Savoring the Pecan

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My dad loved pecans. I think he liked the feel of them in his hands, weighty and smooth, a free snack that was also his favorite.

When I was seven or so, I remember sitting with him at the dinner table in our new home, just us and a bowl of the little treasures, watching as he paid careful attention to extract the pecan in one piece. He helped open them for me, because I usually ended up hurting myself or making a mess. The time it took to get one open always made the reward sweeter.

He would have been jealous to hear how, in my first attempts at professional journalism beyond campus, the beat I was covering was littered with the chewy luxuries.

He passed away a year ago this December. After discovering he had stage-4 pancreatic cancer, we had two months together, and then I helped him from mess and hurt, in hometown San Antonio. The pecans we ate were bitter-sweet. They didn’t require his strength to break them, because they were already shelled, ready to eat – the backyard variety replaced by a shiny plastic bag.

Those pecans weren’t as good.

In all the time I spent in the PECAN neighborhood, I didn’t eat a single nut. I could have – they are my favorite, too – but I decided to wait. I had a different nut to crack, and I wanted the time and effort of my work in the neighborhood to be like the thoughtful chipping away of the shells, these homes and streets and schools that contain a precious treasure of people. The best stories are right in your backyard.

Now I can savor the reward.

These stories are for dad.

What I believe, and this I’ve discovered to be true, is that God is a friend to the hungry and needy, and provides for us in unexpected ways. I think Jesus was right when he said that your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Since I started reading newspapers (whenever that was, I’m not sure), there were two kinds of stories I wanted to tell the most.

I wanted to tell a story about a house, because my name (Tyler) means builder, and the architecture section in the New York Times has the most pictures; and I wanted to tell a story about a school, because I looked up to one of the world’s greatest visual journalists at the San Antonio Express-News, and she did a really beautiful piece on a school that helped me understand why photography mattered. I felt the history and passions of my community come alive and present.

I got to taste both varieties this semester.

In writing about Tim and Morgan Gieringer’s home becoming a historic landmark, I also reported on a former occupant and forerunner to my craft of journalism. William Davis, who rented the house in the 1920’s, was a pastor at a Church of Christ in town, and the longtime editor of their newspaper, “The Firm Foundation.” I felt a weight of responsibility, that by telling the story of the neighborhood, I could preserve the present, protect its past, and provide for the neighborhood’s future.

In a story on Calhoun Middle School, I witnessed students and teachers united in courage, a unique strength found in the struggle. The only girl on the boys football team, Maleyciah Tillman-David, gained new confidence at her school and in the midst of challenges at home. Her family, once torn apart by drug addiction and fatherlessness, reunited last year.

This was the most rewarding thing for me, to document answered prayer. Topics of justice and restoration of broken families were a focus of song and choruses in the Well House of Prayer, where I spent most of the past year and a half away from school. I wondered how I would ever tell others about, and let alone find, such dramatic answers of hope.

I think hope has substance and makes evident the things which are not attained, or attainable by our own will. Hope extends its hands to us in invitation to join it, that we could trust a hope that is certain. For my dad, hope is the end of the story.

Even pain is proof that life is meaningful.

One thing I’ve held in my heart since coming to Denton in 2012, is that I would see and document God’s Kingdom on earth. I’ve been called to tell stories that don’t shy away from the spiritual or the miraculous, and so testimonies of people could bring healing to others. Light could remove the darkness. Voices could speak of a greater one that unites us, and cause the world to believe. That’s what Jesus prayed for, before going to the cross.

I think God wants to help us live better stories.

Since Dad has been gone, I’ve resolved to let the Author be perfecter in me, though it’s hard to trust the Writer sometimes.

There’s pressure, and yielding. Discipline, and obeying. Risk, and dependence. Time. Incentive. More pressure. What shapes characters in stories we remember most are often those things which can cost them their very lives. They are caught up in the drama possessing them, Life asks and empowers us to fulfill our roles.

This semester has been a significant chapter in my development as a storyteller, and a son.

I felt like I did at the dining room table, depending on the strength of Dad to help me open pecans, so I wouldn’t make a mess or get hurt trying to do it on my own.

The reward is sweet.

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My niece, Eva Wimberly (5) holds up a pecan she collected, following the memorial ceremony for my dad, Ron Cleveland, at Fort Sam Houston Cemetery in San Antonio. Click the photo for a slideshow. You can read more about Pop on my personal blog, keehnphotography.blogspot.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Calhoun’s Courage

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A braid of hair sticks out the helmet and flings back and forth, as the only girl on the football field runs, further than she’s ever gone, and fights to not let her teammates down. It’s the last game of the season, and the Calhoun Cougars have the odds stacked against them. The Denton Middle School’s B-team hasn’t won a game this season.

