Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Grandfield Project

It’s interesting to consider what kinds of events are likely to awaken a town from its “dogmatic slumber,” forcing the citizens to reflect on their local culture and the values they’re endorsing. I want to consider two towns, both driven to engage in such reflection. The towns are connected, and their struggles similar. In many ways, the struggles of one town were caused by the struggles of the other—but only indirectly, through the influence of a play.

The first is the town of Laramie, Wyoming. I have a thread of a connection to that town, since my uncle went to the university there. At the time, it seemed an innocuous little western town, one that few people had heard about. But my uncle enjoyed his time there. He thought it was a nice, quiet place, a friendly town and a good place to go to college. Once, in the ’80’s, I was passing through Laramie with relatives and we bought a T-shirt sporting the words, “Where the hell is Laramie, Wyoming?” We gave the T-shirt to my uncle, who groaned good-naturedly as he held it up.

That T-shirt wouldn’t be funny today. Laramie is no longer an unknown college town somewhere in Wyoming. In the public consciousness it’s become something else: the place where Matthew Shepard, a college student, was brutally murdered by two young men--Laramie natives--who targeted Shepard because he was gay. According to the evidence, they relentlessly beat him with a pistol before tying him to a fence post. Shepard was in a coma when he was discovered, but later died from severe head trauma.

And in case that wasn’t enough to shock a quiet little town out of its routine, Shepard’s funeral was picketed by the gay-hating congregation of Westboro Baptist Church. They carried signs bearing such messages as “Matt Shepard is burning in hell” and “God hates fags.” Fred Phelps, pastor of Westboro (whose congregation is made up mostly of Phelps’ relatives), also sought unsuccessfully to erect monuments in Wyoming indicating the date at which Matthew Shepard “entered hell” for defying God’s law.

These events and the trial that followed brought the town of Laramie into the national spotlight. And the citizens of Laramie, or many of them, couldn’t help but reflect on the meaning of these events. How could a quiet little college town give rise to such hatred and brutality? Was this act of horrific violence an aberration, or was there something in Laramie’s culture, something dark, that helped to give it birth? What did it mean that Laramie was no longer this unknown little community, but had become the scene of one of the most publicized hate crimes in American history?

It was this internal questioning that became the focus of the play (made into an HBO movie) called “The Laramie Project.” The play drew on news reports and extensive interviews, and it depicted a town’s efforts to understand itself in the light of such a horrific defining event. “The Laramie Project” has been widely used as an educational resource in schools and other venues, largely because of its capacity to inspire critical reflection on ideological hatred, homophobia, hate crimes, and the role that community attitudes can play in giving rising to explosions of violent hate.

Recently, a teacher in Grandfield, Oklahoma, decided to use “The Laramie Project” for just such a range of purposes in her “Ethics and Street Law” class. In addition to showing the HBO film, she had students work on developing scenes from the play that they’d then film and show each other in class. The teacher, Debra Taylor, had sought and received approval from the principal to pursue this activity.

Much of what happened next is a matter of controversy. What isn’t controversial is that Ms. Taylor was instructed by the school superintendent, Ed Turlington, to stop teaching the material. She complied, but not before pursuing one final activity: a kind of “funeral” for the play in which students went to a park across the street from the school and released balloons containing favorite lines from the play. This was, reportedly, a way to help students find closure after the disappointment of being told they had to stop work on the play.

Ms. Taylor was subsequently suspended, and shortly thereafter resigned under pressure.

Other details of the case are more contested, including the reasons why Ms. Taylor was instructed to stop teaching “The Laramie Project” and the justification for her suspension and forced resignation. I’ve immersed myself for a couple of days in various online reports and articles on the subject, but what really captured my attention was an online conversation—often angry and full of venom—that emerged among Grandfield students and other Grandfield natives in the form of comments on an Austin-based web article by Frederick Reinhardt.

The article was a brief, early report on the events surrounding Ms. Taylor’s suspension, but the hundred-plus comments that followed offer a portrait of a community in conflict, a town that, like Laramie, had been awakened from its dogmatic slumber and forced to reflect on itself and its values (although many of the comments were really an effort to shout the town back to sleep, to end the process of reflection). I don’t doubt that this online exchange could be effectively mined by a talented playwright to create a script. We might call it “The Grandfield Project.”

