“Up Close” article: Writing Chain Gang, Brambleman, & The Way It Was

My favorite place: the arbor bench at Evansdale Elementary

This article was originally pubished in Up Close and Personal in Tucker as “Ex-Evansdale PTA President’s Writing is Rooted in History”

by Jonathan Grant

My favorite place is a bench that sits beneath an arbor just a short walk from my home. Years ago, when I had a spare moment, I’d sit on it—the middle bench, exactly—because its powers were restorative for me. If you’ve been to EvansdaleElementary School and noticed the school’s courtyard, you’ve seen it.

The arbor and benches were built in October 2000. The construction permit was issued September 29; I know because I signed it. Not that I built them by myself, mind you. No, a hundred of my best friends helped.

That wonderful courtyard wasn’t even my idea. As a new PTA co-president (along with Jennifer Oliver), I wanted to do something grand to improve the school even though Evansdale, a math and science magnet, had just been named a “School of Excellence” and was competing for national Blue Ribbon recognition.

Evansdale Principal “Sam” Wyrosdick, seeking to channel my megalomania and seeing an opportunity to properly employ a Home Depot guy, approached Jennifer and me in the school’s front hallway soon after our election. Smiling brightly, she said, “I think campus beautification should be our theme next year.” She was very cunning.

Soon after that, my successor, Angie Hawthorne snuck up behind Jennifer and me in that very same hallway and said, “I think we should turn the courtyard into a garden.”  At the time, it was home to weathered, broken down picnic tables, weeds, and a huge, ugly, and unused satellite dish. Then local landscaping guru Susan Avent handed me plans for the arbor, and teacher extraordinaire Stephanie Coke urged me to apply for a Hands On Atlanta project for Evansdale.

That project came together October 7, 2000, when the campus was abuzz with 350 worker bees—parents, teachers, students, neighbors, and business volunteers. Nearly 2,000 hours of labor flowed into the school that day: painting, landscaping, cleaning, restoring, and building that arbor.

Still, it would take another year, under Angie’s leadership, to landscape the courtyard. I was there for that, too, and put the final touch of stain on that bench.

It’s been my favorite place ever since.

* * *

            You could say that I build places in my day job as well, since I’m a writer. Last year, I published a novel entitled Chain Gang Elementary, a tale of war between the PTO president and the principal ofMallifordElementary School.  It is NOT autobiographical, and when people ask if Malliford is based on a real school, I say, “It’s everywhere and nowhere.”

The book started as something else. Originally, I wanted to write a non-fiction book—a how-to guide for parent leaders. During my research, I came across this phrase: “Every good school is fundamentally the same, but every bad school is unique.”

Which got me thinking: Unique is more interesting. So, I tackled the subject differently, as a fictional “how-not-to” guide on parent-educator relationships. (PTO Today dubbed Chain Gang Elementary “Required Reading.”)

It’s funny. It’s not so funny. Think of it as a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for our times. I tell people that writing Chain Gang Elementary is my revenge for having to read Lord of the Flies in high school.

My kids were in second and third grade when I started writing Chain Gang. They both were in college when it was published. My wife, Judy, an advertising pro, has loyally endured my exploits as I struggled to finish the book, coach TYSA soccer (12 seasons in all), renovate the master bathroom (you do NOT want to know how long that took), and write three other novels. Our son, Nathan, is now a sophomore atOxfordCollege. Our daughter, Laurel, is anAgnesScottCollege junior and will travel toAustralia this winter to study anthropology and archeology.

My second novel, Brambleman, was published this year. While Chain Gang Elementary looks at efforts to raise the next generation, Brambleman looks to the past, even though its setting is contemporary. It’s not so much a historical novel as a novel about history—how it is hidden and revealed. It’s no coincidence that Brambleman is the outgrowth of my work on a history book.

My late father, Dr. Donald L. Grant, was a history professor at Fort Valley State College (now University). When not teaching, he spent much of his time during the last fifteen years of his life writing a comprehensive history of black Georgians. On November 6, 1988, he died, leaving an incredibly large (yet ironically incomplete) manuscript behind. That, to me, was his life’s great tragedy.

My mother would have none of that, however, and she vowed to get the book published. That meant enlisting me, her youngest son, to finish the job. I’ll admit I was dubious, but I’d never seen the manuscript, so I agreed to take a look.

One winter day in 1989, a UPS driver dropped a box containing the 1,500-page manuscript on my front porch with a resounding thump. When I took it into my study and looked at the first few pages of The Way It Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia, I was intrigued.

Going into the project, I had two things going for me: 1) I’d been the state news editor at The Macon Telegraph, so I had a good knowledge ofGeorgia; and 2) I could read Dad’s handwriting. This turned out to be a crucial ability, since I needed to read his notes —which were either typewritten or scrawled out on 20,000 index cards.

It took two years of full-time effort to edit and update the book. A dozen publishers were interested in it, and I ended up signing a contract with a New Yorkfirm.  I rushed to get the finished manuscript off to the publisher just a few days before Laurelwas born. Nearly two years later, I was sitting in a hospital delivery room marking up page proofs for a chapter on the early 20th century when Judy’s situation suddenly required my complete attention. I tell people that while Nathan may look young, he was born during World War I. Dad would like that.

The Way It Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia was published in late 1993. It was called “a tour de force” in the Journal of American History. It also was named Editor’s Choice of American Heritage magazine. As several reviewers noted, there was (and is) nothing else like it in terms of breadth and scope.

Six years to the day after my father died, I stood at a podium in a GeorgiaPerimeterCollegeauditorium and accepted Georgia’s “Book of the Year” award on his behalf. The Way It Was has stood the test of time and is still in print, available from The University of Georgia Press.

The book is filled with stories, some of which I decided to follow up on. Most importantly, there was a single paragraph on page 170 describing horrible events 100 years ago just north ofAtlanta, and I decided to write a novel about them.

Brambleman tells the story of down-and-out writer Charlie Sherman, who is tricked by a mysterious stranger into finishing a dead man’s book about one of America’s most infamous acts of ethnic cleansing. While working on this account of white mobs’ expulsion of more than 1,000 blacks fromForsyth County,Georgia in 1912, Charlie uncovers a more recent crime that has enriched a Forsyth family. He becomes convinced that he’s been chosen by a Higher Power to wreak justice and vengeance on those who profit from wrongdoing, and that’s when things go horribly wrong.

Brambleman took me ten years to finish, but if you know a writer, you know about the constant interruptions, which for me included writing other books.

I keep on writing and have another book coming out early next year, Party to a Crime, loosely based on my experience as a jury foreman in a crack-fueled serial carjacking case. For a change of pace, I’m currently writing The Unhappy History of Higgston, Missouri, the sad tale of a small town that must contend with the twin perils of our time, zombies and meth.


            It’s been a while since I’ve been to my favorite place. The last time I checked, the entrance to it was locked—which made it more like a terrarium, if you ask me. Principal Joseph D’Ambra once told me they’d started locking the door after they found a drunken county employee passed out there one night.

That’s not the way I wanted to end this story, so I just paid another visit. I’m happy to report that not only was the door unlocked, but Principal Daniel McGuire gave me a tour. The courtyard is now home to a trout hatchery, and Evansdale students will eventually release the fingerlings into the ChattahoocheeRiver.

I’m glad to see that my favorite place is even better than I left it, even if it’s a little fishy.


PTSD defense doesn’t work for PTA embezzler

She claimed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder although she never served in combat when she was in the military. Her husband decided to divorce her after she ripped him off. Her family says she’s been stealing from people who trusted her for many years, and they’re showing up to present evidence at her sentencing hearing. Monday, former treasurer Dawn Saugen will be sentenced up to one year in prison for stealing $30,000 from Vargas Elementary School.  As one of the serical embezzler’s victims said, “She played us all.”

The San Jose Mercury-News reports:

When former PTA treasurer Dawn Saugen is sentenced Monday for embezzling $30,000, it will close a painful chapter at Vargas Elementary in Sunnyvale.

But the wounds from the deception will be slower to heal, and the trust harder to rebuild.

