The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (Oak Bluffs, MA)—Free Speech in Peril

In one century we went from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to offering remedial English in college.
            —Joseph Sobran

Not to put too fine a point on it, meaningful reform means breaking the stranglehold of the educational bureaucracy and the educationist establishment on the nation's schools. Any systematic effort to improve the schools that fails to wrest them from the 'interlocking directorate' of the special interests will run aground—as previous attempts have done when they left intact the very institutions that nurtured, sustained, and fed off of educational mediocrity.
            —Charles Sykes, Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good about Themselves but Can't Read, Write, or Add

For the 315-page narrative of my experience teaching at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, twice-designated national blue-ribbon school in Massachusetts, home of the Kennedy oligarchs, read TOTAL CHAOS: Behind the Scenes of a National Blue-Ribbon High School (People's Press, Baltimore, 2001). For half price ($10), order it from me. 

What does blue-ribbon mean? It means absence of free speech and expression, unless of course that speech and expression favor the ruling administrative regime. The following essay was published in the Fall 1999 issue of Spectacle. Interestingly, an article was sent to me recently that seems to confirm my observations that a lot of students at the high school (track three kids) were not being educated. Instead, they were thrown into the trash barrel of grotesque neglect. The article was printed on 11/17/00 in The Martha's Vineyard Gazette. Unfortunately, it took a new high school principal to admit failure. The old high school principal, ever vaunting national blue-ribbon vacuity at the expense of student education, was simply interested in business, that is, corruption, as usual and his own pocketbook. Interestingly, the Superintendent of Schools is not mentioned in the article and has not been held accountable for failure and gross neglect of student education.

Unfortunately for America, many if not most of our public institutions, including schools and universities, tend to react vehemently to suppress serious in-system critics or whistleblowers. Those in power, be they high clerks, college presidents or high school principals, perhaps are rarely the most qualified to do the job for the simple reason that many if not most of them were hired and promoted, not on the objective basis of intellectual qualification, but rather on that of patronage, loyalty and obedience, modus operandi of many if not most of our public institutions.
In Massachusetts, the situation is perhaps even worse than in other states because legislators passed an amendment in 1986 to the state conflict of interest law that essentially legalized nepotism. Indeed, at the state college where I taught five years, the number of family members employed at that institution was astonishing, at least to me. Clearly, job evaluations for individuals hired because they are friends or family members of those in power are rarely if ever carried out objectively. What results is gross inefficiency. The public project known as the Big Dig is certainly one of the most blatant examples in recent times of inefficiency due to rampant patronage and cronyism. Yet public criticism of that project has resulted in little if any change. Undoubtedly, maintaining the state’s current modus operandi is more important to the state’s politicians than efficiency might ever be. In any case, those in power tend to lack the self-confidence indispensable for accepting criticism not as a personal affront but rather as an effort to improve the institution. Unfortunately what tends to motivate authoritarian leaders is rarely the latter, but rather power for the sake of power. Perhaps today Bill Clinton has sadly become the most evident illustration of that principle. Unfortunately for America, though not for those in power, the trend has been to exalt loyalty and team-playing at the expense of integrity and individuality. Indeed, civic duty today seems to have become equated with blind-faith loyalty, rather than with mustering courage to criticize local mismanagement and corruption. Loyalty, loyalty, loyalty, not integrity, are the words uttered by our public leaders. Ray Flynn, for example, in his recent failed bid for a congressional seat, used those very words in his concession speech over and over, without once pronouncing the word integrity.
Ultimately, what permits our public institutions to eliminate in-system critics and otherwise stifle the sound of the whistle is not so much those in power, but rather the vast majority of public employees, be they minor clerks, college professors or high school teachers, who by their conspiracy of silence accord those in power the license to do whatever they wish. Those ordinary functionaries, be they clerks, public college professors or high school teachers, who would remain silent in the face of injustice or gross ineptitude do so because America’s schools have succeeded all too well inculcating the team-player mentality such that staunch Thoreauvian individualism has become for the most part but an American myth.