According to several Grandfield High students who posted on the site, the recent events in Grandfield were largely driven (surprise!) by homophobia. A number of students reported that Superintendent Turlington came into the classroom of his wife, an English teacher at the school, and delivered a “rant” against gays in which, among other things, he blamed them for AIDS. At least one student indicated that the action against Ms. Taylor first occurred only after the superintendent’s wife, Mrs. Turlington, heard from some students that Ms. Taylor was teaching a “gay play.”

Officially, the administration claims that the decision had nothing to do with homophobia and everything to do with offensive language in the play--and Ms. Taylor’s termination had everything to do with insubordination.

Given the number of students who have corroborated the superintendent’s alleged classroom rant against homosexuals, my inclination is to believe that this event actually occurred. And for a number of reasons, it seems to me unlikely that the bits of profanity in “The Laramie Project” were really what inspired a moratorium on teaching it. After all, the play does not celebrate the profanity that its characters, for reasons of authenticity, occasionally use. As a number of Grandfield students noted, they hear far worse in the school cafeteria. And there’s profanity at least as bad in numerous works of literature that are routinely taught in classes without commentary or intervention.

I’m not a playwright, and I’m hardly qualified to even attempt to create “The Grandfield Project” from the substance of the comments posted on the Austin-based site. But after reading through the angry name-calling, the urgent story-telling, the impassioned pleas and the harsh accusations, I emerged with my own picture of what happened in Grandfield, Oklahoma. For what it’s worth, I want to share it.

This is, of course, a bit presumptuous, given that I don’t know any of the players involved. But sometimes what is needed is an outside perspective, someone who can look at the tangle of individual stories and perspectives that make up the fabric of a story, and can stand back far enough from it all to see the pattern. And I’m not exactly unfamiliar with the kinds of interpersonal dynamics I find myself observing as I pore through the blogged monologues of Grandfield students and residents. My version of the story emerges as I bring these personal experiences to bear on this messy tapestry of conflict and accusation and impassioned narrative.

To start, I should say that, while I doubt Superintendent Turlington had carefully read “The Laramie Project” before he made his decision, I suspect he knew something about it. He surely knew it had something to do with Matthew Shepard, that gay college kid who was murdered. He probably had some suspicion that the play didn’t just condemn the acts of the murderers, but was trying to make a broader point. And I suspect Ed Turlington knew or guessed enough about the play to find it a threat to the kind of ideology he embraced, one which was strong in his community, an ideology which he wanted to preserve.

In “The Laramie Project,” pervasive cultural homophobia emerges as a dangerous force that can help to spawn brutal violence. What does such a message say about those who vilify gays and lesbians as a group, who blame them for AIDS, who endorse an “in-group/out-group” dichotomy according to which part of being a good citizen involves being straight and seeking to marginalize those who are not?

The play is intended to deliberately challenge the bright line that so many of us draw between cultural attitudes and individual actions, between widespread community sentiments and the extreme actions of a few.

When someone says, “I’m condemning those sick people who practice this AIDS-producing lifestyle offensive to God, but I don’t think anyone should beat them up or kill them,” the play responds in the following way: “Hate is a volatile power. It is something that flows in the bloodstream in a community, and one never knows when and where it will concentrate itself, when and where it will become so potent that it explodes outward with deadly consequences.”

When someone says, “I’m condemning the sick, depraved things that those sinning homos do, but of course I love the sinner,” the play replies in the following way: “The line you wish to draw is hard, especially when being gay is as much an identity as it is a pattern of behavior, and especially when condemning this behavior amounts to saying to gays and lesbians that they are denied any legitimate expression of their unchosen sexuality.”

In short, my theory is that Superintendent Turlington sensed or suspected that Ms. Taylor was teaching a play that challenged the legitimacy of some of his community’s values, calling into question an ideology that he and many in his community endorsed. At least on some visceral level, Turlington knew that the play’s message accused him and others in Grandfield of fostering the conditions that breed hate crimes.

And because he saw neither himself nor his community as evil, he responded with defensiveness and outrage…and expressed those feelings in two ways. First, he went to his wife’s classroom and preached to her students the very ideology that the play was challenging. Second, he exercised his authority as superintendent to shut down the teaching of the play. He was, in a real sense, “defending community standards” by stopping something whose message was, in effect, that at least some of his community’s standards were dangerously wrong.

