When I was young I was like a little mouse, tiny, insignificant, and afraid. My usual response to seeing injustice was to grow internally angry. I simply didn’t have the chops to do something constructive or to speak out. I suppose that I most enjoyed my debate class because it gave me a legitimate platform for asserting my thoughts and taught me how to use facts, data, and persuasive arguments to bolster my opinions. I was still an innocent even back then. I remember some crushing defeats that my debate partner and I endured at the hands of more skilled thespians who had perfected the art of rhetoric and, dare I say it, the big lie. I remember being shocked the first time that I realized that some of my opponents were willing to make things up just to win. Asserting, “That’s not true!‘ did little to convince the judges that they were being had. I had to learn how to fight fire with fire but I found it just too unethical to use shady tactics.
I decided that I needed to more closely observe one of the teams from my high school whose members consistently brought home huge trophies. It was composed of two quick witted guys with whom I attended classes each and every day. I wondered about their prowess and how they managed to beat their competition over and over again. After watching them in action I soon enough learned their techniques. They used humor and sarcasm effectively, eviscerating their opponents with smiles and a heavy dose of snark while still managing to appear to be just a couple of sweet young boys. They were also willing to stretch the truth when necessary to make a point.
Embedded in the array of factual information that they used to support their cause were the most amazing and timely quotations from experts that destroyed the logic of the opposing team. What I learned is that the names of the so-called authorities whose damning evidence they used to insure defeat often came from the rolls of students who went to school with us. In other words, they were willing to prevaricate just a bit to win.
Of course back then I was shocked to realize that anyone would stoop so low and I slowly lost interest in debate. I grew weary of seeing comments from college age male judges like “What are two pretty girls like you doing on a debate team?” I suppose that my partner and I should have fought back but we were both naive and our faith in righteousness was dented. Rather than learning how to make a valid point by improving our technique we simply decided to expend our efforts in other ways. Besides it went against my nature to be a firebrand.
It was not until my mother had her first psychotic episode that I was forced to find courage from somewhere deep inside my soul. I was certainly of age, twenty one years old, but I had no experience dealing with something so dire. I attempted to shift the responsibility to my aunts and uncles but they were as frightened by the situation as I was. It was soon apparent that I was on my own and that I would have to gird my loins to get my mom the help that she needed. In the beginning the doctors treated me as though I were a brainless child. I played along with them thinking that I had no right to contradict them. When I realized that they were making decisions regarding my mother that I felt to be wrong I finally had to speak out and I knew that I had to be forceful and logical if they were to listen. It was as though I had suddenly fought my way out of the cocoon that had sheltered me and I emerged as a warrior butterfly. I realized that I was capable of garnering the attention and the results that I wanted. There was no turning back to the fumbling, mumbling patsy that I had been before.
I found myself doing battle for my brothers, for my daughters, and for my mother again and again. I stood up for what I believed to be right and borrowed whatever technique that I needed to get justice for them. I was internally nervous and afraid but from the outside I appeared to be strong and courageous. I became an advocate for those unable or unwilling to speak for themselves.
I was only a few years into my career in education when I made my first foray into addressing teacher issues. I had accepted a job at a particular school because I felt a kinship with the principal regarding educational philosophies. Working for her was like living a dream. I enjoyed three of the very best years of my career and then suddenly she was gone, retiring to care for her ailing father. It never occurred to me that her successor would be so very different than she had been. I began the new school year full of optimism but it would not be long before my fellow teachers and I were feeling profoundly disturbed by things that were happening to us and to the students. The school seemed to be falling apart at the seams and the level of unhappiness in the halls and the classrooms was palatable. I knew that it was time to assert myself.
I tried talking with the principal about things that were bothering me but she was always in a hurry and cut me off without really listening. I decided that the only way to get her to understand what I was attempting to convey was to write a kind of manifesto outlining the grievances that were troubling me and the other teachers. I did my best to be polite and to use facts and logic as evidence of problems rather than emotions. I described incidents but did not use names. All in all I thought that it was a powerful piece and that the leader of our school would applaud me once she saw that my only intention was to improve the environment so that we might all go back to a state of learning. My plan totally backfired!
