The other day, I wrote an open letter to Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the now infamous President of the NEA. In that letter, I wrote the following:
Last month, you made a speech at the Campaign for America’s Future Awards Gala. The gala was billed as an opportunity to celebrate “progressive champions.” You were one of those champions. In your speech, you said the following:
“We diversify our curriculum instruction to meet the personal individual needs of all of our students: the blind, the hearing impaired, the physically challenged, the gifted and talented, the chronically tarded and the medically annoying.”
…the chronically tarded and the medically annoying.
I can only assume that you thought that would be funny. I’m sure that it would have gotten a hearty laugh out of the Donald. But Ms. Eskelsen Garcia, mocking my child’s disability and her medical condition is not funny. Not even a little.
Let me say that again. Mocking my child’s disability and her medical condition is not funny. It’s reprehensible. And it’s made far more reprehensible by the source.
You represent three million teachers, Ms. Eskelsen Garcia. Three million people who show up at work each day and greet our children. Three million people who can either look at their disabled students just as they do their non-disabled peers – as capable, worthy, beautiful, complicated, fully dimensional human beings who can flourish with their care and expertise — or — as an annoyance, a cost, a hindrance. Or worse, as fodder for a punch line.
The American Association of People with Disabilities has made a statement forcefully condemning your words. I hope you’ve seen it. I hope you’ve taken it in and tried hard to understand how hurtful this is to so many and more importantly, why.
Ms. Eskelsen Garcia, you have an incredible opportunity here. I implore you to use it.
Apologize for your ill-chosen words.
Talk about why what you said was so vastly inappropriate and why no one else should ever follow suit.
You are an educator, Ms. Eskelsen Garcia.
Use this moment to educate.
Shortly thereafter, I got a note from Ms Eskelsen Garcia via Twitter.
This has been a teachable moment for me, and I apologize for my choice of words. #UnacceptableExample
She included a link to her public apology. This was what it said:
Open mouth. Insert foot. That’s what I did.
You may have seen video of me addressing the Campaign for America’s Future in October, where I mentioned my frustration with those who believe there’s a single fix for public schools. I related an encounter with one such person, and I said I should have used the opportunity to give him the rundown of everything today’s public schools do.
In my speech, I attempted to give the full litany of our responsibilities in a playful way. I had in mind those commercials we’ve all seen for prescription drugs in which a lengthy list of possible side effects is stated at warp speed, while smiling people go on a hike or enjoy a candlelight dinner.
Epic fail. In my attempt to be clever and funny, I stepped on a word in one phrase, and I created another phrase that I believed was funny, but was insulting. I apologize.
It started out well enough: “We serve kids a hot meal. We put Band-Aids on boo-boos.” I sped up my delivery for effect, speaking much more quickly than I normally do. And that’s when I went into a skid.
“We diversify our curriculum of instruction to meet the personal and individual needs of all our students – the blind, the hearing impaired, the physically challenged, the gifted and talented, the chronically [tardy] and the medically annoying.”
I meant to say “the chronically tardy,” but that’s not what came out. I was making the point that we adapt daily lesson plans and schedules to meet the needs of students who, often through no fault of their own, are never on time. Tardiness can be a huge factor in poor academic performance. Sometimes, students are tardy because of physical or mobility issues; other times, tardiness is a symptom of deeper issues at home. You know how embarrassed and out of place you feel when you walk in late to an important work meeting? Well, imagine how a child feels when she is consistently late for school, her “job.” As educators, we have to devise ways to keep chronically tardy students on track, or else they will fall hopelessly behind and feel marginalized.
As to the second phrase, I did say “medically annoying.” I apologize for my choice of words. Let me be clear: I was not referring to students who are ill or medically fragile. I was referring to the student who, for example, has an argument with his girlfriend and now is having a very bad day, and doing everything humanly possible to annoy the teacher. What we do in our classrooms and how we adjust must take these students into consideration, too.
I realize that my words have taken on a life of their own. But those who know me and my work know that my entire career – beginning with my years as a lunch lady and then as a teacher in Utah – has been devoted to ensuring that all students, regardless of their ZIP code, have the support and tools they need. That means that much of what happens in today’s schools goes well beyond lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic.
This has been a teachable moment for me, and I hope students will learn from my error, too. We all should be more careful before we speak, slow down and make sure our points are well articulated and fully understood.
The bottom line is, I screwed up and I apologize. Please judge me by my heart, not by my mistakes.
