I am sixty-one. I teach thirteen-year-olds. That’s a forty-eight year difference. I could be their grandmother. Some people would say that’s just too much of an age difference. How can you possibly relate to your students? Step aside and let younger people take over.
But they’re wrong. I have vivid memories of what it was like to be thirteen. I remember looking at myself in the mirror in the morning and discovering with horror the HUGE pimple that had appeared on my nose during the night. I remember taking at least half an hour to sculpt my hair into the highest bouffant possible and then converting it into a rigid helmet with massive amounts of hair spray. I remember struggling over math homework, passing notes to my friends, wanting desperately to be noticed by a cute boy, trying to take a test in spite of extremely painful menstrual cramps, etc. etc. If I were to forget any of this, my students would remind me every day.
However, there was much more going on than hormones, hair and math. When I was thirteen, Adolf Eichmann was apprehended, taken to Israel, and tried. During that year there were pictures all over the media of piles of corpses with skin tightly stretched over their skeletons. The movie, “Judgement at Nuremberg” came out when I was fourteen.
How could anyone be responsible for such an atrocity? The answer that was given was “I was just following orders.” To my thirteen-year-old mind, that sounded completely insane. All he had to do was JUST SAY NO. “No, I’m not going to run a death camp.” How easy is that?
I gradually came to an understanding that if everyone around you thinks something is right, you might fall into that line of thinking and do things that you would never do on your own. That idea was even scarier than the pile of corpses.
I took my doubts to an ironing-board conference. My mother did a lot of ironing, and I often sat on the floor in front of her as she worked. She would tell stories, and sometimes I would ask questions. “How do you know when you’re doing the right thing—no matter what other people are doing?”, I asked, after we had talked at length about Eichmann. “Well,” she said, “ One test is if you must do it in secret. People have a right to their privacy of course, but if you have to sneak around because you’re ashamed, then you might not be doing the right thing. Imagine if you had a camera on you, like Eichmann did, and you had to explain and justify what you did to people who weren’t in on the secret. Would you feel ashamed or proud? What if you knew I was watching you on TV as you tried to explain yourself?”
I’ll never forget that image.
In the years that have followed, I have sometimes done things that I would not have liked to justify on nationwide TV (with my mother watching), but I was rarely in doubt about whether or not it was the right thing to do.
The point of this story is that thirteen-year-olds are asking themselves some of the great existential questions of human kind, and the answers they receive will affect them for the rest of their lives.
On March 20, 2008, I had to sign a document that read as follows:
“Privacy Acknowledgment of Student Witness Statements"
"This is to acknowledge that upon my request, I have been provided with a copy of 10 student statements.
I understand that the statements have been provided for me for the limited purposes of responding to an allegation that was made against me. Although I am permitted to share the statements with my Union Representative, and/or counsel, I am prohibited from disclosing the identify of the writer and the substance of the statement to anyone else.
I further acknowledge that retaliation against the authors of the statements, or any discussion of the content of the statements with the authors of the statements, is strictly prohibited and may result in disciplinary action including termination of employment.”
Now, obviously, I can’t discuss what the statements said. However, I do know that the statements were taken without the knowledge of the students’ parents. I know because I asked. The document I signed said I couldn’t discuss the CONTENT of the statements—not their existence. I simply asked a couple of the girls if their parents had any idea that the statements existed. I got a letter in my file for asking that question.
In other words, once the secret statements have been written, no one can know or talk about them except the administration, the teacher, and the UFT. The parents have no idea that their children have written a statement that could involve them in a 3020a hearing.
I would have no problem discussing each statement on nationwide TV.
The administration has a big problem discussing the statements with the parents.
So do the students. They have failed the ironing-board test of secrecy.
Ever since the condom incident, I have been the target of a series of verbal abuse allegations. Each time I have had to sign a Privacy Agreement—making it impossible for me to write about them on this blog. The need for secrecy is not mine.
Most people would think that if ten students all wrote consistent statements about something a teacher said, there would be little doubt that they were telling the truth. Let me give you an example of how a whole class can generate false statements.
I caught my homeroom class engaging in negative gossip and mean practical jokes. We had already studied DNA, mutations, and evolution. They knew that most scientists agree that the human genome is the result of billions of generations of evolution starting with single-celled organisms. I told them that the good feeling they got when they joined together to gossip about or play a joke on another person probably came from the same DNA that gave wolves their ability to join together to hunt a deer. It feels good to engage in pack animal behavior, because at some point it helped your ancestors to survive. But beware. Pack animal behavior can lead to racism, lynchings, the holocaust. Of course, it can also lead to rescue teams, football teams, and lots of other positive cooperative behavior. They had to be careful which way they would take that pack-animal behavior---and for that they had to bring into play the big, huge frontal lobe of their human brains that made them different from all other animals. We’re the only animals that can actually reflect on our actions.
Well, they didn’t like that message. I have been told by several sources that they went to other teachers and complained that I called them pack animals. They actually wrote all about it in Language Arts. I am expecting to get a letter any day advising me that there is another allegation of verbal abuse against me. However, now I’ve already discussed the contents of the statements before I am forced to sign away my right to do so.
Why do I predict this will happen? Because it already has. The kids take something I said out of context and are encouraged to write statements against me. Then I have to write a big, long explanation of what I really said.
Didn’t something like this happen with the Hitler Youth?