I write this with the permission of my son, Andrew. I write this with his support and his editorial oversight. I write this with tears in my eyes. Two stories about verbally abusive teachers have come to light in the past few days and they have stirred up memories I thought I had successfully repressed.
The first of the recent stories is about Cheyenne, a 14-year-old special needs student from Ohio.
As a young child Cheyenne loved school, but over the past couple of years she had begun to complain about being bullied. Her parents had braced themselves for this. Kids are not always kind to peers with disabilities. To their surprise, however, Cheyenne's peers were not responsible for the bullying or for Cheyenne's dread of the classroom. Rather, their daughter had been tormented for three years by her two teachers, Christy Wilt and Kelly Chaffins. The daily ridicule eventually became so bad that Cheyenne began to harm herself to avoid going to school.
Cheyenne's parents confronted the teachers, who (not surprisingly) denied the allegations by calling Cheyenne a liar. Next they approached the principal, who (not surprisingly again) defended the teachers. Frustrated and overwrought, Cheyenne's father wired her with a tape recording device before sending her to school one day. The audiotape that came home with his daughter confirmed his worst fears.
"Cheyenne, are you kidding me? Are you that dumb? Oh my God, you are that dumb!
Cheyenne, don't you want to do something to get rid of that belly? Well, evidently you don't because you don't do anything at home. You sit at home and watch TV. " And there was more. "I'm not going to bother grading this test because I know you failed."
Since the release of the audio, Chaffins has resigned. Wilt is still teaching after taking an 8-hour class on stopping child abuse. Cheyenne's parents have successfully sued the school, and have received $300,000 in damages. Those poor parents don't yet know what those damages could be. I do.
In New Jersey, teacher Stephen Roth, was unaware that his 15 year-old student, Julio Artuz was videotaping him on a cellphone. I watched the video. Roth called Artuz, who suffers from ADHD and emotional problems, a "tard." When Artuz asked Roth to stop calling him special, the response he got was "You want me to call you normal and you don't even know what it is! Who cares that you're special? Nobody dude. I will kick your ass from here to kingdom come until I'm 80 years old. You'll never be able to beat me, dude."
Roth is on paid administrative leave. I know about that too.
My 26 year-old son Andrew, is smart as a whip, but ADHD and learning disabilities prevented him from shining academically. His best teachers were somewhat unkind...the worst of them were nightmares. Andrew learns by doing, but hands-on education is not what our school system is built upon. We continue to rely upon centuries-old methods of "read, memorize, and spit out on a test." More than one teacher insulted Andrew's intelligence during his formative years, but the worst was an eighth grade science teacher who displayed one of my son's written reports in front of the class and announced that Andrew's report was the worst he had ever seen and that Andrew would never amount to anything as a grownup. He even used the "s" word. He called my son stupid in front of his peers. That was the day it all began.
We had sent Andrew to this private school thinking he would receive kinder, more individualized instruction there than he had received in an enormous public school. Shame on us for our snobbism.
I remember sitting in the headmaster's office, sobbing and shrinking into a tiny ball in a huge plaid wing chair. I'm 5'9" tall. It takes a lot for me to shrink into a tiny ball. The teacher was relieved of his duties in the classroom, but was allowed to keep his after school coaching job. I suppose part of becoming an athlete is learning to cope with abuse. We didn't sue. We didn't get $300,000. Even if we had, it would not have covered the damages. Not by a mile.
That day, Andrew decided to believe he was stupid. Why not? He had certainly been insulted in this way often enough by people who are supposed to know things about kids' intelligence. He decided the chances of ever being recognized for doing something smart or good were nil, so he might as well get attention for being a rebel. He was well suited to the task.
Practically overnight we watched our son turn from an athletic, engaging, hysterically funny boy, into a morose, self-destructive sloth. He was arrested at 15 for smoking a joint and having a glove compartment full of marijuana. I wish pot had been the only drug he enjoyed. For three years I rarely knew where my son was or what he was doing. Cellphone technology made it easy for him to lie about his whereabouts. As long as he answered when I called, I knew he was still alive and I was thankful for that much. He got into numerous fistfights over nothing in particular. He dropped the friends he had played soccer and baseball with, and took up with slovenly, disrespectful kids who enjoyed rebellion as much as he did. His best friend, Brian, high on drugs, shot himself in the head senior year. Andrew saw Brian's brains splattered across his bedroom walls.
We tried everything...grounding him, sending him to a stream of psychologists in hopes that one of them might be able to relate to him. We subjected him to random drug tests. He called me a Nazi. I practically did all of his homework for him so he could at least graduate from high school. College was out of the question. Andrew says all of this occurred because teachers called him stupid. Teachers called him stupid, and he decided to prove them right.
Today we look upon those years as nothing more than a very sad chapter in our otherwise blessed lives. One day, one minute, Andrew stopped acting out. Just as precipitously as he turned rebellious, he transformed himself back into the Andrew I knew as a child. We've never been closer to each other. He is pleasant and funny and back into sports. Without a college degree, he landed a job in New York City that unemployed college-educated men his age would give their eyeteeth for. He dropped the bad friends, two of whom are addicts now. He lives a healthy, drug-free lifestyle. He is going to be a big brother to an underprivileged boy in the city. He adores his family. We are blessed beyond words.
Andrew is the one who alerted me to the news of Cheyenne and Julio. He is furious...so angry that for the first time he is willing, even eager for me to write about him. He would like to tell those innocent children they are not stupid simply because they don't do well in school. I would like to tell their parents I feel their pain. I would like to impress upon those teachers the fact that they hold children's lives in the balance. They hold whole families' lives in the balance. I would like to tell them they must be really stupid to not understand the power of the word "stupid."