Indeed, the effectiveness of the process of socialization, coupled with the specter of blacklisting and the absolute necessity of obtaining letters of recommendation from those in power if one wishes to remain marketable or employable, have resulted in the reduction of would be in-system critics to that of an endangered species. If in fact Brian Martin, president of Whistleblowers Australia, was right when he stated “dissent is vital to building a free and democratic society” (Thought & Action, spring 1998), is not American democracy in danger? The following is an account of an experiment in free speech carried out in an effort to confirm the above, that is, that in-system critics of public institutions will generally be punished and that a conspiracy of silence will generally prevail. The experiment was performed at a twice-designated national Blue-Ribbon high school in Massachusetts, a state whose public educational system has recently received national attention because politician’s decided to make education a platform issue and because six out of ten college graduates, many from the state’s public colleges, who took the new state teacher certification test failed it. John Silber, chairperson of the state’s Board of Education underscored that “a high school senior should have been able to pass this” (The New York Times 9/13), confirming that something was seriously rotten in the state educational system.
I was hired to teach Spanish at the high school as a mid-year replacement. My new employers had been less than honest with me. First, during the interview, the superintendent of schools had mentioned he liked to be “frank” and would like me to be “frank.” Looking at my resume and scholarly publications, he mentioned that “intuition” had told him that I must have had problems with my chairperson, implying that on paper I should have gotten tenure at the state college, my previous employer. In reality, “intuition” had nothing to do with it, for my former employer had told him what had happened... in violation of a legal settlement we’d struck. One of my references, a chairperson at that college, was certain about that, though would not be willing to testify because he was in the midst of courting the college president and otherwise team-playing.
Secondly, the principal of the high school had wanted me to start the position earlier than agreed upon because another replacement teacher had decided to suddenly quit. He mentioned that one of the classes was difficult, but that “the problem student” had been taken care of. During the interview, a student, who was part of the hiring committee, had asked what I would do if confronted with behavior problems, but none of the teachers or administrators present mentioned anything about the issue, which I’d later discover was officially a non-issue. When I eventually began the teaching position (January 1998), the school failed to provide an orientation relative to the rules and policies that applied to teachers, despite the fact that my new employers were well aware that I had very little high school experience.
Behavior problems were immediately evident in all of my classes, despite the twice-designated national Blue-Ribbon status of the school. In reality, from my very first day, teaching proved to be extremely difficult and much of the time not possible. My chairperson would admit that my situation was “very difficult” due to the fact that students had already had four or five different teachers since the beginning of the school year. Even in my two ‘honors’ classes, I experienced frequent difficulty keeping students quiet and attentive. In one class, where students manifested an uncanny pride in taking behavior-modification medicines (“I HAVE TO TAKE MY MEDICINE NOW! CAN I HAVE THE PASS?”) and actually bragged about having A.D.D. (Attention Deficit Disorder), A.D.A.D. (Attention Deficit Apathy Disorder), A.D.H.D. (Attention Deficit Hyper Disorder) and even O.D.D. (Oppositional Defiant Disorder), the situation was essentially impossible. The director of guidance, who had been issued a terminal contract probably for being honest with his observations, told me one day that the school was supposed to have teacher aids in classes that had an inordinate number of students with learning difficulties, yet there were none.
During my first four months at the school, I’d brought my concerns to the attention of my chairperson, vice principal and principal during a number of different conversations or meetings. The vice principal and principal stayed clear of my classes and didn’t seem concerned, while my chairperson gave me ideas , though her ideas, which would consume countless classroom hours, seemed like they ought to have been applied on the elementary-school level, not at a high school. For example, she showed me how to throw a ball around to students standing in a circle. When somebody caught it, he or she had to utter a Spanish word, any word. What she showed me was a form of directed chaos, nothing more nothing less. She also showed me how to make paper mache maracas with students and do lots of cutouts from piles of well-used, shredded magazines. Students would cut and paste pictures, then write a sentence in Spanish under them. She also suggested students make knitted God’s eye (ojos de Dios) ornaments. Indeed, to me, a former college professor in both France and America, teaching at the high school seemed more nursery school than anything else.
After many weeks of rampant chaos and noise, I eventually became absolutely certain that high school teaching, Blue-Ribbon or other, was not for me. At that moment, I made the conscious decision to perform an experiment in free speech, an area of particular interest to whistleblowers like myself, who had tried in vain to interest local politicians and educators about the corruption I’d witnessed at the state college. Indeed, that experience coupled with the Blue-Ribbon experience had left me so generally disgusted that I decided to sacrifice my teaching career once and for all. My experiment consisted of a simple letter a simple letter to the editor of the local newspaper, revealing the behavior chaos I’d suddenly and unexpectedly been thrust into. What pushed me in that direction besides the chaos experienced in my classes was also the constant teachers room gossip about behavior problems, the lack of mention of such problems during faculty meetings (nevertheless, the administration did periodically circulate a hall-wanderers list with over 20 student names on it, as well as lists of various behavior-related rules that were, apparently, not followed), my personal observations of chaos in the library and in classes of several other teachers and, even more so, the intermittent press pronouncements in the local weekly and internal memoranda of both the superintendent and principal underscoring the high school’s Blue-Ribbon excellence.
