Child welfare, Education

Christian boot camps and Alabama loopholes

storyI spent a couple of months researching and interviewing for this piece, which I posted last week.

Former students share harrowing stories of life inside Alabama’s worst religious private school

It ran in The Huntsville Times, Birmingham News and Mobile’s Press-Register this past Sunday.

What touched me the most was interviewing the kids who spent time in this place, listening to them for an hour or more as they worked through the abuse they say they suffered.

It was difficult to hear.

The response to the story has been surprising in its volume. I’ve heard from former students and one former instructor who read the story, confirmed the accounts of the students I quoted, and thanked me for shedding light on what they feel is a very real problem in state law.



A battle for the soul of the schools

Lately I’ve been reporting on the complex web of issues surrounding the 2015-2016 school year in Huntsville City Schools. The biggest component was a piece from last week about the kinds of conversations happening among parents, teachers and school administrators about what’s working and what isn’t in some of our city center schools. Below are PDFs from the paper; here’s the link to the story online and you can find a story package there with further coverage from my colleagues and me.

desegregating huntsville city schools


Desegregation changes roil Huntsville parents

Court-ordered school integration efforts are rare these days.

School desegregation peaked in the late 1980s and federal judges have released hundreds of school districts across the South from court-enforced integration over the past 15 years.

Huntsville City is not one of them.

“We need to be out from under a desegregation order,” said Mary Scott Hunter, a member of the Alabama State Board of Education who has three children at Blossomwood Elementary.

When Huntsville City Schools chose to follow a court-approved desegregation plan that would transfer hundreds of students from predominantly black schools to predominantly white schools in the fall of 2015, the conversations started.

One semester in, they’ve hardly abated. spoke with more than 20 parents, leaders and administrators – all with strong opinions about the state of Huntsville City schools and their future.


Child welfare, Civil Rights

‘Our practice may not be a good fit’: LGBT child unwelcome at Christian pediatrician’s office


Mike* is the kind of precocious kid you often find in literature but rarely meet in real life – almost adult-like in his mannerisms and speech, talking knowledgably about current events and complicated social issues.

When I met him last week, we bonded over a shared love of vanilla lattes and traditional-style church worship services.



When Mother’s Day is also about loss. And peace.

Graham's pinwheel

I wrote a Mother’s Day column for this week. I didn’t set out meaning to write one; I just opened a Word document and this is what came out.

I wasn’t even sure if our news site was the appropriate place for it – writing a Mother’s Day column about sitting by your son’s grave isn’t exactly the sappy stuff you might normally expect.

But I have a wonderful editor who said to post it on our site, so I did. Here’s the link.

This is the truest part:

Always, there is the purest sadness, crystalline, unclouded. Sometimes I feel crushed by the weight of it and other times it just floats next to me. It’s there, but not heavy and not unwelcome.


Weekend reads + some news.

Stories/videos/whatnot from around the web that I enjoyed this week:

1. This is the funniest and most appalling thing I’ve read this week.

These people were elected by someone. They make decisions for my state.

But on the bright side, the reporting and story structure, from a fellow AMG reporter, is brilliant: Things I learned during the Alabama Legislature’s 10 Commandments debate today. By @WarOnDumb.

2. A beautiful blog from Merrimack Hall founder Debra Jenkins about her work with special needs kids in the Huntsville community: Dreaming With Your Feet.

Debra is a force of nature and I knew she was good at a ton of things. I didn’t know she’s also a lovely writer.

3. If you’ve ever been annoyed by cheesy church signs (or like the internet meme), you’ll dig this well-done video (cue the slow claps). Blurred Lines Parody – Church Signs.

4. And speaking of church, if you’re a femenist-y type of Christian like I am, you’ll dig this funny and spot-on post from Rachel Held Evans: If men got the Titus 2 Treatment.

My favorite lines: “Nowhere in Scripture is a man of God described as sitting at a desk in an office building from nine to five.  Nowhere. So men who wish to honor God with their lives and humbly submit to His will should make physical labor their primary occupation, and resist the urge to give in to our culture’s glorification of “white collar” work, which is a departure from biblical principles of masculinity. ”

5. Here’s a helpful read for fellow journalists, shared on FB by fab journalist (and soon-to-be author) Carla Jean Whitley. It’s one of those “I need to bookmark this good stuff” kinds of posts: 10 Tools for Entrepreneurial Journalists.

6. One of the more ridiculous things I’ve written for in a while, but it got a lot of response on FB and from reader emails, so that kinda justifies it for me: What’s in your purse?. (I was waiting all day for the “this is the stupidest article on” comments, and felt perversely gratified when one finally came.)

7. Also, I’m pregnant. And on a whim I turned the announcement into a post for

Happy weekend, everybody.


taking care of business

When you sweat the sad stuff.

