There is a new documentary out that every teacher, parent, student and concerned citizen needs to watch. It is called Dying to Teach: The Killing of Mary Eve Thorson. Mary Thorson has been mentioned here before. She was the Illinois middle school teacher who committed suicide by standing in the path of an oncoming semi on Thanksgiving Day, 2011. She was only 32 years old.
The filmmaker, Myra Richardson, is herself a former Illinois school teacher whose career fell victim to the machinations of education reform. The film for Ms. Richardson has been a labor of love; love for Mary Thorson, a teacher she did not know personally but with whom she has a kinship nonetheless. Upon hearing the story of Mary Thorson, I too felt a kinship with her. I sense that most of us who teach for a living cannot help but identify with her tragic story.
Mary Thorson was blessed with many gifts, including natural athleticism. This was one of the reasons why she decided to become a teacher of physical education. Before that she enlisted in the United States Army Reserves, knowing full well our country was gearing up for the War on Terror at the time. She found herself in El Salvador and was awarded medals for opening up schools there. These facts demonstrate that Mary was motivated by an abiding civic spirit. Whether it was serving her country, the children of her country or the children of other countries, Mary Thorson found ways to exist for the benefit of humankind.
Yet, we know that teachers of Mary’s stripe are not welcomed by the current overlords of the education system.
While serving in the Army Reserves, Mary attained her certification to become a physical education teacher. She eventually landed a job at Cottage Grove Middle School in Ford Heights, Illinois within school district 169. For part of the school year she coached the girls’ basketball team. Like most teachers, Mary spent a good portion of her salary on materials for her students. Children, especially children of middle school age, instinctively know when an adult is working from a noble plane. So it was with Mary, and her students recognized and respected her for it.
It was Mary’s misfortunate to be working in a school district run by Superintendent Dr. Gregory T. Jackson. Unlike superintendents here in the big city, Dr. Jackson was a frequent presence in Cottage Grove Middle School. In New York City, superintendents tend to be more evanescent than real. Teachers might run into them by chance once every few years. Rarely do they ever deign to speak to us peasant classroom teachers.
Not so for Dr. Jackson. He is intimately involved with the day-to-day operations of Cottage Grove. It is clear that he loves the teachers that work in his district. By love, we mean he loves to intimidate and harass them. Teachers here in NYC have to settle for harassment from their principal or, worse, an assistant principal. But the teachers out in Ford Heights, Illinois have the privilege of being harassed by the superintendent himself. Yelling is one of his preferred methods of communication. Any school administrator worth their salt knows that yelling at a teacher not does count unless you yell at them in front of their students. This Dr. Jackson does with relish. He knows that, in our current era of education reform, students must be made to understand that their teachers are low-level schlubs, not role models. Nothing accomplishes this better than public humiliation.
However, Mary Thorson was a special type of teacher, which prompted Dr. Jackson to bring out the heavy artillery. It started when Dr. Jackson demanded of Mary that she change the grades of many of her students. Under our current education regime, administrators only demand changes in one direction: up. He wanted Mary to give passing grades to students that had clearly not earned it. To Dr. Jackson, whether or not students earned a passing grade was immaterial. The only thing that matters is that students pass. Passing students means the school is doing well, meaning that they will continue to receive funding, meaning that Dr. Jackson gets to keep his very high-salaried job.
This is why Dr. Jackson is an administrator, not an educator. An educator, someone like Mary Thorson, would look at failing grades and ask “how can I help teach my students the things that will help them pass next time?” An administrator like Dr. Jackson asks, “how hard will I have to squeeze in order to get teachers to pass everyone?” To educators, students are people. To administrators like Dr. Jackson, students are data. Like most data, it is meant to be fudged, nudged, and budged in ways that make him look good. Data must paint a rosy picture not only so that he might keep his job, but that the politicians and educrats for whom he lickspittles can make speeches about how their reforms are working.
This is the Wall Street philosophy of education. Create fake numbers out of thin air. Make everyone think they have value. Then sell that bill of goods to suckers in the general public. Nobody will ever be the wiser unless, of course, it comes time to pay. For Wall Street, that was when AIG woke up one day with a billion dollar hole. For schools, it is when the students they certify as graduates go on to be functional illiterates. In either case, the perpetrators will be long gone: Wall Streeters with their giant bailouts, administrators with their advancement up the bureaucratic ladder.
Mary knew all of this. She refused to help create the next crop of functional illiterates, or whatever the physical education equivalent of a functional illiterate might be. It was going to take more than the familiar Dr. Jackson method of yelling to get Mary to play ball.
It was at this point when Dr. Jackson got the opening he needed. One day, a parent called into Cottage Grove to complain that Mary Thorson had hit her child. Mary, knowing she had done no such thing, explained that the “assault” she had perpetrated took place in the context of PE horseplay. It did not matter. Dr. Jackson’s District 169’s brand of due process called for Mary to be suspended without pay.
Mary Thorson, the teacher of almost a decade, found herself traveling the road that so many strong-willed veteran teachers across the country travel in the age of education reform. One day she is waking up in the morning to make a living doing the job she loves. The next morning, she is waking up without the ability to make a living or pursue her love. The ringing of a phone, the signing of a paper, the snap of a finger is all that it takes. Maybe if Mary had played ball, maybe if she cared just a little less or compromised a little more, Dr. Jackson would make the problem go away.
