The picture above reminds me of a trip I took to France as part of a study abroad program with my graduate school in 2005. At the time I went, I had no idea that my world, and the world of so many in Mississippi and Louisiana, would be turned upside down by Hurricane Katrina. I also had no idea that ten years later, this trip, which involved a class about oral history and public history, would be instrumental in securing me a new job in Vermont.
We spent several weeks in the Loire Valley touring the fabulous chateaux before spending a week in Paris to further our public history class by touring the museums in the city. We toured the châteaux of Chenonceau, Amboise, Chambord, Blois, and Clos Lucé, as well as the cathedrals of Tours and Orléans. We stayed in the Pontlevoy Abbey, which was the abbey of Cardinal Richelieu. In Paris, we toured the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, Musée de Cluny, Notre-Dame, Sacré-Cœur, and the Eiffel Tower, among many other sites in the city.
While in the Loire Valley, we also conducted oral histories with locals in the area. Our professor split us into two groups for the oral histories. Since I had taken classes in oral history before, I was sent with one group to supervise and help the other interviewers, while our professor went with the other group. It was a great experience as the Loire River had been the dividing line between Vichy France and Occupied France during World War II. Many spies used the châteaux, especially the beautiful Chenonceau, a château built across the River Cher, to pass messages back and forth across enemy lines.
However, while maybe you enjoyed this journey down memory lane, you’re probably wondering how the image above reminded me of this trip. One night, we went to one of the nearby towns on the Loire River to have dinner at a riverside cafe. There was a beach between the restaurant and the river.
After we had eaten and some of us had a little too much wine, including my staunchly Baptist professor, my professor decided after dinner that he wanted to swim across the river. He took off his shoes and socks and his shirt, handed them to me with the keys to the car, and told me to meet him on the other side of the river. Then, he proceeded to jump in the river and backstroke his way across. We got in the car, and I drove across the bridge to wait for him to swim across the river.
If the guy above had gray hair, he’d look a lot like my professor. He was very handsome, and the background does look like the restaurant we had eaten. My professor was fun on this trip. Though a staunch Baptist, he let himself be a bit freer in France. He was a lot of fun.
One night, we went to a place called Ben’s Blues Bar in Blois. Ben, the owner, loved the blues and all things Mississippi, so he was always very friendly to the study abroad students from my Mississippi university. Back then, I’d still drink beer, and Ben suggested I try Chambord Beer (I know most people think of the liqueur, but they make a beer as well). It came in a weizen glass with an image of the Château de Chambord etched on the side.
My professor asked me how it tasted. I handed it to him and said, try it. He said, “Mmm, fruity.” I replied, “Just like me.” He knew I was gay and didn’t have a problem with it, but I caught him off guard, and he blushed. We all had a good laugh about it, mainly because it was so unexpected coming from me, who was always a little quiet.
By the way, I told Ben how much I loved the glass. He went back behind the bar and brought me back a clean one and said, “Yours to keep.” I still have that glass, and I love it.
That trip was wonderful. I had so much fun. The people of the Loire Valley are such friendly people. I can’t quite say the same about everyone I met in Paris. All in all, the trip was fantastic and memorable.
Every few days, I get an email from a particular organization. The organization’s name and the emails’ subjects are not important. It’s the name of the sender that causes my heart to sink every time I see it. The woman’s first name is Andrea, and her last name is the same as the last name of my former dissertation advisor, who was partially responsible for me not receiving my Ph.D. If it were just the last names they had in common, it probably would not be an issue, but said dissertation advisor’s first name was Andrew. Each time these emails pop up in my inbox, my heart sinks as I always misread them as my former dissertation advisor’s name. Only one letter differentiates their names. It’s only for a second, and then I realize my mistake. However, it makes me realize just how traumatized I was by that former advisor. His emails always brought some fresh new hell, and eventually, I became paralyzed with fear every time I received one of his emails.
Most of you know that I pursued a Ph.D., but I never finished it. There were many reasons for that: funding and the need for me to get a job. I ended up teaching 7th-12th grade social studies and English at a small private school, and teaching six different preps a day and dealing with challenging students left me with no energy when I got home at night, not to mention the amount of work I took home each night. Once I began working full time, I no longer had the time or the energy to continue researching and writing my dissertation.
Before my teaching job, I had taken a year to devote entirely to finishing my dissertation, moved back in with my parents (trauma in itself), and had developed a set of deadlines to complete the chapters of my dissertation. I got the plan approved by my then dissertation advisor and moved home, and began to write. I met all of my deadlines within a week of their due date, but I felt I needed my advisor’s feedback before I could move onto the next chapter. Before I was assigned this advisor, I had an advisor that I had worked with closely throughout my graduate career. I knew what he expected, and he was excited about the research I was doing. My first dissertation advisor continuously encouraged my efforts. Then, he got a job in North Carolina and left. The department decided that this other professor, with whom I had never worked with and never took a class with, would replace my old advisor. This was a disastrous decision, and in hindsight, it is one that I should have fought and objected to, but back then, I was not assertive enough to do so. I am not a very assertive person today, but I was even less so back then.
My new dissertation advisor not only wasn’t familiar with me nor I with him, but he also hated my dissertation topic. He had been on my committee before as a minor member who was just supposed to offer some advice here and there but was not supposed to have the final say. I should have known there would be a problem with him as my dissertation committee chair when he held up my dissertation prospectus’s approval for over a year. Everyone else signed off on the proposal and was encouraging, but he insisted on certain changes. I will never understand this because he was the only member of my committee who was not tenured, and the other members should have overruled him, but they did not. I submitted one revision after another, taking into account his various criticisms. What was most annoying was that the final proposal was almost identical to the first one I submitted. I have always felt he gave me the runaround because he was insecure in his position and took it out on me.
Therefore, when he became my dissertation advisor, we agreed on deadlines that he and I would meet to keep the writing of the dissertation moving. He was supposed to review the chapters as I submitted them and suggest changes. If I remember correctly, he was given several weeks to do this. He took several months, and when he did return the chapters, I went through revisions similar to what he had put me through with the proposal. I was very frustrated. I seemed never to do anything to his satisfaction, and he repeatedly criticized my work when other professors did not. He held up my dissertation for so long that time was beginning to run out on my ability to finish. Finally, I got an email from him saying that he would no longer be able to be my advisor. He blamed me for the delays and said he could no longer work with me. In reality, I found out the university had denied him tenure, which was a requirement for him to sign off on the final draft of my dissertation. By university regulations, he could not be the chair of my dissertation committee. The department’s thought process had initially been that he’d have tenure by the time I finished my dissertation, and all would be fine.
At this point, I had to move on to my third dissertation chair. My final chair is who I should have begun with in the first place. I remember attending a conference at the University of Alabama that she’d also be attending so that we could sit down face to face and discuss my dissertation. I told her the problems I had with my previous advisor. She sympathized with me and told me two things. First, she apologized on behalf of the department because of all the turnover of faculty they had experienced during my time in the Ph.D. program. I had been lost in the shuffle. Second, she said that she had faced a similar situation where her dissertation advisor had balked at her dissertation topic. She said that she had persevered and wrote it anyway, winning them over with the final product. She told me not to give up, and she’d be behind me the whole way. This all sounded great, but that’s not how it worked out.
I had spent several years dreading emails from my previous advisor, wondering what fresh hell he was going to put me through. I was traumatized, and my psyche could not handle looking at my dissertation anymore. I was mentally and physically exhausted from teaching full-time at a private school that did not support me either, but I had financial troubles that were barely being held at bay with the meager paycheck I was getting from that job. At the time, I had issues, and maybe a good therapist could have worked me through those issues, but I lacked health insurance. During these years, I was also suffering from the worst headaches of my life, but I was not in a job that allowed me to take time off for being sick for any reason. I continued to teach whether I had a common cold, whooping cough, or the flu. As a teacher early in his career, I caught every disease the children brought to school, and for the most part, the school’s administration prevented me from taking sick leave. So, having a “little” headache was not an excuse for not coming to work. They never sympathized with just how much pain I was in.
