A Teacher's Racist Remark: The Happy Ending

Stories frequently hit the news with fanfare and shock us terribly, only to fade from view. We never know their resolution and are left to wonder if justice was done. We never know how the officials handled the problem or what impact it had on an individual or family.

Here's one that started horribly but ended on a high note. Yes, justice was served. But something even more significant happened. People stepped up to take responsibility, treated one another with respect, and healed a wound that could have festered for years to come.

In the process of this healthy resolution, educators taught a Civics lesson to some middle school students that will never be forgotten.

The (Nashville) Tennessean ran an article in its Feb. 19 edition titled "Hickman County teacher suspended for racist remark." It was one of those shocking stories that makes news because most of us want to think perhaps I should say "naively assume" or "pretend" that this sort of thing doesn't happen in our public institutions in the twenty-first century.

The teacher told an African-American student who was making noise by tapping a pencil on his desk to be quiet. His justifiable order turned into an inexcusable affront when he used words to this effect: "If you don't stop making that racket, I'm going to tie you behind my pick-up truck and drag you through the woods."

Against the backdrop of a 1998 event in Jasper, Texas, in which three white men drug a black man to death by tying him to the back of a truck, the teacher's words were not funny. The student, who is the only African-American in the class, didn't laugh. He was embarrassed and appalled. None of the other students in the room laughed either. When the period ended, they rushed to the student and expressed their sense of shock about what had been said. Several urged him to report it to the principal, but he hesitated. Only late in the school day did he go in the company of one of his best friends to relate the incident.

The article correctly reported the prompt action of Jerry Burlison, Superintendent of Schools in Hickman County. He met with the teacher and suspended him for ten days without pay. It also reported a private apology the teacher made to the student and his family. But there is significantly more to this story . . .

On Feb. 25 a meeting took place between the teacher and the student's father. In that meeting, the teacher took responsibility for what had taken place, expressed sincere remorse for offending the fourteen-year-old young man, and expressed an anguished desire to set things right.

If only he could re-live that moment and take back the words, he lamented. Short of that impossibility, he wanted to apologize publicly to the student and his classmates for the intolerable thing he had said.

The father's principled response was to accept the teacher's apology and to disclaim any desire to humiliate him or damage his career. He wanted to come to the defense of his son, but he wanted no revenge. He wanted to solve a problem of frayed human relationships, not to create additional ones.

Principal Mark Bentley was present at the meeting and proposed a healing and redemptive solution.

On Monday Feb. 28, an assembly was held at Hickman County Middle School. The teacher in question made a speech rooted in American history and culture. He affirmed the obligation of people in a free society to treat one another with mutual respect and to use language about and to other people that reflects the Golden Rule.

He then acknowledged violating this fundamental principle of virtue and propriety. He invited the student against whom he had transgressed to the podium and apologized. As they shook hands before the entire eighth-grade student body, a student in the audience began applauding. Then all the students were applauding to affirm what they were witnessing. They rose to their feet and continued to clap their hands. By now some were also wiping their eyes.

A tense, deplorable, and potentially divisive situation had been defused by the responsible actions of ethical people. A father had defended his son without slandering or destroying the offender. A teenager had received justice in a context of responsible behavior and without shouts, threats, or courts being involved. A teacher had set a marvelous example of accountability, contrition, and integrity.

Beautiful flowers stand out all the more remarkably when they grow on vacant lots or in fields of weeds. And virtuous deeds are all the more conspicuous when they emerge from a context of insult and anger.

William Saroyan once wrote: "Good people are good because they've come to wisdom through failure." I think his words are an appropriate epitaph to what had all the makings of an ugly incident.

And now you know the rest of the story . . .

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