Two teachers from the Celerity Nascent Charter School in southwest Los Angeles, Marisol Alba and Seth Strauss, were fired for signing a letter of protest written by their students, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Celerity Nascent Principal Grace Canada had banned the recitation of a poem on the lynching of fourteen year old Emmett Till during the school’s celebration of Black History Month. When discussing her decision with the seventh grade class which had included the poem and a wreath laying ceremony in memory of Till in their planned presentation, Canada defended her action by referring a number of times to the alleged reason for lynching Till — his whistling at a white woman — as an act of “sexual harassment.” [The school denies that Canada made such comments, but the Times verified her statements from a number of parents of children in the class.]
Someone had provided the seventh grade students of Celerity Nascent with a good history and civics education, one that highlighted models of petitioning for a redress of grievances and peaceful dissent — such as the Civil Rights movement’s response to the lynching of Till. They wrote several letters protesting the decision and Canada’s characterization of Till, and Alba and Strauss signed one of them. The teachers were then fired.
“I never thought it would come to this,” Alba told the Times. “I thought the most that would happen to me [after the event was canceled] is that I’d get talked to and it would be turned into a learning and teaching experience.” Alba did learn something — the hard truth of the meaning of “at will” employment, which anti-teacher union forces and bloggers in the charter school movement defend as essential to charter school management.
Marcia Alston, the mother of one Celerity Nascent seventh grader, told the Times that she called the school to say she was appalled at its interpretation of history and the treatment of the teachers. She said that in the conversation, the principal used the term “rude” to describe Till’s actions. “Mr. Strauss and Ms. Alba were excellent teachers,” said Alston. “The fact that they and the students had signed a letter, I thought, was good; it was something they were passionate about and it could be used as a learning tool.”
In a defense of the schools’ actions, Celerity co-founder and Executive Director Vielka McFarlane told the Times that “our whole goal is how do we get these kids to not look at all of the bad things that could happen to them and instead focus on the process of how do we become the next surgeon or the next politician. We don’t want to focus on how the history of the country has been checkered but on how do we dress for success, walk proud and celebrate all the accomplishments we’ve made.”
Why not eliminate history and civics altogether, given that it is a record, among other things, of the “bad things” that happen to people, including children? The great moments of redemption in history have no meaning without reference to the evils that they are overcoming: the historical power of the American civil rights movement lies precisely in the change it brought to a social order that allowed the lynchings of 14 year old boys.
But history has always posed a problem for those who want to exercise unchallenged power.