Careful the Things You Say; Children Will Listen

Stephen Sondheim couldn’t have been more accurate with the above lyrics from his Tony Award-winning musical Into the Woods. Any parent can corroborate the truth behind this statement. I only have to walk past my seven-year-old daughter’s room to hear her send her doll Elena to dreamland by saying, “Goodnight, my gorgeous girl” (my nightly send-off for her). I might also hear her say to her five-year-old brother, “I love you too much to argue”- a phrase they both hear from their dads quite frequently. Since their brains are sponges that absorb everything that happens around them, I have to always be aware of what I am saying and how I am saying it.

Sondheim’s lyrics go beyond words and extend to actions when he writes: “Careful the things you do. Children will see and learn.” I am writing this post on March 22, 2017, which happens to be Mr. Sondheim’s 87th birthday. Recent local and national news items have placed this song in my head on repeat because I am very fearful about what we are encouraging within our kiddos.

Five days ago, it was made public that my childhood school district settled a sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation lawsuit filed by a former principal against the district and the superintendent for $500,000. Half a million dollars. I should point out that this is a district with a total student enrollment of 1765 in 2016, 62.1% of whom were eligible for free or reduced lunch. Point being, this is an extremely large sum of money for this community. The articles here and here can provide some background information. The condensed version is that the superintendent Michael Mason was accused of sexual harassment in the form of text messages, innuendo, and an instance where he inappropriately commanded that the victim stand up and turn around, and then he lifted her shirt up to her mid-back. After the victim made this incident known, the lawsuit states that she was retaliated against in many ways.

The district is saying that they can’t comment because it is a personnel matter. For a district that size to settle for half a million dollars, it is obvious that they believed that Michael Mason engaged in inappropriate behavior. However, the amazing part is that the victim was forced to resign as part of the settlement while Michael Mason was renewed as superintendent. His renewal was conveniently made official two days before the settlement was made public. I repeat, the female victim was forced out; the male aggressor was renewed.

“Careful the things you do; children will see and learn.” What was learned in this instance? What message was sent to the female staff and students of Reeds Spring? Further, what message was sent to the male staff and students? I can’t imagine that for either population the message is one of mutual respect or personal accountability.

I would be remiss if I didn’t disclose that I have had my own personal experiences with Michael Mason as my teacher and my principal. When I was in high school and experienced bullying due to my sexual orientation, I was frequently told by my assistant principal, Mr. Mason, that I needed to “man up” and “not take things so personal.” A few years later as principal, he also provided me with my first experience with blatant discrimination. My sophomore year of college, I was asked by my old choral director to help chaperone the high school choir’s trip to Florida. However, late one night I received a phone call from her that will always be etched in my mind. She explained that Mr. Mason informed her that I couldn’t chaperone the trip because my lifestyle set a bad example; he didn’t think I should be around the students. It broke her heart, but I couldn’t go.

I hung up the phone and immediately called my mom. At this point in our relationship, she was still experiencing her own struggles with accepting that I was gay, but at that moment it didn’t matter. Her child was hurting. She listened while I cried and cried. We are talking unintelligible sobs. That will always be the night when the last of my childhood innocence died, and I realized exactly what bigotry felt like.

Mr. Mason, what about your example? What example did your words and actions set for the students you are charged with leading and shaping into “life-long learners and productive, informed citizens” (from the district’s mission statement)? What information did this situation, from the actual harassment to the settlement outcome, provide to the kids in your buildings?

Haley Smith, a friend, former classmate, and fellow Reeds Spring graduate, recently began a social media campaign to hold Michael Mason accountable for his actions. In her post, she writes:

“I NEED YOUR HELP!

My daughter is 2, and I'm already prepping myself for the inevitable. The day I have to hear her tell me that a man has flexed his privilege and harassed or intimidated her. It's the kind of (unwanted) bond shared by moms and daughters, women/femmes and other women/femmes.

When I was senior class president, Principal (at the time) Mason brought me into his office as I was arranging a sit-in for the seniors and told me to "not be stupid" and to "use my power for good." He was right.

And so I ask of you, my global friends, to help me. Help me use my own privilege and power for good. To help hold men accountable. Please click on this story, or share this post (it's public), or comment with helpful links to organizations who can help me hold this man accountable.”

I couldn’t agree more, Haley. I want my daughter to know that it is never ok for anyone else to subject her to unwanted sexual advances through words or actions. I also want her to grow up in a world that applauds her bravery for taking a stand and speaking out should an incident occur. I want my son to know that all people deserve respect, not objectification, and that if someone isn’t interested in him romantically, he must respect and honor that no matter what.

Finally, I want all leaders, from small-town schools to our nation’s capital, to understand that little eyes and ears are always watching and listening. This includes the leaders making poor choices and the leaders allowing those choices to go without consequence. What we permit, we promote, and to give credence, whether explicit or implicit, to this type of behavior is to betray our children.

Thank you, Mr. Sondheim, for your words. If only adults could listen as well as children...

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