Prior to my decision, I’d already submitted a critical essay to the high school literary review. “The Unbearable Inappropriateness of Failing to Define the Appropriate” was however rejected via form letter, although it did not concern the situation at the high school per se, but rather the firing of a public junior high school teacher, who’d shown a film, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” based on a work by the Nobel prize-winner Gabriel Márquez. The film contained scenes of sexual content (Boston Globe, 11/19/97). My essay made several pertinent suggestions, perhaps risky in its underscoring of the irresponsibility of state educators in power, including high-school principals. It argued, for example:
In conclusion, the state needs to draw up precise and well-illustrated guidelines for teachers relative to inappropriateness, especially if it intends to prosecute those who transgress inappropriateness. Violating inexistent guidelines is a bizarre concept, to say the least. For this reason, Massachusetts needs to explicitly state that a teacher may not show a film if it contains scenes of fornication, nudity or obscenities. Relative to the latter, it should list all words and expressions to be deemed obscene. Too much vagueness can only lead to confusion as to what can and what can not be done in a classroom. The state needs to disseminate those guidelines, include them in all teacher contracts and hold mandatory workshops for all teachers in an effort to make certain they comprehend what they can and can not do. It might also educate teachers in workshops as to what cases have come before the state’s courts, what the outcomes were, etc.. What is important is discussion and clear communication. If drawing up guidelines proves to be unfeasible, for one reason or another, then how can one blame a teacher who chooses to present material in a lesson that might prove offensive to a student? Clearly, anything may end up offending anybody. For that matter, Spanish itself as a language may end up offending a student forced to take the language. Hopefully, the District Attorney assigned to the Cape Cod teacher case does not let politics and ego get in the way of the truth and justice. Hopefully, he doesn’t get sued by the ACLU and cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
Moreover, that essay cited a somewhat controversial statement made by the editor of Contemporary Education (1995), David Alan Gilman:
Educators have readily adjusted to a mentality which controls thoughts through threats of hearings and blacklisting not unlike that which occurred during the late Senator Joe McCarthy’s search for disloyal Americans... The question occurs as to how academicians can continue to function and perform with such boundaries and obligations within which intellectual freedom is constantly at-risk. One must balance the risk of not conforming to a politically correct policy with the damage that may occur if it is followed... Not using an example that may be offensive to someone in an early stage of moral development must be balanced with the possibility of losing a teaching moment by deleting the example from a lecture. The risk of offending an onlooker who may somehow inadvertently be a witness to teaching materials [that he or she may consider offensive] must be balanced with never knowing what instructional possibilities that media may contain.
Prior to my decision to conduct the experiment in free speech, I’d also submitted a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, which was printed to my surprise because of previous in-vain efforts at informing the public, not just through academic journals but also via the mass media, about the public-college corruption I’d encountered. The simple publication of that letter partially renewed my once shattered faith in free speech (If the media refuses to give a person voice, then free speech is but an empty concept.). The letter was in response to an article printed in the previous week’s edition about a local elementary school principal who’d been arrested for drunk driving. The article quoted the principal detailing over and over what a great job he’d done. Again, my submission was, in retrospect, somewhat risky:
Too many community leaders are permitted to speak highly of themselves in our newspapers and media in general. Unfortunately, their self-proclamations are often met unchallenged because as Bill Moyers himself put it, “this mass media pays little attention to the views of most dissenters.” As a common, unconnected citizen of the Commonwealth, I must wonder just how serious [the principal’s] offenses really were for the police not to have given him special treatment as a pillar of the community. Most likely we shall never know the truth about that situation because public officials seem always to ‘get away with murder’ via closed-door negotiations. Leaders should be held to greater, not lesser, accountability than average citizens, for it is the former who make the speeches about family values, etc.. They, more than anyone else, should not be drinking and driving and/or flirting, as in the case of Mr. Clinton, with individuals whose jobs depend upon them. We, as citizens, need to demand an end to deals, secret or otherwise, when public officials are concerned, especially in Massachusetts where corruption (e.g., cronyism and patronage) has had such a lengthy tradition.
