No More Counting Soap Bubbles – a Tribute to Edwina Stephens

In 2006, the Tallahassee Democrat did a special edition titled “The Ride to Equality,” subtitled “Fifty Years After the Tallahassee Bus Boycott.” As they developed this publication, the editors sought stories from local students who had encountered people who remembered the boycott. With the assistance of Al Lawson’s phenomenal staff, I was referred to Edwina Stephens as the perfect person for my fifth grader to talk to about that time in Tallahassee’s history.

This woman, who selflessly gave an hour and a half of her time, in her home, discussing topics that undoubtedly brought up personal pain, surprised me.

For instance, she clearly knew that it is possible to have the “last laugh” when others trivialize you. Check out a piece of her home decor:

Much more importantly, you would never have known she was meeting with a fifth grader whose mother had essentially dictated that the meeting would take place and who was probably a little antsy about being late for gymnastics. She gave Tenley her full attention, describing historic events in a way that no book ever could.

I wish I had the recording of the interview (which ended up deep in some abyss at the Democrat) – the facts and details all run together in my mind. I do recall Ms. Stephens talking about the separate hospitals in Tallahassee – the “white” hospital and the “black” hospital (which existed until 1971); about the courage of local white business people who stood up for their fellow African American Tallahasseeans in the face of peer pressure to do otherwise; about the lack of decent textbooks and school supplies for black children; and about the dehumanizing “tests” given to black people in order to “qualify” them to vote. One example was “count the number of bubbles on this bar of soap” and another was “do this math problem” (the problem being impossibly complex).

Edwina Stephens died last Tuesday, June 8, at the age of 86. I only spent an hour and a half with her, but in that hour and a half she, Tenley, and I were transported back to 1956, when three black women paid ten cents each in bus fare and took seats at the front of the bus. The unfolding of civil rights events after that day would take a lot longer than I have in this blog and a lot more expertise. But Edwina Stephens made it real, without drama or pathos, patiently explaining to a very young woman who had never been in a minority the important lessons learned by an older woman who had led efforts to give black children and adults a chance …. to get an education, to be gainfully employed, to vote, to be.

And for the gift of that hour and a half, I will revere her memory forever.

The best seats on the bus are open and they are hers for the taking.

RIP Edwina Stephens.

Edwina Stephens, Tenley Kiger 2006

Your Home is My Home (A Mama Kat Writing Workshop Prompt)

For tonight’s post, the random number generator handed me prompt #2: If you could witness (or take part in) any event in history, what would it be? Why?  This sounded deceptively easy until I tried to decide what historic event I would write about.  My decision coalesced when I was commenting on Dan Rockwell’s Leadership Freak post “Pressure to Be Invisible.” 

In my response to Dan’s post, I was answering the question: Can you think of people who changed the world by standing out?  Here is a modified version of what I said, utilizing information from the Tallahassee Democrat’s 2006 Special Edition on the 50th anniversary of our town’s Bus Boycott: 

There was a (white) family here in Tallahassee (George and Clifton Lewis) who, in the mid 50′s, opened their home to black people; George (a prominent banker) made loans to black homeowners and those who were jailed. Believe me when I say that there are times even in 2010 when this town struggles with civic equality (it is exponentially better, of course); for a family like this to take such a step in the 50′s really boggles my mind and makes me humbly respectful. They changed the world and stood out by opening their doors, literally and figuratively.

I learned about the Lewis family from Edwina Stephens.  Tenley and I visited Edwina several years ago; she had been recommended to me as someone who Tenley could interview in order to learn about the history of race relations in Tallahassee (the Democrat was compiling information gathered by schoolchildren).  I am pretty sure I learned at least as much and maybe more than Tenley.  Mrs. Stephens talked to us for well over an hour.  I really wish I could have the tape recording back, but it seems to have disappeared into a black hole at the Democrat’s offices.  I don’t need the recording, though, to conjure up in my mind the parts of our conversation that have stuck with me: how lynchings occurred at the tree that still stands on the grounds of our Old Capitol, how impossible it was for an African American person in Tallahassee to prove “competence” to vote (how many soap bubbles on the bar of soap? having to solve complicated mathematical equations); how dangerous it was to treat a white child at the black hospital, even if the child’s health were in serious jeopardy; the separate education systems.  I don’t recall the specific details she shared about the Lewis family, but I remember her talking about how, to the shock and disdain of their fellow Tallahasseeans, they supported the town’s black citizens through financial assistance and emotional support.

Edwina Stephens and Tenley (2005)

George Lewis provided financial support to Tallahassee’s black citizens, and Clifton Lewis opened their home to blacks and marched in civil rights demonstrations.  I always wonder if I would have the courage to do what’s right in the face of disdain and outright hostility from my peers.   For example, several years ago I was at a family gathering and a cousin who I only see every few years, but with whom I have always considered myself fairly close, told a joke that was anti-semitic and racist.  I froze.  What to do?  I ended up saying, “Oh, so that’s a [name of small town he lives in] joke, huh?”  My response, in belittling his town, may not have been any better than his original attempt at humor. 

To get back to the prompt’s original question, I would like to have been a witness to the turning of the civil rights tides here in Tallahassee, and I would like to have been at Clifton Lewis’s side when she said, “come on in – your home is my home.”

Mama's Losin' It

When the going gets though, the though get going.

