Lessons Taught & Visions Caught

Dispatches from Crowley’s Ridge Academy

On sportsmanship

Don’t you hate it when someone raises a valid point that, try as you might, you can’t forget or ignore? For me, that happened several years ago with a book I read. The author’s assertion was that there are segments of our lives in which, consciously or subconsciously, we have determined that the way of Jesus simply won’t work. Doing things His way seems either impractical or inefficient, so we set aside the principles and practices of faith while we’re in that particular arena.

Take politics, for instance, where conventional wisdom says you have to “play dirty” to win, because the other side will if you don’t. In that vein, looking inward and identifying my own internal inconsistencies led to some painful re-evaluations. In what areas am I essentially saying, “Sorry, Jesus, you don’t belong here”? While I’d like to claim that I’ve got it all sorted out, there are still eleventy-seven parts of my life in which I look nothing like Jesus. But that’s no reason to stop trying, right?

As if I don’t have enough inconsistencies of my own to manage, I also try to make sure that our school collectively looks and acts like Jesus. Part of that is the same public relations calculation that every organization considers: Does the public have generally good encounters with our school and a favorable opinion of it? But for CRA, a school that hangs its hat on being not just a private educational institution but also an avowedly Christian one, there’s a greater concern. Larger than the PR worries common to every company is this: How are we representing the faith our school collectively professes?

Sadly, there have been multiple sporting events on campus this year at which the opposing team’s fans were overheard making postgame comments along the lines of, “I thought this was a Christian school, but I guess not.” In each instance, they were talking about the actions of some of our fans.

Now, I’ve heard that often enough over decades of CRA affiliation to recognize that there are times it carries incendiary intent. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a cheap shot said in anger. When the action on the court creates conflict in the stands, that sort of thing is going to happen, and you never know what anyone’s motivation may be. As a result, I generally take such feedback with a grain of salt.

And yet more and more, I worry that we’ve come to view a gymnasium as one of those places where we’d like Jesus to make himself scarce. So while we’re there, we feel we have the right to insult and demean others for a couple of hours. That may be the cultural norm for sporting events, but is it the right thing to do?

I played basketball (or at least, I tried – the actual work product probably wasn’t identifiable as a sport). I’m a basketball dad. I’ve been the fan yelling at the referees because I thought my insults were clever, and the fan yelling at them because I thought they were terrible at their jobs and deserved public shaming/waterboarding, and the fan yelling at them because their obvious biases represented a clear and present danger to my team and/or child.

The bottom line is, referees do three things: they make good calls, they make bad calls, and they go home to their families. At any given time, every whistle is going to split the crowd 50/50 between good call or bad. But we can all relate to the third item on the list. Whether a referee has a great night or a lousy one, at its end he or she still just wants a cheeseburger and safe travels home. Surely we can all relate, and afford him/her the luxury of human understanding when the calls don’t break our way.

I truly don’t want to spend each game policing fan behavior. (Coach Freer and I have secretly decided to make Mr. Hagood handle that!) But there are multiple reasons why sportsmanship and mature fan behavior are critically important for CRA. Yes, we want to promote a positive image for the school. But much more importantly, we – players, coaches, and fans alike – carry the witness of our faith into every contest, and that is infinitely more significant than the outcome of any game.

So I call on each of us as fans to police ourselves. Let’s be unrivaled in our noisy support of our kids and teams, but let’s stop short of insulting or demeaning players, coaches or fans on the other side. Just as we don’t realistically expect our team to play a perfect ballgame, let’s also give the officials wide enough berth to make a mistake or two before we verbally assail the quality of their visual or mental acuity.

It is the right thing to do. And around here – hopefully, especially around here – the right thing always matters.

A day for giving

Today is Giving Tuesday.

If you naturally tilt toward old-person grumpiness as I do, it’s easy to slip into the warm lap blanket of cynicism about these last few days. The contrived series of post-Thanksgiving “events” is really designed to shape consumer behavior. Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday… the only thing that could possibly make these more irritating to those of us in the prune juice club is that you’re supposed to squish them into one word preceded by a hashtag. So it’s not Giving Tuesday, but rather #givingtuesday.