For someone like Mary, a woman whose entire life was a pursuit of the humane and good, to be unable to render the service you carry out so well is nothing short of torture. Worse than the fact that she could not make the rent was that pall, that accusation, that hung over her head. Talk to any dedicated teacher that has had to face an investigation and chances are they will say the same. A teacher’s reputation is everything. They are accustomed to landlords, store owners and neighbors according them a level of trust that says that they are a member of good standing within the community. The public entrusts their children with them. To go from that to the drawn-out, bureaucratic nightmare that follows an accusation is to go from due north to due south on a dime. For many teachers who have reached that point, it does not matter if they wind up exonerated or not. They have already lost it all.
And so it was for Mary Thorson.
The one bright spot was that the school community knew the type of teacher Mary was. There was no way she would assault any child. The fear among her students that a special teacher was going to go out on her ear caused an outpouring of support. It made its way all the way back to the parents that leveled the accusation. They wrote a letter to Dr. Jackson explaining they knew that Mary was right when she contended that the alleged assault was nothing more than PE horseplay. Mary Eve Thorson did not deserve to lose her career. Please Dr. Jackson, put an end to her nightmare and let her teach again.
In response, Dr. Jackson, ever the magnanimous soul, restored Mary’s pay while keeping her on suspension. This was no victory for Mary. It was the teaching, the coaching, the children from which she was being separated which was causing her existential crisis. She would have rather returned to work without pay than be returned to pay without work.
But Dr. Jackson’s final sadistic flourish took place on the eve of Thanksgiving break. School administrators know that one of the cruelest things they can do is send a teacher a memo right before a long holiday break saying they wish to have an important discussion regarding their career after the break is over. It ensures that the teacher will be consumed with fear in the days school is out of session. While loved ones are supposed to gather and celebrate during these times, the families of these teachers will notice the long face, the bags under the eyes, the one-word responses to questions, the faraway countenance of the teacher in the family. Loved ones might be able to sympathize with such misery, but they cannot empathize. Only another teacher can empathize.
This is exactly the place in which Mary Eve Thorson found herself in the days leading up to that fateful Thanksgiving Day. She was given the memo and told to enjoy her holiday.
The plan was for Mary to be with her parents on Thanksgiving Eve. But she called them and said she was going to wait until Thanksgiving Day instead.
Thanksgiving rolled around. Mary stockpiled on her bed all of the paperwork associated with the fatal accusation. She penned a note, then headed out to her car. She was to drive just over Illinois’ eastern border into Indiana, a state known as the literal crossroads of the United States. It is where many of the country’s superhighways intersect. You can choose a road and go anywhere in the country. Cars zoom through Indiana on their way to their destinations, as do the trucks that carry out much of the nation’s commerce.
Mary Thorson pulled her car over to the shoulder. She opened the door of the steel pod that had been acting as a barrier between her body and the speeding traffic of Indiana’s highways. Her two feet stepped onto the road designed strictly for rolling rubber. An oncoming truck. Mary stepped into its path. The truck driver swerved to avoid her. Mary swerved in the same direction. It was over.
Mary’s final note could have been written by any teacher in the United States. The children that she had taught for almost 10 years were so clearly flesh and blood human beings. Yet, the lords of the education system insisted that they were data. She had tried to explain this many times to no avail. The powers that be, the people that could determine whether or not Mary taught, made it clear that children were numbers on a paper. They were to be fudged, nudged and budged on a whim. What those numbers represented, whether they were accurate or useful, did not matter.
Why was it like this? In her final note, Mary said it comes down to money. Good numbers meant good money. Even bad numbers meant good money. So many people have their hands in the education till: administrators, data companies, test publishers and politicians. If children could no longer be reduced to data, the money train stops and all of these interests would be slightly less wealthy. The educrats would never tolerate this. Education, Mary Thorson says, is a business in America. Children are the widgets. Mary Thorson lets it be known that, counter to the self-righteous wisdom of our esteemed educrats, children are not widgets. They are her babies.
And why are the Dr. Jacksons, the Pearsons, the Bloombergs, the Rhees, the Rahm Emmanuels of the world able to perpetrate such a heinous crime? Because the people who could stop it, the people who have a front row seat to the huckster’s ruse, are being silenced. Those people are the teachers. Through union breaking, through the empowerment of administrators, through media bashing, through rigged legislation, through harassment and intimidation, teachers are being told in so many words to shut up and go along with the whole thing. They are being forced to play ball against the better angels of their nature. There is no room for teachers to be humane, to provide a truly humanistic education whose value is unquantifiable in numbers. Those that try are spit out of the machine either by out-and-out firing or creative methods of subtle psychological torture.
As the title of the movie suggests, Mary Eve Thorson was killed. Like so many of us who teach, she was being killed slowly everyday by a rotten, autocratic regime that cloaks itself in the benign garb of providing an education to children. Mary Thorson’s story, her tragedy, is the tragedy of millions of caring teachers from Anchorage to Atlanta, from Bakersfield to Bangor. What is extraordinary is not that Mary Thorson died for the sake of teaching, but that more such teachers have not taken the same route given the times in which we are living.
Mary Thorson said she did not want her murder to go in vain. Mary’s father, John Thorson, is determined as well. He has an online petition against teacher bullying that everyone should sign.
Furthermore, if you would like a copy of Dying to Teach: The Killing of Mary Thorson you can contact Myra Richardson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations can be made via that address as well. All funds will go to Mary’s family, as well as to the foundation that will be founded in Mary’s memory at the start of August.
Rest in Peace Mary. We are determined that you shall not die in vain.