The day that letter appeared in the newspaper (3/10/98), a colleague walked up to me in the hallway and hollered angrily, “DID YOU WRITE THAT LETTER?” I said yes. Then she told me that she was the wife of the elementary school principal in question. As she stormed off, I told her I’d be more than willing to discuss any of the points I’d made but she kept walking and never spoke to me again after that day. A few days later, my department chairperson, a friend of hers, also expressed anger and could not comprehend any of the general points I’d made. Nobody else mentioned the letter to me. I became somewhat, no doubt justifiably, paranoid at the high school because I’d heard through rumor that everybody had been talking about it.
Another incident occurred prior to the experiment. In one of my classes, an ‘honors’ student remarked that his Global Studies teacher had been asking students if I were a good teacher. He asked me why she was doing that. Immediately, I suspected that the letter to the editor and/or my having the teacher’s daughter in one of my classes had everything to do with it. My experience at the state college had led me to believe that, despite it being professional or not, teachers often asked students how new teachers were performing. I wrote a note to the Global Studies teacher requesting the results of her poll and mentioning the corruption I’d experienced at the state college and my willingness to discuss that and the letter to the editor I’d written.
Several days later, the vice principal summoned me and my chairperson to his office, where I was reprimanded in front of the Global Studies teacher, who insisted she’d never asked students anything about me because that would have been unprofessional. The vice principal said he’d talk to the student and told me it wasn’t a good idea to write letters. When I approached the student several days later, the student categorically denied what he’d originally told me. I underscored that I’d have a difficult time respecting him in the future because of the incident.
Several days after that, I was summoned to meet with the principal, vice principal, Global Studies teacher, my chairperson and the student’s parents. After 45 minutes of waiting in the principal’s antechamber, while the others met, the parents left. When I was finally summoned into the room, I asked why the parents hadn’t met with me. The principal’s response was that they had wanted to avoid “conflict of interest” because the student’s father was a member of the school committee. I remarked that the student had lied, that he had changed his story and that I thought he should be held accountable. The principal and chairperson didn’t agree. The latter mentioned I was “intimidating” to some students and implied that requesting accountability would in itself be intimidating. The principal mentioned that the student was given the choice of dropping my course or continuing. Apparently not very intimidated, the student chose the latter. I underscored that I wasn’t satisfied with the outcome of the matter, but promised I’d drop it and certainly wouldn’t take it out on the student.
My second letter to the editor, the one that constituted the actual experiment in free speech, was published on 5/7/98 in the same local weekly. It detailed personal observations and did not contain the names of, nor references to, particular individuals, nor did it implicate the entire high school. In brief, it challenged the notion of national Blue-Ribbon excellence and was titled, “Blue-Ribbon Excellence: Myth or Reality?” Unfortunately, the weekly created a different title: “High School Students’ Behavior Disrupts Learning.” In any case, I was careful to place statements in the text that my observations were not necessarily generalities nor all-inclusive. Thus, I wrote, for example, “to the detriment of those students who are attentive, mature and polite,” so that readers would not think I was stating that all students were misbehaving; and “not to imply that all teachers have classes like mine,” so that teachers would not think I was stating that all teachers had classes like mine. In my letter, I challenged teachers and administrators to open discussion of the behavior problem and offered solutions such as a two-track system where students who followed the rules would be placed in one track; while those who didn’t, in the other. The school had a three-track system based on learning ability.
When the letter was published, I received six very supportive phone calls from concerned parents, a congratulations from one teacher and verbal support from a few students. However, the reaction to the letter was overwhelming hostility on the part of teachers and students, and total silence on the part of administrators. I was surprised by the general outrage, misinterpretation and inability to read a critical essay intelligently rather than emotionally and with overt denial. Because of the outrage, as well as refusal of teachers to approach me and debate the issues, I prepared and disseminated an opinion poll, the results of which were inconclusive because my sudden dismissal made it impossible for me to pick up the responses in my letter box.
Just the same, I received five early responses out of approximately 75 forms disseminated to the faculty. Needless to say, all five were generally negative. One of the respondents, who chose to remain anonymous, did not take the time to answer any of the 18 questions and simply wrote a statement: “If you put as much time and effort into your classroom as you did into this poll and your editorials, you would not have such a weakness in the area of behavior management.” A second respondent did the same, though instead of criticizing my weakness in controlling unruly classes, criticized the way how my questions were worded. “On question #4 you ask: ‘Do you think a lot of students manifest a sort of gratuitous rudeness and disrespect?’ The question is already slanted to produce the answer you want. A less biased way to elicit teachers’ responses might be to say something like ‘How would you characterize or describe the majority of student attitudes towards teachers in this school?’” Frankly, I had to agree with that teacher who unlike myself had “been in the position of working with various committees who were developing opinion surveys.”