Just as you’re supposed to dropkick your fellow shopper to claim discounted dry goods on Black Friday and buy a sentient kitchen appliance (#smarttoaster) on Cyber Monday, your assigned task on Giving Tuesday is to make a charitable donation or two.

A charitable donation, you say? Well, now. Suddenly I’m totally on board with #thisnonsense. Hashtags all around!

But seriously: There’s plenty of good to be found in all of these shopping/spending days, especially those that support local businesses, families, and charities. If you can accomplish it without throat-punching your fellow man, that’s all the better.

Decades before there was a #givingtuesday, nonprofits like CRA (and including CRA) sent out end-of-year funding solicitation letters. Hearts are generally more open toward generosity at this time of year, and there are often some last-minute gifts that need to be made to avoid tax consequences. Nonprofits of all stripes have benefited from year-end generosity, and we still greatly depend on it. In fact, 30% of all US charitable dollars are donated in the month of December. And CRA needs those dollars.

Among the many day-to-day challenges here is the never ending cycle of need. For example, it hasn’t been that long ago that we finished putting “smartboards” in every classroom. Around the time the last one was installed, our oldest one went on the fritz and needed to be replaced. We’re hoping to replace two of them this year, but there are around 20 more that will need to be upgraded soon. At a cost of $3,500 each, that’s a chunk of change.

It feels like we just installed computers in our student lab, but that was way back in 2017. By today’s standards, those are already nearing obsolescence. We need to start cycling in new machines to stay current.

In 2020 and 2021, we’ve been able to undertake major improvements here thanks to the support of generous donors. We constructed two new offices, completed major updates to the Emmett Smith Auditorium (with more on the way), added central air conditioning in our main gymnasium, and recently purchased a bus. Those projects were funded either through group fundraising efforts or from large gifts by companies and individuals.

This year, if you’re in a position to consider a major gift, I hope you’ll find CRA worthy of your investment. Please contact me to discuss specific areas of need.

If your portfolio isn’t ready to bankroll a major gift, there’s still something very important you can do for CRA on #givingtuesday. Would you consider setting up a smaller, recurring gift? It’s very simple to do on our online giving form. Just choose an amount you’d like to give each month, then under Type of Donation, select “Recurring Donation.” Each month, that same amount will be donated to CRA. (Don’t want to do this online? You can mail a check each month if you’d prefer. We’re not picky!)

These “grassroots” gifts create a solid foundation of support that helps us meet our monthly obligations and plan for cycles of replacements and upgrades. Better still, they communicate your commitment and support of what happens here every day.

This #givingtuesday, I hope you’ll take a look at helping CRA financially. Know that we are grateful for every gift regardless of the amount, and that we are most thankful for the partnership of friends, family, and alumni in “building leaders, building followers” each and every day.

Just a can of beans

Our student council is sponsoring a canned food collection drive this week. This is an annual effort led by Mr. Eric Hagood, our assistant principal, and various clubs have taken ownership of it in years past.

Like a great many other things, I’m too guilty of letting this effort slip my mind during my at-home hours. I get to school each morning, see the collection barrels in the lobbies, and mentally smack myself in the head for forgetting to contribute yet again. Fortunately, my children have a very smart and organized mom who stays on top of such details, and she faithfully sends items to be donated. As soon as I remember that lady’s name, I’m going to send her a lovely greeting card.

Maybe efforts like these fail to stick in my memory because I don’t see the direct benefit. Employees from the Food Bank of Northeast Arkansas will come and pick up our donations, and we’ll never see those cans again, nor possibly give them a second thought. It’s a very efficient process, and our friends at the food bank — including its CEO, Christie Jordan, who is a CRA mom and a former board member here — excel at getting food into the hands of the people who need it most. I’m very thankful for that.