Some people sing with the voices of angels.  Some people run long distances quickly.  Some people coach athletic teams to win, season after season.  Me, I see typos.  As several of my previous Wordless Wednesday posts attest, many letters are being written on objects that do not move while perfectly good letter-writing paper goes unused.  Thank goodness Mrs. Bowen, my sixth grade teacher, gave us students the hint that “stationary” has an “a” in its last three letters to remind us of an “anchor,” something that remains still.  “Stationery,” on the other hand, is used for writing letters. 

My nickname at Healthy Kids has been “The Big Green Pen” for many years now.  Because I use a green felt-tip pen when I edit letters, and because I am, to put it mildly, generous with the green ink, the nickname is permanent and has become my identity on Twitter (@biggreenpen) and among my proofreading/copyediting clients. 

There are a few of us at the office who enjoy language, and appreciate language used with precision and care.  Therefore, when I see something egregious (like the recent “Flordia”), I send out a quick email with a “Big Green Pen Challenge.”  When my coworker, Niki Pocock, participated in the most recent “Big Green Pen Challenge,” she included in her response a link to a blog by Bob Gabordi, Executive Editor of the Tallahassee Democrat, in which  Bob discusses why answering his phone is always an adventure.  As part of his blog, when he refers to a caller who questioned whether the Democrat still utilizes proofreaders, he wrote:

Losing those people huddled in the back proofreading pages was part of the price we paid for technology. These days, newspaper pages go straight from the newsroom’s computers to metal plates that go on the press. Fewer eyes are looking for typos and minor grammar flaws.

Between my initial reading (on Friday) of Bob’s blog and logging on to this morning, two typos jumped off the page (first case) and screen (second case).  It was time to e-mail Bob.

In my e-mail, I expressed my hope that there can be some happy medium between those non-existent “back of the room” proofreaders and “a journalistic organization resigning itself to an attitude of “we’ll catch what we can, but errors happen.” 

I pointed out the on-line lead for the well-done “print exclusive” article about the fiscal difficulties faced by the LeMoyne Center for the Visual Arts.  The text stated:

The recession has been particularly though on the
LeMoyne Center for the Visual Arts, a Tallahassee
nonprofit that’s been around for 47 years.

I also pointed out that the header to a very informative article in yesterday’s Democrat, which described how to prepare for the sport of triathlon, was titled this way:

Break in new gear as part of pre-race preperation. 
Arguably, neither of these errors did any damage.  The recession is still hitting Lemoyne; athletes still need to break in their gear to get ready for triathlons. 
I once proofread a friend’s resume.  I’m pretty sure the friend’s career might have gone a whole different direction if the friend’s original representation of her “Master’s in Public Administration” had not had its “L” in “Public” replaced before distribution. 
For examples of typos that have done more than annoy, visit Eye for Ink’s Typo of the Month page.  You can even subscribe to receive a new “particularly embarrassing or expensive” typo every month (if you can stand it!). 
When my new smartphone started anticipating my words for me, so that, for example, I could start typing “let’s get lu….” and the phone would pop up with the options of “lunch” or “lucky,” I started tuning in to the types of technology that have become an expectation of my 10- and 13- year old children.  There is very little thinking involved; your message can be composed and sent in a flash. 
But getting “lunch” and getting “lucky” are different.  I imagine there are many people out there I might want to have lunch with, but only one I plan to get lucky with!
In the final paragraph of my email to Bob, I said, “However, if we parents do manage to get our kids to read the newspaper (one can always hope) or if a teacher requires students to read an article in the newspaper for a class-related assignment, I think it is important that the writers/publishers have made every effort to show that they care about the “small considerations” of spelling and grammar in addition to the “big considerations” of what they have to say.”
Bob responded within two hours of my original e-mail.  His response e-mail, in which he assured me that typos “drive me utterly insane” (yay! a kindred spirit), he also pointed out that the “online editing process is different … than the print process.”  He discussed the “nature of writing and editing so quickly for the 24-7 news cycle” and commented that, “such errors have always been a problem for newspapers.”  Bob said that, “Newspapers have long been called the first draft of history ……. Now, with the Web, perhaps print is the second draft.  But in either case, we have never faced more intense deadline pressure than now and I would not be surprised if our typo-error rate is not higher than in previous generations.” 
In closing, Bob wrote, “there is anything but a casual attitude or reaction to such errors in our newsroom.  If I gave that impression, it is a false one.” 
I really appreciate the e-mail exchange I shared with Bob, and the articulate, explanatory nature of his response.
Writing, proofreading, and editing have always been a big part of my life.  Sometimes it has been professionally compensated; other times it has been on behalf of a cause that I love.  When I left the Holy Comforter book club tonight, thinking about next month’s book, Half the Sky, it occurred to me that quibbling over “it’s/its, heel/heal, peek/peak, and other grammatical no-no’s,” while important to preserving the integrity of the written word, is a true luxury compared to the life and death struggles the women featured in the book face from the moment they are born. 
To tell the story of the women featured in “Half the Sky,” though, and other stories meant to inform, convince, and reassure, requires attention to language and detail.  It is that attention to detail and drive to be accurate that I seek to keep alive by protecting the way in which language is used. 
Maybe I’ll “get lucky” and this blog won’t have any errors.  Anyone want to “get lunch” and calmly discuss?