Painful Lessons

After graduating from Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College) and before becoming a “divine” at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, I taught high school English and Latin in Leesville, Louisiana. I hadn’t taken a single course in education, and I didn’t have a teaching certificate, but I convinced the School Superintendent of Vernon Parish that my double major in Classics and Philosophy would suffice.  Desperate to fill out his roster, the poor guy took me on as a utility player.  

That was back in 1974.  In its wisdom, the Louisiana Legislature had banned any form of sex education in the public schools.  Teachers were forbidden to mention the “S” word or to allow the topic to be discussed in their classrooms.  

That was OK with me.  I wasn’t much older than the seniors in my Latin class and, as much as they might welcome the diversion, my ninth-grade English students had plenty on their plates learning how to write a solid paragraph.  (My goal had been to teach them how to write a convincing essay, but I lowered my sights when I realized that several of them could barely read.)  Adding sex to the curriculum would have been a bridge too far.  

The principal at Leesville High took full advantage of having a single male teacher on his staff.  He assigned me to take up tickets at sports events, to serve as an umpire for girls’ softball games, and to drive the cheerleaders’ Volkswagen minibus to away games.  In these days of hyper vigilance, it’s hard to imagine assigning a young male teacher to such tasks, but that was Louisiana in the 1970’s.  Laissez les bons temps rouler – at least when it came to athletics. 

Back in the classroom, however, more than one Big Brother was watching. In addition to keeping the topic of sex out of the classroom, we teachers also had to make sure we didn’t offend the many students who belonged to conservative Christian denominations, among them Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Church of Christ.  Some students were not allowed to celebrate birthdays.  For others it was Christmas.  And depending on the topic, many students were forbidden to attend school assemblies. 

Innocent of any instruction in educational theory or practice that might have made me more cautious, I made it through that year without getting censored or fired.  I didn’t know enough at the time to fear irate parents or lawsuit-leery administrators.  I suppose you could say my naivete kept me safe.

If I were teaching these days, naivete wouldn’t cut it.  I’d have to avoid causing my students discomfort by discussing “divisive” concepts, such as slavery, racial discrimination, and the persistent influence of white supremacy.  A bill before the Florida Legislature (SB 148) declares that a student “should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.”  

God forbid that white students should feel “discomfort” hearing about slave-holding founding fathers or that black students should feel “anguish” when they view newsreels of the attack at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. 

I used to feel a twinge of “psychological distress” every time I mounted the pulpit at First Presbyterian and looked up at the galleries where enslaved human beings looked down on their “owners.”  

I certainly don’t want the children of any race to be paralyzed by “guilt” or “anguish” for what their forebears did or suffered, but I can’t imagine how anyone can become educated without experiencing at least some discomfort.  

Without pain there can be no enlightenment.