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Sunday, June 1, 2014

Teachable Moment

Alan Barron, Monroe, Michigan. By all accounts an effective teacher. Maybe even a "great teacher" who "has changed many children's lives" according to one parent. Well, it looks like Mr. Barron's summer vacation (indeed, his retirement) will be starting a few weeks early. The kids will have to sweat out the remainder of the year, which extends into mid-June thanks to all the snow days, without Mr. Barron. We all know what that means... SUBSTITUTE!

The 59-year old teacher committed an offense worthy of being placed on leave - or suspended, depending on who's telling the story - as he was caught red-handed showing his students a video about White actors of the distant past wearing black-face makeup. In this guise, they no doubt played Blacks in unflattering ways, and by exposing the pupils of his pupils to such objectionable buffoonery, Mr. Barron was in a way revealing an old snapshot of racism in yesteryear's America.

In history class. While teaching about the truly vile and reprehensible Jim Crow era. These days, a lot of folks might have gotten upset that a teacher would portray America in an unnecessarily bad light. Why are White people always the bad guys, they might ask over their caffeinated beverages; why do we always have to focus on the negatives of bygone eras? Why can't we teach American "exceptionalism" (sic)?

It appears that such thinking is turning out to be little more than a political fad, the country's Bull Moose moment of the 21st Century, so it's not what you're thinking. No, what got Mr. Barron thrown out of his classroom of some 30 years was the fact that an assistant principal busted him teaching the kids about the likes of Al Jolson. Said assistant principal - weren't they all assholes? - decided without arbitration that Mr. Barron was in fact being a racist in his instruction; therefore, he interrupted the showing of the video and the class entirely, leaving the teacher in a decidedly non-teaching position.


It's not like the kids were surfing YouTube and watching old Klan rally rants, or listening to gangsta rap either, which some people find equally offensive. And Mr. Barron wasn't letting his class see any of the sickening, so-called supremacist garbage that litters the Internet every day - which most kids can find on their own with virtually no barriers. I suppose this teacher had his career cut short (albeit not very) because of nothing more than mere perception, which is like saying "mere TNT" these days. He may have even veered from the approved curriculum, which can happen sometimes, and can have serious ramifications.

I know this firsthand. It happened to me in the 8th grade, also in Michigan, also in history class, also with a teacher on the brink of retirement. His name was Larry Wagner, a football coach kind of guy, with the big, hairy forearms, frequently combative with the children in his charge... We all had that guy in Junior High, right?

Just before the end of the year, Mr. Wagner hauled in the rackety old film projector, as he often did for our benefit. He then explained that we were going watch a film that would be narrated in French, but had English subtitles. However, he said, it may be very difficult to watch the content, so if one had to look away one would not be able to see the subtitles... But that wouldn't matter because we would have gotten the gist of it by then anyway. If anyone was disturbed by the film, he said, he or she would be allowed to go out into the hallway. That's all the prep we got before he showed us Night and Fog.

Night and Fog is about 45 minutes of archival footage of Nazi concentration camps - filmed, thank God, in grainy black and white. That's the day I learned, in school, what one group of humans would do to another group of humans if they felt like doing it and nobody was around to stop them. We sat dead silent as the reels clacked away and the French narrator intoned his way through the horror, and a few kids put their heads in their arms on their desks but nobody went out into the hallway.

After the projector ran out, and he turned the world's harsh lights back onto our stricken faces, Mr. Wagner explained to us that Night and Fog was not approved course material for 8th grade history class, and that he could get fired for showing it to us. But he didn't care. He said he showed it to us because, someday, some clown might try to tell us that the Holocaust never happened. So we had to be shown, not just told, that it in fact had.

After giving us a moment to shift around uncomfortably in our seats, with only a few minutes left in class, Larry went on to explain that when he was a young man he had fought in World War II. That he was a Sergeant in the U.S. Army when his unit liberated some 32,000 poor souls from the death camp Dachau (a detour, really, on the glory road to Munich). He did not see it, he said, in grainy black and white. And it was not without sounds or smells. He said those skeletal ghosts from Night and Fog were pretty much what they encountered, skeletal ghosts who somehow cheered for joy as the Americans crashed the gates.

Then, an intrepid 13-year old boy a couple of rows back chirped up at Mr. Wagner, "Were there any Germans there?"

He allowed that there were, in sort of a distracted way. Not many, he said, just a handful who were dumb enough to follow the orders that had left them behind to try and explain.

"Well, what did you do with 'em?"

He stared blankly at the whole roomful of us from all the way back on the 29th of April 1945 and responded, from behind his 8th grade history teacher mask, with a question of his own:

"What do you think we did with them?"

The bell rang. Lesson learned. Class dismissed... As it should be.

pH 6.o1.14

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