Personal Voices: Walking the Walk

Talking the talk means walking the walk -- that is what I learned in school this year. Having been a social studies teacher for 20 years, I have had ample opportunity to discuss the First Amendment with countless students. But the attack on Iraq put me in a position where I had to stand up for what I believed in at the cost of my job.

I had been teaching at Veterans Memorial Middle School in Covington, Ga., for only a year when the trouble started. Studying Julius Caesar opened the door to talk of the so-called war. Students asked me why we were going to war, and this set the stage for almost daily discussions. I have always taught my students that they should have educated opinions, not just throw things out in conversation. This issue of the war allowed me to voice my own opinion and show them how I backed it up with evidence.

All the discussions were student-initiated, and I always made a conscious effort to illustrate all sides of the war effort evenly. We discussed the French view, the position of the United Nations, the view of Iraq, the president's view, and the position of the pro-peace movement. Never did I say that any position was right, but you would have thought I was skinning alive student supporters of the war in light of the maelstrom that resulted.

It began with one grandmother who believed I was harming her child by discussing the peace movement in my class. This child had a brother who was fighting overseas and was, according to the grandparent, made to feel bad that he was there--as if it were a shameful thing.

This grandmother called me on the phone, yelling at me from the get-go, labeling me a traitor to my country, a teacher determined to harm young children. I had brought in a poster put out by Not In Our Name that had been a gift to me and read, "No War In Iraq, No War On The World, Not In Our Name." The small poster was hung on the wall over my desk. The complainant demanded that I take it down because it was un-American and because I had no pro-war posters in my room. I got virtually no words into this diatribe but understood completely that this woman was going to "have my job" and go to the school board about my traitorous activities.

I will confess that I did try to find a pro-war poster but could find none. Beyond that, though, I changed nothing. The next day, I was pulled off morning duty to meet with the principal. He assured me that I would make only pro-Bush, pro-war, and pro-military statements or perhaps I would be happier teaching elsewhere. I couldn't believe it! I left that meeting in silence. However, the silence in which I left the faculty meeting the next day was very different. In that meeting, my principal made the same remarks to the faculty as he had made to me. I was furious.

A friend of mine advised me to contact the Rutherford Institute in Virginia, which is a nonprofit civil liberties organization. Their lawyers went to bat for me, sending letters to my principal and the Newton County school superintendent. I sent an E-mail out to my friends outlining the school scenario. I received a lot of support as they responded and as they sent the E-mail out to others. The hate mail came in too but didn't hurt much, except for that which came from my conservative Christian friends. Several of them asked to be removed from my E-mail address book. I didn't expect that.

I also didn't expect the little notes left on the windshield of my truck, the loosening of the cap to the air valves in my rear tires on more than one occasion, the stony silence from my family, or the measure of support I did get from the artistic community of Atlanta.

One board of education member did visit my classroom, then spent an hour talking with me privately. The upshot was that I do have the right to express alternative points of view through visuals like the poster, and I would continue the letter-writing campaign my students had been conducting biweekly to soldiers supporting them and letting them know what was going on here at home. I was also allowed to continue to offer discussion and journal assignments on the subject of the attack on Iraq, just as I had been doing. My one concession was that I would put up a "We Support Our Troops" poster, something I wanted to do anyway.

I sit in my classroom now, my peace poster over my right shoulder, my support of the troops poster to my left. My right of free speech is intact. My case has inspired other teachers in Georgia whose jobs have been threatened based on their peace stance. My job for next year is secure.

Of course, since the resolution of my case I have had more parents invade my classroom to take issue with me, and I still get hate mail and am still called a traitor to my country to my face.

I also still talk the talk. I have walked the walk. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Free speech must be maintained in time of war as well as in peace or we have fought all our wars for nothing.

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