Talk about intimidating! Sitting down here to write a new blog post after my “Open Letter to Oklahoma Voters and Lawmakers” exploded over the Internet and across the country and around the world is the most intimidated I’ve ever been when it comes to writing. How do I follow up on that?
The truth is, I don’t think I can. Probably never will. So it’s either abandon my blog, or go on as if that post was only seen by the dozen or so people who would typically read what I post online. That means that pretty soon I’ll be back to posting book reviews and updates on my novel writing or promotion. Speaking of which, I’ll be a guest at the Underground Monster Carnival at the OKC Fairgrounds again this year. Come out and visit me and many other authors, movie makers, make-up artists, and vendors. Organizers Stephanie and Art Sunday have very generously offered to collect donations for my school, and you don’t even have to pay Carnival admission to make a donation. That’s the true spirit of the average Oklahoman.
The response to my Open Letter was overwhelming in many ways. The sheer volume, of course, was staggering. I had no idea that was going to happen, and I am still working my way through e-mails and comments. If I had known what was about to happen, I might have worded a couple of things differently. For instance, it was not my intention to say that everyone working in factories or oil fields are peasants. Those are often good-paying jobs (more than teachers make!) and many people find satisfaction there. That’s great. I was a little impassioned at the time of writing and recalled my own feelings during the 10 years I worked in machine shops between high school graduation and going to college. It wasn’t for me. It wasn’t a trade I chose. I’ve since lost the ability to do the complicated math I did when I was running CNC machines, so obviously there is a level of intelligence beyond mere peasantry needed to do trade jobs. Like I said, I didn’t choose that career; cleaning high production machines was the only full-time job I could get in 1986; once I was in, I worked my way up until a shoulder injury ended that career. The whole time I worked in various shops I was looked at as an oddity because I usually had a book I was reading or parts of a manuscript to edit. I wasn’t happy as a factory worker and I committed a fallacy in the heat of the moment. A better wording to that part of my letter would have indicated that I don’t want my students to be forced into any job due to shoddy education if they aspire to some other profession. I apologize to anyone who took offense to the way that was worded.
Another criticism I saw concerned my mention of Michelle Obama. I stand by that one. School meals are not filling, and under the Smart Snacks guidelines kids cannot get second helpings. If you’ve ever had teenagers in your home you know that they eat a lot of food. In our district, the school meals are the best a lot of kids get, which is why we continue to feed them during the summer. They need to be filled at school because there often isn’t enough food at home. Further, Smart Snacks gutted our most reliable fundraisers, which were selling hot dogs, pizza, chicken strips, or nachos from our school concession stand. Under this initiative pushed by the unelected first lady, we cannot sell alternatives to the Smart Snacks approved meals. Kids are not even supposed to be selling those old stand-by Worlds Finest Chocolate candy bars during school hours. All that said, Mrs. Obama was not the point of my letter and the fact so many people focused only on that mention of her says something about their perspective, in my opinion.
I would also like to point out I was careful not to name the school or district where I work. When I agreed to meet with local reporters from KFOR Newschannel 4 and FOX25 they both agreed beforehand that they would not mention the name of my school or district. Chelsea Washington of FOX25 violated that agreement. It could have been learned, anyway, by people who read some of the early comments to my letter, comments made by personal friends who know where I work and mentioned the school name in their responses. I did not try to keep the school’s identity private because I’m ashamed to be part of Western Heights. On the contrary, I’ll be forever grateful to the administrators who took a chance on a long-haired 40-year-old first-year teacher with alternative certification. I’m proud to be a Jet and proud of my kids. I tried to keep the school name private because I do not speak for the school or district. The views on my blog are my own and are not endorsed by or a reflection of the views of the administration. As expected, once the name was out, there were calls of complaint.
Let me say this: Not every student at Western Heights lives in the conditions I described. Not every parent of a Western Heights student uses drugs, ignores their children, or abuses them in any way. We have some of the best parents you’ll find anywhere. I’ve been lucky enough to have older and younger siblings go through my class and I’ve gotten to know families and count them among my friends and they are excellent parents. But the bad stuff is there, too. The stories about parents who can’t answer their phones are real; a girl who was not the object of my original story stopped me today in the hall to tell me her parents were too wasted to answer the phone sometimes. The story about the boy sleeping on a neighbor’s back porch is true; that was the incident that first opened my eyes to the plight of some of our kids in my first full year of teaching. And yes, I had a female student who was beaten with a cane by her grandfather because I let him know she was failing my class. These are things that never should have happened. Once you see that they do, you don’t forget them. They do not only happen at Western Heights. Those things are happening at your school, too. If you think you are the parent I was talking about in one of those examples, please turn yourself in at the nearest police station.
One last thing for tonight. Many, many, many thanks to everyone who expressed support for what I wrote. The response, as I said, was unexpected and overwhelming. People have brought me boxes of food, a case of copy paper, poster paper, and one kind soul send $250 to my PayPal account to use to help my kids. Several of my former students shared the post with personal notes about our time together, and more than a few of those put a lump in my throat and a mist over my eyes. I didn’t write the letter to get free stuff, or to goad my graduates into stroking my ego. Those things were as unexpected as the 85,000+ views the Open Letter currently has. Spiritually, there is no better profession than teaching and no reward greater than when a successful young adult tells you that you made a positive impact in his or her life. It doesn’t keep the electricity on, but it fills the heart and reminds us why we put up with all the negatives of being a classroom teacher. Thank you all!
I’ve rambled. Tomorrow or Friday I’ll share the modified version of my Open Letter that I sent to the state senators and representatives for my district and the district where the school is located. So far, I have not received a reply from them, or from Gov. Mary Fallin. In the meantime, I’ll leave you to ponder the most recent lunacy from the Oklahoma legislature: Mandated anti-abortion instruction.