The principal called me to her office early one morning during my conference period. I eagerly entered her domain and began to worry when I noted that she bore a solemn expression. When she closed the door I became even more concerned. On her desk lay a brand new yellow legal pad with a pen ready to jot down notes. She went straight for the kill, demanding to know who the teachers were who had made the complaints to me that I had outlined in my letter. I remained firm in my insistence that names didn’t matter but that we simply needed to make a few small changes and everything would be fine again. She began to grill me as though she were determined to convict me of a heinous crime. Hour after hour passed and she kept me inside the small room with the overhead light turned off and the bright light of a lamp aimed directly at my face. She scribbled page after page of notes on the pad of paper, stopping only long enough to get her secretary to deliver food and drink to her but nothing for me.
For some insane reason I sat there taking it for the entire school day. Word of my dilemma spread through the building and teachers walked past the office throughout the day hoping to find out what was happening to me. My students were surprised and concerned that I was not in class even though my car was parked just outside the building where I taught. Rumors flew right and left. All the while I was fielding question after question from a woman determined to break my spirit. Somehow I managed to stay intact even though I was hungry and wanted to burst into tears. I was literally saved by the bell when it rang to signal the end of the school day. Without warning my interrogator announced that since I would not cooperate in giving up the names of the people who had criticized her, I may as well just go home.
I was mentally and physically exhausted and rushed to my classroom to get my things. My colleagues wanted to talk with me but I needed to go home. They just hugged me and gave me sympathetic looks. Luckily it was Friday and I would have the entire weekend to plan my next move. I was devastated and realized that I was dealing with a mad woman. I would have to be cagey in my response to what she had done to me.
The fact that I taught mathematics worked in my favor. Those who teach STEM subjects are always in demand. A few inquiries over the weekend assured me that I would be able to find another job in a different school rather quickly. I decided to announce to the inquisitor that I would be leaving at the end of the semester which was only a few weeks away. I promised her that I would not sue her for her unprofessional and probably illegal actions nor would I tell anyone what she had done as long as she left me alone for the remainder of my stay. I could only pray that my ploy would work. To my great relief it did.
By Monday the entire school community was buzzing with great interest and concern. This time I demanded a moment with the principal and I laid out my ideas. She seemed more than happy to do everything exactly the way I wanted it done. The rest of my time there was wonderful. I worked with my students unencumbered. I told my fellow teachers that there was nothing to say about the long day when I was held captive by my boss. The whole affair became yesterday’s news. Besides, the principal began to enact some of the improvements that I had suggested in my letter to her. The place bore a semblance of happiness after all.
On my final day a student came to my classroom during lunchtime and said that I was needed in the cafeteria and that I should go there at once. When I arrived all of my students and their parents were waiting for me. The principal greeted me with open arms and a big smile. We spent the remainder of the afternoon enjoying a sendoff party in my honor. The principal presented me with a James Avery necklace featuring two children holding hands with an adult. She announced to the crowd that it was a gift in honor of my outstanding contributions to the school. I went along with her act and thanked her profusely.
I wore that necklace with defiance for years. I went on to a much happier place and spent more than a decade there teaching mathematics and serving as an advocate for my fellow teachers. Eventually the errant principal in my old school was fired by the board of directors but only after she had all but run the school into the ground. I became one of the first teachers in my district to officially hold the title of Peer Facilitator. My job was to make the work of my fellow teachers easier and more productive. I had come full circle. I had learned how to use my debating skills effectively.
I never forgot that horrible time when I spoke up for what was right and just and then was treated so badly. I learned from that experience but there was a scar on my heart that never quite healed. It remained as a reminder to me that there are times when individuals must endure unnecessary harshness to do the right thing. I still wear that necklace as a badge of courage. It symbolizes the defining moment in my life when I realized that sometimes we just have to do what we have to do.