We have already read about the tragedy of Mary Thorson and the movie that sheds light on it. When I first heard about the movie, I figured that whoever did it must have had a reason. Then I learned that the filmmaker, Myra Richardson, had a deeply personal reason.
In many ways, Mary is an anagram for Myra. Her story, although thankfully not ending in suicide, is deeply disturbing in its own right. Like Mary Thorson, it is an instructive case of teacher bullying in the age of education reform.
The winter of 2002 was before the nationwide charter school wave had taken effect. There were a few urban locales at the time that served as laboratories for chartering, especially Arne Duncan’s home base of Chicago. Myra Richardson was working at a Chicago charter called Sullivan House at the time.
Sullivan House served high school students from Chicago’s South Side, one of the most impoverished areas in the country. As a lifelong resident of Chicago and Chicago’s vibrant black community, Myra took a personal interest in her students. She was a popular teacher due to her dedication both inside and outside of the classroom. If a student needed extra help, she tutored them. If they needed breakfast, she fed them. If they needed shoes, she bought them. Like Mary Thorson, Myra considered the children in her class her babies.
Little did she know that she was not the type of teacher valued by the overlords of the education reform movement. Arne Duncan was in his second year as CEO of Chicago Public Schools at the time. His “Chicago Miracle” entailed firing veteran teachers. Female teachers of color like Myra were disproportionately terminated under his watch. The movement Duncan represented, and continues to represent, values low-paid suburbanite transplants as inner-city teachers over knowledgeable fixtures of the community. It was the perfect workforce for hedge fund managers and bankers with an eye on chartering Chicago’s school system.
Hence, Myra was caught in a perfect storm. She was the wrong type of teacher at the wrong time in the wrong type of school. Many of her coworkers and administrators, the ones who were the “right” type of educators in the burgeoning age of school reform, did not understand Myra’s methods. On top of that, she was wrapping up her second year at Sullivan House. She threatened to become a permanent presence in a school that thrives on transient workers.
The principal, Lynn Nuzzo, knew exactly the type of school she was running. Charter school teachers, in 2002 as now, have no union, no due process, no rights. She decided to take advantage of this by doing something that was going to derail not only Myra’s career, but her entire life. It is the perfect argument in favor of granting teachers workplace protections.
Nuzzo pulled a 16-year-old girl in Myra’s class aside, a student who had benefited from Myra’s dedication and largesse, and tried to get her to lie. The principal then spread this lie to the other students in Myra’s class. It was the worst type of lie one could spread about a teacher, or anyone else for that matter. The principal was saying that Myra had molested the 16-year-old girl. Students in Myra’s class started mistrusting her and asking her why. After two weeks of the principal’s machinations, she presented Myra with the non-choice of resigning voluntarily or being terminated on the spot.
Without a union, Myra had no rights and nobody to advise her on how to fight back against these lies. She only had two choices. Seeing as how she was innocent and had no reason to resign, Myra was terminated. She received a final paycheck, a glowing letter of recommendation from Sullivan House and an escort out of the building under the darkest pall that could ever be cast upon a teacher.
As any teacher who has been bullied knows, the accusation is the start of a long fight to retain one’s livelihood and reputation. Myra filed a defamation lawsuit against Sullivan House in August of 2002.
Sullivan House’s defense in this lawsuit was, ironically, Myra’s defense from their accusation: nothing ever happened. Sullivan House claimed they never accused her of anything. The absence of any criminal charges or parental complaint was their proof that no child molestation accusations had taken place. This is exactly what Myra had provided to everyone, her lawyers and family included, as proof that she had never laid a hand on a child. A tragic instance of teacher bullying had descended into the realm of the surreal.
Throughout the lawsuit, Sullivan House claimed that Myra was mentally disturbed and was making up the story for attention. She was spending her every waking moment to clear her name from an accusation that never happened. It was an untenable position. This is why they ultimately ended up offering her a settlement in the defamation case.
But Myra was not out for money. She wanted her day in court and for it to be on the public record that she was not guilty of the sins of which she had indeed been accused. This is when the story took its next surreal turn.
Chicago has always had the reputation of being a big city of corruption. It was the city of Al Capone and those political gangsters, the Daley family. They control one of the most effective and enduring political machines in American history. It just so happened that Myra’s case was being heard in the Richard J. Daley center under Judge Bill Taylor. Myra’s lawyers, Kevin Besetzny and Daniel J. Stohr, knew that Myra wanted her day in court. They were determined to not let that happen.
What happened or what was discussed in that room in 2006 with Judge Taylor and Myra’s lawyers could never be known for sure, although these court documents go a long way towards an explanation. Up until that point, Besetzny and Stohr had spent nearly half a million dollars on fighting this case, which they took on contingency. Yet, for some reason, on a day that Myra was not there, her signature magically appeared on a settlement agreement with Sullivan House for $17,000. Judge Taylor issued a court order for Myra’s lawyers to sign the checks. The case was over.
And why would two lawyers who had spent nearly half a million dollars settle for $17,000? It is a question that answers itself. We can never know for sure what was discussed in that room between the judge and the lawyers, but chances are it involved many more zeroes than 17,000.
