Monday, September 24, 2007

Controversy in the Classroom - Everyone Loses

If there is one thing I’ve learned from being a parent, it’s that there are always two sides to a story and the truth usually lies somewhere in between. Whenever an argument erupts between by kids, I am captivated time and again by one's ability to win my support of their version of the story, only to hear an equally compelling saga from their sibling . I believe that such is the case of Nate Fisher, a popular English teacher and an unnamed student from a local high school. Fisher resigned last week and the student, from what I have read has been suffering at the hands of her peers.

In the same manner that I try (often unsuccessfully) to understand the true facts of a disagreement between my kids, I have tried to understand the facts of this story. Here are the simple facts that I believe are indisputable.

Fact #1: A teacher gives a freshman student (female) a suggested book for a project. The book is a graphic novel.
Fact #2: The parents of the student find the material inappropriate
Fact #3: The book is written by, Daniel Clowes, an award-winning graphic comic book writer
Fact #4: The Teacher is placed on Administrative leave
Fact #5: Word gets out that the teacher is facing trouble and a Facebook group is created in support of the teacher. Communications get nasty, with the student being targeted and the site is closed down.
Fact #6: The teacher resigns and the student becomes the target of harassment
Fact #7: Everyone loses

We don’t know much more than this, but here’s where it doesn’t matter what we know or what we assume: The grey area of disagreement over perception can inflict such unfortunate pain on its victims. I don’t know the student, her parents or the teacher. However, there is no doubt that both sides of the controversy present compelling arguments..

First, the teacher. I will draw my own conclusion and refuse to believe that Nate Fisher’s intentions were impure or that his goal was to make the girl uncomfortable by giving her “pornographic material”. He’s a young teacher who, I imagine, if he’s a good English teacher, follows literary trends and reads works by up and coming authors. Graphic novels can be edgy, but the author he chose isn’t scum, he’s an award-winning, graphic novelist who has been acclaimed by Time Magazine and the New York Times. Did he demonstrate bad judgment by offering the book? Perhaps. We don’t know the conversation that transpired between him and his student before giving her the book. Did he warn her that the material may be too mature for her? Did he suggest she get permission from her parents first? Should he have first gotten administrative permission to hand the book out to a student? Isn't it really is our own personal perceptions about whether this material is inappropriate? Is this book, or books like it, to become the Catcher in the Rye of our time?

As a parent, I understand our desire to protect our children. We trust the schools to keep our kids safe, both physically and psychologically. At a minimum, we expect zero-tolerance bullying policies, environmentally safe buildings and teachers who will be respectful and supportive of our children’s needs and learning styles. I can accept that these parents believed that this teacher crossed the line by handing their child this book to read. They may even believe that she was violated in some way. Nobody should be judging them or their child for this belief. They have every right to their feelings. What we don’t know is how they pursued their claim. Did they go directly to the teacher? The principal? The Superintendent? Or the Police? Did they want Nate Fisher fired regardless of an explanation? Did they really want him to lose his job over this?

In the same way that my kids believe their version of the events that lead up to an argument is the only acceptable view, for every reader that is offended by this material, there will be another who finds it perfectly acceptable for their kids. Had Mr. Fisher given this book to a different student, whose parents perceived the content differently or approached there concerns by a taking a different course, there quite possibly could have been an entirely different outcome. He may still have his job, and a student may have been introduced to a new genre of literature that she may never have known about if not for this teacher.

So what are we left with? A young teacher, who’s career may well be over before it even began, a student, who will have to navigate the jeers of fellow students, and parents who in hindsight may always wonder if they did the right thing.

I wonder what Nate Fisher has learned from this experience and if he finds something positive to take away from it. Maybe he’s matured a bit, but I hope that he doesn’t become cynical and will give up teaching altogether. My wish for him would be to find a school where he is appreciated and he continues to be a positive influence on his students. I am sorry that he had to resign as a result of this controversy. His untapped potential will never be realized by these students.

As difficult as life has become for this student, I hope she realizes that her parents were acting in her best interests. Whether she even believed, in the first place, that what they were doing was right, she should be proud of them for speaking up if they believed something was wrong. Kids are resilient, and hopefully, she will discover things like the value of true friendship from those who have stuck with her through this ordeal, self-confidence when she finally walks back through those school doors, and pride in herself that she survived such unwelcome criticism. It’s hard enough being an adolescent, dealing with all of this as a freshman has got to be horrific.

And the parents, while I may disagree with the outcome of their actions, I applaud their strength to stand up for what they believe in. Being a strong role model, especially when it is an unpopular choice takes a lot of courage.

I guess we really don’t know the end of this story. I wish the end could have been this: all the parties sat around a table and they discussed what they perceived to be wrong and to be right about the events. And then, they all agreed that some mistakes were made, no maliciousness was intended, and that they are all working for the best interests of our kids. Apologies were made and second chances were given. And then, they would all walk away from the table feeling like winners, that they had beaten the stereotypical “he said, she said” scenario, and had come together to work towards a positive resolution for all. That would have been the best role modeling for our kids after all.... and there would have been no losers.


the individual voice said...

Interesting story, not at all unfamiliar. Once a school administration gets involved, the number of versions of the story is squared. As you wrote about being pulled towards each sibling's version, it reminded me of the times I have had to see children with high-conflict-divorced parents. The parent who is not in the room is a demon, no matter how many times I would go back and forth.

minivan diaries said...

It's a shame that adults can't act like they should, and model behaviors for their kids that will teach them how to understand both sides of an argument to seek out peaceful and reasonable solutions for both. As I said, I don't believe their was malicious or salacious intent. Mr. Fisher may have exercised really poor judgment but I think, as a society, we have become so quick to accuse individuals (men, in particular), as predators, that we are losing a whole bunch of really good people. For Mr. Fisher, he will always have a cloud of doubt around him, whether warranted or not. Until this happened, there was no question about his character or his ability to teach high school students.