his wife. He does not spin this story as a sad tale of death, nor does he conjure up an “everything is swell” fable that so many people do when dark moments unexpectedly shield the sunlight of life.

Throughout this tribute, Trillin is brief and honest, and no more so than with his final words:

“The doctors said that her heart had been destroyed by radiation. In other words, you could say that she died of the treatment rather than the disease. Presumably, though, it was also the treatment that, against horrifying odds, gave her twenty-five years of life. I know what Alice, the incorrigible and ridiculous optimist, would have said about a deal that allowed her to see her girls grow up: “Twenty-five years! I’m so lucky!” I try to think of it in those terms, too. Some days I can and some days I can’t.”

There will be no second marriage for Trillin. He will never touch a woman as he caressed Alice. And he will never long for a person the way he desires her today.

He will never love like he loved Alice.

CDT: Winning schools candidates face committee duty

One of the best things about having a beat, or an area in which you’re allowed to focus your reporting and writing energy, is that it enables you to understand that certain topic better than you would if you were scattered around, covering all sorts of things.

Hopefully, you get to provide readers with a level of analysis and understanding in your stories that they can’t get many other places about your topic.

CDT: Winning schools candidates face committee duty

CDT: Opening day a cold one

As a journalist, you get to cover and go to a lot of things you would never go to if you didn’t get paid to go to them. Prime example for me has been the Columbia Farmers Market. Last year, when I covered the opening day of Columbia Farmers Market, I knew little about it. I didn’t understand why these people wanted to pay more for food in the middle of a parking lot when they could drive a block and purchase food at a grocery store for half the price.

But then I talked with farmers, I spoke with buyers and I now understand the value of a farmers market, all because I had to go. I did the same thing this year, attending opening day last weekend for the Columbia Daily Tribune.

CDT: Opening day a cold one

CDT: Families react to virtual school loss

Real people drive great stories. It’s a fact about excellent journalism – it requires real people telling their stories, not anonymous sources or speculation from the news reporter. And people like reading about people. Recently, a slew of real people were affected by budget cuts from the Missouri state government, just as millions of real people have been affected by this recession.

CDT: Families react to virtual school loss

At the computer lab at The Greens at Columbia apartment complex off Clark Lane, school is in session.

Natalie Quade, a ninth-grader, converts cooking data into graphs using Microsoft Excel. Meanwhile, her brother, Ryan, a fifth-grader, silently jots down on a map the locations of landmarks such as the Taj Mahal and Mount Everest. It’s his geography homework through the Missouri Virtual Instruction Program, an online school for K-12 students.

Every Wednesday, the Quade family of Sturgeon studies at The Greens, where the children’s grandmother lives, before running other Columbia errands. Some 1,600 students statewide are like the Quade children: They study and learn through the online program, without a traditional school building or the direct supervision of a classroom teacher.

But come next semester, these students, teachers and parents likely will have to find a new way of schooling. The second semester of the program was eliminated last week as part of Gov. Jay Nixon’s $204 million in budget cuts, which included the elimination of about 200 full-time state jobs and 500 part-time positions.

“I can understand budget cuts,” said mother Carla Quade, a former accountant for the federal government, “but I can’t understand midsemester budget cuts.”

CDT: Handling of abuse cases earns court honor

Sometimes, I groan when I first hear of a story. I admit it. I don’t always know a lot about the story when I voice my unexcited feelings, which isn’t wise.

For example, on Thursday, I covered a ceremony about an honor our local circuit court received from the Missouri Supreme Court. I sauntered to the 13th Judicial Circuit Court with the happiness of a fifth-grader walking to his classroom after being banned from recess. Turns out, however, the story was interesting and very newsworthy. And, like the boy banned from kickball, I learned something while indoors.

CDT: Handling of abuse cases earns court honor

Columbia tackles the achievement gap

For my job, I write about K-12 education in Columbia, Mo. As we know, there are few more valuable things a person can attain in life than a quality education. But schools around the nation have struggled with ensuring every student is equally educated. Schools particularly have struggled with addressing an “achievement gap” between black students and their peers. The data in school districts all over the nation shows the same thing: black students scoring worse than their Asian, white and sometimes Hispanic peers. In Columbia, some stats show the achievement gap is bigger than in other parts of the country. In a recent story, I tried to tackle what the achievement gap means for Columbia, Mo., and how administrators here plan to close it.