The other three respondents generally criticized my ways. For example, one of them noted: “You took a blind-sided swipe at the students, the teachers, the school. You could have been part of the family if you talked with them.” Another noted an Ashanti proverb: “He who can not dance will say the drum is bad.” Nevertheless, two of the respondents seemed to agree with some of my observations, though without directly saying so. For example, one of them noted that in his classes “there is a degree of chaos,” while the other noted: “Anyone has the right and probable moral obligation to do what your [sic] doing if you have a passion. Personally, I think your peers feel that dialogue should have been exhausted with fellow teachers ‘gossiping’ in the teachers room before you aired ‘our’ dirty laundry publicly. I don’t believe that anyone thinks there isn’t some varying degree of truth to your statements...”
A day after the letter’s publication, I was summoned to the principal’s office. Two of my students had complained (encouraged hysteria or simply on the bandwagon?) that they were afraid I might hurt them with the cake knife another student had suddenly pulled out of my desk drawer the day before. I assured the administrators present that I did not have a police record and that if they did not believe me they should effect another verification. One of the two vice principals accompanied me back to my classroom where he confiscated the knife, which I had explained had been left in the room by a student who had brought it from home to cut a cake during a classroom fiesta, a periodic activity in not only my classes but also in the chairperson’s. During the meeting, the principal had also mentioned an alcohol incident. Rumor had circulated a month before that I was chugging tequila in the classroom. However, the truth of the matter was that I had brought in an unopen tiny, three-centiliter bottle of mescal to show students the little worm in the bottom because mescal had been mentioned in one of the stories we’d read. Interestingly, the principal’s letter description of the meeting and two incidents did not mention my explanations. Unfortunately, as mentioned, no orientation had been set up when I was hired to inform me about highschool rules. During the meeting, my letter to the editor was not mentioned.
Several days after the letter’s publication, the school’s state teacher association chapter announced a sudden meeting to discuss “use of the media to express thoughts and ideas before discussing them with each other.” Fortunately, I noticed the union’s flyer posted in the teachers room and thus attended, though a little late because of the ‘cake-knife’ meeting. How difficult it was for me to suddenly find myself standing before thirty teachers, nearly all of whom manifested overt hostility. Unfortunately, or fortunately for free speech, nothing was accomplished except the venting of that hostility and informing me that all teachers present were irrevocably angered by my having taken public high school issues into the public arena, although many of them admitted agreeing with points evoked in the letter.
One week after the letter’s publication, two letters of rebuttal were printed in the newspaper. One was written by my chairperson, the other, strangely enough, by her husband, a local therapist. Both argued that I was the only one who thought there were any problems at the school. Neither rebutted point by point the issues I’d evoked in my letter. Only one week after my letter’s publication, I was summoned yet again to the principal’s office, where my Massachusetts Teachers Association representative sat like a bathroom fixture, the vice principal handed me his recommendation not to renew my contract and the principal mentioned that “things were not working out” and that “things have gotten too confrontational.” The latter mentioned that I would be placed on immediate, paid administrative leave of absence and had considered keeping me as an aid, but thought that would have been too demeaning. I asked when he wanted me to leave. He responded, “now, would be fine.” I left the premises for the last time that afternoon.
A third letter, I’d written in response to the two rebuttal letters and prior to my dismissal, was also printed in the local weekly several days after my dismissal. It concluded: “If in fact, [the high school] is willing to retain individuals who would reject ‘team-playing’ whenever free speech is in jeopardy and willing to reject the route of denial, then I would love to return in September and work with those teachers not in denial in an effort to resolve the behavior problem, reduce the number of classroom fun hours and increase serious learning.”
In the same weekly issue, three more rebuttal letters were printed under the rubric “Debate Vigorous on Criticism of Student Behavior.” One of them was from my chairperson’s good friend and former chairperson, another from her student and the third unknown, at least to me. Each of them failed to address any of the points mentioned in my letter of experiment and argued the same thing: the school was excellent and that only I was bad. Michael Lewis’ statement relative to academic denial (Poisoning the Ivy) certainly could be applied to the high school and probably any other part of the public sector:
Few things in the world are as powerful as academic denial. It has a feel-good, narcotic effect. There is little it seems, dishonest or injurious enough to move those practiced in the art of self-deception even momentarily to accept the evidence of their senses and act accordingly. Indeed some cases suggest the existence of a causal dynamic between egregiousness and academic denial.
