Go to Homeschool – My Education Among the Strange Kids of Rural Georgia in the 90s
“To a very great degree, school is a place where children learn to be stupid.” - John Holt
My brother’s first-grade classroom was a repurposed janitor’s closet. There wasn’t enough room for aisles, so he and his 40 classmates would crawl over the tops of the desks to enter and exit the room. They went on exactly one field trip that year, to one of the actual, honest-to-God classrooms the Cherokee County, Georgia, school system was frantically building to catch up to the massive influx of families moving to suburban Atlanta. “You’d better be on your best behavior,” his teacher said, “or we’ll never move into this classroom.” They never did.
I reckon that my fourth-grade classroom, on the other end of the school, didn’t suffer from as many health-code violations. There were a half-dozen leaks in the ceiling, but those would have probably helped if the classroom had ever caught on fire. We didn’t really have aisles either; the desks were arranged in a sort of amorphous jumble to avoid the drips from above.
My parents were more concerned with the curriculum than what the classroom looked like. In third grade up North, I was learning long division, and then we moved to Georgia, where I stepped down to single-digit addition and subtraction. Worksheets featured such problems as 6-2, 3+9, even the occasional 1+1. One day, the kid next to me scooted his desk over. I thought he was going to laugh with me about the 1+1. He spoke in a thoroughly Southern drawl I was still getting used to. “You know how to do this? I don’t get it,” he said as he pointed at the first problem on his worksheet. Eight plus zero.
The following summer, I encountered the term homeschool for the first time. It was on a button my mom had brought home from a conference of some sort, and it read:
Sold. For the next four years, my brother and I were homeschooled.
My Cousin Joe Was a Hitman for the Boston Mob
Above: Members of the Winter Hill Gang, including the notorious James “Whitey” Bulger (bottom right) and the author’s cousin, Joe McDonald (top left).
My cousin killed people.
At least, that’s what I’m told. I never met Joseph McDonald, but word is he preferred using a handgun. He liked to get in real close so that the soon-to-be deceased could figure out what was coming. His intense, bald visage would be the last face they would see on this earth.
He was my grandfather’s first cousin, my first cousin twice removed: a bookmaker, loan shark, thief, World War II vet, drunk, killer. He was a member of the Winter Hill Gang, the most notorious Boston-area outfit of the last half-century. There are Winter Hill guys who have admitted to murdering 20 people, guys who tried to run guns for the IRA, and guys who fixed horse races up and down the East Coast.
Some of the Hill’s associates started grabbing headlines in the early 1960s. Some of them, like James “Whitey” Bulger, continue to do so to this day. Lots of people died. Lots of people were sent to prison. So being related, even distantly, to one of the main players in that gang is, well, strange.
My father’s family—a clan of nurses and engineers—know next to nothing about Joe, who died in 1997. They are not the sort of people who rob warehouses or break out of prison.
The author’s cousin and Winter Hill Gang member, Joe McDonald.
One of my aunts says there was shame, that my grandfather and his siblings were law-abiding folks who couldn’t relate to Joe’s life. Joe’s name was never mentioned. The relatives who did meet Joe only did so once or twice, and memories are slippery things.
Did he get pinched in a New York City train station while dressed as a nun with a machine gun under his habit? No, says another one of my aunts, the machine gun was in a hockey bag. There was no habit. It was all over the news, she says.
The People of Guerrero, Mexico, Have Taken Justice Into Their Own Hands
above: Militia members in Cuautepec, Guerrero, where they gathered to take an oath to defend their communities against organized crime. Photos by Carlos Alvarez Montero.
On January 5 in El Potrero, a small town in the Mexican state of Guerrero, a man named Eusebio García Alvarado was kidnapped by a local criminal syndicate. Kidnappings are fairly common in Guerrero—the state, just south of Mexico City, is one of the poorest in the country and the site of some of the worst violence in the ongoing battle between the drug cartels and Mexican authorities. Guerrero’s largest city, Acapulco, is known to Americans as a tourist hot spot. It’s also currently the second most dangerous city in the world, according to a study released by a Mexican think tank in February.
Eusebio’s kidnapping, though, was exceptional. He served as the town commissioner of Rancho Nuevo and was a member of the community activist organization Union of Towns and Organizations of the State of Guerrero (UPOEG), and the brazenness the criminals showed in snatching him up pissed off his neighbors so much that they took matters into their own hands.
