A history of standardized testing in Texas, where the accountability movement began:
"Like Jihad and skateboarding and small furry animals, high-stakes testing has given rise to a new genre of YouTube video, a kind of inspirational training film meant to be viewed just before the testing season begins. Some are slickly produced, while others are clearly homemade, though they all tend to share some common tropes: students imitating rappers, teachers gamely chiming in, a dance beat pumping while kids chant 'Rock this test!' and other mantras. Children are shown marching into class, poring over work sheets, learning 'strategies' to beat the test makers, rallying in the gym, and so forth. The songs are upbeat and the kids, especially the third graders, are cute. But after watching a dozen of these clips, the relentless support-building becomes a little disturbing. You begin to feel as if you’ve fallen asleep in the first act of To Sir, With Love and awoken in some kind of Maoist reeducation camp."
PUBLISHED: May 1, 2013
LENGTH: 25 minutes (6474 words)
A story adapted from The Fight to Save Juarez
, which presents a range of viewpoints in Mexico's drug war. Here, the viewpoint is from a drug trafficker's mistress:
"Hernán and Elena lived lives of combustible desperation within the middle rungs of the Juárez cartel. Elena’s restless instincts and combative nature played off of Hernán’s macho disposition in ways that created an unanticipated, and perhaps unacknowledged, balance between them. Life in the cartel was full of people like Hernán and Elena, people who had grown up with nothing in Juárez’ desolate neighborhoods. Every time that Elena had unpacked, washed, and re-packed Hernán’s shipments of cocaine she made more than assembly plant workers earn in a month. There was little that she wished for beyond what she had. Her life already exceeded what most people from her background could have hoped for."
PUBLISHED: April 3, 2013
LENGTH: 14 minutes (3626 words)
A former Texas district attorney considers the death penalty, examining his own experience with seeking it in court, and why he now believes "the time for the death penalty has passed":
"The decision to seek death is the district attorney's call. No one controls his or her decision. But there also is no question, at least in my mind, that there are factors that shouldn't sway the decision yet do. As one simple example, I give you peer pressure. A death penalty case is akin to the Super Bowl or World Series for prosecutors. The stakes can never be higher than this. No district attorney wants to be known as the weakling who was afraid to take on the biggest case of his or her career. Some will say I'm oversimplifying it. But I've been there. I have faced the pain and anger of victim's families as they talk of their expectations. In all those cases, I wondered how my decision would be judged. By those families, by the public who elected me, by my fellow district attorneys, and most of all, by the person I see in the mirror."
PUBLISHED: March 18, 2013
LENGTH: 14 minutes (3714 words)
The writer makes a pilgrimage to Kilgore, Texas, to explore the hometown and Baptist roots of the world-renowned pianist, who died Wednesday:
"After much deliberation, Richter and Gilels nervously took the prominent jury’s final vote to the politburo, the cultural minister, and finally the new premier, Khrushchev. The premier asked, 'Is [Cliburn] the best?' The cultural minister replied, 'Yes, he is the best.' So Khrushchev said, 'In this case, give him the first prize.' The ticker-tape parade in New York upon Van’s return to the U.S. remains the stuff of legends, and as almost every obituary published since his death yesterday at age 78 points out, his artistry was credited with helping to thaw the Cold War.
"But amid all that hoopla and Russian grandeur, Van was also a Texan, a Southerner, a Baptist, a patriot who began each concert with the 'Star-Spangled Banner,' a musical idealist, and a man who loved his parents, his childhood friends, and black-eyed peas as much as I do. We both grew up in East Texas behind the Pine Curtain—he in Kilgore and I in Texarkana—so I always knew that if we met, we’d have more to chat about than my own devotion to the piano, challenged though it is by my perpetual intermediate level."
