Last week, Ethnography.com posted Bill Rich’s first post in what might be called “Memories of a Retired School Principal (including some stuff I haven’t been able to talk about before).” The first volume of this series was about how to use “the paddle” on the buttocks of a fourth grader at the behest of mother and teacher alike. Poor Billy-the-fourth-grader. It seems Bill-the-principal-trainee had quite an arm. Anyway, Bill-the-principal writes all about it here. Be sure to read to the end—it is truly a guffaw-worthy post.
But this week, Bill is writing about adoption of new “language arts books,” normally a subject I hit the snooze button for. But not some parents in Bill’s school. What artifice can the principal use to mollify the local fundamentalists who believe Satan may lurk in both the textbooks, and the beanbag chairs certified by education experts to improve reading scores? Read and find out—Tony Waters
by BIll Rich
My fellow school administrators and I were taught to respect everyone’s view, all religious perspectives, especially during a contentious adoption of a new language arts series that included a new set of reading books. The reason we received this counsel was the fact that so much of the Christian fundamentalism that swirled around elementary schools during that period seemed absolutely ridiculous (It feels good to finally say this out loud!). But as principals, the worst thing we could do, according to the experts, was to make fun of deeply held religious views of our constituency i.e. the families in the community. We were, after all, the center of the community for many families, the place where all manner of community events were held and youth groups met. I believed and still believe the school should be “owned” by the community in the most basic sense.
So I held back my laughter as the onslaught began. A national organization had determined that the reading book our district decided to adopt actually contained satanic symbols and contained lessons in which students from Kindergarten through 6th grade were taught to chant and engage in dances inspired by Satan. One of the faculty members took up the cause of writing letters to the editor about the outlandish views being forwarded by this organization. He mocked them and I always got a good laugh reading his sarcastic letters. I couldn’t write this kind of thing as the principal but he could as a teacher, so I enjoyed it.
Things became more serious, however, when the school was visited by a group of parents led by an intense woman. She came to school to protest the beanbag chairs in her daughter’s first grade classroom. I knew that research existed that showed reading scores went up with the addition of beanbag chairs scattered next to the class library shelves but thought immediately the parent was going to complain about head lice. This problem was ubiquitous and more than annoying. My past successful strategy was to agree with parents in mild anger at the lice, and say something like, “I hate those stinking bugs!” Once we were on the same page about who the enemy was (lice, not school) I could let parents know the steps we would take to get rid of them. It always worked, for a month anyway.
But this parent’s concern was not lice. I didn’t know this until I invited her and her two friends along with their toddlers to the first grade room so we could see together how the beanbag chairs looked. If the parents could be unobtrusive, I found this kind of openness was the best policy to diffuse emotional situations, and also to let parents see how responsive we were as a school. Teachers were not concerned too much about this since I earned their confidence early in my principalship by telling a particularly rude parent at a meeting with a teacher that I would have him hand cuffed and arrested unless he refrained from making emotional threats to the teacher.
So I was surprised when we entered the room that the vocal parent dropped on her knees and put her head down on the beanbag chair and started reciting a kind of prayer. I couldn’t hear exactly what she was saying but luckily the recess bell rang and the first grade class filed out to play, carrying balls, jump ropes and other items for play and fun. The teacher joined our group and I started to share that there could be a head lice problem with the beanbag chairs. But the parent on the floor stopped me and said, “ It’s not lice that I’m afraid of. We believe that if our children place their heads sideways on the beanbag chair on the floor, then the devil can climb into their ears.” Furthermore, she told me I had to get rid of every beanbag chair in the school.
The teacher and I exchanged glances and I invited the group back to my office.
Maintaining my composure, I assured the parents that their children did not have to use the beanbag chairs and could remain upright in their seats during any kind of classroom activity. My solution seemed to satisfy this group and they left, still suspicious but mollified for now.
In our conversation I asked and they shared the title of some of the books they had been reading at their church. I went by the bookstore and picked up a copy of one. Reading it I understood much more about the way they were thinking. This author described the world as a constant battle between good and evil. The schools were a chief battleground. Actually, the roof of the school was populated with angels and devils constantly battling with swords and magic in an effort to save or destroy the children. After reading this, my views about pacifying this groups changed. I thought the best I could do was to help my school keep a low profile heck yes!. I shared the book with the teacher who wrote mocking letters to the editor and he was so shocked he agreed to stop writing on this issue for a while, until this brouhaha calmed down.
But there was really no way to avoid the conflict. Other parents started to come in and demanded to see the devil worship books as well as classrooms. I kept a full set of the books in my office and invited parents to take them home and read them at their convenience. None of these parents took the books but wanted to lecture me about various Bible passages. Following this experience I brought a Bible to my office and set it next to the readers. When parents told me the Bible didn’t allow their children to read the books, I asked them to help me by showing me where I could find the book prohibition in the Bible in my office. None could. When they accused me of allowing devil worship lessons in classrooms I took them to any classroom of their choice to see if this were true. We entered Kindergarten rooms and 6th grade rooms but never found any devil worship. These parents seemed happy that I was transparent but not really convinced the school was free of devils seeking to destroy their children.
The situation came to a head when we heard that activists from the region were planning to come to a parent club meeting and try to gain support for banning the reading books. I went to the school cafeteria at meeting time that evening and the room was packed. People I didn’t know shared their fears that the children were required to take part in chants. One of the parents at the school asked me what I thought. I stood up and told the group that the children do participate in chants. The room fell completely silent. Following a strategy I heard was used in another school, I said, “I’ll perform one of the chants for you.
“Hickery dickery dock,
The mouse ran up the clock,
The clock struck one and down he come,
Hickory dickery dock.”
Some began to laugh while the visitors remained silent. When the meeting closed there was a lighter mood in the air, people were talking in groups and eating cookies and drinking punch as they left the school. The following week, another delegation of people from outside the school community came to see me about the reading books. This time I simply let them know that our parent community was ok with the books but they might want to visit Big Valley, a school about 200 miles north where their opinions would be welcomed to the discussion. They never returned and the entire issue died at my school.