I do not blame the circumstance surrounding my failure to finish my dissertation solely on a difficult dissertation advisor or with the lack of support from my graduate program. Although those two things were a major contributing factor, the blame also falls on me. In recent years, I have come to realize that while I was a great lecturer and could keep a college class enthralled to the point that they wouldn’t even realize that we had gone past time for class to be dismissed, I was not cut out for to be a middle and high school teacher. If I had received my Ph.D., I would probably be teaching at a community college or maybe even a university somewhere, and I would not likely be happy about it. I hated grading. I hated dealing with difficult students and cheaters. I hated the politics of academia. I would probably be miserable in a job teaching the same subjects semester after semester and if at a university continually trying to get published because of most universities’ publish or perish mentality. And if I had gotten my Ph.D., I would have never moved into the museum field and focused on public history. I still get to lecture and give presentations in my current jobs, but I no longer have to grade. I get to write and do research that I find exciting and rewarding. I get to do all the things I loved about teaching without having to do all the things I hated.
And by that destiny to perform an act Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come In yours and my discharge.
—William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 2, Scene I
“What is past is prologue” is a phrase from The Tempest, Act 2, Scene I inscribed on Future (1935, Robert Aitken) located on the northeast corner of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. In The Tempest, Antonio uses this phrase to suggest that all that has happened before that time, the “past,” has led Sebastian and himself to this opportunity to do what they are about to do: commit murder. In the context of the preceding and next lines, “And by that destiny to perform an act, whereof what’s past is prologue; what to come, In yours and my discharge,” Antonio is, in essence, rationalizing to Sebastian and the audience that he and Sebastian are fated to act by all that has led up to that moment, the past has set the stage for their next act, as a prologue does in a play. When people quote the phrase “what’s past is prologue,” such as when it was inscribed on Future, the phrase means that everything up until now has merely set the stage for us to make our own destinies.
The second episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is titled “Past Prologue.” In this episode, there is a moral dilemma for Major Kira where she has to confront her loyalty to her past life and what her new life is going to be. Kira had been a Bajoran terrorist/freedom fighter who had done many things in her past that were morally questionable, but she believed they were for the greater good to force the Cardassians to end their brutal occupation of Bajor. When a terrorist and former ally of Kira attempts to rid Bajor of the Federation for good, he tests Kira’s loyalties to the Federation, which is her new life. It is here that Kira must make a choice: will she let her past rule her future, or will she use what she has learned from her past to create a better future?
Whether personal or the greater history of humanity, our history can teach us how the complexities and continuities of the past teach us that progress is possible but not inevitable. The lessons of history teach us the lives of individuals, the choices they made, the values they embodied, the risks they took, the challenges they sometimes overcame. This is known as historical empathy, which many historians believe is the ultimate goal of the study and teaching of history, even more so than historical objectivity. When I was in graduate school, my professors always stressed objectivity as the history profession’s highest goal, but this has begun to change in recent years. While objectivity is a noble goal, some historians believe it is impossible to achieve, and instead believe that historical empathy is more important. I think the two work hand in hand and are equally important.
As we study history, we encounter a vast array of people who thought, spoke, and acted in ways that are foreign to us. The world and culture to which we are accustomed are unique. Simply judging another’s thoughts, words, and actions based upon our cultural norms shows a lack of empathy for their way of life. It often indicates a lack of objectivity if we go into research trying to prove a particular perspective. Developing historical empathy is perhaps the most difficult but one of the most important skills we learn as a student of history. To empathize with the past of the people, we must first work out what motivated historical figures.
The study of history requires us to articulate the reasons people, groups, or cultures acted the way they did. What did they want? What did they hate? What did they think was important? What did they want changed? History teaches that individuals make things happen and that achieving important victories requires wisdom, good judgment, courage, and persistence. History teaches that when faced with evil, good people must stand up for the good; otherwise, we will be in trouble. However, we must also understand what motivated those who stood up for good and those who stood up for evil. Understanding those motivations can help us understand our present and how we can make changes for the good of all humanity.
Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, plans to terminate up to 113 faculty positions, including as many as 49 positions in the College of Liberal Arts. While many colleges and universities are streamlining liberal arts education and focusing on more “marketable skills” or “practical” disciplines such as the sciences and professional training, Wright State seems to be moving in this direction more than other colleges. Sadly, the liberal arts are suffering from the consequences of a culture war, where the humanities and the social sciences are seen as ideologically driven. As we have seen during the pandemic and the climate change crisis, science is also being derided by conservatives as ideologically motivated instead of driven by facts and research. Conservatives abhor educated individuals because they are less likely to be swayed by the Right’s faulty logic. They can more easily prey on the fears of the uneducated by telling them that their rights are being infringed upon by granting more freedoms and rights to minorities. For instance, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) recently accused Democrats of trying to rig the voting system, including attempting “to use taxpayer dollars to establish aggressive voter recruitment programs at leftist training camps — otherwise known as colleges and universities.”
No matter a student’s major, the study of history helps develop a deep respect for different societies and cultures. This recognition teaches students to respect regional and national differences to make them more socially aware and sensitive to other cultures. Significant accomplishments and change are never achieved without setbacks and the wisdom to make course corrections in one’s original strategy. History teaches that if great institutions are to survive and grow, they must balance preserving the core values that enabled past success while evolving and adapting to changing circumstances. The study of history prepares students to understand and meet the challenges of a complex and evolving world. History majors learn that the future is uncertain and unpredictable, including their future professional and life trajectory. History majors make important professional contributions in diverse fields, showing how the transformative power of a liberal arts education creates a better world. History majors can be found working at the FBI in counterintelligence and counterterrorism, helping to preserve the nation’s freedom; in law firms around the country, upholding the rule of law; at the Library of Congress, the research arm of Congress; as public historians, helping to preserve the nation’s history; and perhaps most importantly, in schools and museums, helping to educate our children and secure the nation’s future. These professions outside of historians’ perceived role merely scratch the surface of what history majors contribute to our nation and the world.
Neighbors of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are saying that the president’s daughter and her husband instructed their Secret Service detail not to use any of the six bathrooms in their home. Seriously, they have six bathrooms in their home, and they couldn’t set aside just one for the men and women there to protect them. Does this sound familiar to anyone? It reminded me of a particular movie I saw a few years ago: The Help.
In the movie The Help, the character Hilly, an elitist white supremacist woman, tries to get a law passed to forbid white families from letting their domestic servants use the bathroom inside the house. Hilly insists that everyone install separate bathrooms for their “help.” Minny, Hilly’s black maid, is fired for using the guest bathroom and is rendered unemployable due to Hilly’s lies. Minny gets her revenge for the injustice. Minny committed what she calls a “terrible awful.” After her termination, Minny brought Hilly her famous chocolate pie, but after Hilly had finished two slices, Minny revealed that she baked her own shit into the pie. If you haven’t seen the movie, I am sorry that I gave this part away, but I wanted to make a point. Maybe someone will serve the Kushners one of Minny’s famous “chocolate” pies.
The fact that there are people who are as elitist as the Kushners is so infuriating. The Kushners have six bathrooms in their home, yet they wouldn’t allow the men and women who are sworn to give their lives to protect them to use just one of those bathrooms. Furthermore, this elitism came at a cost to the U.S. taxpayers. Since September 2017, the federal government has spent $3,000 a month — more than $100,000 to date — to rent a basement studio, with a bathroom, from a Kushner family neighbor for the Secret Service to use.
I despise elitism. I especially hate academic elitism, something I have been the victim of many times. I don’t care what college or university you graduated from. It is what a person makes of their education that means more. Just because someone went to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, or Penn doesn’t make them intelligent, especially when you are too stupid to understand that your candidate lost the election. These same idiots continued their false claims when no fraud was found even after every judge and election official in the country declared the election free and fair. You are either stupid or a liar if you can’t see what has been proven over and over again. In recent days, I have heard numerous times that Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley are “very smart men” because they went to an Ivy League school. George W. Bush went to an Ivy League school. I never heard even his most ardent supporters, hell I never even heard his family, say that Bush was a “very smart man” because he attended an Ivy League school, let alone any other reason.
