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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The Katzwer’s Out of the Bag: Think first, don’t overreact

Published: October 28, 2011
Section: Opinions

There are certain words one cannot say without bringing on excessive ire. I won’t list any here but we all know what they are. The question becomes, however, in what settings and contexts can these words be spoken, or is it never all right?

Schools should be safe zones in which to conduct discussions about these words and the feelings and meanings behind them. If children are not taught which words are acceptable and which words will get them beaten up, how will they know before it is too late?

At the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York earlier this month, Barry Sirmon, a ninth-grade teacher, was fired because he used some of those words in his class.

To clarify, he was not using them to berate students or to display a hatred for any particular group of people. Although neither Sirmon nor the school’s administration will release what Sirmon said, Sirmon did tell The New York Times that it was not his intention to attack anyone. “It was an attempt to show how lame and stupid these ‘isms’ are—racism and anti-Semitism,” Sirmon said.

Admittedly, Sirmon may be incredibly racist despite the fact that he claims he is not. Sirmon is a white man from South Africa who grew up during apartheid. For a lot of people, that is all they need to hear to label Sirmon a racist.

Sirmon, however, was court-martialed during his mandatory two-year stint in the South African Army because he refused to set up a network of informants, as ordered, to abate Namibia’s black independence movement. He refused, knowing the potential consequences, because “anyone becoming an informant would face retribution and probably be killed.”

After this incident, Sirmon fled to the United States and was granted political asylum. Since then, he has married and both he and his wife teach at Fieldston, a school with a large minority population and a focus on tolerance and diversity. Even his son graduated from Fieldston.

Sirmon, his colleagues and his students all admit that he has a somewhat out-there sense of humor. People need to calm down and not get so worked up over such little things. All jokes—educational or not—step on someone’s toes; jokes that do not offend anyone tend not to be that funny.

Whatever he said was not meant as a pejorative but was meant to be educational; it was meant to embody the school’s own mission and they fired him for it.

A Fieldston mother, who asked not to be identified for some unknown reason (Come on, NY Times, I expect better from you!), said, “He is a very anti-P.C. guy in a very P.C. school.” Why is this a bad thing? Isn’t the whole point of Fieldston to celebrate differences? Oh, right, just not the differences they do not like.

She continued: “I wouldn’t condone this in the workplace and I’m not a prude. Words matter.” If you have to say that you are not a prude, you probably are.

Since being fired, nearly 350 of the 592 students at the upper school have signed a petition to reinstate Sirmon. While the administration and the parents seem to have lost their minds, at the least the students are behaving rationally and are able to distinguish between education and vulgarity.

Sadly, this seems to be a trend; one student in a class full of them overreacts and goes to their parents, who similarly overreact (I wonder from where the student got it), and the teacher is then reprimanded for doing their job.

Last year, Sarah Jordan, who had been teaching seventh-grade English at a school in Westborough, Mass., was forced to resign her job in the face of a parent’s unbelievable overreaction.

Jordan was teaching a lesson on media analysis and the main focus of her talk was how gender is portrayed. She showed her students a short clip from Eminem’s “Superman” music video. Sure, not the most appropriate video but a student’s father had an even more inappropriate reaction.

He went to the police.

Really? He did not want to talk to the principal, maybe? The police? Really?

The police, who obviously had nothing better to do, launched an investigation—students were interviewed, Jordan was asked to hand over the clip she had shown, etc. Meanwhile, irate parents flooded the school’s principal with letters demanding Jordan be fired. The principal, who kept a cool head unlike Fieldston’s principal, did not fire Jordan. Instead Jordan was suspended.

By the end of the investigation less than a week later, the police had determined (I still do not understand why the police even pursued this.) that there had been no nudity or excessively explicit material in the clip. Jordan’s reputation was ruined anyway.

Due to pressure from parents and the embarrassment this teacher suffered, she quit her job—the job she had been performing for 10 years. That is—plain and simple—wrong.

One father gets dramatic and a woman’s professional life is ruined. Parents really need to take some chill pills (not that I’m condoning using drugs, although they may help in this case). Unless your kid comes home saying, “Mommy, Daddy, I saw Eminem’s penis at school today,” stay calm. It is not like they are not seeing these things elsewhere.

Scantily clad people dancing together! Why I never! Oh, wait, it sounds like a Miley Cyrus concert, to which parents bring their elementary school-aged children.

And do not think this is just a problem faced at middle and high schools. There was a similar backlash against Professor Donald Hindley (POL) in 2008 when he used the term “wetback” in a lecture. Let’s be clear again, the man was teaching a class on Latin American politics and he used the word to educate his students so they would know that “wetback” is a pejorative term. He did not call anyone by that word nor did he condone its use.

Still, the school found him guilty of discrimination and harassment. Despite repeated requests, Brandeis University never provided Hindley with a record of what he supposedly said that was so offensive.

Yet again, someone took something too far and put an educator through a frustrating and completely avoidable process of hardship. Unlike Sirmon and Jordan, Hindley did not lose his job; he still works here. For a semester after the incident, monitors were assigned to watch him teach and he was ordered to attend antidiscrimination training. He refused to go, knowing that he had done nothing to warrant such a punishment.

People need to remember that schools are meant to be safe zones where anything can be discussed for the sake of education. Replacing the “N-word” in “Huck Finn” with the word “slave” (a topic on which I have much to say but will not say here) is just the tip of the iceberg. These are people’s lives, not books written by dead men.

What will we lose next? What words will we not be able to say in a classroom tomorrow without fear of expulsion or of the teacher losing their job? Enough is enough. Calm down and remember that not everything is an insult, not everything is an atrocity. Words are words and they only have as much power as we give them.