It would be a mistake, I think, to treat the message of “The Laramie Project” as a blanket condemnation of Laramie or communities like it. But it is quite possible that the superintendent made this mistake. Mr. Turlington’s love of the town in which he lived may have become wedded to his own attachment to certain community values, and he may therefore have treated an attack on those values as amounting to an attack on Grandfield.

The truth is, of course, more subtle. Like most communities, Grandfield is surely a rich mixture of virtues and vices, wisdom and foolishness. To say there is a streak of ideological homophobia in Grandfield, just as in Laramie and so many other places, is not to say that the citizens of Grandfield approve of brutal violence against gays and lesbians. And it’s certainly not to deny the reality of neighborliness, of a widespread mutual concern, of community traditions that give many a sense of belonging, of institutions that help support families, of real friendliness and solidarity.

Rather, it is to say that these virtues do not extend to everyone. It is to say that if you’re gay in Grandfield, OK, you’ll feel as if you’re standing at the margins, looking in like the little match girl in H.C Anderson’s fable: alone in a dark alley, cold and hungry, while just beyond the wall a family gathers for the Christmas feast.

If you’re gay in Grandfield, you’ll never fully experience that sense of belonging that others take for granted. You’ll know that the community can’t fully accept you as you really are. You’ll know that the full experience of Grandfield’s friendliness and neighborliness comes with conditions of membership.

Mr. Turlington was a defender not merely of the community, but of those very conditions of membership. He thought that the marginalization of gays and lesbians was a good thing. It was something to be defended.

And how did Ms. Taylor respond to this effort to defend these “community standards”? By treating what Turlington had shut down as a loss to be grieved. What Turlington called bad and wicked, Ms. Taylor called valuable. And she invited her students to do the same. With a ritual in the park, she invited her students to say along with her, “Mr. Turlington is wrong to think that this play is evil, and to believe that the homophobic values in this community are worth defending even at the cost of shutting down an activity aimed at inspiring critical reflection.”

And this was the “insubordination” that inspired her suspension, the threat of termination, and ultimately her forced resignation. Other things she might have done—taking students off school grounds without the proper paperwork (even if taking students to the park in this way was a common practice), allowing students to use iPods and pop popcorn while engaged in class projects, leading a class activity that involved the play after she’d been asked to stop teaching the play—these were merely excuses. The real problem was this: Ms. Taylor didn’t merely tell Superintendent Turlington and all those who supported him that they were wrong. She invited her students to do the same.

And many of them did. And, of course, they were right to do so.

And I don’t mean they were right to challenge Turlington’s allegiance to a homophobic ideology. I do think that, but that’s not what I’m referring to here. What I’m referring to is this: When people use their position of authority to shut down critical reflection on community values, they are using their position of authority to shut down one of the most crucial aims of education. If there is one thing that the best teachers teach, it isn’t some piece of knowledge or even an ability to read or do math. It is, rather, the willingness and ability to engage in sound critical reflection, a kind of thinking that does not take established norms (or their rejection) for granted but raises critical questions about pervasive ideologies.

After all, it is only through such critical reflection that we have any hope of improving the world.

The reason why a number of Ms. Taylor’s students and their parents have become so vocal in their opposition to what happened is precisely this: As they see it, Ms. Taylor was challenging and inspiring these students to learn and think in new ways. And the school superintendent shut that down. Rather than facilitating their education, he used his authority to block it. They are angry because that is the very opposite of what a school administrator is supposed to do.

And so battle lines have been drawn between those who support Turlington’s efforts to defend community values against the threat posed by a play, and those who condemn him for using his authority to pursue agendas directly at odds with the goals of a public education.

This, then, is my version of the story, a version I’ve teased out of a hundred and eleven passionate and often vitriolic comments, posted in response to Frederick Reinhart’s short article. It’s only one version, and I’d be fooling myself if I thought it was the whole story, or if it didn’t leave out important truths. But it’s a story that I think will resonate with at least a few of those who live in Grandfield and are therefore participating in the more complex story.

And it’s not the most flattering story. And that, of course, is the point of all of this. Communities often have a shared mythology about their town and what it’s like. And most of the time, that story goes unchallenged. But then something happens, and the happy myth is threatened. Outsiders start to scrutinize the community and tell new stories about it. People both inside and outside the community reject the myth or modify it, and the members of the community find themselves forced to ask whether these alternative stories have any truth to them.

It happened in Laramie. And, thanks in part to a play about what happened in Laramie, it is happening now in Grandfield, Oklahoma.