She dodges a defender, sidesteps another, and then, like wooden blocks striking together, a loud “clock!” pierces the crisp autumn air.

A hush falls upon the crowd. All eyes are on Maleyciah Tillman-David. Her teammates and coaches looked out with hope, to see if she would get up, to see if she would overcome again.

Minutes pass as concern fills the stadium, and parents question if a girl should be playing football, or why Calhoun’s other players couldn’t pass their classes and finish the season. Then she wouldn’t have to carry the team. Maleyciah, the straight-A student, embraced by Calhoun’s all-boys football team for the last two years, wouldn’t have to take such a fall.

It was Maleyciah’s first time playing in the first-string lineup. She usually cheered from the sidelines, in the second-string of orange and white jerseys. Her coaches saw how she motivated the boys during practice, telling them to “Keep hustling!” with a slap on the helmet, and how she simply didn’t give up, win or lose, day-in and day-out.

After the hard hit, she limped to the sidelines, helped by her coaches. She endured a mild concussion, she would later learn, from a collision with her own teammate.

“I was upset, not because of the pain, but because I wanted to help my team win,” she said.

The Cougars lost, again, but that didn’t matter as much the next day. Winning didn’t matter as much at Calhoun Middle School, where strength is found in the struggle, in getting up and not surrendering, even with the odds against you.

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For the Past’s Sake

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The night drew on. Tim Gieringer couldn’t sleep. His home spoke to him.

He listened, as walls shed their past, and floorboards bore their former occupants, the shoe marks of a child running across the wood grain.

There were Bible verses sung by renters long ago, and bread broke underneath the flooding light, in a breakfast nook surrounded by windows with stained glass flowers red and yellow.

There was laughter, and high-schoolers who flocked underneath the portico, the deep overhanging eaves shielding them from the pouring rain.

Tim sat in his living room, peering over old photographs and newspaper clippings and documents about his home, the records he dusted off in the basement of the downtown courthouse.

He wondered about all the other homes in the neighborhood and the stories they carried, or the ones which have fallen on deaf ears, and if they could be heard again.

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Football Forever

Cars funnel through the neighborhood, until two blocks down, four houses and a pecan tree from the corner, a spot is found, and homes  become temporary parking identifiers for Friday night football.

The fading October sun stretches a purple band of sky over Fulton Street like a banner for the Denton High School Broncos, their purple and crimson gold uniforms an armor of royalty, bringing on the battle.

The weekend is here, ushered in by the trumpet sound and booming drums of the Bronco marching band, reverberating the tuning fork of the neighborhood, carrying the cadence like an invitation to the town.

The stands rumble with feet ascending and descending, an auxiliary instrument of the home-team.

Underneath, middle-schoolers toss the football back and forth in pre-game ritual, as is the concession stand. The smells of popcorn and nacho cheese spew over into the street.

Everyone is young again during Friday night football (tomorrow).

It is Thursday night, and the junior-varsity team is playing, to a sparse crowd of devoted parents, ready to celebrate a 7-1 winning streak. Varsity plays on Friday.

Annie Hawkins, graduating class of ‘75, works the ticket booth.

“Do we get in for free?” asks one parent. Hawkins catches the joke, her sunglasses looking straight ahead.

“Depends on who you are! That will be $6,” she says, her third night on the job.

She recalled her days at what was then called Bronco Stadium, the weekly gathering since Denton High School moved in 1957 to Fulton Street from what is now Calhoun Middle School. The stadium’s formal title is Denton Independent School District Stadium.

“I love the kids,” Hawkins said. “I never was able to have any of my own.”

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Today, stated on the press-box with plain black letters is “Mary Jane Lane,” a 2002 tribute to Mrs. Lane, who was secretary of the athletic and counseling departments from 1973 until she retired in 1993. She died May 8, 2001.

Assistant Principal Greg Hart carries a box of Double Dave’s Pizza through the entry gate. He and police officer Patrick Black balance the box on each side of the fence, digging in.

A woman carrying red velvet and chocolate cake passes by on her way to the press-box, offering a slice of each. Officer Black, graduating class of ’83, gives his to a friend.

“Can’t do sweets,” he said, holding his stomach, stout and stretching the shirt. “Sugar just makes you more hungry.”

Custodian William Dowdy is happy to receive the cakes.

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A foe-diamond studded ring stands out from his hand, cradling the last slice of bacon-pepperoni pizza.

Dowdy celebrated a district championship in 2000 as a Bronco, and has snuck away from his cleaning duties next-door to watch the game.

