I promised myself I wouldn’t write about this until the timing was right but that was before I spent maybe the most fun hour I’ve had in I don’t know when on Friday morning. Now I am so excited about what might happen I’m about to pop. A couple of weeks ago I lost my phone and Bob Corker, our former Mayor and Senator and a lifelong friend, told me he went to considerable lengths to track me down and, boy, am I glad he did. In the past few years I’ve left Corker alone, just like I do a lot of famous people I know and richly admire. Maybe it’s just me because I put such a cherished premium on ‘real friendship’ that I never want to overplay my hand for the sake of some stupid story. My deep friends and their privacy mean too much to me. That may sound silly, but I adore it when my spirits soar any time my path crosses that of a lifelong friend and Friday, as the two of us shared some time that was special before it even started, it meant even more to me than what I’d hoped it would be.
We laughed together and joked some but what we talked most about was the future. We talked about the things that really eat me alive about Chattanooga and Bob feels the very same way. He told me that in the 10 months or so he’s been away from Washington he would have never believed how much he found he missed Chattanooga. That’s when I told him there were many, many mutual friends who are eager to see “what’s next” and, as for me, I’m more hooked on our city and its people than ever before.
“God has giving you the richest gift of anybody I know,” I told our city’s most famous son. “You’ve conquered mountains so high the rest of us can’t see the tops of ‘em. You’ve told the President of the United States to go back to day-care, and an entire nation agreed with you. You own the building where we are sitting and, if I even suspected you were going to hide off somewhere and clip coupons until you croak I’d start crying. Bobby, your race is far from over and I’ll tell you this here and now … whatever it is you want to do – I don’t care what it is -- I’ll give you me and my pencil (writing ability) 100 percent if you’ll just get going. Let’s have fun.”
(NOTE: My best friend was Bob Caldwell before he died. We were inseparable for over 50 years. Everybody called him “Bob” but me … he was “Bobby” … and whenever I see Corker, well, he’s “Bobby” too. That too, goes back 50 years.)
Corker said he’d taken some time off … he recognizes that it was a good thing for him … but now he comes to his office every day and always has something to do. Obviously he’s into a lot of stuff and I needn’t tell you he has a lot of phone numbers of those wanting to bend his ear. His life is far from boring but – answer this -- what is it that seeks his flame? What can he do to make a new bold mark in his life’s ledger? No, he doesn’t need to do another thing but I’m one of those who knew his daddy – that’s not how he was raised. “That’s why you and I are talking,” he answered graciously so, off I went.
Our schools are the single most important factor in Chattanooga right now, I told him. We are in the Top 10 of the “Most Dangerous Cities in the United States” right now, based on crime per 100,000 capita. Chattanooga is fourth on the list of “The Worst Run Cities in the United States.” The best solution to either of these crisies is education and I have never been as certain of that in my life. If we can educate our most uneducable, we can literally save hundreds of lives. Corker, with a huge heart for our accursed inner city, is a huge proponent of that. Every day Erlanger Hospital births single-parent children. Generational poverty in our home town is epidemic. We’ve got to figure out whatever it takes.
I am hardly alone in my belief that our public-education system is as bad as it has ever been. The latest ACT tests are on the state’s Department of Education website and out of the top 10 largest school districts in the state, Hamilton County is eighth. Eighth! The average ACT score statewide is 20.1 and seven of those districts scored over 20. Chattanooga dropped 2.9 percent this year (19.6 from 19.9) and we are only ahead of Nashville and Memphis. “Has the ACT failure been in the newspaper?” Corker asked and, when I didn’t answer, he heard me. Giving out these ‘5’ banners is a rah-rah stunt … and that’s okay if we need something to cheer about, but the TVAAS tests or measurement or rating or whatever means nothing. The test was devised years ago by some agriculture professor at UT-Knoxville as a way to judge cows, who then jockeyed the legislature into making a ridiculous law that gets his heirs millions every year.
If the TVAAS was just halfway valid, why is Tennessee the only state of buffoons in the country to use it? You know that Nolan Elementary and Thrasher Elementary on Signal Mountain are just three miles apart, right? The students and the faculties are identical. Geographically it is impossible for either to be different except for this: Nolan takes special needs kids where Thrasher does not. A couple of years ago Thrasher was a ‘5’ and Nolan was a “1.” The only thing that is worse is that not one person in our top-heavy HCDE administration has the gumption to call it what it is – an out-and-out farce.
If I were over the schools, every “priority school,” which is really “a poverty school,” would go to school 52 weeks a year. “Spring break?” or “fall break?” All that means is “food break.” We have no idea what poverty children experience. I’d have them reading fun books every day. If it was up to me we would have “Boy Scouts,” and “Girl Scouts,” and they would be mandatory, with glee club, elementary school civics and supervised art. I’d have religion – Christian, Buddha, Muslim … I don’t care, but every one would know how to pray if just one commits suicide or a classmate’s sibling died. My heaven’s sake! Every child would have to take “home ec” (economics) at least two years before the eighth grade. These kids can’t sew on a button, cook an egg, saw a board in half, or dig a straight ditch. With only one parent working two jobs, they need life skills, how much detergent per load of dirty clothes, how to iron, set the table, scrub the tub.
There is a great story that exposes the greatest lie ever perpetuated on the American people – a college education. Do you know why we all took algebra and not 95 in every 100 of us have ever applied it? The lone reason is the colleges demanded it. That’s the truth. Bobby, in all you have ever accomplished, have you ever once applied the principles of algebra to anything? (Corker, laughing, said, ‘Never … not once.”) We need to replace it with civics! With civics we can change America but with algebra we can make a child more miserable than with the chicken pox.