  1. Very interesting post. thanks, Eric. The Laramie Project sounds exactly like what more schools need to support. Expression, debate and critical thinking.

  2. Matthew Shepard was targeted because he had money. Sodomites have used his death to force their sick perversion on us ever since. How many straight children have been molested and murdered by homosexuals? A lot. How many Christians have been assaulted by homosexuals because they didn't like the way they voted? A lot. How many Christian churches have been burned down by homosexuals because you disagree with the Holy Bible? A lot.
    Whatever you think, you will not be able to change God's Word and will one day have to pay the price for not believing what God has written.
    Leviticus 18:22 Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.

    Leviticus 20:13 If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

    Romans 1:22-27

    V22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, V23 And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.

    V24 Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves:

    V25 Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, Who is blessed for ever. Amen.

    V26 For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:

    V27 And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.

    SAY THIS PRAYER: Dear Jesus, I am a sinner and am headed to eternal hell because of my sins. I believe you died on the cross to take away my sins and to take me to heaven. Jesus, I ask you now to come into my heart and take away my sins and give me eternal life. http://www.armyofgod.com

  3. Excellent blogpost, Eric. Keep on sharing the good word of critical reflection and evaluation.

  4. When I first read Spitz’s comment, my instinct was to delete it, since I want this blog to be a space in which people can safely and thoughtfully discuss issues without anyone being attacked on a personal level or being subjected to what Rev. Jimmy Creech has dubbed “spiritual violence”—the use of pseudo-religious ideas to exclude people and beat them down rather than affirm and lift up.

    I’ve decided, instead, to treat Spitz’s post as an object lesson, since the sentiments expressed in it are precisely the kinds of things that “The Laramie Project” puts under the microscope and invites us to think about.

    Spitz’s post is characterized by a number of things. It begins with denial. Spitz claims that “Matthew Shepard was targeted because he had money.” He thereby dismisses altogether the homophobia at work behind Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder, despite the enormous contrary evidence that emerged at trial.

    This is a common practice: deny that one’s own hateful ideology has any role to play in the horrors that arise from it. Protect oneself from having to look inward, from feeling the need to critically reflect on one’s own complicity in life’s horrors. Such efforts to shield oneself from negative judgments are ubiquitous. I’m sure I’m guilty of it myself. But if we are to hope to become better people and promote healthier societies, we need to fight against the tendency rather than indulge it. One of the things that “The Laramie Project” does so well is invite such critical self-reflection.

    In any event, Spitz’s post then moved straight into an attack: The real evil is not the brutal hate crime that led to Matthew Shepard’s anguished and lonely death tied to fence post. The real evil is that “Sodomites have used his death to force their sick perversion on us ever since.” In one sentence laden with slanted and abusive language, Spitz seeks to deflect attention away from the explosion of homophobic violence, and vilify instead the private consensual sexual behavior of persons with a homosexual orientation. In the very same sentence, he seeks to equate efforts to call attention to hate crimes with efforts to “force…perversion” on the community…as if saying people shouldn’t be killed for being gay amounts to some kind of provocative sexual display.

    Next, Spitz launches into a barrage of accusations against “homosexuals,” ones that are so vague (what in the world does “a lot” mean?) that one cannot precisely say they are statistical errors. What one can say is that they are grossly misleading.

    He asks, “How many straight children have been molested and murdered by homosexuals?” Well, I don’t know the number. What I do know is that the most reliable and careful objective studies have failed to find any correlation between a homosexual orientation (a disposition to be sexually and romantically attracted to members of the same sex) and an increased propensity for child molestation. For a helpful research summary, see http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/rainbow/html/facts_molestation.html

    “How many Christians have been assaulted by homosexuals because they didn’t like the way they voted?” I have no idea. What I do know is this: I have numerous Christian friends and numerous gay friends, more of the former than of the latter. None of my Christian friends have been bashed for the way they voted. Four of my gay friends have been bashed for being gay, one of them twice. Studies support the contention that gays and lesbians are targeted because of their sexuality in substantial numbers. Is there something comparable to substantiate the contention of significant “Christian-bashing”?