Myra’s is not an encouraging story for those teachers who go to the courts in search of justice. Her long fight to clear her name ended in disillusionment. Seeing as how she could not find satisfaction via the system, she wrote a book and then did a documentary about her horror story. These were the only avenues of justice she had left.
The final bit of irony is how Myra continues to be affected by what happened in Sullivan House in 2002. Her lawsuit, book, movie and websites have all made the accusation of child molestation a matter of public record. Any Google search or background check will turn up her name in conjunction with the sordid accusation. It is as if she is really part of the sex offender registry. It has prevented her from getting teaching jobs or making any kind of living at all. Like Christine Rubino, she is the mother of two children. If Myra would have left Sullivan House quietly with her letter of recommendation, she could have probably been in a teaching position right now. However, as with most teachers, her good name was the most important thing of all. Her quest to clear it ended up unjustly mucking it up in the public eye.
It has also prevented her from fully exploring the possibilities of the movie she made for Mary Thorson. Teachers who follow the blogosphere know about Mary Thorson and they also know that a movie has been released documenting her tragedy. Along with The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, it is probably the most important documentary a teacher can see. That is why it was scheduled to be shown at the start of the upcoming Save Our Schools convention in Washington, D.C.
Yet, when the SOS committee found out about Myra’s tragedy, they pulled the plug on the movie. Myra herself was originally invited to introduce the film, an invitation that has since been rescinded. While I respect SOS’s need to protect themselves and their fledgling movement, I am saddened by what seems to be a blind spot in the overall campaign to fight against education reform.
If my experience as a chapter leader and now blogger has taught me anything, it is that the bullying of educators is an integral part of the education reform movement. I do not mean teacher bashing, which is generalized and hurts all of us directly. I am talking about the targeting of individual teachers by either school administrators or school districts. I am talking about false or embellished accusations designed to deprive individual teachers of their livelihoods. Every time a teacher is wrongly accused or unfairly terminated, the entire profession is weakened and dishonored. What happens to one of us happens to us all.
Unfortunately, I have seen too many teachers willing to throw their colleagues under the bus by refusing to support those teachers who are in trouble. It ranges from the indifference most teachers within a school building show when one of their colleagues is reassigned for a frivolous accusation all the way up to what SOS did with Myra and Mary Thorson’s film. By refusing to help or be associated with a teacher in crisis, we help the bullies to accomplish their goal of destroying lives, careers and reputations.
And if you ever wanted to bust a union, engendering callousness and distrust among its members is a great way to do it. With that type of attitude, a union can never be a bastion of solidarity.
The system is not designed to weed out the truly incompetent or, more rarely, the truly dangerous teachers in our schools. As with Sullivan House, it is designed to weed out the teachers in it for the long haul, those who take an active and compassionate interest in the lives of their students. The longer we allow the bullies to get their way by treating the victims as persona non grata, the longer we allow the truly incompetent and dangerous teachers to survive in the system.
Myra’s case is a prime example of this. Since 2002, she has faced a long train of suffering due to a false and vicious accusation. As teachers, we can defend ourselves from the bashing we get in the media. However, it is much tougher to defend ourselves from a false or frivolous accusation. Save Our Schools, I fear, is out of touch in this regard. It is a shame, because what happened to Mary and Myra has and is probably happening to many teachers who will be in attendance at the conference. It will continue to happen until we take an active and fearless stand against it.
Growing up, those kids who bullied others in the schoolyard stamped their victims with the label of being a coward. It then made it easier for others to bully that same victim. “Oh, that kid is a punk, he deserves to be picked on.” In schoolyard politics, labeling people was the first step towards doing them harm. If your schoolmate is a punk, they are not a human and, therefore, fair game. The sad thing is that, in teacher bullying, the same dynamic is at work.
Like the victim in the schoolyard, Myra is a label. She is fair game to be accorded less respect than the average human being. To SOS, she is a liability, much like being seen hanging out with the victim in the schoolyard makes one a victim by association. Like kids at the cool table in the cafeteria, SOS will not allow Myra to sit with them. The principal that bullied Myra 10 years ago is affirmed every time someone rejects Myra due to the accusation. The whole epidemic of teacher bullying is affirmed when c0lleagues shun those who have been victimized.
Myra is innocent, much like Mary Thorson was innocent. Like Mary, the only thing of which she was guilty was dedicating herself to a career she loved, and of refusing to play the corrupt game of education reform. Mary gave her life because she understood that the bullying of teachers was ingrained in the system. She gave her life for teachers like Myra. Myra and Mary are anagrams.
Despite SOS’ complicity in the regime of teacher bullying, the film will catch on. It will catch on because the message resonates with teachers everywhere. Sadly, most bullied teachers I have spoken with have mentioned suicide. I will venture a guess that many teachers who will attend this year’s SOS conference have been in a similar place.
It is a shame that SOS is on the wrong side of this issue. Part of saving our schools means putting an end to bullying in our schools no matter who the victims are. Putting an end to bullying means acting in a way that makes the bullying regime unsustainable. It means treating people with compassion, love, humanity and understanding, which are values anathema to bullying and the entire regime of education reform it serves.