The Tennessee Department of Education just announced a key finding. We, the gullible in the United States, have watered down a college education to where it now takes an average of six years for a student to graduate from UT-Knoxville or Chattanooga. Of those who graduated from Tennessee high schools in 2012 (six years ago,) we have learned 30 percent obtained a college degree. Six years ago, our schools threatened every student that if they did not get a college degree, they would spend the rest of their lives “turning a wrench,” like it was leprosy or something. But as of this very hour, we have 7.3 million open job positions in the United States available for hire today – right now at this very minute – that don’t require a college degree yet our government-guaranteed student loans now total $1.6 TRILLION (with a “t”) Now who’s the idiot?
It has been written that over 90 percent of kids at UT have student loans who will be looking for jobs. You remember Kenny Smith, the best point guard we had at City (High School, where Bobby and I went to school?) Kenny is now big in the electrical union and he can’t find enough people to – get this – be hired immediately with a take-home check every week, attend apprentice schools just two nights a week with far better teachers than at any college, and in five years be making over $50,000 a year with no student loans. Good plumbers, roofers, home builders – I’m absolutely correct in calling each a skilled professional – have twice the bearing, the pride, the devotion to family, ball fields in the summer, and American-born happiness – than any philosophy graduate from Vanderbilt, where yearly tuition is now $52,070, thank you. Now who is the idiot?
Bobby, in the 70s the hoity-toity liberals closed down Kirkman Technical High School here. Go back in the archives and an elected official actually said, “It is degrading to the children who go there.” What the flamers actually did was stymie our city for years when good and talented production workers suddenly went missing. What I’m telling you is that higher education in Tennessee is a billion (with a ‘b’) expense that – hello! -- 70 percent of those who graduate from state high schools never touch. It is idiotic. I think college education is good for some but, quite personally, I hated and despised ever hour I wasted on a college campus. In Chattanooga we have a billion (with a ‘b’) in falling-down public schools yet there is a billion (with a ‘b’) of new construction at UT-Knoxville alone. How, outside of Russian and Communist China, does that work?
And one more thing … The colleges are feeling a real squeeze as people realize they ain’t mandatory. So now we give free tuition (wink, wink). I would impose a state law that anyone who takes a free tuition ticket cannot get a student loan. Greedy colleges are what drive the student loan market, and if any kid took a student loan, there would be a mandatory number of credits a student must earn in a semester … it worked in the Viet Nam draft, if you’ll recall. And debt reduction? I would have a liberal payback scheme for anyone who joined the active military because it is still the No. 1 source of teaching a child “to grow up.”.
I think a “quick fix” to our school facilities can be found in our area churches. We pay the church’s reasonable rent, supply cafeteria help, and make respect for their building and grounds imperative. School would last an extra hour, where the students would clean and polish and plant flowers and do any-and-everything to be good stewards. We coddle our kids in every school and, if we’ll make schools fun, the kids would rather stay at school than be alone at home. (Any child on an athletic team, a musical/performing roster, or after-school volunteer program at a hospital, nursing home, or a sponsoring business like Unum, Blue Cross, a hospital, Orange Grove, etc., would get out-of-school credits and be bused to the site and back.)
I have a great new friend who is over an entire floor at Erlanger. She swears she can teach any willing student more about getting an LPN degree than any other source. She also introduced me to two vivacious black girls who were so turned on they are saying nuts to the LPN, they will do anything to get their RNs and you know the driving force of that desire: the actual RNs they work beside every day!
Bobby brought up a new problem I haven’t noticed. He said we weren’t recruiting new businesses any more. New businesses are our lifeblood. What is this about? Look at any list of the fastest growing cities in the South and Chattanooga has more to offer than any on the list … only we aren’t on any list. Instead we are doing crazy stuff … like a Business Development District that charges serious money to furnish government services. Why? Nobody has a two-by-four to knock some sense into the worst public administration our city and county has ever experienced. We haven’t raised county taxes in so long we cannot offer bigger and better services. Oh, County Mayor Jim Coppinger is a joy – he’s my guy – but the public school tax fiasco undercut him and he desperately needs our County Commission to jump out of neutral and go forward.
Bobby asked me about talk that we should split our city and county schools. I told him that was crazy. The cost of two school systems is horribly prohibitive but if we could go to Metro government, or home rule, where we could merge so many departments, we could save serious millions. We all know this. Oh, but the blacks would be a minority … Lookout Mountain doesn’t feel its taxes need to support Orchard Knob … yada yada yada … please!
Until we are all willing to climb into the same boat and paddle together, we might as well call the descendants of the “Trail of Tears” and give them their land back because that is the only thing I can think of that is more stupid than following the example of every progressive city-county arrangement that is vividly on display in 49 other states I can name. Knoxville, where the average ACT scores are a far sight better than ours, has a good model to follow and, if you haven’t noticed, Murfreesboro and Franklin are two cities in our state who now giggle at us like they stole our lunch money. They are bigger than us, you know. But why?
Bobby and I talked about some other things that I want him to explain before I pass along but the thrill for me is that here is Corker, inviting different folks into his office to talk and exchange ideas of where our home town needs to be. Bob sees the need, he senses “the best is yet to be,” and he’s got the pluck to pull off a plan for us who have been waiting for him to come back home. That’s really big for me. Lordy, what a thrill to have him back.
Now let’s get him to where we can all have some fun.
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Oh, there is this, too. If anybody finds an iPhone down around Erlanger that has a red case, the number 423/667-2517, please call the Lookout Mtn. Police Department at 423/821-1226, and I’d love to come fetch it. It has my name “Roy Exum” on the back of it and I’ll make a contribution to Children’s Hospital in your name in my deep appreciation.