FAMU hazing: “People only go through what they allow.”

The Orlando Sun-Sentinel has published a fascinating, in-depth account of the pervasive culture of hazing inside Florida A&M University’s marching band that led to the death of drum major Robert Champion last November. Some people say what happened to Champion was bound to happen.

While members of the famed Rattlers marching band gather to hear admonitions and warnings against hazing from school officials (a ritual that is repeated every year), the threats have had limited effect. The cult of hazing, passed on from upperclassmen to freshmen, from abusers to the abused, who become the abusers, is persistent. And it depends on willing victims.

In the workshop, band members hear that hazing extends beyond physical abuse. It includes doing chores and running errands for upperclassmen; extorting money from freshmen; and demeaning and abusive language.

Marcus Fabre’, seated in the saxophone section, knows from experience the gap between what the adults say and what happens inside the band. He’s a 20-year-old sophomore who spent his freshman year refusing to be hazed and paying the price with ostracism. The upperclassmen used him as an example: If you don’t submit, you’ll end up alone, just like Marcus.

There are others inside the rehearsal hall for whom the anti-hazing warnings are hollow admonishments and empty threats. Some of them belong to small groups within the sections: clarinetists who call themselves the “Clones,” trumpet players who go by “Thunder,” and a group of students from Georgia called the “Red Dawg Order.”

They know hazing is banned but are determined to perpetuate it. Within six months, 26 of them will be suspended from performing at the Florida Classic football game in Orlando for hazing. Seven will be arrested.

In the final act of the hazing workshop, all band members sign a “hazing and harassment agreement” that acknowledges participating “as a hazer or hazee will immediately terminate my membership in the band.”

As one band member signs the pledge, he thinks: They’re going to do it anyway.

In another row, a freshman signs the document with little thought to the promise he’s making. “Nobody took it seriously,” he said.

That would become obvious within three short months as the band marched blindly toward tragedy.

Read more.


My trophy is a yo-yo. How cool is that?

Chain Gang Elementary is free this month!

As you may know, Chain Gang Elementary was named “Book of the Month” at Indie Books List for January. I just received my trophy badge, and I couldn’t be more pleased. It was specially designed for me by Books List czar Jack Collins, incorporating a key image from the book. In this case, it’s an icon. For those of you who’ve read the book, you know how important Richard Gray’s Duncan yo-yo is. Given to Malliford Elementary School’s controversial new PTO president as a gag gift to mock him, the yo-yo becomes a talisman of power, courage, grace, compassion—and even life itself, when you get down to it. Because what goes down can come back up.

Thank you, Jack.

And here’s the introduction to the yo-yo in Chain Gang Elementary, excerpted from Chapter Six:

The new officers recited the oath in unison, more or less. Miz Rutherford sat primly on her front-row seat, her silver hair in a perfect Ann Landers ’do. Mrs. Baines appeared with several bouquets of flowers—yellow daisies, red carnations and white mums with babies’ breath. She handed them out to the outgoing officers, who accepted with smiles. Richard figured he should say something—perhaps along the lines of Winston Churchill’s “Blood, Sweat, and Tears” speech—and turned to the audience.

Before he could open his mouth, Bessie Harper erupted from her chair. “Madame President!” She trundled down the center aisle holding a silver gift bag with red yarn handles and white crepe paper sticking out the top. When she reached the speaker’s podium, she said, “I have a special presentation to make.” She paused to catch her breath. “On behalf of the Malliford PTO, I want to present President-elect Gray with a special gift to welcome him to his new office.”

Bessie offered him the bag, and he accepted it. “Thank you.”

“Open it!” Susan Gunther shouted from her front-row seat.

He hesitated. Others joined in, playfully heckling him.

“All right, all right,” he said, pulling out a package. A flicker of pleasure on Richard’s face dissolved into fury.

“It fits your personality,” Bessie said. “A yo-yo for a yo-yo.”