He smiles wide in his blue striped uniform. “I’m blessed,” he says.

Dowdy shared how he started working for Denton High School, after spending three years in a Kansas City jail, on account of “two bad choices.”

“I smoked marijuana. It’s hard for African Americans, you know?”

He didn’t say the other choice, but mentioned the one that got him back on his feet and at Denton High, after a greyhound dropped him and a group of former inmates off in Dallas two years ago.

“I’ll never forget the day my girlfriend, at the time, told me, ‘You ain’t got a job. You ain’t got a cell-phone. And you live with your momma,’ and…in the next two days, I was hired.”

Now, Dowdy is a source of motivation to the kids, and the football team. Coach Kevin Atkinson lets him come in the locker room for pep talks every now and then.

“I just want to be a role model. I tell the kids not to make bad choices, so they can grow up and become what they want to be, not what they need to be.”

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Behind the ticket booth is parked a truck painted with cartoon tropical birds. Randy Britain, graduating class of ’79, leans out of the window to hand Blake Thomas, 11, his cup of shaved-ice, which is immediately transmitted to a cubby and ten flavors are allowed equal pour, a “suicide.”

“Everyone loves Tiger’s Blood,” said Britain about the strawberry-watermelon-coconut mixture, turning the ice bright red. “They don’t even know what it is, but they love the name.”

The food-truck is a booster for the football team, with 20 percent of profits going back to the Broncos.

For Britain, it’s a chance to stay young at heart, remaining closer to childlike through the window of a food-truck, supporting his Broncos.

“Adults get to be kids again,” he says about the self-serve cones. “That’s why they like it.”

Tomorrow will be a bigger night for business. The stands will fill with past and present students, and graduates-turned-parents, mentors and friends.

And everyone will be young again, on Friday night.

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Onto City Council

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Frank Dudowicz asks Tim Gieringer about his home at 1108 West Congress Street, the first house in the neighborhood to receive landmark status, during a Planning and Zoning meeting Wednesday, Oct. 8, at the Denton City Hall. The motion to recommend landmark status to City Council passed 6-0

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Aaron Leal looks through the packet on the home.

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Tim Gieringer sits among empty chairs. The Historic Landmark Commission had not seen a request for landmark status in almost three years, until Gieringer and his wife Morgan applied their home, erected in 1922, at 1108 West Congress Street. The Gieringers said they hope the landmark status will create a domino effect through the neighborhood.

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Meet Becky Greenhagen, 901 Panhandle St.

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Becky Greenhagen kicked up her feet on the pole on her front porch, puffing the last of her cigarette before ashing it into a brick next to her chair, a pile of butts mounting-up like a monthly memorial to the neighborhood: the survivor still lives at this house.

How long have you lived in the neighborhood?

About a year and a half, with my roommates.

What do you think of it?

There’s a lot of traffic, but seems pretty quiet. Animals running around like that (a cat runs across the yard of a house across the street).

Are you a student?

I’m getting my Master’s at UTA in social work. I was at UNT before that, helped start a group called PUSH (Persevere UNTil Success Happens) about foster care.

Wow. Could you elaborate on that, foster care?

I was a foster child.

Two percent get out of high school.

That’s my big thing, is to get them through school and into free housing, and so they don’t have to make it on the street.

Nine out of ten are drug addicts. Alcohol.

I grew up in an abusive environment. I went through 12 homes, until I was emancipated at 17. My parents lost their rights to me. My brother and sister were adopted. I wasn’t. People would say, ‘Oh, we’ll adopt you, we’ll adopt you,” but nobody ever did.

I joined the Navy at age 18. That’s when I came to Texas. I lived in Nebraska.

What was the incentive behind joining the Navy, if any?

I didn’t have anybody.

I went all over the world. We would land aircraft and unload cargo in the Persian gulf. Then we would go party [laughs].

I got back into school two years later and became a chemistry major. I wanted to go to med school and be a surgeon. I always wanted to help people. But it never felt right.

Then one day my friend suggested that I take care of foster children. It never crossed my mind until then.

What happened after that?

I got my internship, and a stack of parents’ sheets would come in: ‘I don’t know how to help my child,’ they would say. I became a qualified mentor to the parents, so that’s what I do. I’m a professional family therapist.

It’s very stressful, very emotional. It’s demanding. It never stops. They need someone.

This kid is nine years old, meth addict because that’s what he was taught to do to survive. So then he makes the stuff. They are ten and have done things and seen things that nobody else would ever know about.

Can you describe the situation for foster children in America?