    “How many Christian churches have been burned down by homosexuals because you (does he assume I’m gay?) disagree with the Holy Bible?” It is certainly possible that something along these lines has happened, although I doubt that “disagreeing with the Holy Bible” would accurately capture the motivational structure of someone moved to commit arson. I can well imagine some young gay man so alienated and embittered by the kind of spiritual violence typified by Spitz’s comments that he’s motivated to burn down a church at night in a deeply misguided attempt to send a message. But most gays and lesbians have better things to do and healthier ways to express their outrage at the psychological abuse heaped upon them by fundamentalist churches. And according to a Christian Science Monitor article (http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0208/p02s01-ussc.html), research shows that the reasons for church burnings generally mirror the reasons for other forms of arson: “coverup of a burglary, vandalism, and revenge.”

    After finishing his litany of vague and misleading accusations against gays and lesbians, Spitz launches into the standard “proof-texting” that is so typical of what Creech has dubbed “spiritual violence.” A collection of texts (the Bible in this case) that many believe has a special connection with the divine is assumed to be, from cover to cover, an inerrant and literally authoritative expression of divine will. This assumption is made without evidence and without any consideration of the many alternative theories concerning how the Bible might be related to the divine. The complex history of the Bible and its interpretation (so nicely summarized in Karen Armstrong’s recent book, THE BIBLE: A BIOGRAPHY) is entirely ignored, probably because it becomes almost impossible to credibly stick to the fundamentalist theory of literal inerrancy if these historical facts are looked at with any care. The many ways in which some biblical writers contradict or even explicitly challenge other biblical writers is ignored. The fact that every theological view is an interpretation of the Bible that has many rival interpretations is ignored.

    After insisting (without argument or evidence) upon this questionable human theory about how the Bible is related to the divine, the person then relies on it in order to lend divine authority to a handful of isolated biblical texts—two from the ancient holiness code found in Leviticus (alongside many other behavioral requirements that aren’t treated as authoritative today), one from the first chapter of Romans, and (sometimes) a couple of ambiguous passages from I Timothy and I Corinthians (in both cases translational difficulties make it hard to claim authoritatively that Paul was referencing homosexual behavior as such).

    Honest biblical scholars will admit that, for contemporary Christians, it is only the Romans passage that comes even close to being a convincing “proof text” for the categorical condemnation of homosexuality that is being endorsed (biblical scholars who are even more honest will admit that proof-texting is an untenable approach in the first place).

    But even with respect to the Romans passage, there is room for interpretation about what Paul had in mind. He writes as if (surprise, surprise!) he has no clue that there’s such a thing as a homosexual orientation. What he is denigrating is the tendency of people who’ve lost touch with God to become excessive in their self indulgence, ready to have sex not only with those they are naturally attracted to, but with anybody, even another man (or woman, as the case may be). The idea of a committed monogamous relationship between two persons of the same sex, both of whom have a stable homosexual orientation, isn’t even on Paul’s radar screen.

    As is routine, Spitz inevitably stops quoting Paul before we arrive at Paul’s point in talking about all of this. And what is his point? I’ll let Paul make it: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (Romans 2: 1) Paul’s objective here isn’t to talk about particular sins, but to point out that all of us have fallen short of the glory of God, and that none of us have any right to judge one another.

    I really don’t know what motivates Spitz and others like him. When I ask them, they reply with contestable ideologies as if they were incontrovertible fact; and when I ask why they ascribe to their theory about the Bible despite the historical and textual challenges that must be overcome in order to make sense of it, they respond as if I am questioning GOD. It is a response of ideological insulation: denying that one has a theory that might be wrong, so that one can operate in the domain of false certainty.

    In short, Spitz’s response begins with denial intended to protect the speaker from engaging in potentially painful self-reflection. It moves into an attack, a focus on the other (again to avoid self-reflection) that is accompanied by vague accusatory claims. Finally comes the invocation of ideology. Those who are skeptical of the ideology are branded members of the “out-group” who needn’t be listened to (they are bound for hell, after all). Spitz closes with an invitation to prayer, which is really an invitation to adopt his ideology on pain of divine retribution.

    Beneath all these moves is a finite human being with needs and longings and fears and hurt. In my view, the defensiveness, the attacks, and the ideology are all walls that have been erected to protect this vulnerable humanity. But it is precisely this humanity that needs to shine forth in all of us if we are going to overcome habits and attitudes and ideas that divide us, that sometimes become concentrated in a few broken human souls so strongly that they are motivated to lash out in deadly ways.

    How do we do that, in a world where people cower behind denial and attack and ideology? Perhaps one way is by inviting people to wrestle honestly with stories in which vulnerable humanity is forced out from behind its barriers. Stories like, say, “The Laramie Project.”

