Poverty, Testing, and the Multiple Roles of Male Middle School Teachers: EPTOM, Quapaw, OK

Dusk was settling over Quapaw when we happened upon a tee-ball practice session. The coaches jokingly volunteered each other before Aaron Thomasson finally agreed to sit with us for a bit.

My experience during our discussion was as a teacher listening to another teacher. The fact that he was living the headlines of all that’s wrong with education was both validating and deeply disheartening.

Thomasson could have been from anywhere because his story is the same: over testing does as much harm as good; absent parents are absent for a reason, but their absence makes it that much more difficult for a child to succeed; and, male teachers balance the precarious position of being sometimes the only male role model in a young student’s life.

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Aaron Thomasson hangs out with our EPOTM outside the barn where tee-ball practice is taking place. – photo by Rachel J Apple

But, Thomasson was not from “anywhere.” He was from Quapaw, as was his family, and the generation before.  His children can see their grandparents’ home from their own, and walk across the pasture to visit.  His wife is from the area as well, and is an early childhood teacher in the same school system.

They are deeply embedded, and invested, in the Quapaw community.

We sat with Thomasson at the end of May, 2015.  In the midst of most likely the worst budget cuts in our State’s history THIS year, I just wonder…how is their school doing now?

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The Solitary Dog Whisperer: EPTOM ~ Picher, Cardin and Commerce, OK

 

When grappling for a descriptive term to help you understand where we were, “as the crow flies” came to mind.

Approximately three to five miles southwest of Picher, OK, as the crow flies, we met Sherry Pierce.  To reach her, we crossed a cattle guard and ambled across the  gravel property entrance. She was attending to trash burning in a barrel at one of two trailers in a desolate setting, her dog skipping around at her side.

Sherry looked minutia-like against the vast gray sky, the empty acreage, vacant cattle trailers and the capable farm equipment scattered close by. Chat piles broke up the landscape to her north and east.  As we drove up, rolled down the window, and explained our project she didn’t blink.  An inner peace and easiness about her permeated our conversation.

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Sherry Pierce of Picher, OK – photos by Rachel J Apple.

After eight years of commuting to Joplin to care for animals every day, and helping her uncle and grandfather during nights and weekends, Sherry no longer lives at this location.  Her grandfather has passed away; her reason for being there is gone, and she – along with her dog named Red Solo Cup – are now somewhere to the north and east a hundred miles. As the crow flies.

The animals who meet you are lucky, Sherry.  You “fall in love with them.” You see the souls in their eyes.

Thanks for sharing your own soul with us when we showed up that day.

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Fading Signals: EPOTM Picher, OK Stop A

The first time I was to pass by a dead body during a funeral service, my stomach twisted into knots. A line of grownups in front of me sauntered alongside the casket, solemnly paused, murmured words to family members on the front pew, and moved on. Those in line modeled what I was to do, and I did it. However, the emotional flooding didn’t fade until much later that day, long after I had followed that single-file row of mourners exiting the church house doors.

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These familiar funeral knots gripped my insides as our team explored rows of vacant houses in Picher, stripped bare of windows, doors, wiring, shelving, and more. These dead house bodies of the multi-year Tar Creek Superfund funeral were once and for all silenced as a 2008 tornado took eight human lives and injured 150 more; that tragedy was followed by a 55-6 vote in 2009 officially calling for the closing of the Picher-Cardin school district. And, the Picher Wikipedia link reads:

The municipality of Picher was officially dissolved on November 26, 2013.[22] Linderman, the only remaining resident of Picher, died June 9, 2015

Gary Linderman only lived 8 days past the Sunday of our visit. The tornado, school closing, and his death tightly sealed the casket lid over the entire town.

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As we walked closer to the homes, each sprayed with a “KEEP OUT” warning, we began to hear noises. Some kind of electronic pinging danced on our ear drums until, finally glancing through the windows, we realized the source.  Smoke alarms in the homes, still powered by the smallest trickle of electricity from their 9-volt batteries, were beeping a warning: time for replacements. Time for replacements. Replacement-replacement…over and over.

The weakening sounds faded as the wind swept any remaining decibels away – past the other dead houses, across and over the piles of chat, and out onto a prairie where no one will hear them.

The knots in my stomach returned slightly when I edited the video and looked at the photos once again.  It’s been 9 months since we were in Picher; I am guessing all the smoke alarms are now silent.  Silent like the sounds of the true graveyard Picher is, and silencing to experience in real life.

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Picher Gorilla high school mascot. Photo by Rachel J Apple.
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Panoramic view of more vacant houses – Picher, OK. Photo by Rachel J Apple.
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Row of vacant houses – Picher, OK. Photo by Rachel J Apple.

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Tar Creek Documentary

The Creek Runs Red – PBS Film

Oklahoma Historical Society Picher Page

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Backstage at the Coleman with Danny Dillon: EPOTM – Miami, OK

Emotions carried me through our entire visit with Danny Dillon at the Coleman Theatre in Miami, OK.  As he shared anecdotes from teaching high school drama, I was running a parallel process internally.  Having taught high school drama for eight years, I had experienced a similar story for each one he told.  Cripes, I missed the theatre…and Dillon did everything he could to help us enjoy the full experience of the Coleman the day we sat and talked…which made me miss it even more.

Our photographer and videographer filled up too many memory cards to count during our time with Dillon. We could produce multiple pieces of the Coleman’s history, special features about the tourists going walking through the the theatre’s plush hallways with us, profiles of the volunteers who spend hundreds of hours using the donor’s hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring back the original glory, and more.

And we may. Someday.

But our first duty is to those with whom we get to know, and we had a beautiful conversation with Dillon.  His full heart is invested in what he does at the high school, his church, and at the Coleman. It’s as if he has three hearts…no, four.  A heart for his children and wife were apparent as well.

Even after having documented the Miami stop over six months ago, I am quite awestruck when I think about how many children have been introduced to the stage, to plays and musicals, to silent movies with amazing organ music, and to history…because of Danny, the Coleman at large, and the “extra at-large” community that makes it happen.

We are tipping our Tom Mix hats to you, Miami.  You’re really quite something.

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Picher’s Last Breath: Gary Linderman Remembered

by Graham Lee Brewer

When Gary Linderman died last summer, I couldn’t help but think the town of Picher, or rather the former-town, was finally dead. Gary was the last holdout in Picher, a man who refused to leave as the town around him withered and died, staying long after tornadoes and lead poisoning had taken its toll on the meager little municipality in the northeast corner of Oklahoma.

Many of us by now know well the story of Picher, a town built on vigorous lead and zinc mining in the early 1900’s. The towering piles of chat, discarded left-overs from the large mining efforts, loomed large on the edge of town. Continue reading Picher’s Last Breath: Gary Linderman Remembered

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