PUBLISHED: Feb. 28, 2013
LENGTH: 16 minutes (4122 words)
In Texas, football is everything—even among 12-year-olds:
"'Celdon is the best eleven-year-old football player in America,' Ronnie Braxton, his trainer, told me. 'In America.' Celdon isn’t the first youth football player to inspire that kind of claim. But when he hit the pile, his powerful legs churning furiously as he wormed his way through the defenders, the assessment seemed indisputable. As the referees pulled everyone off the pile and found Celdon lying in the end zone, his teammates began hopping up and down, and one of the grandmas in the stands rang a cowbell, and the Hawks cheerleaders—yes, the Hawks have cheerleaders—shook their metallic red-and-black pompoms, and the sound system that Coach Engel had rigged up with two car batteries and an ice chest began pumping out triumphal music, and I abandoned journalistic objectivity to throw my arms in the air and cheer until my throat hurt. How does it feel to watch a running back from the best preteen football team in the most football-mad city in Texas exert his will? It’s so beast."
PUBLISHED: Jan. 1, 2013
LENGTH: 34 minutes (8699 words)
The second part of Texas Monthly's series on Michael Morton's wrongful conviction for the murder of his wife (read part one here
"It was this sense of certainty that appeared to have blinded investigators to what was surely the most incredible missed clue in the entire case: a handwritten phone message for Wood reporting that Christine’s credit card had apparently been used at a store in San Antonio two days after her murder. 'Larry Miller can ID the woman,' stated the message, which included a number to call. Wood did not appear to have ever investigated the lead.
"As he sifted through the papers, Michael felt 'no anger, just bewilderment,' he told me. 'By that time, I had been pummeled with so much, for so long, that I recall just staring at the pages, stunned.' For the first time in almost 25 years, he began to have a sense of clarity about what had happened. Michael carefully turned the pages and came across an eight-page transcript of a phone call that had taken place between Wood and Michael’s mother-in-law, Rita Kirkpatrick, less than two weeks after Christine’s murder. As he studied each typewritten word, Michael could feel his throat tightening."
PUBLISHED: Nov. 13, 2012
LENGTH: 61 minutes (15322 words)
The first in a two-part series deconstructing the case against Michael Morton, who was convicted in 1987 of killing his wife but has maintained his innocence:
"Michael was breathing hard. 'Is my son okay?' he asked.
"'He’s fine,' Boutwell said. 'He’s at the neighbors’.'
"'How about my wife?'
"The sheriff was matter-of-fact. 'She’s dead,' he replied.
"Boutwell led Michael into the kitchen and introduced him to Sergeant Don Wood, the case’s lead investigator. 'We have to ask you a few questions before we can get your son,' Boutwell told him. Dazed, Michael took a seat at the kitchen table. He had shown no reaction to the news of Christine’s death, and as he sat across from the two lawmen, he tried to make sense of what was happening around him. Sheriff’s deputies brushed past him, opening drawers and rifling through cabinets. He could see the light of a camera flash exploding again and again in the master bedroom as a police photographer documented what Michael realized must have been the place where Christine was killed. He could hear officers entering and exiting his house, exchanging small talk. Someone dumped a bag of ice into the kitchen sink and stuck Cokes in it. Cigarette smoke hung in the air."
PUBLISHED: Oct. 11, 2012
LENGTH: 51 minutes (12827 words)
The only American designer for high fashion retailer Hermés lives in Waco, Texas—and works as a postal worker:
"Kermit was sitting in the living room, in an armchair covered by a red-and-white quilt. He stood up when I arrived. He was small-framed, with salt-and-pepper hair combed off his forehead. Dressed in loose khakis and an untucked plaid oxford shirt, he gave the impression of a small-town surgeon who’d just gotten off the late shift. His eyeglasses were in his hands, which continuously fidgeted while the rest of him stood still. 'Why do you want to talk to me?' he asked.
"I stammered something about his story, how interesting it was. He looked skeptical. 'Why don’t you tell me what my story is,' he said. I told him what they had said in Lyon, reciting the words almost like the first line of a fable: 'There once was a postman who designed scarves for Hermès.'
"'Well, it’s never that simple,' he said with a mysterious grin."
PUBLISHED: Sept. 21, 2012
LENGTH: 21 minutes (5433 words)