Some people laughed, but not everyone. Miz Rutherford wore a cruel smile. Richard felt a hitch in his breath at this Parents Who Count-style slap in the face. “It’s nice,” he said, buying time. “Real nice.” Indeed, it was a beaut: a Duncan Vintage Jeweled Tournament Classic, made of hard maple and painted black, in a clear plastic case. A championship yo-yo. Its beaded sides flashed in the light. He removed it and slipped the string loop over his finger. He yo’ed three times while he tried to think of something to say, let it hang for an instant, then dropped it to the floor, letting it roll. “I guess I’d have to say that what has gone down—”

He deftly snapped the string; the yo-yo returned to his hand.

“—can come back up.” He heard someone make a loud finger-in-mouth pop to indicate a home run. He returned to his seat accompanied by a smattering of applause. The reform movement was alive and kicking ass, taking names, and walking the dog.

After the meeting, Anna Lee, angry over his mistreatment, suggested that he tell his detractors to go to hell. “Or maybe we should move,” she said.

“That’s for losers,” Richard said. “I’m in it to win it.”

Fabulous Tucker Book Club discusses Chain Gang Elementary

Back Row: Susan Talgo, Beth Creviston, Eileen Gargiulo, Lisa Carlysle; Front Row: Sherry Cross, Author Jonathan Grant, Jennifer Oliver

I recently got together with some old friends from the neighborhood (and some new friends, too!) to discuss Chain Gang Elementary. What made this meeting interesting—besides the fact that it was my first book club event for the novel—was its location, at the home of Jennifer Oliver, who served with me as PTA co-president at Evansdale Elementary School back in the day. (Our kids are all in college now.) The group was an equal mix of Evansdale and Midvale Elementary parents.

It was a delightful evening. Funny thing, though. I’d have to call this neighborhood “Ground Zero” for the book, and the ladies felt compelled to guess which characters in the book were based on which real people we knew. Although Chain Gang Elementary was written while I was a parent at Evansdale, the characters are NOT thinly disguised descriptions of real people—although it is a testament to the story’s verisimilitude that everyone thinks they are!

In fact, the former Midvale parents recognized people from their school as characters in Chain Gang, too, and suspected me of spying on their school! I get that a lot. Sometimes, when people (especially teachers) see the cover, they cry out, “That’s my school!” 

One reviewer wrote, “Some of the characters in the book are actually people we know, although by different names. Know what I mean?”

Another wrote: “This book is fiction, but…unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you will most definitely recognize some of the characters in this awesome read. You may not recognize them as part of one story, probably not even at one school and maybe not even in one state…The people in the book are fiction, the personalities are people you meet every day.”

Let’s just say that people who read this book relate to its characters. (By the way: Chain Gang Elementary just won the “Book of Month” award at Indie Books List. Check out the review.)

Anyway, it was fun. I still need to get Jennifer’s recipe for chili, because it’s much, much better than the gruel I feed myself.

Note: If you live in the Metro Atlanta area and you’re reading Chain Gang Elementary for your book club, I’d like to meet with you. You can reach me at info@thornbriarpress.com.

Chain Gang Elementary is “Book of the Month” at Indie Books List

I just got the news, and I’m excited about it, especially after I read the review. It’s one of those somewhat rare occasions that the reviewer reads (and gets) what the writer wrote (or tried to).  I’m supposed to get my badge of honor later today.

From the review: “This book is the show ‘Desperate Housewives’ wishes it could be.”

It’s a well-written review, giving you a great sense of the novel’s content and tone without giving anything away. Check it out.

You can also read the excerpt about the Standard Hightower Intellachievement Test.

Or you could buy the book.

Oh no they didn’t (know)

“Lunch Scholars” is a little funny and a lot sad. You’ll end up wondering how students even make it to school.  

From the Huffington Post:

Austin, an intrepid young student-reporter, embarks on the noble mission of answering the question, “How much basic knowledge do American high school students really have?” The answer, however, may not be exactly what you want to hear.

“Do you know the vice president of the United States?” Austin asks.

“I don’t know who it it’s, it’s, it’s somebody….Bin Ladin,” one student responds.

Check out the video. It hurts, but you need to know.