Gonzalo Torres, also known as G-1, the leader of the UPOEG militia in Ayulta.
The day after Eusebio was abducted, hundreds of people from the nearby towns of Ayutla de los Libres and Tecoanapa decided that they could do a better job policing their communities than the local authorities. They grabbed whatever weapons they had—mostly hunting rifles and shotguns—set up checkpoints at entrances to their villages, and patrolled the roads in pickup trucks, often hiding their faces with ski masks and bandanas. Overnight, UPOEG transformed from an organization of advocates for better roads and infrastructure into a group of armed vigilantes operating without the endorsement of any branch of the government. The kidnappers released Eusebio that day, but UPOEG’s checkpoints and patrols didn’t disappear with his return. In fact, there was a groundswell of support. Five municipalities in the surrounding Costa Chica region followed suit and established their own militias. Soon, armed and masked citizens ensured that travelers and strangers weren’t allowed to enter any of their towns uninvited.
These militias captured 54 people whom they alleged to be involved in organized crime (including two minors and four women), imprisoning them inside a house that became an improvised jail. On January 31, the communities gathered on an outdoor basketball court in the village of El Meson to publicly try their detainees. The charges ran the gamut from kidnapping, extortion, drug trafficking, and homicide to smoking weed. More than 500 people attended, and the trial was covered by media outlets all over the world.
Meet the Ladies of the Free Syrian Army – They Have Guns, Dead Families, and Nothing to Lose
An all-female FSA brigade gathers inside Auntie Mahmoud’s house in Atmeh, Syria. Photos by Andreas Stahl.
Just a few hundred meters from the Turkey-Syria border lies Atmeh, a once quiet farm town that, in recent months, has become a safe haven for the Free Syrian Army. Fifteen thousand Syrians roam freely, displaced by the civil war, along with various brigades and Islamic militants. There’s also Auntie Mahmoud’s house—a meeting place for a local all-female unit of FSA fighters.
Auntie Mahmoud is a tough old broad who’s happy to shake your hand, even while other Syrian women in town naturally shy away. She lives in a small house across the street from a FSA base and makes it her business to know everything that goes on around her. Her living room is carpeted with thin mattresses, and when we visited her recently, we found eight women, draped in black hijabs and seated with Kalashnikovs resting on their laps. These brave women are members of the FSA who are ready to plunge into intense urban firefights alongside their male counterparts, if needed. Though they originally hail from cities like Aleppo, Hama, and Idlib, many of them now live in the camp near Atmeh and share strikingly similar backgrounds: each of their husbands was killed or imprisoned while fighting Assad’s regime, their homes were leveled by shelling and other attacks, and over the course of two years of Syria’s civil war, they all grew tired of sitting on the sidelines and waiting for a favorable outcome to the conflict.
Am Ar’ou, a 37-year-old former law student from Aleppo, is the leader of the brigade. Wearing a military vest and with her face completely veiled in niqab, she stroked her rifle as she recounted how her husband was arrested only because he had a beard and prayed five times a day. She worked closely with the FSA when the war began, storing weapons and supplies in her home until the cache was discovered, shelled, and destroyed. After the attack, she spent three months in the hospital with jaw, hand, and back injuries. Once discharged, she had no home to return to and became a refugee in her own country. She traveled to the camp in Atmeh and soon found other women who also had nothing but one another, sad stories, and some guns.
Safa, who has been involved with the revolution against Assad from the beginning, walks through the streets of Atmeh.
The women in Am’s brigade have declared jihad against President Assad in the name of freedom, democracy, and women’s rights in an overwhelmingly male-dominated society. But they’re also wary of some of their allies because Atmeh is a hotbed of rebel activity and home to hard-line Salafist Islamic groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (one of the best-known Islamic groups fighting in Syria today, who were recently added to the US’s list of terrorist organizations), the al-Farouq Brigade, al Qaeda, and various other foreign mujahideen fighters. This has made Am and her comrades’ mission particularly difficult to execute. Jabhat al-Nusra, for example, support the women in theory but refuse to fight alongside them or allow them to carry their weapons openly. Even though they’re all opposed to Assad, the Islamic rebel groups are determined to create an Islamic state in Syria, while most Syrians are opposed to this idea. Am and her brigade are devout Muslims, too, but they don’t want an Islamic state; they want a democracy.
