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Brooke Harris is out of a job as a Michigan teacher. But she’s not exactly sure why. All she knows is that her dismissal stems from encouraging her middle school students to raise money for the family of slain teenager Trayvon Martin. Lots of organizations are rallying not only for the arrest and prosecution of George Zimmerman, but to fundraise and defray the legal expenses Martin’s parents have accumulated just trying to bring their son’s alleged murderer to justice.
This is where good teaching came back to bite her in the hindparts: Harris initially gave her journalism students at Pontiac Academy for Excellence an editorial-writing assignment on the shooting. But the kids felt led to do more, and Harris says she asked the school's administrators if the eighth graders could pay $1 for a dress-down day, a popular fundraising tactic at schools that require uniforms.
Only the kids were going to wear hoodies in honor of Trayvon Martin and a show of solidarity for the cause.
The 26-year-old teacher says she approached school administrators with the idea but Superintendent Jacqueline Cassell gave her plan the thumbs down. Harris broke the news to her students, then reportedly urged them to make their request to Cassell themselves to follow the proper chain of command. Next thing she knew—badabing. She was suspended. I guess too many teenagers in a too small office pushed the super’s buttons, not her bleeding heart.
"I didn't tell the kids, 'Let's go and do it anyway,'" Harris said about her students’ plan. "I was actually, literally, in the process of talking to my kids about what we could do instead when (Cassell) requested the meeting with me and told me that I needed to let it go." When Harris showed up to show to give students prizes, that sealed her fate. She was called into the office and canned shortly thereafter.
Now I’ll admit that if she was told to stay her behind home, she probably should’ve parked her rear at her residence, just to avoid unnecessary drama. Still, Cassell’s defense of her decision to fire Harris is what really irks my soul. "I'm a child of the civil rights movement," she said, adding, "but this is not the time in the school year" to distract students from academics and that she wanted the kids to “focus on learning, not activism.”
And that therein lies the problem, lady. In silencing—then firing—their teacher, she inadvertently showed the students that there’s danger in speaking out, that it’s better to shut up about injustice rather than make a peaceful, collective effort to affect change. The kids wanted to do their part, to organize on their own terms and in their own push for social justice, and they not only got shut down, they watched the teacher helping them think through the process get kicked to the curb. Instead of being empowered, Cassell and her inflexibility actually showed her underlings to take a suck-it-up approach to situations they might otherwise feel incapacitated to change. She silenced their voice.
Personally, I want my daughter to learn more than complicated algebra formulas and grammatical sentence mapping (though both, especially the latter, are important elements for her to master). It's good for teachers to guide their students into activism—it teaches kids social responsibility, not just in high-profile, high-voltage cases like the Trayvon Martin story, though I’m sure that one especially hits close to home since he was a black teenager like many of them. But speaking out is a birthright of American citizenship. Find a cause you care about and contribute to it, and that includes kids.
I’ve been pushing Girl Child to follow the case and align herself with the details of the situation. Trayvon could’ve easily been her cousin or brother or guy bestie or boyfriend (if she was allowed to have one). And let’s not pretend that, even as a young black girl, it couldn’t have been her, too. This case happens to be about race and justice, but I want her to feel passionate about whatever she wants to feel passionate about—animal rights, voting, abortion, education, new taxes on shoe shopping, whatever—and then get used to speaking out in a constructive and effective way to push change. I’m sure that what the other Ms. Harris wanted for her students, too.
Was Harris out of line for encouraging the kids to get involved?
Image via Associated Press