One day last week, Kevin came home from school and relayed a story to me about his math teacher apparently losing his temper with one of his classes (not the class Kevin has with this teacher, but a class a couple of his friends have with him) and saying to his class, “What, are you guys retarded? You’re acting like a bunch of retards!”
Kevin was upset, and upon hearing this, I was upset. A teacher? A high school teacher? Resorting to name-calling? Using a slur? Really?
What to do? There is a part of me – a big part of me – that feels this huge responsibility to Finn in situations like this – situations where I could actually do something. I know I can’t change the world, but when situations like this arise, it feels like a dark and ugly, and yes, cowardly thing to do to just let it go. So I was torn. Kevin and I talked about it, and I asked him if he would be okay with my sending an email to this teacher and to the principal and treating it as an opportunity to educate. Kevin wanted to make sure the story was actually true first. The following day he confirmed the story with other students in that class, and he gave me the okay to send the following email:
As a parent of one of your students, I am extremely concerned about reports (from multiple sources) that you called one of your classes yesterday collectively “a bunch of retards.” First of all, name-calling by a teacher in any context is inappropriate. Furthermore, “retard” is a hate word. It’s a slur, no different than many other words that we have, as a society, fortunately moved beyond. You may not have considered your audience, and the fact that there actually may be a number of your students who are in some way personally touched by someone with autism, Down syndrome, or another developmental disability, and to have such a connection makes such language especially demeaning and hurtful, especially coming from an authority figure or a role model.
This seems like a good opportunity to educate. I am sending a link to a video of a speech my son, Kevin, gave to his middle school student body and their families two years ago. I hope it will give you pause, and that you will more carefully consider your words in the future.
cc: Cathy Gach, Principal
I sent it on Friday, and by yesterday (Wednesday), I had not heard a word back from either the teacher or the principal. What did I expect? I don’t know . . . some kind of acknowledgment? Yeah.
So last night I resent the email to both of them with this note:
Last Friday, December 9, I sent a letter (copied and pasted below) to Mr. Jafari, with a copy to you, concerning inappropriate language Mr. Jafari apparently directed at one of his classes last week. I have received no response or acknowledgment from either him or you, which greatly concerns me. Perhaps there has been an oversight. In any case, I would like to think that this is something FUHS would take seriously, and would take steps to educate its staff about tolerance and finding more appropriate ways to deal with frustration than resorting to name-calling and slurs.
cc: Mr. Jafari
This morning I got this response from Mr. Jafari:
Dear Ms. Morguess,
Thank you for taking the time to write about something that concerns you. This email acknowledges your email. I did not respond to your earlier email as it did not ask for a response. Please also note that this statement was in jest and I immediately told my students that I am just joking. It was never indented as a slur or a hateful statement. I agree with you that such a statement should never be made in earnest. Since some students or a student did not take the statement as a jest, this calls for more prudence.
Again I would like to thank you for bringing this to my attention.
Oh! So he was joking! Well Jimminy Cricket! That makes all the damn difference, now doesn’t it? He was kidding! I mean, gosh, to say it in earnest would be just wrong. But in jest? Perfectly okay! Just like calling someone – let’s see . . . let’s say, for instance, a classroom full of high school freshman – “a bunch of fags” or “a bunch of spics” would be totally fine as long as it was said in jest, right?!
I about choked when I read that email. It’s one of the two standard excuses: (1) “I was kidding,” and (2) “I didn’t mean it like that.” Damn pussies. Cowboy up and cop to it! I’d have a lot more respect for someone who just said, “You know, I was out of line, and I’m sorry. Won’t happen again.”
Later in the morning my cell phone rang. It was an unfamiliar number, but the location from whence it came told me it might be this very teacher. How did he get my cell phone number? Well, no mind. More importantly, did I want to talk to him? I didn’t have a speech prepared, and I hate being caught unprepared for confrontation like that. But I put on my big girl pants and answered the phone. It was, indeed, the teacher.
He was very nice, though clearly he was doing damage control now. He basically reiterated what he had said in his email, that he was KIDDING! I said to him, “So if I called you a nigger, it would be okay as long as it was in jest?” He gave me a big, hearty laugh and said, “No, no, of course not!” “Why not?” I asked. “Um, well, that’s just wrong,” he said. “Right,” I said.
He told me that he likes to get down on the kids’ level and use their language to connect with them. He really said that! I told him, “You’re not supposed to be one of them, and you’re certainly not supposed to be encouraging them to use derogatory language. You’re supposed to be a role model.” Jesus H. Christ. Why am I having to tell a college-educated freaking teacher this? That he’s supposed to be a role model, not a pubescent, surly teenager?
He apologized and assured me that he would be more conscientious of the language he uses in the future. I guess that’s all I can ask for, right?
Later in the day, the principal called me. I have to say that I am really, really disappointed that she wasn’t right on top of this situation – or at least that she didn’t try to give the appearance of being on top of it. Like Mr. Jafari, she told me that she didn’t respond to my initial email because I didn’t specifically ask for a response. Seriously? I mean, I would think in this type of situation, some sort of response would be a given.
Anyway, she was nice, she said that she had had a talk (today – not until today!) with the teacher, and he understood that what he had done was inappropriate, yada yada yada.