Saugen, 38, has already pleaded no contest to grand theft. Under the terms of the deal, she faces a maximum of a year in jail, deputy district attorney Paola Estanislao said. As part of the deal that dropped a forgery charge, Saugen agreed to pay at least $30,000 in restitution to the Parent Teacher Association.

Saugen became the Vargas PTA treasurer when her niece, who was in fourth grade, attended the school in 2011-12. From August through January, Saugen purchased gift cards, ostensibly for PTA fundraisers. She would intercept the PTA mail in the school office, then later had the cards shipped directly to her Palo Alto home.

The cards came from popular retailers such as Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, Target and Nordstrom. She even arranged to get cards from American Airlines. In opening a debit account with a fundraising gift-card company, she forged then-PTA President Maria Dulay’s signature.

The funds Saugen siphoned off would have paid for field trips, classroom supplies, teacher grants and assemblies at the school where 75 percent of students are classified as low-income.

Read more.


Army sergeant enlists 85 dads to mentor at school

Here’s something positive—and it’s a program that should be functioning at every school in America.  Sgt. Williams, we salute you.

From the Annapolis, Maryland Capital Gazette:

Everyone knows Algrish Williams at Pershing Hill Elementary School.

And why wouldn’t they? He’s top dog.

Williams, an Army sergeant first class, is spearheading a new mentoring program, “Watch D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students).”

The idea is for fathers like himself to lend a hand at the Fort George G. Meade school and serve as role models for children whose dads may be absent — whether because of deployment, divorce or another reason.

In just a few weeks, Williams has recruited 85 fathers for the program who’ve agreed to volunteer at least one day. He’d like the entire school year covered, and other schools on the base to become involved, but he’s satisfied with the progress he’s made to date.

“I strongly believe fathers have to be involved with their children’s education,” said Williams, who works in human resources for the military. “This (program) gives them an opportunity to connect with their children and also provide a father figure for other children.”

Read more.

Former PTA treasurer is looking at 30 days in jail

Aleta Taylor feared that going to jail  would “severely impact my family in a negative way.” Now it looks like she’s going to find out for sure.

The former Roosevelt Elementary School PTA treasurer has pleaded guilty to embezzling $15,000 from the Olympia, Washington school and a 30-day jail sentcnce will likely be part of her deal with prosecutors.  Sentencing is scheduled for January 10, 2013.

Read more.





I’m voting “No” on Georgia’s Charter School Amendment

UPDATE: The Amendment passed with more than 58 percent of votes cast.

I’ll be voting against Amendment 1 when I go to the polls tomorrow.  The proposed state constitutional amendment has drawn a lot of attention as the top ballot issue this year. It’s the General Assembly’s response to the state Supreme Court’s smackdown of the Charter School Commission. The court ruled that the state did not have the authority to usurp local school’s constitutional authority to set up schools.

Advocates for charter schools argue that they need this amendment to deal with local school boards that have an anti-charter school bias. While charter schools are public, they are seen my many in the education establishment (often called anti-reformers) as a move away from neighborhood schools and a step toward privatization of  education in the state.

Georgia has establisheda program that shifts $50 million in tax revenues to private schools. Here’s more on the subject from The New York Times. It’s also important to note that money to support the amendment is coming from for-profit schools.

I’m not against charter schools per se. I believe that they can serve as laboratories for innovation in teaching and also parental involvement (which seems to be the most important factor in whether a school performs well or not). However, I don’t trust the state, given what I’ve just written above. Plus, I worry that charter school formation can also be a way to avoid fixing problems in existing public schools–in other words, a state-sanctioned method of leaving most children behind.

If the state wants to step up and abolish the private school tuition tax credit and use that $50 million to help fund public charter schools, rather than pursue some Social Darwinist plan that has the potential to gut existing local schools, I’d be more willing to support. In the meantime, charter school advocates already have the option to work with their local school boards, and to work to replace school board members who don’t perform properly.

The amendment is, after all, a bypass of local democracy.  If not having the amendment means increased scrutiny on local school boards, that’s a good thing.

By the way, even if the amendment is voted down, this won’t be the end of it. There’s a move afoot to pass a parent trigger bill in the 2013 General Assembly.  Maureen Downey has some details in her Get Schooled blog.