Readers of this blog should be familiar with the story of Mary Thorson. She is the Illinois physical education teacher who took her own life on Thanksgiving Day, 2011. As the film Dying to Teach shows, as well as the piece I wrote last year entitled The Killing of Mary Thorson, Mary’s suicide was an outgrowth of harassment she faced at her school. Her harassment came not from the students she loved but from administrators who seemed bent on making her life a living hell.
Her family and friends have been devastated by the loss. While nothing will bring Mary back, some compensation might lie in exposing the circumstances behind what drove Mary to suicide. In this age of education deform, the systematic harassment of teachers is widespread. There are no accurate statistics on the rate of teacher suicides across the country. The best Mary’s loved ones could hope for, and the best anyone who dares to dedicate their lives to teaching could hope for, is to call attention to her story as a way of shedding light on what is happening in our public schools. Indeed, if the responses to my piece regarding the offensive math questions is any indication, teachers have not seen such a hostile environment since the day Socrates was forced to drink hemlock. Any teacher worth their salt knows exactly what drove Mary to such depression.
The first step was when Myra Richardson made the film Dying to Teach. Things improved when, at the last minute, I was invited to Washington, D.C. to give a short speech introducing the film at the annual Save Our Schools conference.These things, combined with my modest article, were small steps in calling attention to Mary’s story.
It has been a struggle ever since to get a major media outlet to really dig deep into the events leading up to Mary’s death. Then, not too long ago, a breakthrough occurred when CBS reporter Pamela Jones of Chicago started to take an interest in Mary’s story.
Ms. Jones saw Myra Richardson’s film, spoke to Mary’s parents and, by all accounts, wanted to give some honest coverage to this tragedy. She went to Mary’s school, Cottage Grove Middle School in Ford Heights, Illinois, to speak with the superintendent, Dr. Gregory Jackson. As we might recall, it was Dr. Jackson’s actions that seemingly played the major role in the misery Mary faced at work on a daily basis.
However, Ms. Jones was greeted with an unpleasant surprise when she arrived at the school. Nobody would grant her an interview: not a teacher, not a secretary, not a principal and certainly not Dr. Jackson. Instead, she was intercepted by someone speaking legalese who warned her to back off lest people’s jobs be endangered. Whose jobs would be endangered and why remains a mystery, although we can take a few guesses.
For my part, I find the actions of Cottage Grove Middle School to be bizarre to say the least. After all, they lost a member of their community, someone who, by all accounts, was loved and respected by her students. Regardless of Mary’s standing at the school at the time, what happened was a tragedy for them. The very least they could have done was to make a brief statement about how the loss of Mary Thorson devastated both students and staff.
This is what someone with a heart might expect anyway. However, as we know, school districts are not places with heart. They are cold, inefficient bureaucracies. They become even more so when they have something to hide. This seems like the most logical explanation for the cold shoulder received by Ms. Jones.
If she was not going to be able to get anything out of the school district, Ms. Jones was at least going to speak with Mary’s parents. She invited the Thorsons, who live in Indiana, to make the 5-hour drive over the border into Chicago for an interview. The Thorsons arrived, gave their heartfelt side of the story and Ms. Jones then spliced pieces of the interview with clips from Myra Richardson’s movie. It was supposed to air that very evening.
The key word is supposed to. At the last minute, Ms. Jones was told by an angry editor that the piece was not going to air. All of Ms. Jones’ legwork, all of the Thorsons’ time and emotional energy, was wasted for no good reason. There still has been no explanation for why her editor nixed the piece.
Perhaps the editor was worried about painting Dr. Jackson and the school district in a bad light, opening them up to a defamation lawsuit?
Perhaps, just like here in New York City, the media was afraid of upsetting the school district and, therefore, losing their privileged “access” to information and future scoops.
As someone who knows his fair share of reporters in the Tri-State area, this seems to be the number one concern of those working the education beat here. No matter what the issue is, or where the truth lies, their number one concern is not to alienate those with power within the school district. That is why sensationalized stories about teachers are rampant, the same types of stories about administrators are less rampant and stories about the educational malpractice practiced by Bloomberg, Walcott and Tweed is barely covered at all.
We can only speculate as to why CBS Chicago pulled the plug on the story. We can only speculate as to why Cottage Grove was so silent about the death of one of their own. What we do not have to speculate over is how difficult it is for teachers to get a fair hearing in the media. The Killing of Mary Thorson, much like the killing of Rigoberto Ruelas, is not an isolated incident. They are symptoms of a much deeper problem. These tragedies were outgrowths of the same environment that led to the termination of Christine Rubino and the hateful comments left by the supporters of Aziza Harding.
America hates teachers because America hates learning. How can anyone who tries to instill ideas in the next generation stand a chance in this country that brought us Fox News and reality television?
America hates teachers because America hates unions. How can a nation of workers, most of whom are vastly underpaid, hate unions so much? It is because we also hate learning. We do not see how attacking one group of workers leads to attacks on all workers. We do not see it because we do not know how to think.
America hates teachers because Americans hate taking responsibility for things. Why hold ourselves accountable for rearing our children or alleviating poverty if we can just pass it all off on teachers?
The battle to shed real light on the true story surrounding Mary Thorson’s murder continues. Mary’s parents will never give up. Mary’s loved ones will never give up. Myra Richardson will never give up. As long as eyes are on this website, I will never give up. I sincerely hope that Pamela Jones of CBS will not give up either. Her heart is in the right place. Even though she has been temporarily cowed by her bosses at CBS she is in the right and, I like to think, the right always triumphs in the long run.
The Killing of Mary Thorson is a tragic microcosm of the killing of our public schools, the killing of the next generation, the killing of the working class and the killing of our nation. This mass murder is taking place at the behest of very powerful and very wealthy interests who wish to subjugate the rest of us under the boot of unaccountable private power.
We can only fight back against this with enlightenment and education. We can enlighten others on an individual basis everyday. We can also hope to enlighten by getting the media spotlight for a split second and, like a bolt of lightning, illuminate the darkness around us ever-so-briefly.
The struggle of the Thorson family is our struggle. Together we can ensure that Mary Thorson was not killed in vain.