I wanted to be gracious. I appreciated the fact that she said the words, “I screwed up.” I tweeted back to her.
It’s not easy to say “I screwed up and I’m sorry,” but that IS a model for our kids. I sincerely hope you will continue the conversation about the words we choose and their impact, not just as a reflection of our values, but as a vehicle to shape them.
And then I tried to walk away.
But something just wasn’t sitting right. Something big. The post is an apology for making it look like she was making fun of one group of kids (those with special needs) when what she says she really meant was to just to make fun of the late and annoying ones.
There are so many things still wrong with all of this that I am literally stymied as to where to begin. The explanation itself is desperately implausible given the context and the “kid who broke up with his girlfriend” makes almost no sense whatsoever. But arguing about what a person meant to say is an exercise in futility, so let’s continue on the premise that she really did mean “chronically tardy” and “[something closer to certifiably] annoying.”
In her apology, Ms Eskelsen Garcia says:
Sometimes, students are tardy because of physical or mobility issues; other times, tardiness is a symptom of deeper issues at home. You know how embarrassed and out of place you feel when you walk in late to an important work meeting? Well, imagine how a child feels when she is consistently late for school, her “job.” As educators, we have to devise ways to keep chronically tardy students on track, or else they will fall hopelessly behind and feel marginalized.
She’s right. The problem is that she used those kids as a punchline in an attempt to be, in her words, “clever and funny.” I’d say what she achieved was instead lazy and insensitive.
As for kids who are “medically annoying,” she says that she meant, “the student who, for example, has an argument with his girlfriend and now is having a very bad day, and doing everything humanly possible to annoy the teacher.”
While I refer you back to the fact that this explanation is inane at best, I’m sticking to the premise that we can take her at her word, so here goes …
Have you ever heard the expression When a child acts the least lovable, he needs the most love? The kids who are “doing everything humanly possible to annoy the teacher” are KIDS. Kids who are, in their own way, making it clear that they need help or attention, that they are dysregulated or overwhelmed, that are in need of structure, discipline or predictability. What I promise you they don’t need? To be laughed at because they are such a burden that it’s comical.
My dad was a middle school principal for 45 years. You would be hard-pressed to find a more staunch or vocal supporter of teachers. He believed in the calling of the profession. He gave everything he had to the people who came to work each day and took on the daunting responsibility of molding young minds and caring for tender, vulnerable young hearts. It was a responsibility that he took very, very seriously. Because he adored and respected children.
His late wife, Noelle, was a middle school science teacher. When she passed away in June, I had the honor of spending her last days with her. As such, I bore witness to scores of friends coming to see her for the last time. One day, a group of her colleagues came to the house and gathered around her bed. They began to tell stories, recounting their hijinks and talking about this kid and that. One of them brought up a girl I’ll call Jenny. Groans and eye rolls went up around the room. Noelle’s face lit up with a smile. “I miss my Jenny,” she said.
One of the teachers told me later that Jenny was a perennial pain in the ass. She was always getting herself into trouble and disrupting classes. “But Noelle never, ever lost her patience or got mad at her,” she said. “Never.”
Jenny and her mom came to Noelle’s memorial service. They sent a beautiful note afterward to let us know how very much she had meant to both of them. Jenny wrote her own letter to tell us that she was going to do everything she could to make Mrs. Gordon proud of her.
Teachers take on a tremendous responsibility every single day. And with that responsibility comes power. Power to enlighten, to inspire, to foster compassion, encourage empathy, create life-long learners. And the power to tear apart a kid’s self-esteem. To make them believe themselves unworthy of notice, of attention, of care.
It’s a lot to take on. And many of them do it with one hand tied behind their backs in schools without remotely adequate resources in districts that can barely pay them no less give them the training or materials they need. They do it all while working with kids whose families are struggling or who have no families at all. It’s not easy.
There will be times when those teachers will need to vent, perhaps to find humor in what they do. Maybe even to let off steam and call a kid, “certifiably annoying.” That place is a private one: a faculty room, a quiet conversation with a friend, a late night run-down of the day with a spouse. It is not ever, ever public. And it sure as hell isn’t a podium at a national awards gala.
Yesterday, I responded to a comment from a reader. “I appreciate the apology,” I said. “I like that [Ms. Eskelsen Garcia] said that she screwed up. I just wish I really felt like she understood WHY.”
She closed her apology with the following, clearly believing it to be the lesson learned in all this.
“We all should be more careful before we speak, slow down and make sure our points are well articulated and fully understood.”
She’s desperately missing the point.