I wrote a fourth letter to the editor, published 7/9/98, to announce my ‘dismissal’ and question why that didn’t constitute a newsworthy story and conclude, “What is unfortunate is not the firing of a teacher, but the lesson taught to high-school students that he who speaketh out against power is automatically a ‘canned’ man.” The letter resulted in two e-mails, both from former students of mine, and, as far as I was aware, no rebuttals. The first e-mail focused on the cake-knife incident.
I read your letter (7/9) in the Times. You claim you were fired unexpectedly. Did you expect that school would allow you to threaten children with your so called cake knives, make fun of them, and treat not only the children but your co-workers with no respect? Yes, you G. Tod Slone, told my A period Spanish class you had the knives in your desk to “Protect your self [sic] from the students” you later claim they were for parties you [sic] class would have–I remember having cake in your class–we had to use a paper plate to cut it! I ask you, where were your knives then?
The second e-mail was from an anonymous ‘honors’ student and is reproduced in entirety to show the level of hatred that a nonconformist, in-system critic can elicit, the twisted facts (I did not teach in 3 different high schools in 4 years, but rather in two different colleges in 8 years and I stayed after school everyday at least an hour during my first three months) and most of all the level of writing manifested by a twice-designated, national Blue-Ribbon high school ‘honors’ student. I will correct with [sic].
I read your letter in the Times. I was quite upset and bewildered about why you wrote the letter to the paper when you don’t even have a job or home on the island anymore. Why do you attract this negative attention to yourself and then claim it to be the students [sic] fault? Personally I think your [sic] were an awful teacher and all we learned from you was nothing. You did not take the needed time to learn and bond with your students. When you taught you us [sic] you taught us like college kids expecting us just because we were and [sic] honors class to know all [sic]. We don't. That would be why your class was very “disruptive”. You never taught us well or even attempted and just sat on you [sic] fancy salary and in you [sic] computer writing horrible poetry or that is what you called it anyway about us. [sic]
You taught in 3 different high schools in 4 years which shows us , plainly, you sucked and had a problem with the way they [sic] too, ran their public school system. You were definently [sic] not our first choice for teacher, I should know I was on the commmitee [sic] that was forced to chose [sic] you due to lack of teacher applications. In fact we knew you were on the black list and knew that you were a little insane. You have had little experience teaching teenagers and thought we were college or a private school. Well Wake UP! Were [sic] not. We are a little Island seperated [sic] from those [sic] inner city and the urban communities. We are different.
In class you said questions were for after class or after school (by the way you never stayed after). Which makes it very hard to learn. Also on a number of occasions you promted [sic] and antagonized the kids to talk back and yell at you so you could yell at them and write them up. What kind of a stupid loser does that? Huh! Example 1, Surahb and you had a discourse [sic]. Then 2 minutes later you bring it up and begin to fight again when Surhab [sic] had made a comment to another student that was not reavent [sic] to you. Example 2. Ted [...] and you had a conversation and then Ted asked what would be on the test and you began to bring up the conversation again.
If you ask me you are a loser whom no one likes and you feel you need attention. Well your [sic] gonna get it. You were not suddenly fired either. You said in the times [sic] that you were ready for what ever lashes that the school through [sic] at you. Well I hope you know that I did end up getting a good grade in Spanish despite the one teacher that ruinded [sic] the year. I also hope you know there is no way if you ever get hired again that you will be liked or be staying long. The only reason no one talks about you is because why remember a bad time and a bad teacher. By the way where did you get yur [sic] degree? The internet school of bad teachers? Well I hope you have a wonderful summer and never return to the island.
P.S Thanks for nnothing [sic] and when you left you left us with work to catch up on, and our class was fine with the other teachers. You just need to learn how to teach and deal with teenagers. Sincerley, [sic] A former student
In an effort to confirm that I was perhaps not delusional, my fourth letter quoted a professor emeritus, editor of a scholarly journal, Geolinguistics, that I regularly contributed to. “I am sorry to hear that your high school position has been unsatisfactory. In the fifties I put in four years in three different high schools, and when I quit the third high school job, I swore I would never teach again even a single hour in any public high school. You have mentioned the problem of disruptive students; but, even more important is the problem of indifferent, incompetent and I would even say sadistic principals and superintendents, who sit on their fancy salaries and refuse to lift a finger to help a teacher overwhelmed by disruptive students. They have the nerve to blame the teacher when in fact they have tolerated an atmosphere of disorder without doing anything effective to alleviate it.”
