Dear *Mrs. Lindsey* (Reported name of West Virginia teacher whose mic-grabbing has gone viral),
I bet Tuesday morning when you woke up, you had no idea what this week held. And now you are one of America’s Most Hated People. People are writing petitions demanding you be fired instantly. Calling for physical violence. Criticizing your appearance, your weight, your facial expressions, your ability to teach. Jamming your school’s phone lines, condemning your administrators, and hurling every type of profanity and vulgarity in your direction. Your personal phone number has been published and the phone number and address of your school has been viewed by tens of thousands. You have to be bewildered and panicked. You obviously didn’t see this coming. And as a teacher, it makes me frightened for all of us.
I learned of you only because a headline came through my FB newsfeed. *Elementary Teacher Makes Autistic Student Cry When She Snatches His Microphone During Thanksgiving Play.* Wow, you sound like a disgrace to the profession. I got this mental image of The Teacher From The Black Lagoon leaping on stage and ripping a microphone from a child’s hands while knocking him backwards off the platform with her scaly tail and of him sprawled on the floor weeping. And it made me mad. So I watched the very short clip. I observed the narrative presented by the parent grow and develop new details as the media ran with this heartbreaking holiday tale. Then I read your administrator was standing with you and no discipline was being taken. I decided to dig a little deeper.
I watched the play in its 12 minute entirety. I urge others to do the same. It looked exactly like every other first grade performance the day of a full Supermoon just before Thanksgiving break. In other words, it was a hot mess. Just like it is at all schools.
The construction papered Mayflower travelers and their indigenous friends shuffled in and out – occasionally at wrong times and unsure of exactly which way to leave the stage and several either forgot their lines or never bothered to learn them. Caleb, the child in question – playing the part of the turkey – appears to refuse to go to the mic to say his first line and the children quickly adapt and go around him. The next time Caleb is supposed to speak, he is unaware that the mic will be as loud as it is and the volume sends the audience and Pilgrims and Indians into peals of laughter.
You quickly get the children to speak in chorus so the laughter is minimized. Another little boy flubs his lines and the mirth of the participants intensifies and I can feel the red rising in your face and the sweat starting to form. Caleb correctly speaks a line and then wanders aimlessly around the stage a few times which is reasonable considering his disability. It appears that a different teacher stage left is attempting to coach him to return to his correct place. A little boy gets to the mic to say his line and he just can’t do it. He dissolves into giggles and takes with him the entire gym.
Caleb’s next line is supposed to be humorous and he nails it. Laughter. There is a very nice song that appears to pull the program back together. During the music, Caleb sings loudly and often at the wrong times – again, very understandable and only noticeable because his mom has the recording directed right on him. However, the child next to him senses the amusement of the audience and begins to ham it up. Kids singing in the front row turn around and stare at Caleb and giggle at him.
The atmosphere is fragile and it is time to bring this production in for a landing.
Two children step to the mic to thank the audience for coming. Somehow, Caleb is back in front. It does not appear that he is supposed to be there. It looks exactly like every first grade Thanksgiving production across the United States. No one in the world would care at all about this story except for what happens next…
You had to make a split second decision and there was no way to know it could affect the rest of your life or anyone else’s. Before Caleb could speak, you took the mic. You didn’t yank it from his hand. You walked over and were ready to take it from the stand as soon as the last line was delivered, which deprived Caleb of his self-given moment and he had an emotional outburst. It is hard to tell if you didn’t notice Caleb or if you deliberately preempted him. Either way, he was unable to speak into the mic.
Did you make the right decision? Who knows. By the reaction of the armchair Thanksgiving musical directors it appears that removing the mic was the moral equivalency of shoving a child into a corner wearing a dunce cap. What ifs are a tough game to play. Life is a giant Choose Your Own Adventure book except you don’t get to flip back and make a different decision if you mess up.
Having been in similar situations I’m going to guess you were hoping to save Caleb from further embarrassment. You were hoping to keep the place from laughing more. You weren’t sure if Caleb would deliver an appropriate line or a string of words he learned from HBO. You knew that autistic children can behave more erratically in a situation in which there is sensory stimulation or at an event that is atypical in routine. You erred on the side of prevention. It also appears like your coworkers were in support as in the longer video they are seen trying to coax him off the platform. The mother’s posts indicate you are not even his teacher as she is unsure of your name – maybe Mrs. Linsey – and refers to you as *one* teacher rather than *his teacher.* This is pure speculation but it would seem that you moving so quickly means that there was previous discussion among staff of how this type of situation would be handled and you acted accordingly.
What is interesting to me is the mom’s voice during the recording. There’s a point early in the play where she says very flatly, dejectedly even, “Yeah, that’s Caleb.” Her emotion for how her child is perceived can be felt through the recording. She doesn’t like the laughter. She pleads in a whispered prayer for him to get his fingers out of his mouth. She knows he’s being laughed at and that he isn’t even aware of the ridicule and it breaks her heart. I don’t necessarily blame her for her reaction. I hurt for her. But I also think she is being unreasonable and is irresponsible in her demand for revenge. Not justice. Revenge. Her actions are not going to make the school a better place. They are keeping other parents from being able to contact the administrator about equally important issues. They’re broadcasting to thousands of people the faces and location of dozens of other children. They are dragging the school into what will be months of a public relations and HR nightmare, which will distract from the school’s fundamental purpose. And, they’re firing up a hateful, irrational mob. Sadly, the end result will most likely not be a better learning environment for Caleb.
Here is what should be terrifying for all educators. 30 seconds, on film, taken out of context, could end careers and destroy lives. Show me a teacher who has never snapped at a child in exasperation, has never misinterpreted a situation and doled out improper consequences, has never erred in judgment, has never wished they could take back a word or action and I will show you a tap dancing unicorn. The same could be said for parents. There are some pretty unrealistic expectations for educators. Very few teachers enjoy being on display at public events. Teachers get stage fright, just like everyone else. I get sick to my stomach and lightheaded and my thoughts and words get all tangled any time I have to face a full auditorium of parents, students, and coworkers. I know every avoidance technique to get out of speaking publicly. But I’m a good teacher. A really good teacher. I have made some horrible public blunders, including a Steve Harvey moment in which I awarded a prize to the wrong student. It was a dozen years ago and I still wilt each time I remember it.
In my early days of teaching – nearly two decades ago – a mom wandered down the hall while a child and I were working out some issues. She was not the mom of the child, nor of any child in my classroom. Thankfully, this was before the days of cell phone cameras or I would be on the receiving end of internet shame. What the mom caught was me cutting off the child each time she attempted to speak. Calmly but sternly directing her to walk to a previously determined calming down location. The mom saw just a snippet – what appeared to be me callously interrupting the child and repeating for her to go where she needed to be. The child was crying by this point and continuing to attempt to speak. The mom interjected herself and began yelling at me for not listening to the child. She said she was going to my administrators. She was livid. Even the crying child stopped her commotion and her eyes grew wide and she quickly headed down the hall to where she was supposed to be. I ignored the parent and returned to my classroom and my administrator knew the larger context and nothing happened. Nothing happened because that one moment wasn’t captured and sent to the world. One moment can look really bad. But what it doesn’t show is that the child had been retained at the administration’s recommendation and the child’s mother agreed only if the child could have me for a second year. It doesn’t show that the parent, special education teacher, social worker, administrator, and an outside consultant had spent hours and hours devising an individualized plan that included zero tolerance for this child arguing once a final decision had been made by an adult. It doesn’t show the child and her mom at my house for dinner (this was back in the olden days when it wasn’t creepy to do such) or me attending her sports events. It doesn’t show the card in which she declared me the best teacher in the world. Could my school have withstood the pressure and not fired me had that small clip been aired to the public? I hope so. We all should hope so.
The unfair thing about these situations is a parent can say anything they want about a school. They can accuse the school of all sorts of misdeeds and intentions of malice. They can dash to the media and present a snippet and the press rejoices over anything that can make public schools look bad and can be worded as click bait. Parents can broadcast any action of a teacher that they happen to snag on video and allow the universe to weigh in. Not to comment simply about the educational decision that was made but to critique wardrobe, weight, and attractiveness in a way that anyone reading such about themselves would be humiliated and never want to face the world again. The school is completely restricted at that point. They can’t speak about the child. They can’t present the public with the child’s records. They can’t list all of the accommodations teachers have made or even show longer videos that provide better context. They and the teacher are helpless. I truly hope people will keep that in mind before they weigh in on these situations.
So, Mrs. Lindsey… I don’t know you. You might be as awful as some people are claiming and deserve to be done with your career. If that is true, farewell. But if you and your colleagues know this is an unfair characterization of you – I hope your district continues to stand up for you and that your fellow educators surround you with care and comfort. I hope that somehow you can ignore the shout of the mob and find a way to enjoy the holiday. I hope there is healing in this fractured relationship between your district and the public. I wish for you compassion and grace.