A couple of weeks ago, I was assigned a story about a 14-year-old girl (I’ll call her D) who had just died of Leukemia. D was a force of nature, one of those incredible people you hear about but rarely get to meet. I never got to meet her, though I knew her name because she was active in a local dance program for developmentally disabled kids and teens.

I interviewed her dance program director just a few days after D died. It was sad, but manageable because the director is a fantastic lady, warm but professional, and someone I’ve interviewed for other articles.

The next day, I interviewed D’s parents.

I thought I’d mentally prepared as much as I could. Their daughter had died four days before, and the funeral would be that weekend. Interviewing grieving parents is something most journalists have to do, and of course it’s never easy but it comes with the job territory.

The director had told me the parents planned to go shop for a burial outfit for D after they met with me. It broke my heart because I remember doing that exact thing a few days after my son Graham died. They were even using the same funeral home we did.

Her parents were lovely people, weighed down with raw grief, who said many beautiful things about their daughter. I tried to stay as professional as I could be, but of course I lost it a couple of times, when they did. Near the end of the interview, I made the decision to share with them that I’d lost a child, too. No grief or situation is the same, of course, but I thought it might help to know there are more of us out there. After Graham died, right after his funeral as we were standing outside the church, the man from the funeral home told Jeff and me that his own son had died a few years previously. I remember at the time I appreciated that empathetic word from a stranger who wasn’t trying to make us feel better, but was just sharing in our grief, a little.

After I left D’s parents, I got into my car and I hadn’t even made it out of their driveway before the tears started. I took the long way back to the office and cried and cried. Mostly it was because of the unfathomable unfairness of parents having to live without their children. I’ve made my peace about Graham’s death. All my faith rests firmly on a powerful, loving God I don’t always understand. But living with loss still sucks.

I had to write the article that day; the page designers were waiting on it, and ended up running it on the front page of the paper that Sunday.

I felt unsatisfied with what I wrote. I kept thinking if I’d stayed more objective and got less emotionally involved, it would have been a better article. If you’re objective, you can look at the story arc and pick the best, most powerful parts without the cloudiness caused by grief or the fear of not giving a dead girl and her parents the story they deserve.

The next week, I was talking with a coworker, a career journalist and features writer who has done her share of “life stories” (as they’re euphemistically called in our organization). She’s one of those people who seem to invite confidences; you find you’ve told her half your life story after talking with her 10 minutes. She said she thought getting emotionally involved wasn’t something to avoid. It’s nearly impossible anyway, she said, and she believes it actually makes the story better.

I still don’t know, but that made me feel better about it. And the response to the story was incredible, much bigger than anything I’ve written before. D’s life was powerfully inspiring. It’s like she can’t help but affect everyone she touches, even after she’s gone.

Still, I’m genuinely curious about whether getting emotionally involved makes an article better. I couldn’t say one way or the other yet, and maybe never will be able to.

What I do know is the stories whose subjects have me emotionally invested stick with me much longer – they’re my favorites. It’s hard to be objective about your favorites.


taking care of business

Trying not to be a creeper.

Recently, as I sat across a table interviewing a nice person, I started to worry I might be staring into his eyes and/or at his face too much. (Not in a romantic way.) Was I coming across as a creeper? But then when I tried looking off in the distance or over his shoulder, I worried I looked like I was bored with what he was saying. The interview was on a deeply personal topic (why yes, it was cancer) and he was super interesting.

Luckily he mostly looked other places as he was talking, which seemed normal, so maybe my intense (?) staring wasn’t freaking him out, but when he did look at my face, I felt like maybe there was too much mutual staring going on.

I’m so awkward sometimes! At least, I frequently feel awkward. Feeling awkward probably means I am awkward. I tell myself it’s because I’m a writer and writers are sometimes lacking in finer social skills, but it’s probably just me.

How often should you look directly at someone’s face while they’re talking? What about while you’re talking? It seems to me that if you’re the one doing the talking, it’s OK to look away because obviously you’re engaged in the conversation if you’re the one talking. But if you aren’t the one talking, maybe it’s incumbent on you to look at the other person while he’s talking?

So after a while I decided to look at his chin instead of in his eyes, but then I felt like maybe I was overthinking the whole thing and he’d wonder if he had something on his chin. So I went back to looking at his eyes, which sounds weird but I swear I wasn’t trying to be.

I got back to the office and on my Facebook feed was a Mashable link to this article about how it’s generally not a good idea to look someone in the eyes.


In my defense, I used to have this friend who never, ever looked at me when we were talking. She was always looking over my shoulder, as if she was looking around for someone more interesting to talk to. It was off-putting.

I know what you’re thinking: she was probably trying to avoid your creepy-intense eye contact! But I did mention her weird habit to mutual friends and they all experienced the same thing. So it isn’t just me. Really.

Which leaves me with the question of where to look during interviews. Any help from you non-creepers out there would be appreciated.