My letter also quoted a 73 year old former graduate of the high school who wrote from Orlando, Florida. “I have before me your magnificent letter to the editor... I trust your points, so well made, were listened to? I have read, for years, about the ‘wonderful’ students on the Island and have thought this can’t be so true. I read of drunken parties, wrecks in cars after parties, etc., etc., and have thought there must be an overlooking of the true state of behavior in classrooms on the island...”
Three months after my fourth letter was published, I received another anonymous e-mail, probably from a student who’d written several previous anonymous missives. Somehow, he’d managed to obtain my friend’s name and email address and had written her too. The anonymous man wrote: “I still think your [sic] a bastard for harrassing [sic] the student like you did, but I'm a forgiving person. I'll be waiting to here from you.” I didn’t know who he was referring to. Being me, I wrote back and mentioned it was cowardly to write anonymously. His response was the following:
Listen here you no-good-bastard!! First of all I'm not a god damn student! I'm 35 years old and if you want to try to insult me, I will put Trevor, Jeanne, and especially you into great danger. I know exactly what state you live in, exactly what town you live in, and the exact street you live on. I suggest that you get your stained, black leather jacket on and leave the house before I make a little trip to your town. If I was you, I would definately [sic] not take me as a joke. How do you think I got your e-mail address, friends name, and friends childs [sic] name? I would watch out you no good bastard, or else I'll put my intials [sic] on your forehead.
Needless to say, the message was sufficiently jarring for me to contact the Superintendent of Schools and high school administration. My friend Jeanne, who lives with me, contacted the police because of the threat made to her 12 year old son Trevor. The message also led me to write a fifth letter to the editor, which was published on 10/29/98. In that letter, I included the text of the anonymous email and stressed that I did not consider the threat a joke, being all too aware, especially after having taught at the high school, just how angry people could get at those who exercised freedom of speech. After all, I had been fired for doing just that.
That last letter was a final attempt to shake up the grossly apathetic teachers and alert them to issues of potential Constitutional importance in the heart of their very institution and surrounding community. I feared that the Principal’s constant barrage of self-vaunting praise during faculty meetings had actually convinced them that they were truly great teachers. But what they had been promoting in the school community had not at all been Buddha-like values but rather an implicit policy that encouraged student hysteria and rumor-spreading (e.g., that ridiculous cake knife incident!), irresponsibility and lack of accountability (e.g., it’s okay to lie if you’re lying about a teacher on the shit list), elementary-school behavior (e.g., game playing and little teddy bear stickers for the good students) and hatred for people like myself who expressed opinions different from theirs, that is, who exercised free speech, a supposed fundamental American value.
Justice Stewart, dissenting in Ginzburg, had written that “Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself.” Because my immediate dismissal from the high school for speaking out had constituted an evident form of censorship, I asked the teachers why they and administrators were so lacking in confidence. Indeed, I wondered if it had anything to do with the apparent implication that if 60% of those who took the new state teachers tests failed, probably 60% of the teachers would also have failed.
In my letter, I asked why not a single teacher had stepped forward to declare that something was indeed not very Blue-Ribbon at the high school. After all, a number of them, including the fired Director of Guidance, had agreed with me in private relative to my observations. Unfortunately, by not having the courage to speak out, they not only made me appear delusional, as my chairperson and her spouse had attempted to do in their rebuttal letters, but even worse participated in maintaining the hypocritical status quo. Their careers of course would burgeon, while mine would die, as it essentially already had.
Indeed, it was frightening to realize that teachers, by their very example, were teaching American youth not to speak out, not to stand up for principles, but rather to keep quiet and hope for better grades, letters of recommendation often from questionable individuals (Didn’t Lewinsky obtain one from Clinton?) and eventually higher salaries... and bigger homes... and fancier cars... daily columns à la Barnicle and Hightower in the newspaper... and eventual election as congressman, senator or even president. Such behavior, I suppose, those teachers would equate with respectfulness and integrity. No doubt the country would suffer for that and fascism might even one day rise because of it. Clearly, “speaking out” and “standing up for principles” would not serve the politicians nor their Big-Dig projects very well because they (and high school administrators) seemed always to prefer loyalty and civility over genuine integrity.
