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Features: Talk of Takoma  •  Howard Kohn

April, 2006

Howard Kohn

Sometimes Takoma Park
can be different worlds

The harrowing close-call rescue of 8th-grader Michael Sobalvarro from the bottom of a motel pool this Valentine’s Day will be a final memory of the annual trip to Disney World for Takoma Park Middle students, but it is not the reason the field trip has now been eliminated.

The trip was a privilege offered automatically to Magnet students but available only on a limited basis to others in the 8th grade, most of them “honors” students. How the trip divided Takoma Park Middle into two worlds had always bothered Betsy Taylor, author, social critic and a mother whose children attended the school.

“The racism was subtle, but anyone who watched busloads of mainly affluent white and Asian kids heading off to have fun in Florida while mainly poor African American and Hispanic kids were left behind could see something was seriously wrong with this arrangement,” she says.

Three years ago Betsy publicly called the trip into question, setting off a debate among parents. On one side were those who felt the six-day winter adventure, with a behind-the-scenes look at technical workings of the amusement park, was academically worthwhile and that Magnet students had earned their special rights. On the other were those who wondered if the Magnet program, originally intended as a means to racial integration in Montgomery County schools at a time when the alternative might have been court-ordered busing, had gone off track.

The debate itself unloosed more social discomforts. Higher-ups in the school system, after meeting with both sides, decided it best to remove the trip from the school calendar. The Takoma Park Middle principal, Jean Haven, disagreed, but went along, and made a terse announcement in March through the PTA newsletter.

This may or may not end the debate. Next year there will be a new field trip, presumably not to exotic Florida, but, whatever the locale, the current plan is to restrict the trip exclusively to Magnet students.
Meanwhile, Michael Sobalvarro, a non-swimmer who ventured toward the deep end of the pool, lost his footing, swallowed water and was lying prone when pulled back into the air by fellow 8th-grader Mark Berry, is taking swim lessons.

If only the Internet had been around for Thomas Jefferson

After trying for years to get other Democratic politicians to adopt the one-liner, Takoma Park constitutional scholar Jamie Raskin was primed to use it himself at a March legislative session about same-sex marriage.

“As I read Biblical principles, marriage was intended, ordained and started by God — that is my belief,” Nancy Jacobs, a Republican state senator, lectured, trying to shed a moral light. “For me, this is an issue solely based on religious principles.”

A candidate for the State Senate this election season, Jamie saw his opportunity. “People place their hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution,” he jousted back. “They don’t put their hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.”

Within a few days Jamie’s quote was an Internet sensation. More than 165,000 hits to his campaign website were recorded. Donations and notes arrived from Belgium, Hawaii, South Dakota and other far-off places. The surveyors of “urban legends” at www.snopes.com devoted a full and favorable assessment.
Of course, Bill Maher used a variation of the line last year in reference to President Bush, and, as Jamie, an American University professor, says, the essential construct goes back to Thomas Jefferson. But timing is everything.

Art-makers, like art,
can be found anywhere

Sculpture by Alvin Lewis Thomas

In ceramic, with vivid splashes of paint, Alvin Lewis Thomas recreates faces of African lineage, from potentates to corn-rowed teenagers. Even though the local homeless shelter where he lives and sculpts is not the best place from which to launch a career, Alvin Lewis sold $400 worth of ceramic heads and busts in March.

Alice Sims is his patron, or the Takoma Park equivalent of a patron. Alice discovered his artwork and arranged for it to go on public view at the community center.

The red-haired Alice, famous for her own sculptures and who strikes a figure that novelists might call “statuesque,” is also Takoma Park’s equivalent of a curator these days. She is involved in many of the artistic exhibits in town either through her new volunteer group, Art for the People, or as bustling member of the City-sponsored Arts & Humanities Commission.
In March she won grants from the Montgomery County Arts Council to work with and promote unknown artistic talent among the elderly and kids-of-poverty who live here.

Money for the Museum

Historic Takoma is moving closer to buying an empty storefront at the Takoma Junction and turning it into a museum.