I think the whole college admission scandal that Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin got caught up in showed us that just because someone went to an elite school, it does not mean they had the smarts to attend. It just proved that they had the money to get admitted and enough money to make sure they made the right grades. When I graduated high school, I got accepted to every college to which I applied. Some were the most elite colleges of the South, but my family did not have the money to pay for those colleges. I could have applied to other colleges. I have no doubt I would have been admitted to any college I applied to, but I did not have the money for the application fees for many of these colleges, and because of my parents’ very modest middle-class incomes, I did not qualify for assistance. The only scholarship at a major university I received was because a family friend called in a favor, but I did not take that scholarship because the person who was convinced to give me the scholarship could only guarantee it for one year, and he was retiring. There was no guarantee I’d get the scholarship the next year, and there would be no one to turn to for help (back then, this university only gave scholarships through their alumni association, so you were at their mercy). I chose to attend a smaller college that gave full scholarships to all high school valedictorians in Alabama, and I was my small high school’s valedictorian.
I learned a very valuable lesson from attending that small college. After undergrad, I went to a graduate school with one of the top three military history programs in the country. It also had an excellent and well-respected civil rights history program. We had students from some of the most prestigious colleges in the country in our program. What I realized was that I had gotten a far better education at my small state college that always seemed to be fighting for every penny of funding they could than elite schools with multimillion-dollar endowments. I had made the most of the opportunities I had. I took advantage of every opportunity to increase my attractiveness on the job market. Yet, I struggled financially for years, trying to find a decent job. Eventually, I had to move back in with my parents in Alabama and take whatever job I could get. Being a 7th-12th grade social studies and English teacher took up all of my free time, and eventually, the funding for my Ph.D. ran out before I could finish my dissertation.
Through a series of unfortunate events, I found myself jobless after I had basically sacrificed everything for my job as a teacher. I had always dreamed of being a teacher. I loved teaching, but teaching the children of white supremacists at a small private school in Alabama took its toll on me. My health suffered, and I lost my job. The school hired a football coach to replace me and did not renew my contract. They gave me absolutely no notice. They never even hinted that my job was in jeopardy. I found myself jobless and penniless. Thankfully, the people who read this blog helped me out and sustained me until I found my current job thanks to those marketable skills I had worked so hard to add to my resume. Ten years ago, I would have never believed that I would now be a museum curator and a professor at one of America’s oldest colleges.
I know I have gotten off on a tangent and onto my soapbox about my own struggles against elitism, but the point I am trying to make is that I worked my ass off to get where I am. People in the outgoing presidential administration got everything handed to them, and they have given nothing back to society. The Kushners took their entitled and elitist attitudes and refused to allow the people who were there to save their lives the right to use just one of their six bathrooms. Thankfully, not all wealthy people are like this. There are plenty of wealthy people out there who either believe in Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth, or they just believe in helping those in need because it is the human thing to do. For those people, I am grateful. I am thankful that there are good people out there who are not selfish and elitist. I know that I will never be counted as one of the wealthy, but I believe in helping those around me whenever I can and in whatever way I can.
In May 2020, the U.S. Department of Education released its updated campus sexual assault regulations under Title IX. The law prohibits sex discrimination at federally-funded institutions. Schools were given only until August 14, 2020 to adopt compliant policies and procedures while Betsy Devos and the Department of Education (DoE) spent the last three years drawing up these new Title IX regulations. In 2017, the DoE withdrew the Obama Administration’s guidance documents on the subject; a year later, it issued a lengthy notice of proposed rulemaking under the Administrative Procedure Act. This was the first full rulemaking on a major Title IX issue since 1975, and the only one ever dedicated to sexual harassment. It is not without controversy. What do you expect from a Secretary of Education who is neither an educator nor an education leader? The woman has NO experience in public education, never even attending a public school.
