PRELIMINARY STUFF (To be Skipped if You Don’t Want to Know Why I Think as I Do)

By Penny Smith — January 10, 2018

I am now homebound much of the time, since my presence is required for the safety and health of a family member. Consequently, I’ve tried to find ways that I can still help the local political party, vent periodically my frustration with political events, share what I discover through reading, and be of some help in framing how we talk about our Party’s values.

Toward that end, I broached our Communications Chair, Jane Koenig, with a proposal to write periodically about what’s on my mind. She graciously accepted. So, I will be posting weekly ramblings about our current situation. Read what you want or ignore any or all of it.

The local party does not necessarily agree with what I write. However, I will try to moderate my rashness periodically, so I do not embarrass them. This is my personal view and I am responsible for it.


Warning: The word “I” is used excessively in the following. It’s intended as my way of letting you know who the writer is and what experiences shape my worldview. Nothing will be this long again. Maybe.

I’m retired and well-qualified to identify as a senior citizen. I admit to being technologically challenged, prone to 1960s examples, and a baby boomer, with all the prejudices that might entail. For example, I still like Americana music (we called it folk music back in the day.)

My mother spent her last years with me in North Carolina. I watched her suffer a severe stroke, go through the difficulties of trying to cope, and eventually I watched her die in a local nursing home. I’m now living with someone with rapidly progressing dementia. As a result I am familiar with the limitations of our health care system, its contradictions and complications. I deplore its lack of comprehensive, affordable, decent long-term care options common in other industrialized nations. Paradoxically, our health system is staffed with some of the kindest, competent people I have met. I do not love insurance companies.

I was most often a public school educator, although I got my professional start in an inner-city Catholic school in Texas. In this state I have been, at different times, a high school teacher, a Governors’ School teacher, a Community College part-time instructor, a middle school principal, a system Associate Superintendent, and a fulltime member of the faculties of UNC-G and WCU. I have a bias toward the value of education, as opposed to training, which is what our schools increasingly do. I know that the best natural resource in this state is its young people.

Neither of my parents went to college; I am the first college graduate in my father’s family, whose roots date back to colonial times. My mother and father came from humble, agrarian backgrounds – one in Maryland and the other, Iowa.

My father found his footing in the military, joining before Pearl Harbor, fighting in World War II, and making a career of military service before he retired to a civilian job in the 1960s. I was raised an Air Force brat for fifteen years and have a respect for much of what our military did and does in our name. I’m also well aware of its shortfalls.

My mother was the classic stay-at-home mom, but when her kids left the nest she found a secretarial job to help support two children in college and to find some personal satisfaction in doing outside work well. From her and my many cousins, I have a sense of what rural America is like and what it appreciates, a sense of its strengths and its weaknesses. While my father was in Japan during the Korean War, we (mom, brother and I) lived on a chicken farm in a small Nebraska town with an aunt, uncle and two cousins.

My mother’s family came from 19th-century immigrants. Her small hometown was Swedish up one road and down the other. I know firsthand about the immigrant experience, then and now (my sister-in-law is Canadian). Angry, because only the boys in her family got a chance at a college education and the girls became secretaries, mom became her family’s traveling member. Moving first to Omaha for secretarial school and early jobs, then to California, and later to Hawai’i, where she met my father. There was never any doubt in her mind that girls could achieve anything boys could; my feminism has its roots in her example.

I started college thinking I would become a medical doctor. I finished my first degree in English, because I discovered that science labs left you little time for reading novels. Eventually, I went back to school for an advanced degree in history, ending up with a Ph.D. from Rice University. Almost everything I consider is placed in historical context; it’s the way I make sense of the world. Whereas history schools my mind, fiction grounds my heart. I read constantly, widely, and often with giddy enjoyment.

The Air Force sent us around the country and to Japan. I have subsequently had multiple opportunities to travel, starting with the traditional on-my-own 1960s $5 a day grand tour and ending with regular visits to Cozumel, Mexico, to scuba dive and visit with my brother and sister-in-law. They have a vacation home there, which turns out, despite the view of our current President,  not to be in a land of druggies, rapists, and shag-nasty people.

I admit that I still drive through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park yelling to no one in particular that “I love  this park.” I like being outdoors, hiking in the woods with my dogs, and am a committed environmentalist. Yes, global warming is real and perhaps the life and death issue of our times. I’m definitely an internationalist, but with a parochial bent.

My history dissertation (there is an educational administration one, too, several years later about school reforms in the era of Reagan) traced political thought in North Carolina from 1763 through 1789. Many of the papers I wrote as a university academic involved education, politics, history and North Carolina. As a former state Teacher of the Year, NCAE activist, and ASCD consortium member, I’ve had the privilege of visiting almost every county in this state, giving a multitude of speeches to professional groups and local civic organizations, and sitting on state and national committees drafting legislation proposals or accreditation guidelines. I have seen and participated in the political process up close.

I come with prejudices and life experiences that shaped my ideas. I think baseball is a beautiful game and follow the Braves, even though the last couple of years have been a struggle. I traded following the Cowboys for the Panthers. Although my parents were conservative and Republican, I’ve been a life-long progressive and a Democrat. My father taught me to shoot when I was young and was himself a hunter; I respect guns, but I do not idolize them. Tears came to my eyes when I first saw the Grand Canyon. I cry at movies or while reading novels. After about a decade in the piedmont, I became convinced that real BBQ was pulled pork, not beef brisket. I root for ACC basketball teams.

I think that both Dorothy Day and Eudora Welty are saints. I admire Eleanor Roosevelt. I once handed out election day cards for Barbara Jordan, in whose district I lived in Houston. I think Hillary Clinton’s forbearance merits applause. I believe the Obamas set a high standard for parenting, personal elegance, the value of having a meritocracy, and grit. Government is not the problem; “We, the people,” who elect incompetent, inefficient or ideologically rigid politicians are. I appreciate John Adams and James Madison more than Thomas Jefferson. I believe evolution is the way life came to this planet, the scientific method is one of the great discoveries of man, and most things our current President claims to be “fake news” aren’t.

I was fortunate to have two parents who deeply loved one another, who gave me a kind, interesting, and loyal younger brother, and who set a standard for how married people should behave toward each other. I probably owe my now 43-year relationship to their example.

I converted to Catholicism as an adult and, during the John XXIII era of reform, spent several years deeply involved with the Church. That experience taught me about the power of faith, the wonder of grace, the Jerusalem Bible, the comfort of a caring community, and the short-comings of religious orthodoxy. Now I probably fit in a “skeptical, fallen Catholic” box. Today, I am more confused by some people who claim to be Christians than I have ever been.

Having worked in inner-city schools, I have seen what poverty does to individuals, families and neighborhoods. I have also seen the almost heroic ways poor people transcend poverty. The smartest person I ever taught was a young, white male in North Carolina; the second smartest person I personally taught was a middle school Latina. He went to Harvard; she went to work. I do not believe the world is divided into takers and makers. As someone who has maintained a small business for the past 30 years, I know a little something about risk, taxes, and entrepreneurship.

I am like each of you; we are a sum of persons, parts and pasts. People, their lives, their communities, their beliefs and actions, their stories often overwhelm me in their beauty and decency. Likewise, I am sometimes appalled by how short we fall from our potential, how difficult we find the admonition to “love one another,” and how easily we follow bullies and their kindred spirits. I know fear is a powerful motivator, but I also know that it is an authoritarian’s tool, not a democrat’s (small “d” here).

So, read on if you wish. If you have something you want to debate with me in the coming months, I can always be reached at No more personal information from me is necessary to begin this journey together. Read on.

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