14 February 2012
QUITMAN, Ga.–Don Morgan's wife tears up when she talks about the kids in this southern Georgia hamlet. Textile manufacturing vanished a few years ago after NAFTA went into effect. There are some jobs but there's also meth, and a lot of kids, she says, fall through the cracks.
But there's hope. And then there's her husband.
Don Morgan's on his second tour of duty in education; the first, he readily admits, ended in burnout. He went off to run a successful auto-parts store in town, and then sold it during tough times. He's come back to education with a passion and optimism that just may turn the tide in this town.
"They just love him," says his wife, Tommi, herself a retired teacher the kids call "mom," in part because she'll feed the poorer students lunch when they can't afford to bring their own.
Morgan has a challenge though: He oversees Brooks County High School's Engineering and Technology Department. That's the good news. The bad news is he teaches in an area where business and agriculture tend to lure student interest. Still, his program gets 15 percent of Brooks County High's 600 students.
Technology is the future, he says.
"We try to teach the kids that everything we have, somebody had to come up with the idea, otherwise we'd be standing out in the yard cold, naked and hungry. And they have to understand that process."
Inside his spacious classroom and lab, Steven McClain, a junior, has come out on a Saturday to work on his robot for an upcoming competition. He tries wrapping a mesh material around the robot's basket (meant to pick up and maneuver rubber balls as part of the competition) but rejects it after a couple of tests. Trial and error, writ large. Morgan occasionally peeks over and offers a piece of advice or answers a question.
A reporter from a Tallahassee, Fla., TV station pulls up to do a story on Morgan, the program and the fact that we veered off course on Saturday to profile him. Part of the challenge, in my humble opinion, is public perception and publicity. Morgan, a self-described "publicity hound," won't argue. Detroit's turnaround captures media attention, especially when Clint Eastwood goes to bat for Chrysler in a commercial; we are a nation mesmerized by celebrity, sports and social media.
And yet economies cannot grow to accommodate celebrity, sports and social media without technology, without engineering, without Don Morgans.
Outside, on the lawn, with birds chirping madly in the trees on an otherwise silent, still and cloudless day, I said to Morgan, "With a couple of thousand of you, we'll be OK."
"A couple of thousand?" he says. "We need 100,000. We don't have enough. And we need 'em."
Perhaps so. But Morgan's a start.
Here's a segment in which Morgan shows off his lab and some of the work his class is doing: