published Saturday, August 24th, 2013

Journalist, author Rick Bragg tells McCallie students about poverty

McCallie School
McCallie School
Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

From the front of the McCallie School chapel on Friday morning, Rick Bragg looked at row after row of prep school students, about 10 boys to a pew, packed front to back.

Almost every boy wore a blue monogrammed polo, tucked snugly into khaki shorts that stopped just an inch or two above the knee. For students from families who, for the most part, will pay between $20,000 and $40,000 in tuition this year, the attire was flawless.

And from the front, without any notes, Bragg told stories, mostly about growing up in poverty.

But for just a minute, he provided the Upper School students with a vocabulary lesson. You see, Bragg told the boys, he was standing behind a lectern, not a podium. A podium is something you stand on, not behind. And how did he know?

"I'm a Harvard man, in case you've ever wondered what one looks like," he said, running his fingers from the top of his head to the tips of his hair, right at his shoulders. "I suggest you start growing your hair right now."

Then the boys, operating under a dress code that stops their hair north of their collared shirts, began to laugh. And Bragg backtracked and waved off administrators. And then he laughed, too.

McCallie welcomed Bragg to the chapel after the Upper School students spent the summer reading his 1998 memoir, "All over but the Shoutin'." His book tells the story of his childhood in northeast Alabama, where he grew up poor with a flaky father and a mother who picked cotton to support the family.

Kenny Sholl, the head of McCallie's Upper School, selected the book for this year's summer reading, and he arranged about a year in advance for Bragg, a University of Alabama journalism professor, New York Times bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner, to visit.

Administrators select summer reading that they think boys will enjoy, mostly stuff with adventure and wit. Basically, anti-chick lit. Sholl, who first read "All over but the Shoutin'" soon after its release 15 years ago, thought it would be a perfect book for his students.

But he also admitted Friday there is a bit of a dichotomy between Bragg and the boys, between poverty and prep school. However, Sholl said, painting every McCallie student as rich is unfair. About 35 percent of students receive some form of financial aid.

"Most every person in that room," Sholl said, "if he didn't come directly from that, surely you have a relative that did. Or sadly, maybe you watch 'Honey Boo Boo.' You find a way to connect."

On Friday, Bragg shared stories of his childhood, of growing up around men who spent evenings with their friends and their trucks, just leaning against them and doing little else. He also talked about his mother's work ethic, and about how, if he could, he would give up his writing success to go back in time and grow up with middle- class money so she didn't have to work so much.

He said he came from simple people, but also caring people.

"Those are the kinds of men that make me proud to be from where I'm from," he said. "Sometimes they're flawed. They drink too much. They love fistfights. They were the kinds who some of my Yankee friends would call 'an unattractive culture.' ... When I first heard that, I thought, 'No, we're quite good-looking.'"

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.

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