In March the historical-preservationist society won a major state grant of $210,000 for the museum through the efforts of State Delegate Peter Franchot, State Senator Ida Ruben and State Delegate Sheila Hixson. The new money is in addition to $125,000 in savings and previous grants.

Earning an Eagle the adult way

For his Eagle badge Louis Weil planned to lead a team of his fellow Troop 33 Scouts as ready-to-serve assistants to the adult organizers of the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the community center last year. It was a simple idea, or so he thought.

Then the construction contractor began to miss deadlines. The ceremony, set for June, was put off to September. In September it was put off to October. Louis worried he might have to figure out a different plan. In October it was put off to November and then to December.
Louis’ Scoutmaster, Dave Lanar, told him: “You’re learning how things operate in the real world.”

Newly fledged Eagle Scouts (from left to right) Louis Weil, Jimmy Lowe, and Benjamin Tousley. At far left is former Troop 33 scout leader Neal Musto, master of ceremonies for the award ceremony.

In December the ceremony finally took place. Louis and his team arrived well ahead of their appointed time. They set up tables and chairs. They guided motorists to parking spaces. They hustled through other tasks. They cleaned up litter.

Louis had his own ceremony in March at which he was awarded his Eagle. Two other Troop 33 Scouts, Ben Tousley and Jimmy Lowe, received their Eagles as well. Ben, a third-generation Eagle Scout, painted the interior wall of the Presbyterian Church annex, and Jimmy dug and laid a sidewalk of flagstone at the Audubon Society — projects hard on the back, but much gentler on the mind.

Locals go national
with “March Madness”

Last summer Tony Skinn, a big-smiling kid with a quick gliding style, was still hanging around Takoma Park, where he played hoops as a student at Takoma Academy. In March he made the cover of Sports Illustrated. Tony was a senior starter on George Mason University’s Cinderella basketball team that reached the Final Four in the NCAA men’s tournament.

One of the other George Mason starters was Folarin Campbell, a Silver Spring native who was known as “Shaq” when he broke many of the school records two years ago at Springbook High.
Charlene Thomas-Swinson, who grew up in Takoma Park but left for college a while ago, made her own headlines in the NCAA women’s tournament as coach of the Tulsa University team. Charlene got Tulsa into the tournament for the first time and then coached her team, a No. 12 seed, to a big upset over North Carolina State.

Comings & Goings

Carol Stewart was elected president of the Takoma Foundation in March, replacing Mary Stover. Carol used to be the Ward Two rep on the City Council, is active in the Adventist church and is often said to be “the most popular Republican in town.”

Mary Kendall is the new director of the crime-fighting C-SAFE program in the “international corridor” of Langley Park, replacing John Brill, who was synonymous with the program the past four years.

Takoma Park Bikes is now in the former digs of Amano in Old Takoma, and the Vintage Vault has opened for business on the same block.

Taliano’s closed for business, leaving the new Savory by the Metro as the only eatery in Old Takoma selling beer and wine.

Summer Delights has reopened in time for ice cream season.

Can all us critters co-habit?

As a rule the discussions on the Takoma Voice listserv are political exercises, whether mundane or grumpily erudite, but once in a while someone walks about town and experiences the apolitical. “We saw a bald eagle this morning low over Carroll Avenue at the intersection with Boyd Avenue. It stayed in the area, flying higher to survey the scene,” Rob Richie—the political advocate who brought the instant-runoff election system to Takoma Park—reported one crisp Saturday in March.

“Expecting bears and mountain lions in Sligo Creek next,” he added slyly.

Valerie Tonat, another political careerist and frequent commentator on the Voice listserv, responded: “Some time back a neighbor on Spruce had a falcon or some other bird of prey take up temporary residence in her backyard for a week or so while it plucked her little artificial pond clean of fish.

“I saw a coyote trotting along the sidewalk between the old Arise location and the CVS one evening in May 2004. It was carrying something in its mouth, likely a dead rat. I suspect our abundant rat population would make this an attractive area for predators seeking small game. When housecats and joggers start disappearing we’ll know the large predators have arrived.”


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