  5. I enjoyed reading your take on this situation. I think, for the most part, it is an accurate description of what most likely took place. Just a few details that were overlooked.

    First, there is the outside pressure the superintendent was receiving. Several preachers, including one who often substitute teaches at this same school, looked up the script online and brought it to the superintendent's attention. As with any small town, Grandfield has an active gossip mill. The rumors started flying and misinformation prevailed. I presume that several parents and "concerned citizens" put their two cents in with calls to the superintendent. It is just as likely that the superintendent caved to the pressure as it is he was preserving an ideology he believed in.

    Second, all the key people involved are NOT lifetime Grandfield residents, including the superintendent. Their viewpoints and "ideologies" are not necessarily indicative of Grandfield as a community. And as with any other community, the residents of Grandfield are not all of one mindset.

    Third, did Taylor have permission for her ENTIRE lesson plan or just a portion of it? With many articles about it using the phrasing "students decided" to act out the play and film themselves, it sounds like it wasn't part of the original lesson plan. I don't know that for certain and media reports are not always accurate, but the impression I get is that it was a last-minute addition to her plans.

    Fourth, if Taylor was told to stop her entire lesson plan on that subject, ANY continuation of that subject--even a mock funeral for "closure"--is insubordination. The school does have legal standing for disciplinary action against her. Now, if she was told to stop the play--and the filming--but not the lesson plan in general, I think the school was in the wrong. I don't know which scenario is the truth.

    Overall, I do think you have a clear take on what transpired. I do appreciate your time and effort you put into this post.

  6. Anonymous,

    Thanks for the helpful additions. That the superintendent was under pressure from others (his wife, it seems, among them) I have no doubt. The superintendent was acting as a representative of a constituency. And you are right, of course, that the town of Grandfield would not be all of one mind, even if there are pervasive and deeply entrenched values that are in play.

    One passage in your post that I'd like to comment on: "...if Taylor was told to stop her entire lesson plan on that subject, ANY continuation of that subject--even a mock funeral for 'closure'--is insubordination. The school does have legal standing for disciplinary action against her."

    This is correct, but there is more to be said. Insubordination can be a species of civil disobedience--creatively disobeying an unjust order, in this case, rather than an unjust law (as we have in the more familiar species of civil disobedience).

    Civil disobedience is generally engaged in with a willingness to accept the penalty, and it is generally pursued for the purpose of highlighting the injustice of the law or specific requirement. As such, when an act of civil disobedience occurs, the question ceases to be about the legitimacy of punishing the individual. After all, the individual is not challenging THAT. The question becomes about the moral legitimacy of the law or requirement that was being disobeyed.

    When someone performs an act of civil disobedience, they are expressing their judgment that a particular law or order is unjust. The question we need to focus on is whether their judgment is correct. If we think so, then that, obviously, has important implications.

  7. Rev. Spitz....

    I'd just like to point out that all of my molesters were straight Christians. And two of them were in the church. Perhaps you could find a more useful place to look for abomination.

  8. "When someone performs an act of civil disobedience, they are expressing their judgment that a particular law or order is unjust...The question we need to focus on is whether their judgment is correct. If we think so, then that, obviously, has important implications."

    I do agree with that, if this were a case of civil disobedience. However, Taylor's said is she was not doing it as civil disobedience, but as "closure" for the students. Her motivation, as she claims, was not objection to the administration's decision, but to help the students come to terms with the decision.

    I personally believe she did this purposefully to take a stand, but we have her own words saying she wasn't making a statement against the administration. So, I don't think we should be attributing civil disobedience to this case--simply for the fact that if she was objecting to the decision in such a manner, she would also back that up with her words. It becomes an assumption on our part to say this was civil disobedience when she (the party involved) says it was not.

    We should not limit our focus. Both sides of this issues, both the administration and the teacher, made poor judgments and mishandled the situation. I think what Grandfield's citizens should focus on is the appropriate steps to handle a situation like this properly.

  9. Anonymous,
    In suggesting that Ms. Taylor made poor judgements, you seem to be implying that doing something you have been told not to do by a superior is always a poor judgement. (Please correct me if I am misinterpreting your argument. I assumed that your were referring to the funeral as her poor judgement.) This is far from an obvious truth. In fact, many ethicists believe there is a moral imperative not to obey unethical orders from superiors. There are obvious cases such as the guards at Nazi concentration camps, but I doubt many people would place the superintendent in the same category.