The New Roma Ghettos: Inside Slovakia’s Ongoing Segregation Nightmare
Children playing on a broken wall in the Vel’ka Ida Roma settlement, in eastern Slovakia. The massive US Steel factory is visible in the background. Photos by Matt Lutton.
Throughout history, sometimes events seem perfectly aligned to spark racial violence. On March 10 of last year, the residents of the small village of Krásnohorské Podhradie, in the mountains of eastern Slovakia, looked up to the hilltop at the center of town to see their beloved 14th-century Krásna Hôrka Castle being engulfed in flames. By the time firefighters made it up the hill, the roof was gone and three bells had melted down into the tower.
The next day, a police spokesman announced that the fire had been caused by two Roma boys, aged 11 and 12, who lived in a ghetto on the edge of the village. They had allegedly been trying to light a cigarette at the bottom of the hill when an unusually strong gust of wind carried a piece of smoldering ash up the mountain, where it ignited wood strewn on the castle grounds. Whether or not they were responsible, the accused and their families were terrified—perhaps because, in the last two years, according to data from the European Roma Rights Center, there have been dozens of violent attacks on Roma in Slovakia—the ethnic group better known as Gypsies. Fearing reprisal, the boys were quickly spirited out of town to stay with relatives, while Roma men prepared throughout the night to defend their community. Ultimately, the boys weren’t charged with any crime because they’re minors, but the damage was done: the image of Gypsy kids setting fire to a hallmark of Slovak national heritage seemed to only reinforce the prejudices many white ethnic Slovaks have toward their country’s poorest citizens. With the burning of Krásna Hôrka Castle, the far right in Slovakia had their equivalent of 1933’s Reichstag fire—the symbolic event needed to justify a crackdown.
In mid-March, I flew to Slovakia and drove out to Krásnohorské Podhradie for a rally to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the burning of Krásna Hôrka. Marian Kotleba, a former teacher and leader of the far right People’s Party-Our Slovakia—named in honor of the clerical-fascist regime that ruled the Czechoslovak Republic between World War I and II—had pegged his dim electoral prospects on Krásna Hôrka and his stand against “Gypsy criminality.”
On arrival, I entered a lot beside the municipal offices. A crowd of about 150 people—skinheads, tough-looking townspeople, and about 12 of Marian’s green-clad officer corps—stood around listening to Marian’s speech. My translator suggested parking away from the crowd so that there would be less of a chance of anyone noticing the Hungarian plates on our rental car. “If there’s one thing the neo-Nazis like less than Roma, it’s Hungarians,” he said, only half joking, referring to Slovak resentment of their former imperial neighbor.
Al Qaeda Wants Africa – Are the French in Over Their Heads in Mali?
This February, after a victorious battle against Islamic insurgents in the Saharan city of Gao, the Malian army put on a tour for the assembled press. Journalists from various news outlets from around the world stood in a dusty courtyard in the heart of the city. Gao is a conservative town—the sort of place where six-month-old babies wear hijabs—and since last year, it has played host to some of the fiercest battles in an international conflict that could reach far beyond Mali’s 15 million people: the fight to prevent al Qaeda from flourishing in Africa.
The press tour was supposed to be a victory celebration. French soldiers, who had offered military support to the Malian troops in the recent battle, stood silently at the edge of Gao’s central courtyard and watched with amusement as the Malians led reporters around the battlefield. Gendarmes swathed in ammo belts guided the journalists around the town’s courthouse, pointing out dismembered limbs and dead jihadists crumpled on the ground.
One soldier called our attention to a severed head facedown in the dust. “Is it Malian, do you think?” I asked. The gendarme kicked it over and studied the face. Dark blood dripped from its mouth. A fly crawled up its nose. “Nah, maybe Algerian or Nigerien,” the gendarme said, grinning with pride. Nearby, in the town hall, next to a body hunched in a stairwell over its machine gun, the soldiers pointed out a wide streak of blood that had burst up the wall and across the ceiling. “Suicide bomber,” they said. “Look, here’s his head.” It was more of a face than a head, though, a puzzled countenance lying wrinkled on the floor in a dusty frown, its skull sheared off by the blast. The cameramen pointedly avoided filming it. “You’d never get it on TV,” one reporter later said, “so why even bother?”