Sexual assault is a serious issue on college campuses, but it was not initially addressed in Title IX; however, the Supreme Court did address sexual assault, but only in discussing whether an institute of higher learning receiving federal dollars could be held responsible. In 2011, the Obama Administration issued a lengthy “dear colleague letter” spelling out the many measures schools must implement to “end any harassment, eliminate a hostile environment if it has been created, and prevent harassment from occurring again.” Still, the Trump Administration withdrew the “dear colleague letter” to reframe Title IX. The 2016 Republican platform devoted an entire section to Title IX charging that the Obama Administration’s “distortion of Title IX to micromanage the way colleges and universities deal with allegations of abuse contravenes our country’s legal traditions and must be halted.”
So, what are the issues with the new Title IX regulations? The general outline was laid out in the November 2018 proposal. Its central feature was a return to the framework established by the Supreme Court in 1998-99. No longer would schools have broad responsibility “to take effective action to prevent, eliminate, and remedy sexual harassment” by “changing the culture.” Now, the focus was on schools’ responsibility to address cases of serious sexual misconduct. Simultaneously, though, the new rules have gone far beyond the Supreme Court in establishing what constitutes harassment, what schools must do to identify and adjudicate cases of misconduct, and the remedies they must provide to victims of such misconduct. As a result, the new administrative regulations are less radical—and more demanding—than the DoE’s critics often suggest.
What forms of harassment require a response from educational institutions? Under the new guidelines, the following are considered forms of sexual assault: rape, sodomy, sexual assault with an object, fondling, incest, and statutory rape. While the Supreme Court held that harassment must be “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” to trigger Title IX, the Obama Administration pushed schools to address harassment before it “becomes severe or pervasive” to prevent the creation of “a hostile environment.” Schools are now to address the incidents, but are not expected to address the culture that causes such incidents. The entire matter is very complicated (if you want to read more, you can read this article from InsideHigherEd.) I was asked instead to read my university’s new policy and comment on it.
I immediately noticed the definitions of sexual assault and its archaic language. It differentiates between rape and sodomy.
Rape is defined as penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person without the victim’s consent. Sodomy is defined as oral or anal sexual intercourse with another person forcibly, and/or against that person’s will (non-consensual), or not forcibly or against the person’s will in instances in which the victim is incapable of giving consent because of age or because of temporary or permanent mental or physical incapacity. This is what I don’t understand: Why is the federal government requiring separate definitions of rape and sodomy? Both are defined as forcibly or non-consensually having the victim’s vagina, anus, or mouth penetrated with another person’s body part or sex organ. I don’t see the difference. Why must the two terms be spelled out? In my opinion, the use of the word “sodomy” is intentionally using homophobic language.
Sodomy is a word that has been demonized as a weapon to promote intolerance against gay people which is the main reason for my objection. The word promotes negative stigmatization, prejudice, and discrimination to practices such as anal or oral sex which have been associated mostly with the gay community. The term is sometimes even replaced with “crimes against nature.” Originally, sodomy was derived from church law designed to prevent nonprocreative sexuality anywhere and any sexuality outside of marriage (in some cases, any intercourse not in the missionary position between a man and a woman). Historically, the term has been used as a form of discrimination against gay men.
Though sodomy has been used to refer to a range of homosexual and heterosexual “unnatural acts,” the term “sodomite” usually refers to a homosexual male even though the real meaning is nonprocreative sex. The term is derived from the Biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Christian churches have referred to the crimen sodomitae (crime of the Sodomites) for centuries. The modern association with homosexuality can be found as early as AD 96 in the Jewish historian Josephus’ writings. Sodomy, in historical biblical reference, probably did not even pertain to homosexuality, but the acts of bestiality and female and male castration for sexual slavery. The story of Sodom’s destruction and Abraham’s failed attempt to intercede with God and prevent that destruction appears in Genesis 18–19. The connection between Sodom and homosexuality is derived from the described attempt by a mob of the city’s people to rape Lot’s male guests. Some suggest the sinfulness for which Sodom was destroyed might have consisted mainly in the violation of obligations of hospitality which were essential according to the original writers of the Biblical account.
