Thursday, December 6, 2007

Words Like Feathers In The Air

Once words are out there, it is very difficult to gather them all back, as Brian Christopher Wilcher, age 38 discovered recently. According to the Los Angeles Times, Wilcher, a teacher at Brea Junior High School, told a twelve year old student in his class that “next semester you’d better find another teacher because if you’re in my class I’m going to kill you.” Easy there, Tiger. We have all been there.

More and more, in this age of cell phone cameras and tiny digital recorders, teachers and students need a list of words and phrases that are appropriate and acceptable for classroom interaction.

The first thing that happened once I had been hired by the Archdiocese way back when was that I had to attend a workshop on proper classroom etiquette according to the law. We were instructed that a teacher never told a parent “your child is lazy.” He is “unmotivated.” A teacher never threatened a student with bodily injury or death. Detention or time out after school, or a face-to-face meeting with parents were the most potent threats a law-abiding teacher could make.

Still, words slipped out. During a parent meeting I was involved in at one school, the father turned to me and said, “If my kid gets out of line again, just beat him. You have my permission.” When I insisted that no one would be beaten, and that to raise a hand was against the law, the parent reiterated that it was okay. “Everyone needs a good smack now and then, and you got my permission to just lay into him. I don’t care if you leave him black and blue!” The principal and I spent the rest of the lengthy meeting trying to convince the parent that if we saw any “black and blue” marks on the child, the police would be called. I am still not sure he got the message.

Years ago, I made the comment to a high school class I was teaching that a certain student was absent “every other day.” It was only a slight exaggeration. For months, the student had attended school barely three out of the five days each week. Within twenty-four hours, I had the parent in the office telling me that it was just such comments that made his son stay home all the time. This discrimination had become unbearable. He never denied that his son missed at least one day per week. He was upset because I had verbalized it in the classroom.

In the course of heated exchanges in the crucible of the classroom, things can often be misconstrued and misinterpreted. I do not know if that is the case with Wilcher and his student, but a misunderstanding is possible. Still, a death threat is serious stuff in this day and age. People threatening to kill others can’t be taken lightly. The news footage of Columbine haunts our dreams. How many times have such incidents been repeated. Just yesterday, the shooting at the mall in Nebraska became a perfect example. By killing a number of people, the shooter thought that at least he would have some notoriety. As one of my students reminded me, the situation was similar to Meursault’s, the main character in Albert Camus’ The Stranger. After he murders the Arab man, he feels his life has meaning. Why else would so many people hate him?

What I am most concerned about is that there is equality of punishment for teachers and students when they make dangerous threats in the classroom. Students are often given more leeway than teachers when making statements. Would a student who threatened Mr. Wilcher be thrown in jail for a felony? I would hope so. I know that the one time a student threatened my life, it was a far different story.

I had handed back some papers to a junior class. The bell rang, and one student who was upset with his grade walked passed me at my podium and said “I’m going to get a gun and come back and shoot you.” He was staring right into my eyes. The comment and to whom it was intended were very clear.

Since I met this particular class twice each day, and this threat was made in the morning class, I went to the dean of students and the principal and demanded that action be taken immediately. I wanted the kid suspended from my class pending possible termination, as the school rule stated. The principal told me that the student did not mean the threat as stated. “So what does ‘I’m going to get a gun and come back and shoot you’ actually mean?” I demanded to know. He did not have an answer.

We called the student into the office where he promptly admitted making the threat in exactly the words I related. “I’m sorry,” he said to me, not making eye contact. “You made me mad with the grade.” That was his defense. His punishment? He was removed from the afternoon session of the class, but the next morning, he was back in his seat. I was not satisfied, but I had no other recourse. I did, however, drop in to see the principal.

“In the future, if that student, or any other makes a threat against me,” I told him, “neither you nor anyone else will stop me from going down to the police station four blocks away and filing a police report. This might be a private school, and you may control this world, but even on this patch of ground, no one gets away with making death threats.”

I consider it my “Clint Eastwood” moment, probably overheated and overblown in my assessment all these years later. At the time, I was very emotional about it.

What I have come to realize is that language is a weapon. It is sharp and dangerous. Just like a firearm, if its use is not controlled, it can lead to disaster. Once the words are out there, like the ruptured feather pillow, one cannot put the words back where they came from, and the only recourse is to deal with what was said. Wilcher now faces such a situation.

The pen and language itself, is mightier than the sword. Words can be hurtful. Words can introduce fear and intimidation into a situation. That whole thing about sticks and stones breaking bones, but words are harmless has been refuted. Words are dangerous.