Beauty and the Plague: The AIDS Tragedy Behind Your Favorite Disney Love Songs
Above: Howard Ashman in 1977. Archival photos courtesy of Kyle Rennick.
The first week of November 1989, filmmakers and executives from the Walt Disney Company gathered in a crowded room in Disney World in Orlando, Florida, to promote their latest cartoon to a group of pessimistic reporters. The press had reason to be skeptical: after two decades of critical and commercial flops following the death of its founder, Disney was bordering on bankruptcy, and the company’s new CEO, Michael Eisner, had threatened to shut down the animation unit unless The Little Mermaid, its fall 1989 release, turned a profit.
As you probably know, they didn’t need to worry. The film was a huge hit, at least partly on the strength of its soundtrack. The New York Times praised the film’s music, and the movie won Oscars and Golden Globes for Best Song (“Under the Sea”) and Best Score. Two decades after the its release, Disney World remodeled Fantasyland to create an entire section devoted to Mermaid. But back then in the crowded conference room, nobody knew this. The room was grim, and for good reason—if the filmed flopped, their careers might follow.
The panel that sat in front of the press that day included Ron Clements and John Musker, the geeky animation-directing team whose last film, The Great Mouse Detective, had performed reasonably well but not well enough for Eisner’s taste; Jodi Benson, the Broadway veteran who voiced Ariel; and Alan Menken, a composer from Westchester, New York. In this crowd, the last member of the panel, Alan’s collaborator lyricist Howard Ashman, stood out like a sore, sickly thumb.
Skeletally thin and speaking in a soft but firm voice, Howard looked worn-out and effeminate, more like one of the gay men you’d see drifting around New York’s Lower East Side than someone who made family movies. He spoke with passion about Disney’s rich musical history, but after the panel, it was clear something was wrong. After the press conference, when the attendees adjourned to try out some of the park’s attractions, Howardlimped up the Dumbo ride’s ramp and had to call for his boyfriend, Bill Klaus, to assist him. Once Howard reached his Disney associates, he rode Dumbo, smiling like he was just another Hollywood native touring Disney World. As usual, he was doing the best he could to ignore that he was dying of AIDS.
“He was completely focused and energy driven,” Jodi recalled to me 23 years later. She didn’t realize the extent of his illness until 1991: “I got the call to fly to New York City from Los Angeles. When I arrived, I was able to visit him in his room as he was listening to auditions for the voice of Aladdin. Then it really hit me: This was very serious.”
KILLERS OF SERPENTS – THE PYTHON CHALLENGE IS THE ONLY THING KEEPING THE EVERGLADES FROM BECOMING A TWO-MILLION-ACRE SNAKE PIT
On July 1, 2009, a pet Burmese python in Oxford, Florida, escaped from its terrarium, slithered into the crib of a two-year-old girl, and strangled her to death. The snake, named Gypsy, was eight and a half feet long, weighed 13 pounds, and had not been fed in a month. The child’s mother and her boyfriend—who had six prior felonies—were each sentenced to 12 years in prison for third-degree murder, manslaughter, and child neglect.
The incident was Florida’s first known case of a nonvenomous constrictor killing a child, and it set off a media frenzy. In stepped a tattooed Florida wildlife rescue expert named Justin Matthews. About a month after the girl’s death, Justin made national news when he captured a 14-foot Burmese python in a culvert outside a Sweetbay Supermarket near his Manatee County home. He identified the snake as an escaped pet and scolded its owner for not having a radio-transmission device implanted in the animal, as required by law. He named the snake Sweetie, after the Sweetbay chain. Local news outlets declared him a hero.
But later that summer, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) discovered that Justin had actually purchased the animal at a reptile supply store and staged the capture. He made a public apology, insisting that he had simply been trying to demonstrate the dangers of keeping pythons as pets. “I did it for wildlife education,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. But Justin was quickly written off as a loose-cannon redneck seeking personal glory and publicity for his rescue business and faded from public view.
Now, more than three years later, Justin, a rangy 50-year-old with a beard and a Pall Mall-induced rasp, is walking through Big Cypress National Preserve—a 720,000-acre patch of cypress marsh in the northern part of the Florida Everglades. His mission is to kill Burmese pythons, which can grow as long as 20 feet. He is one of 1,400 people who have signed up to hunt, shoot, and decapitate as many of the snakes as they can in a month as part of Florida’s first-ever Python Challenge.