There are times, perhaps, when such efficiency blinds us to the importance of the work. That’s not criticism of the process, but rather an observation of human nature. For a few years, I was blessed to be part of a group that met weekly to feed hungry people in Paragould. It was eye-opening work. We learned so much about how the homeless and the working poor cobble together an existence from ingenuity, necessity, and the kindnesses of others. Their survival skills are remarkable, and so many of them make the very best of a bad situation. Without delving too deeply into politics, I saw none of those allegedly ubiquitous “welfare queens” buying steak and lobster with their food stamps. Were there people who took advantage of the social safety net and the kindness of others? Absolutely. But they were few and far between.

What I did encounter was a number of people, including veterans, sleeping under the Eight Mile Creek bridge in December. I met a senior citizen who lived in squalor, paying too much in rent for a roach-infested “apartment” that was really just a glorified (?) carport. I met a deaf woman who, with her children and the clothes on their backs, fled an abusive husband in Oklahoma, and when their car broke down in Paragould, had literally nowhere to turn except the homeless shelter. And, yes, I met more people than I could count who were drunk, high, or whose demons left them so severely damaged that they will never be able to contribute to society.

You might find some of those situations heartbreaking and others infuriating. Long ago, I stopped trying to ascertain who “deserved” help and who didn’t. When you think about it, no matter whether someone is a victim of circumstance or their own worst enemy, does that change whether they get hungry or thirsty? Does it mean I shouldn’t care whether they have basic shelter or clothing?

Knowing some of these people, being able to call them by name, rewired the way I think about providing help. Clearly, I’m still so selfish and dull as to forget to send canned goods when the school is collecting them, so I’m not exactly Mother Teresa here. But when I see those canned goods now, I can think about some people I know for whom each can of beans is a lifeline — simple, decent, nutritious, and free. It may not change their lives forever, but if it changes it for a few hours, alleviating hunger pangs from a long list of other problems they face, then isn’t that something? Isn’t it worthy of my time and energy?

I hope you’ll be better than I am about remembering to send food this week. I’ll also encourage you to take another step, by volunteering at a food bank or any local organization that helps you put a face and a story with these canned goods.

After all those years

CRA’s Class of 1986 will meet this weekend for a reunion.

It’s been 35 years since this class graduated from the Academy, and that’s difficult for me to process for any number of reasons. I was an eighth grader when these guys and girls were seniors. I remember them as older enough so as to be just outside my social orbit. I remember liking them, looking up to them, wishing I could hang out with them but knowing my humble place on the social ladder of the mid-80’s wouldn’t allow it.

To a person, they were always kind to me, in no small part because my older brother was part of their class. Because of him, I was probably given a free pass at times when I otherwise would’ve been ignored or chased away. I’m thankful for the grace I received.

Thirty-five years. We’d fit right in at Grandparents’ Day now. So much has happened. Their class, like my own, has suffered the untimely deaths of classmates. The Class of 1986, like my Class of 1990, has seen some thrive and others struggle mightily. Sweet success and profound sorrow are represented in the stories behind those faces on their class composite portrait. It’s true not just of 1986 graduates, but of every class in every school. As Bruce Hornsby told us way back in ‘86: That’s just the way it is.

When you think about the gray hair, the scars (physical and otherwise), the wrinkles; when you consider how life floats you to unexpected heights, then dunks you sputtering under a wave of setbacks and losses; when you feel the weight not of added pounds or arthritis so much as the world-weariness that can accompany such a vast body of experiences — when you arrive at the intersection of all of the joy and all of the rest, three decades’ worth of life racing by in four directions, there is perhaps one word that best summarizes the whole of it:

Wonder.

How in the world did they — did we — make it this far, to this present, perhaps carrying for too long the bruises and grudges of youth? The happily-ever-afters, the divorcees, the doctors, the patients, the homemakers, the homeless, the preachers, the doubters — every story that shows up to every reunion is a wonder all its own.

My theory is that sometimes it takes this long — 30 or 40 years, maybe — for fists to unclench as long-held grievances dissolve, for striving to give way to acceptance, for comparison and competitiveness to yield to compassion and camaraderie — the sclerosis of insecurity becoming certainty.