In essence, the new regulations are forcing educational institutions to use derogatory and homophobic language to differentiate between heterosexual and homosexual sex. The DoE is forcing colleges to violate Title IX, a law passed to protect people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. Title IX covers students and employees at these institutions. Therefore, the new policy contradicts the Supreme Court ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, which ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay, lesbian, and transgender employees from discrimination based on sex.
Aren’t we supposed to be past using derogatory and discriminatory language such as sodomy in our laws? If you include anal and oral sex in the definition of rape, why is it necessary to also include sodomy and give virtually the same definition? Am I the only one who finds the term “sodomy” offensive?
The post title is a rhetorical question, because I don’t have an answer for it, nor do I understand people so filled with hate. In Texas near the border with Mexico, Roma High School has put teacher Taylor Lifka on leave after a Republican politician posted a screenshot of her virtual classroom, including a rainbow and a “Black Lives Matter” sign. The school said Ms. Lifka was put on leave for displaying so-called political and divisive speech in her virtual classroom.
Marian Knowlton, a Republican running for the Texas House in District 3, wrote on Facebook last Friday. ““This is from a public school in one of the counties in House District 31! Our education system has been radicalizing our children for years, and it continues to do so, from elementary through higher education. This is not an isolated occurrence, it is a national pattern. A concerted effort to teach children what to think, not how to think. Leftist indoctrination. Parents, I urge you to take a look at your child’s classroom, virtual or onsite.” Knowlton said that one of the posters has “a photo of radical protesters (one of whom looks like an ANTIFA member).” Knowlton continued, “In addition, this teacher asks which pronoun they prefer!”
In the screenshot she posted, a poster says, “Diverse, Inclusive, Accepting, Welcoming Safe Space for Everyone” in rainbow colors. One sign simply says, “Black Lives Matter,” which Knowlton said is a message supporting a “radical Marxist movement.” Another says in Spanish, “Friend, your struggle is my struggle.”
The screenshot also includes instructions from the teacher telling students to put their names and pronouns in the group chat.
By Tuesday, the district said that the teacher in question was put on leave. “After reviewing the complaints, the District is working closely with the teacher to find a resolution that will ensure all parties involved reach an outcome that best benefits the expectations of our parents and needs of our students,” the statement said. Even though the school forced the teacher to be on leave, the Roma Independent School District claims that “The teacher is not being reprimanded in any way for her work or decisions.”
The South Texas Equality Project (STEP) has started a Change.org petition to get Lifka taken off leave, which currently has 17,500 signatures. “Please sign this petition to let the school district know that inclusivity and acceptance are not taboo ideas that deserve censorship; that high school students can and should be allowed to discuss the realities of the world instead of being sheltered inside a sanitized bubble; and that by reprimanding the teacher for trying to create a safe space for her students, the school is not being neutral, but is actively taking a stance that is antithetical to justice,” the petition says.
“In our current times, we are still in that struggle for that need for equality,” a representative of STEP told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, adding that Lifka did not ask them to create the petition. Knowlton’s Facebook page was made private after this story got media attention.
Lifka was a member of Teach For America’s 2017 corps but is no longer with the organization. On her classroom’s homepage on the Roma High School website, Lifka wrote that she had fallen in love with Roma after her two years teaching there for TFA, prompting her to stay. “The beauty of Roma exists in the vibrant border culture and the tight-knit community that supports and honors one another through both the celebrations and the challenges of life,” she wrote.
Joseph Cloward, a former teacher at the district, said he worked with Lifka for a year and described her as committed and competent. Cloward says news of Lifka being put on paid leave prompted him to send a letter to Roma ISD Monday expressing concern. “I think what I was asking for is for the district to be really, really clear about whether or not it intends to be a safe and inclusive space for all students, particularly for Black students, for female students, for LGBT students,” he said. “I think all that’s come across right now is that teachers that are supportive of those students will be punished if they are outspoken in their support of those students, and I think that’s the wrong message for the district to be sending.” Cloward continued, “I don’t think that the messages in the pictures on social media are ones that have to be explicitly political in a partisan sense, they seem to be pretty typical ways to let students know that they are in a space where they will be welcomed and should feel safe regardless of their race or gender or sexual orientation.”