Click here to read the story on the Columbia Daily Tribune Web site, or read it below.

CDT-082309-A-001.ps, page 1 @ PDFReady_2 ( CDT  8-23-2009 )

Achievement gap still shows in MAP

Blacks, Hispanics continue to lag.

By Jonathon Braden

The gap between the academic performance of black students in Columbia and statewide grew during the past year in both communication arts and math, according to the Missouri Assessment Program test results released Aug. 12.

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Black students’ MAP scores were two of the 10 subgroup numbers in which the state average was higher than Columbia’s mark. Columbia students outperformed state averages in scores for the other four subgroups.

“We have work to do,” said Nathan Stephens of the Black Parents Association of Columbia Public Schools. “We must come together to do whatever it is we need to do.”

The widening disparity shows that the much-discussed achievement gap between white students and minority students continues to hamper Columbia more than it does the district’s peers. Six years after the school district made eliminating achievement disparities between groups of students one of the Board of Education’s three goals, the gap has swelled.

But with a new superintendent and a new five-year strategic plan, district officials say now is the time to determine what needs to change to close Columbia’s achievement gap. “We’re like everyone else; we’re not getting it done,” Superintendent Chris Belcher said. “That is so disappointing because there’s been so much money that’s been poured into closing the gap.”

MAP scores measure how many students are proficient in a subject according to the test’s standards. If one subgroup at a school does not meet the federally set goals for communication arts or math, the entire school fails to meet its progress goal.

The scores track data for Columbia in seven student subgroups: Asians; blacks; Hispanics; whites; students receiving a free or reduced-price lunch; those in individualized education plans, or IEP; and students with limited English proficiency, or LEP.

In the Columbia district, only Asian and white students outperformed the state averages for math and communication arts.

This year, 64.3 percent of Columbia white students were proficient in communication arts. The state average was 56.6 percent. In math, 57.9 percent of Columbia white students were proficient compared to the state average of 53.6 percent.

Asian students fared even better. In communication arts, 67.9 percent of Columbia Asian students scored proficient this year. The state average was 61.7 percent. In math, the state average for Asian students was 64.8 percent this year. In Columbia, 72.5 percent of Asian students were proficient.

Hispanic students scored worse than both white and Asian students. In 2009, 37.5 percent of Hispanic students in Columbia scored proficient in communication arts compared to the state average of 37.7 percent. In math, 32.8 percent of Columbia Hispanic students were proficient this year. The state average is 35.8 percent.

But no subgroup data have gained the attention of the public and of school administrators more than those of black students, whose scores routinely are much lower than their white and Asian peers around the nation.

In 2008, 21.2 percent of Columbia black students scored proficient in communication arts compared to the state average of 24 percent. In 2009, 25.7 percent of Columbia black students were proficient in the subject, but the state average jumped to 29.7 percent.

In math, 18.9 percent of black students in Columbia were proficient in 2008 compared to the state average, 21.2 percent. This year, 18.7 percent of Columbia black students scored proficient in math. The state average of black students scoring proficient was 23 percent.

“The board and administration continue to assess results,” board President Jan Mees said in an e-mail, “and approach this issue realizing what we have done in the past isn’t working.”

Belcher said this year’s information alone doesn’t mean much because it is one year’s worth and did not track individual students. He said the scores provide a “snapshot of the system.”

But he acknowledged that much of what the school district has done in the past six years hasn’t narrowed the gap. “We need to start to critically analyze what’s worked and what hasn’t,” he said.

Stephens said he’d like to talk with national experts about what has worked in other cities. “We can ill afford to continue to sit back and hope things get better,” he said.

Board members and administrators say the new five-year strategic plan should help the school district chip away at the gap between state and Columbia averages for the academic achievement of black students. Board member Jim Whitt will be co-chairman of the student performance committee as part of the district’s five-year plan.

“I think we’ve got a real opportunity to make some significant changes,” Whitt said, “and I think we’re well on our way to doing that.”

Welcome

Welcome to JonathonBraden.com. Here you will find random musings about tennis, life, Columbia, Mo., journalism and writing. If anyone of those interest you at all, swing by every now and then. At this site, you’ll also find some of Jonathon’s best journalism and writing. Click on the pages at the top of the page to see his past work. Enjoy.