I don’t know how much, if any, of this truly applies to the Class of 1986. I know that other classes have given voice to this sense that all of the things that seemed so important — the long list of grievances so unforgivable all those years ago — finally give way to a sense of how good it feels to see and hear and hold the people with whom you shared some of the most formative years and experiences of your life.

To the Class of 1986, as you gather in person (and because it’s 2021, via Zoom) this weekend to lay eyes on one another and celebrate 35 years of history: Congratulations! May the memories and laughter flow freely all weekend, and we’ll hope to see you again in five years (or sooner!).

There is, by the way, an All-80’s class reunion being planned for mid October. If you’re an alumnus of that era, I hope you’re planning to attend. (If this is news to you, drop me an email and I’ll get you some information.) Show up not in spite of your grievances, experiences or struggles, but because of them. These are your people.

A sub teacher’s perspective

Jill Evans is a dear friend of CRA and a personal friend of mine as well. Jill, her husband Tony, and their daughter Elisabeth are quick to serve our school in a great number of ways. One of the most prominent is through Jill’s leadership of our “Moms in Prayer” group, which meets each week to pray specifically for the people and activities under the roof of CRA.

Jill also helps us as a substitute teacher, and it was in that role that she visited campus recently. When I get an email from a sub teacher, I always halfway expect bad news about a particular class’s behavior. Jill’s message was quite the opposite, so I asked for and received her permission to share it with you.

– Terry

—–

Last Monday, I subbed for Amy (Austin) in her 8th grade science class. They had just arrived when I glanced at my phone and saw a friend had called me. This friend, Brenda, was a friend for 30 years, lived in the Dallas area, and was dying of cancer. I had been keeping our mutual friends updated on her situation this year, and had been checking in with her every couple days, but knew she was very near the end of her life. When I saw I had missed the call, I knew I needed to call back. We always made “appointments” for our calls because of her health and my schedule, so a random call scared me a bit.

So, I explained to the class the situation. They can be a noisy bunch, as you all know, but at the phrase “dying of cancer,” they went quiet and wide-eyed. I asked them if they would be quiet and cooperative for just a few minutes while I went in the hall and returned her call. They agreed, so I stepped out, and talked to my friend. 

It was our last conversation. She passed away early last Friday morning. She went to be with the Lord peacefully in her sleep.

So, when I knew I was subbing in that same class exactly one week later (yesterday), I just couldn’t stop thinking about how those kids had given me a great gift. I knew I had to tell them, so I started the class by telling them that my friend had passed away. I conveyed to them how much it meant to me to have that last phone call with her, and that they had made it possible. I gave each of them a very small gift, but told them it was nothing compared to what they had given to me and my friend. I encouraged them to realize that their actions to cooperate last week had some lasting and good consequences, and I thanked them.

I admit my bias for this class because Elisabeth is one of them, but when I looked at them yesterday and told them how much their actions meant to me, I think they all matured a little bit. It felt to me like a holy moment where God was impressing a lesson on their hearts and minds–one they will hopefully remember the rest of their lives. I know I will. 

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Author Notes

Terry Austin has served as CRA’s Administrator/CEO since June 2020. He is a 1990 graduate of the school. Some school employees call him The Commodore, probably not because he is easy like Sunday morning. Others call him much worse things. You can call (or text) him at 870.565.0393 or drop him an email.

Earlier Posts

A day for giving

Today is Giving Tuesday. If you naturally tilt toward old-person grumpiness as I do, it’s easy to slip into the warm lap blanket of cynicism

Read More »

Just a can of beans

Our student council is sponsoring a canned food collection drive this week. This is an annual effort led by Mr. Eric Hagood, our assistant principal,

Read More »

After all those years

CRA’s Class of 1986 will meet this weekend for a reunion. It’s been 35 years since this class graduated from the Academy, and that’s difficult

Read More »

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Crowley’s Ridge Academy

606 Academy Dr

Paragould, AR  72450

870.236.6900

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