Knowlton said the content did represent a political position, noting that she had been accused of racism and homophobia for posting the screenshot. “If this is about inclusivity, why don’t we see anything about Judeao-Christian values on it, why don’t we see anything about the Bible on it, why don’t we see the other side?” she said Tuesday. “We only see one point of view on here, and I didn’t mention that at all, but that’s where the thread started to go.” Knowlton said she got the screenshot from a concerned educator and shared it to raise awareness on what’s happening in Texas classrooms. “I think that parents need to know what their children are looking at, what they’re hearing in the classroom,” she said. Knowlton said she didn’t realize what the consequences of her post would be, and it seems that she has no problems with Lifka’s removal.
AN UPDATE: Taylor Lifka has been reinstated to her job.
A statement from the district said Lifka was put on paid administrative leave on Sunday after the district received concerns from community members and parents.
“It is the practice of Roma ISD to diligently review all parent concerns. In this case, the timing in which information was received by the District (over the weekend) made it necessary for the District to place Ms. Lifka on leave until we could fully and responsibly review this matter,” the statement read. “This action was not intended to reflect any form of punishment or admonishment towards Ms. Lifka but was purely driven by a need to review the circumstances and come to a sound resolution for all persons involved. Out of concern for Ms. Lifka, Roma ISD wishes to state again that she has not been reprimanded in any way concerning this matter. The District appreciates the importance of advancing sensitivity regarding equality and inclusivity.”
The statement repeatedly and emphatically pledged Roma ISD’s commitment to anti-discrimination and inclusivity, saying Lifka was taken off leave Tuesday and informed she would be allowed the choice to keep the graphic background for her virtual classroom as proposed so long as it “does not come to overly disrupt or detract from the educational process or the learning environment.”
“Roma ISD regrets that this matter has become a point of controversy. It was never the intention of the District to indicate anything less than full support for the concepts of equality and student safety,” Roma ISD Superintendent Carlos Guzman wrote in the statement. “As educators and community members, Roma ISD has an obligation to carefully listen to parent concerns and respond to them, taking into consideration the rights of employees and students. As a school district, we must create a safe environment for our teachers and students that fosters and respects everyone’s beliefs in a manner that does not discriminate or disrupt the learning environment. I want to affirm that our District is filled with caring and committed educators that give 100 percent of themselves every day to the education and development of our students.”
Yesterday, I got up at 5:30, and was on the go from that minute on. I had a presentation to work on and a tour to give. Then I had various odds and ends to deal with. It was quite hectic. After I got home, I cooked dinner and then it was back to the office for the last bit of my museum studies class. I have to write a critique of some presentations and then I’ll have my museum studies certificate.
Monday, I started my last museum studies class. Once this one is finished, I’ll have my certificate in museum studies. This class is a bit unlike the others I have taken. The others were completely asynchronous, while this one has a synchronous portion to it. It’s also mostly discussion boards with a final project at the end. I can’t wait to be finished. I’ll feel more legitimate as a museum professional, though things have been going pretty well with work. I’m getting some major programs attached to the museum. I have basically a full schedule for the next year. There are just a few things to firm up, but things are looking good.
I can’t believe that it’s just the middle of November and it’s 4 degrees outside. Four degrees, which means the wind chill is even lower. I’d love just to stay in bed today wrapped up under a blanket. However, I’m going to be teaching all morning. I’ll be teaching three classes. They will all be the same class, but I’m looking forward to it. I get to talk about one of the few times Thomas Jefferson was proven wrong. Jefferson was known for believing he was the best and brightest. It is likely he had Asperger’s syndrome, but that’s hard to prove nearly two hundred years after his death. Today will be a busy day all around, because after the classes in the morning, we have one of our public programs. It will be a talk about railroads in Vermont, and I hope it will be interesting. I know it will be interesting to train enthusiasts. After the program, I might be able to take a breath, but I’m sure there will be more to do. All this, and now it will only reach 24 degrees today.