    It would seem that for a teacher to be required by ethical standards to disobey instructions from the superintendent, those instructions would have to clearly involve harming her students or colleagues in some tangible way (There are now doubt other things that would qualify as well, but I am limiting the scope of this argument to common action within education.) In this case, the teacher's stated motivation for disobeying (For the sake of this argument, I'm granting the assumption that she intentionally disobeyed, though I'm not convinced of that.) was to provide closure to her students. You used scare quotes when you wrote the word in your post, and I'm not sure if you meant that to suggest pithiness on her part or simply that it was her exact word, so please excuse some explication if it was the latter. Teachers are taught incorporate closure into lessons. Students tend to learn better when they understand both the worth of the material and what is expected of them. In that professional sense (I'm a high school teacher myself), she was simply being responsible to her students. Abandoning the project without fanfare or explanation would have seriously undermined both the lessons she had taught in the past and anything she tried to teach going forward. Furthermore, she obviously believed the moral lessons of the play were immediate and grave. (The fact that her termination substantiates these beliefs is another issue.) She could not have conscientiously allowed these lessons to be permanently undermined in the minds of her students. Therefore, while I think issues like this one are often more complicated than a basic "right vs. wrong" dichotomy, I also think it is unfair to characterize any of Ms. Taylor's published actions as poor judgements. Unless your definition of 'poor judgements' includes any action that is likely to get you fired, in which case you would of course be correct.

  10. First, I do believe both sides made poor judgments. What specific actions are not really relevant to this discussion. Perhaps I should have broadened my statement by saying that both sides, not just the parties involved but also those who are speaking out on both sides of the issue even if they aren't directly involved, have made poor judgments. This past week the superintendent received a letter with a white powder inside. There was a lock-down and law enforcement were called. It was ultimately found to be baby powder, a hoax. Most likely, this letter was sent by someone completely outside of the situation. Scare tactics and hoaxes are not effective methods of solving this situation. Closer to the situation, the students speaking out on Taylor's behalf are acting out in anger and spite against those that don't agree with them. They are being teenagers, in that they have not fully developed the ability to debate an issue. These are just a few brief examples of BOTH sides of the issue using poor judgment. I could list many more, but I think this will suffice to prove my point and provide examples of what I refer to as poor judgment.

    Getting back to Taylor's actions specifically, I am glad she did attempt to end the lesson with some type of closure. I disagree with the method. An in-class discussion would have allowed her students closure and the freedom to discuss their opinions. She would have been able to control the confines of the discussion. She didn't have to participate in the discussion, if you assume she might have found it inappropriate to comment directly on her employers' decision to her students. She could have just moderated the discussion and allowed the students to speak.

    What specific purpose did the staged funeral really hold that a class discussion could not? A ceremonial send-off, a show, "fanfare", as you used the term? Now this is just my opinion, but if I had a teacher do this, I would have thought she was patronizing me and treating me like a little kid who needs a demonstration. Of course, I probably was never the typical high school student, but the teachers who taught me the most were the ones who treated me as an emerging adult with real opinions and the ability to think critically and structured their lessons plans in accordance with that.

    I also disagree with the means in which she held this funeral--off school property without permission and on a specific day that the superintendent was out of town at meetings. There are many details that should have been handled differently. As a teacher, she should have been responsible enough to handle those details as well as be responsible enough to properly close her lessons.

    Third, I used scare quotes, as you call them, because I was quoting a specific word Taylor had used. By referring to the quotation marks as scare quotes, you are implying a meaning I was not intending. I was quoting that specific word because that goes straight to her motivation, which is NOT civil disobedience. That was the only reason for the quotation. I don't underestimate the need for closure, especially when it comes to teenagers and their ego-centric world. That's not a put-down to the students; it's just that I remember how big and important every little thing seemed to me when I was a teenager.

    Lastly, as I stated in a previous comment, the wording of what Taylor was told about the cancellation is important. Was she was told to stop the play or was she was told to stop the entire lesson plan and discussion? That is extremely important to know if she deliberately disobeyed, if she unintentionally disobeyed, or if her actions were misconstrued to be insubordination. The importance of knowing this specific information goes directly to her motivation. But we won't ever know the specifics because it is now a dead issue between an employer and a former employee.