A teacher's professional portfolio is slim. Our prospectuses are built on our reputations, with the table of contents including our subject knowledge and our motivational, managerial and interpersonal skills. When that reputation is unfairly called into question, some teachers can't take the blow. Given the choice between life with an unfairly sullied reputation and death, one teacher chose death. Suicide.
I never met Ron Mayfield Jr. I do know that he threw himself from a bridge span 200 feet over the Blue River in Virginia, distraught over an unsubstantiated accusation of assaulting a student. The fact that news hadn't reached him that he had been exonerated doesn't make this story any easier to write. A teacher's reputation, our standing with children, the faith given us as protectors as well as educators, cannot be called into question without emotional fallout.
We touch kids. This is not a trade secret. In elementary school, we pat kids on the head or on the shoulders to show acknowledgement for a good deed or signal that something's going to be OK ... a lunch left at home, a low test score, a falling out with a best friend. We may even put the same hands on shoulders to emphasize our displeasure with an unsocial act, a bullying act or to forestall a self-destructive act. Certainly there needs to be clear understanding of appropriate and inappropriate touching. We teachers also tell kids to speak out if they get an unwanted touch, even if it's our touch on their shoulders or heads.
Not every teacher successfully manages the boundaries of touch. Mayfield, though, knew he was innocent of an assault charge after he touched a disruptive male student on the chest to make a point about the student's poor behavior. But he'd watched enough television to believe that no matter what, he would soon be front-page news, his reputation called into question, his family life deprivatized. He envisioned a tabloid future, the whispers of his innocence outshouted by the accusatory headlines he imagined would follow. He couldn't cope. He killed himself. He stilled a voice that ironically for 11 years had been teaching non-native youngsters how to speak English.
What is your reputation worth to you? How long would it take for the wounds of an unfair accusation heal? Would your attitude toward your job ever be the same? I doubt it.
We live in a world defined by scandal, and no institution or individual is exempt ... the mighty Fidelity Investments, the Roman Catholic Church, Martha Stewart, George Bush, John Kerry ... and down-to-earth regulars like Ron Mayfield Jr. The news of exoneration, when and if due, is never printed in font as large as the charge of accusation.
Listen to our interactions with our students any day of the week, and, woven between the lessons about decimals and fractions, you'll hear teachers talk about what really matters to us: pride in the work effort and its product; and respect and tolerance for classmates of different color, shape, sex and orientation. No name calling, no bullying, no belittling, by either children or adults. The great majority of us practice what we preach.
Much of that work goes unnoticed. We can't slide it into a portfolio to show parents, it's not measured on standardized tests and it's probably not as universally valued in classrooms as it should be. But most teachers believe that's part of our job, that's why we got into the business. Whether we articulate it or not, most teachers are political with a lower case p. We believe that from our launching site in our 30-by-30-foot squares of desk-dotted turf, we can influence the ultimate outcome: the quality of life in America, and civility in the democratic process and the national dialogue. It's that simple.
So, when one of us is unfairly accused of touching or of assault, it stings all of us. It makes us all feel more vulnerable to unfair attack. It makes us think about the prospect of conducting an elementary school classroom without touch of any sort. That would be a loss.
Our touch is to comfort, to acknowledge and to affirm. And it is not inappropriate. Our reputations depend on that.
Paul Tamburello is a writer and teacher who has taught in Brookline since 1970.