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Hell is Other People, Part One

October 12, 2015

See?  I told you I was back.  Only had to wait one day for my next post…

On my way to open house this year, I calculated that this is my 19th one.  In short, I’ve been teaching a while.  I have already had my first two second generation students, and a few others with parents who graduated the June before I started teaching. In all of those years, I have worked hard to cultivate strong relationships with my student’s parents.  That is not to say that they are always happy with me.  Sometimes we have disagreements of how best to address a student’s needs in the classroom.  Any differences, though, I am usually able to work out through communication and compromise. Any veteran teacher will tell you, though, that sometimes you get a parent with whom you just cannot reason.  What follows are two stories that happened recently that fit this model perfectly.

Interestingly, neither of these events had anything to do with any content in my class, nor any perceived slight in the way I spoke to a student.  They both had to do with the decorations in my classroom observed by parents during open house. Anyone who has seen my classroom knows that it is fully decorated with a number of posters and bumper stickers of a historical or inspirational nature (and in the case of my Sojourner Truth “Ain’t I Woman” poster–both).  Many of them were gifts from former and current students.  I also have displayed several examples of student work.  In short, there are many interesting things to look at in my classroom.  This is as it should be, because otherwise the most interesting aesthetic would be stacked concrete block.

A few days after open house, I got an email from a parent expressing concern about the “political bent” of some of my classroom decorations, and a concern that he felt it may have been making it difficult for students to comfortably express their point of view.  He wouldn’t say exactly what messages he was concerned about, but I had feeling I knew.  I didn’t think he was complaining about a Republican bias regarding my “I Like Ike” poster from the 1950s, nor excessive Protestantism due to my “Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply” sign, my pro-Monarchist sympathies due to my “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster, my strident Catholicism due to my Mother Theresa quote, nor even the ardent feminism expressed in my Rosie the Riveter poster. I decided to convey to him that I was sorry he felt that way, but I observed no such bias in my classroom decorations.  I wasn’t going to ask him what bothered him so–if he responded, then, he was going to have to be specific.

In his next email, he made it clear what it was he found objectionable: my GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) “Safe Space” posters and stickers.  He thought their presence created an environment where students (i.e., his son) wouldn’t be free to express their objections to homosexuality.  I calmly explained that I have a moral and legal responsibility to protect the civil rights of all of my students–and indeed, the state interprets Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as including protections towards LGBT students.  By creating a safe space, I am carrying out those guidelines.  I also added that he may consider it a political issue, but that it is not–it is a human rights issue.

Some people have a very different interpretation of the word

Some people have a very different interpretation of the word “safe.”

After this, his responses grew more irrational–he claimed that if i was going to have “rainbows everywhere” as he put it, I should also have symbols for all of the major religions.  I then explained the difference between civil rights (rights that protect you for who you are) and civil liberties (rights that protect you for what you believe), and that he was erroneously conflating the two.  He replied by arguing  that it was impossible to protect civil rights and civil liberties simultaneously. In other words, he felt that his freedom to express his disdain for LGBT people was more important than their right to be protected from discrimination.

This, of course, reflects a common misunderstanding about civil liberties (and freedom of expression in particular).  Your right to express yourself freely does not mean you can say whatever you want, however you want to, in any context you choose without consequence.  It just means one of those consequences can’t be prison.  Given that many of our leading politicians don’t seem to understand this very basic concept, it’s no surprise that this parent doesn’t seem to understand this difference.  Being a public school teacher, he really shouldn’t need to have this idea explained to him by a colleague–nor should he be clinging to the notion that protecting his students’ civil rights is somehow limiting his freedom. The irony is, after taking my class, his son will have a clearer understanding of this than he will.

After that,  I informed him that we were at an impasse, and that I would pursue the conversation no further.  He did respond, but I deleted the email without reading it.  That was enough, thank you.

As sad and absurd as this was, it was nothing compared to the ludicrous episode that followed a few days later: the concern that one of my wall decorations seemed to endorse the Islamic State.

I am not making that up.  And that will be for next time.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Daniel Trust permalink
    October 12, 2015 9:07 pm

    This was a great read, Kevin! Thank you for standing up to this parent and for creating a safe space for all students.


  2. October 17, 2015 2:59 am

    Thanks, Daniel! I am grateful for your support and kind words. 🙂

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