Finally, I mentioned in my letter that I was not bitter. On the contrary, I was simply a thinker who asked himself questions and had a very difficult time fooling himself regarding the answers. I asked why we were not teaching high school students to be thinkers who also asked themselves questions. Instead, we seemed to be teaching them how to be ball-players (i.e., team-players), and loyal and blind patriots. Unfortunately, those new legions would only serve to make America worse... more blind to its ills, more corrupt in its workings and more fascistic in its demonstrations. We needed to be teaching students how to get their facts right, how to shun rumor, how to find the strength to stand alone if need be, how to make them feel less desperate to fit in and be like everyone else. We needed to teach them how to criticize American institutions, including Blue-Ribbon high schools. I’d blown the whistle on corruption at one state college. I didn’t get very far, but I tried. I’d blown the whistle on chaos at the high school. I didn’t get very far, but I tried. I’d stood up for my values and fought. How many students issued from that high school would one day do the same? Very few, I suspect.
In conclusion, my experiment in free speech was more successful than I had ever imagined it would have been relative to confirming my hypothesis. Clearly, the time sequence of events pointed to the fact that I was punished for my having exercised free speech, indeed confirming that criticism was not generally tolerated in public institutions, certainly not as well as students and patriots might like to believe. Clearly, if I had not written letters to the editor, I would not have been dismissed, though perhaps not rehired for the following year, but certainly not placed on immediate administrative leave of absence, especially since my classes were no worse than when I’d inherited them and, even more significant, only one month of school remained.
Moreover, I would not have elicited the intense hostility from my chairperson with whom I had gotten along quite well, at least until my first and second letters had appeared in print. Indeed, I had been invited to her home on several different occasions for dinner and had worked very closely with her. Very possibly, if not most probably, I would have obtained a letter of recommendation from her, irrespective of rehiring or not.
Unsurprisingly, not one administrator ever mentioned my letters to the editor, at least not to me, because non-debate seems to be the best weapon for those in power against challenge. The administration should be credited for its intelligence not to reprimand me for having written letters to the editor. Nevertheless, it would have been more intelligent if it had retained me until the end of my contract. Clearly by immediately dismissing me, it sent the embarrassing message to the public, faculty and students that free speech or criticism would be dealt with swiftly. However, the administration did decide to fulfill the monetary aspect of my contract and thus intelligently reduce the possibility of lawsuit.
Finally, experiments in free speech such as the one I performed are necessary because not until more and more of them are carried out and publicized will we fully be able to evaluate and rectify the existent discrepancy between reality and what we learn in textbooks about American first principles of liberty. Imagine how much greater the United States would be if her schools had placed more emphasis on truth and the courage to decry corruption, rather than on technology, networking and team-playing. By the way, why have so many states like Massachusetts not enacted whistleblower, freedom of information and false claims legislation?
Clearly, adopting such legislation could only benefit public institutions by encouraging openness and integrity. On the other hand, it would probably constitute a no-win situation for most state politicians and public administrators. Interestingly, politicians who made the state’s less than glorious educational system a major issue this year, did not evoke the behavior problem. Instead, they concentrated their discourse on testing and teacher aptitudes. It is unclear why the behavior problem has been skirted. Perhaps because acknowledging it would only underscore the failings of politicians, educators and parents. However, the emphasis on testing and teacher aptitudes seems also to underscore the failings of politicians and educators, though perhaps not those of parents, who of course constitute the bulk of the electorate.
Despite many attempts to interest the media, educators and politicians, relative to my Blue-Ribbon observations, the only responses I received included a curt email from the state governor (“Thank you for your message.”) and a personalized form letter from James Carlin, former chairperson of the Board of Higher Education. Curiously, the letter from Carlin stated: “You have been an important supporter of Massachusetts’ public higher education, the Board of Higher Education and me personally and this support has been, and is, really appreciated.” Yet I had not been a supporter at all, on the contrary, an ardent critic. Carlin had obviously never even read my letters, but put my name and address on his mailing list. In his letter, he arrogantly included a list of accomplishments. Without veritable accountability, however, it would be difficult to determine whether or not they were truly accomplishments. As mentioned, even those educators who had confirmed my Blue-Ribbon observations in private would remain silent, including the out-going director of guidance and a number of those present during the union meeting called to discuss “use of the media to express thoughts and ideas before discussing them with each other [sic].” One must wonder if their silence was indicative of dedication to students or selfish concern for their jobs, present or future. Such conspiracies of silence, though not always conscious, always serve to maintain mediocrity and those in power.