Eighty percent of foster children are medicated. They are guinea pigs. They’re targeted. Their care-takers aren’t equipped so they give them medicine. Every prescription means more money from the government. On average, every foster child is on three medications.

What about you, did you deal with that? 

I was always a very strong and stubborn child. I learned to be a mother at the age of eight. I was a survivor, I had to be. I had never fallen down and struggled. I refused to be like my parents.

I hated school but I was always a straight-A student [laughs0.

I was the odd one. I left. I got out of that cycle. 

So where do you work now? 

Cumberland’s Children Home. A lady who heard me speak publicly came and asked me if I would like to come visit and speak to the kids. I e-mailed them and basically said, how about I come and speak everyday and get paid? I created my own position.

What happens to foster kids as they age in the system? 

They run right back to their family they are taken from. They go back to that environment that they were familiar in. It’s the only stability they have.

I try to tell them, ‘You are no longer forced to be in that environment. You can create your own life.’

How do you cope with failure?

I do all I can do. I can’t save them. I can only do what I can, my best at the end of the day. I tell them, ‘I’m not going to work harder than you do, but if you’re not, there’s another one waiting.

They are trying to figure out who being an adult is. Then the world wants them to be responsible in all these other things, but they don’t even know how to have their own identity yet.

Can you describe the situation in Denton?

On average there are probably 100 children in foster care at all times. Others who are no longer under a caretaker are homeless, going from couch to couch at friends’ houses, sleeping in the hall at school.

There’s not very many facilitators to care for them here. There just aren’t enough resources.

A police officer will arrest the runaway because they are called out to find them, and they wont even respond to calls for 16-year-olds. There’s no point if they are going to keep running.

You said you’ve been through 12 homes. When did that start? 

From nine to 17. I saw so many different cultures, issues, religions, morals. I’ve been to 17 different schools.

So relating with people, I’m like a butterfly, but I don’t get attached. There’s not a person, not a human being that’s been in my life from birth to now, that can give an accurate description of who I and what I’ve been through.

I tell my girlfriend some things.

You said that you confronted different religions – did you come to your own conclusion?

I’m a Christian.

I heard of God when I was young. I wasn’t a troublemaker when I was a kid, but I did drugs. It wasn’t until I was 15, that God spoke to me. I became a Christian and my heart changed.

Can you talk about your relationship with God in the midst of trial?

I’ve never had to worry. Something will happen, it always does.

He knew I was strong. He made me that way for a purpose.

So many times, just when I think, ‘Oh, how am I going to do this? Pay bills?’ He’s like, “You think I forgot?” And he always comes through. There’s nothing that can shake me. He reminds me, ‘Every single person that you’ve touched…’ – you never know what one word, what one sentence, what one thing said to that person would make a difference.

I know a guy whose psychiatrist said to him, ‘You won’t live past the age of 21,’ and that one negative comment drove him to say ‘I’m going to prove you wrong.’

My family, everyone back home is saying, ‘You’re going to be a prostitute, an addict.’ They don’t know the Christian Becky, and I’m going to show them.

I remember my second, fourth and sixth grade teachers telling me, ‘You’re too smart to quit school.’ They would never know that because they spend 30 seconds to say that, a person is going to become successful.

I told God my ten-year plan: ‘I want to be a public speaker, get a job after school, work with kids,’ less than a year I had all that. I’m just waiting. I want to go over to some African country. I would do missionary work and have my own orphanage.

How much school do you have left?

I’m done in May. It’s a one-year program.

I see the tattoo, could you explain it?

It’s Psalm 51. People look at my tattoo and say, ‘What the f&^# is that?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I love Jesus Christ. I was messed up and he saved me. You don’t have to get right before you – you don’t come to him all cleaned up. You come to him as you are. He rescued me.’

I’ll say, ‘You can line up everything I love in this world and murder it and I wouldn’t deny him.’

Can you share your experience as a bisexual Christian? Would you ever want to be with a man?

I would. The reason I dress like a man is because I don’t want to be treated like an object. I was abused when I was young, and I don’t trust men. There was this one guy who I thought, ‘Maybe,’ but he didn’t love me for who I was and wanted me to dress a certain way – controlling. I just gave up.

So many Christians get hung up on the externals. They forget that God doesn’t look at the outside but at the heart. He knows my heart. He knows that I want to love, love, love this person and not lust after her. I want to bring her into relationship with God. I want to model what it’s like to be in a relationship with Jesus for her.

I mean, it’s not so much  about what sin your not committing as much as it is God knowing you. You can know God but God not know you. It’s about having him inside of you, about talking with him, feeling what he feels. It’s not about being perfect. Nobody is perfect.

 

 

 

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