Friday, May 15, 2015

Very Strange Bedtime Stories: Letters to Mumia Abu-Jamal

When I was a kid, President Reagan ordered a bombing in Libya in response to an attack on a dance club in Berlin.

That Sunday, I was in church and the priest -- and young and enthusiastic priest who played a mean game of half-court basketball -- started his homily by saying, "How 'bout that President Reagan!?" Clapping ensued. The priest then proceeded to make us all feel horrible. He reminded us of a small rule about what thou shouldst not do...

It was sobering. Intellectually, it made an impact, but the human heart has a hard time overlooking the urge for revenge -- or any strong feelings toward those who have done wrong. I got it, but I didn't feel it. (Of course, the point is supposed to be that it doesn't matter what I feel: what God says, goes. "Turn the other cheek" and all that...)

The guts and brains conflict can be tough.

Now, there is a teacher in New Jersey who has been fired for having her third-grade class write "get-well" letters to Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is convicted of having killed a cop in 1981. (He is very sick with diabetes right now.)

What do you think?

Why him? They could, as one interviewee pointed out, have written to people in an old folks' home. The teacher says the kids asked to do this after she told them Abu-Jamal was very ill. The bottom line is, third graders only hear that a man is sick and their natural goodness prompts them to want to do the nice things they are conditioned to do.

So, we can be confident that she brought it up. Probably. But, again, why? Her own agenda of support for Abu-Jamal? Or was it an overheard conversation or some kind? In the former circumstance, she is out of bounds; in the latter, she is careless and unprofessional. Did she explain to the kids that he was in jail for being convicted of killing a policeman? Did she tell them she thought Abu-Jamal is innocent? Guilty? Either way, bad ideas for a teacher of children. And it is way out of the range of third-grade lesson planning.

Regardless of any of this, she found herself in this position: The kids wanted to write a letter to a sick man -- a man whose actions, either they were made to believe in or of whose actions they were unaware.

What could she have done?

For one thing, she could have easily side-stepped the whole thing: "I don't know if we have time, but maybe... Now open your spelling books." (These are third-graders; they would have forgotten by bedtime if not by lunch.) Or, she could have suggested the students ask their parents and write the letter at home and provide the postage, if they approved. That, of course, is if she had wanted to avoid it.

What she did do was give them time in the classroom to do this. Wrong call, professionally. Her job is not to encourage the kids to align with her beliefs on controversial issues -- especially such young kids who are at her intellectual mercy; who could have no understanding of the issue but what she gave them -- unless they had parents who read them very strange bedtime stories.

Her transgression is not what the click-bait headlines want you to get fired up about; it's not necessarily that the kids wrote to a convicted cop-killer. Her transgression is that she is abusing her considerable power as a teacher.

As with the bombing, my heart wants to be sick that kids are writing to a convicted killer. But, our priest made a powerful point that day. What would Jesus (religious or not, you have to admit the guy was brilliant) think of this letter-writing? I think He would smile on the children who wanted to be kind and I know His brow would furrow, regarding a teacher who feels she should mold kids not to think well, but to think what she does. But He sure would not have a problem with writing a letter to a sick man, however criminal his past might be.

Her best choice would have been to have avoided it, altogether. But I get the feeling she didn't want to avoid it. A good teacher leads her students to multiple doors from which to choose; she doesn't open one and push them through. She also delivers age-appropriate curriculum.

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