Many media outlets have described the 2013 Python Challenge as a “bounty hunt.” But the contest’s chief organizer, Frank Mazzotti, a professor of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Florida, prefers to call it an “incentive-based market solution.” Participants compete in two separate divisions: one for general competitors, another for year-round permit holders. The winners receive cash prizes for kills—$1,000 for the longest, $1,500 for the most.
Zanesville – New Fiction by Nathaniel Rich
Illustrations by Conor Nolan
Nathaniel Rich is 32 years old, and he’s written and accomplished more than you will if you live to be 100. His novel The Mayor’s Tongue, published a few years after he graduated from college, was praised by the New YorkTimes and everyone else who’s not illiterate, and it earned him comparisons to a young Paul Auster. Nathaniel’s new novel, Odds Against Tomorrow, comes out in April from Farrar, Straus and Giroux and will no doubt earn him similar praise. On the side, he’s also worked as an editor at the Paris Review and cranked out brilliant essays and journalism for the New York Review of Books, Harper’s, Vanity Fair, and… well, you get the idea. He was inspired to write “Zanesville” after hearing the real-life tale of Terry Thompson, who killed himself a few years ago after releasing 56 tigers, bears, lions, wolves, leopards, and monkeys from the animal refuge he ran in Ohio. All names and details in Nathaniel’s short story, however, are entirely fictional. (Except for the bit about the monkey having a nasty case of herpes. That’s totally true.) “Zanesville” is Nathaniel’s first story for VICE.
If only Roger had bought the rabbit. Harriet had already picked one out, a mangy albino with red eyes like embers, but her heart wasn’t in it. Harriet’s heart wasn’t in anything, really, not since her visit to Dr. Doom. She said she had chosen the albino rabbit because it seemed like the saddest one. But all of them seemed sad to Roger. Not just the rabbits—every animal that wheezed and shrieked and rattled its cage at WeLuvPets!: the black-eyed ferret, who looked like he’d been socked in a bar fight; the degu trailing his long skinny tail like a strand of saliva; and especially the hedgehog, worrying a crumpled ball of newspaper until he fell sideways, panting from exhaustion, his quivers trembling in panic.
Between the incessant screeching of the cockatiels (“Help!” they yelled. “Help-help-help-HELP-HELP-HELLLLLP!”) and the odor—a soupy miasma of damp fur, urine-soaked hay, and formaldehyde deodorizers—Roger could feel a full-blown migraine coming on. A dark hand gripped his brain stem and began to squeeze. He handed Harriet his credit card and told her she could choose whatever damn rabbit she wanted. He’d be waiting outside by their bikes.
But on his way out he was distracted at the cash register by a pair of gleaming eyes. They stared from a glossy brochure, Exotic Pets 4 Sale. He recognized those eyes. He had seen them before, a decade earlier, during the war—it must have been somewhere in Quảng Trị province. His platoon had set up an ambush in a dense thicket of acacia and evergreen. He remembered the heat most vividly; he would never forget that, the sun much closer to the earth than it ever got in the States. Also the obsessive humidity, the weight of his jungle boots, the exuberant sucking of the mud, the mysterious fringe of yellow crust that formed on his neck where his steel helmet touched his skin. And he remembered that he had been lying under his thatch cover for nearly five hours, trying not to flinch too violently every time a blood-brown leafhopper flew into his mouth, when he’d felt a tug on his left boot. He turned, expecting to find Collins or one of the others, but he could only make out a bulky shadow advancing through the blackness like a floating blanket. There followed a loud, anguished scream. Roger and the other men, forgetting their training, leaped wildly from their positions, just in time to see a 400-pound cat dragging Collins by his ankle across the forest carpet.
The tiger, surrounded by the adrenalized soldiers, made an easy target. Its flank was perforated by approximately 80 rounds of ammunition. Collins escaped with only several light lacerations along his calves. The men dragged their trophy through the high grass to their next position. The Hueys weren’t scheduled to retrieve them for another 48 hours, however, and they worried that in the jungle heat the animal would rot. One of them had mentioned that tannic acid, which was used for curing deer hides, was present in urine. Two days later, back at camp, the five marines posed for grinning photographs next to the piss-pickled carcass.
Roger found Harriet at the register with Bunnicula and a five-pound sack of alfalfa.
“Honey,” he said, and Harriet looked up abruptly because he never called her that anymore. “I got a different idea.”