I gave myself an hour to calm down, then wrote an email to the principal, still careful with my word choice. For one thing, I was “surprised and disappointed” that this had happened. Why? Because I do not want to waste a milligram of effort defending my tone. “Disappointed” is the go-to word in these situations. If you’re “furious,” the other person stops listening and starts defending. Disappointment says, “I expected more from you, and you let me down.” When someone expresses disappointment in me, I’m mortified and immediately begin trying to make it right. It’s an action word.
I also amended my desire to see Warner slowly strangled with the strings of a thousand Steinways—amended it in the email, not in the darkest corner of my heart. I made it clear that I was very unhappy and asked to meet with them both, very soon.
As I expected, Mr. Robinson was completely mortified when he heard what had happened. He had not spoken to Warner after our meeting, he said in his reply, “because I assumed that I would be the only staff member discussing the broadcast content with Delaney.” A reasonable assumption. Instead, he had used my input to be sure his interview questions gave Delaney the maximum ability to openly express her ideas. He simply hadn’t counted on Warner taking advantage of the two minutes he stepped into the hallway to push her agenda. There was still only one real perp in this and one clear ally.
No matter how the meeting went, I knew this would make a serious mark on her next performance evaluation. Of course we wanted a whole lot more than that.
We wanted an abject, unequivocal apology from Ms. Warner.
We wanted a school-wide statement explaining what happened and describing the real nature of Laney’s accomplishment.
We wanted Ms. Warner’s head on a platter.
We wanted damage control for Delaney.
We wanted a greatly-reduced chance of this kind of thing happening to another student in the school.
But wants are not the same as needs, and that’s where we sometimes go off the rails. Focusing too much on punishment of the perp shifts attention away from getting changes made and repairing damage. It’s a mistake I have made. It can also put your child in the middle of a struggle between adults in which the original point is completely lost.
Those first three wants would be so satisfying, but we knew we couldn’t allow them to get in the way of the last two.
It was going to be a challenge to keep our heads where they belonged — especially when we had such a firm idea of where HERS belonged.
Now I have to take a minute to acknowledge some privilege here. I’m telling a story in which my daughter received a negative message about science from her school. When I think about kids living with real problems, with abuse and poverty and a lack of access to basic education and health care, I’m tempted to keep my little story to myself.
But even though that contrast is sobering, this incident went to something fundamental in the values of our family. For all the progress in recent years, our culture still makes it difficult for girls in particular to hang on to an interest in science. And if you’ve read or listened to anything else I’ve done, you probably know that evolution in particular is a golden thread in my kids’ engagement with the world.
So it wasn’t the worst possible thing, but it also wasn’t nothing. It mattered to us and to her.
The day before the meeting with the principal and Ms. Warner, Becca made my year by insisting on going with me. She took a half day off work, on short notice and with difficulty. I was so grateful for that.
After talking with hundreds of parents over the years in dozens of different situations, I had worked up a few guidelines for approaching this kind of thing. It works not just for church-state issues, but any similar conflict. I reviewed them before the meeting:
- Know your main objective and keep it in focus. It would have been easy, and gratifying, to focus on the abject apology, school-wide statement, head on platter. But if it came right down to it (and it often does), the other two were most important: damage control for Delaney, and a greatly-reduced chance of this kind of thing happening to another student in the school. Ever.
- Frame in terms as broad as possible. It’s almost never just about my child or our family’s rights. If a teacher leads students in a Christian prayer, for example, and I respond as an offended atheist, I’ve drawn this tiny circle around my offended little feet. If instead I defend the constitutional right of all kids and families to freedom of religious belief, I’ve drawn a much larger circle with a much firmer foundation.
- Never let your tone become an issue. It’s too easy an excuse for them. This keeps a laser-like focus on the real issue.
- Find allies with common goals. They’re almost always there. If we treat them as co-perpetrators, we’ve robbed ourselves of powerful leverage from inside the tent.
- Position yourself as a future resource, not a problem to be avoided or contained. When it comes to the issues at hand, as well as district policy and legal precedent, make yourself the most knowledgeable one in the room, then offer your help in navigating that maze whenever these things come up.
The meeting began with the obligatory chit chat, then Becca took the floor — not as a parent, but as an appalled educator. For five minutes, in a voice laced with emotion but entirely under control, she explained why Warner’s action violated the central responsibility of educators to their students. She ended by quoting the framing concept in the elementary curriculum. They are the Habits of Mind — four characteristics all Georgia educators are expected to engender in their students. “A CONTENT STANDARD IS NOT MET,” says the science standards document in bold caps, “UNLESS APPLICABLE CHARACTERISTICS OF SCIENCE ARE ALSO ADDRESSED AT THE SAME TIME.”
The four principal characteristics:
Students will be aware of the importance of curiosity, honesty, openness, and skepticism in science and will exhibit these traits in their own efforts to understand how the world works.
In a single ill-considered sentence, Ms. Warner had managed to violate all four. Then she read this, further down in the document:
Scientists use a common language with precise definitions of terms to make it easier to communicate their observations to each other.
Hard to beat for spot-on relevance. I made a mental note to marry Becca all over again.
Ms. Warner responded with an apology of the “I’m sorry if you were offended” variety. “If I had known you felt this way,” she said, “I would certainly not have said what I said.” Oh, it was all about a wacky breakdown in communication, you see. If the principal hadn’t dropped the ball, went the implication, if he had just made my concerns known, well, we wouldn’t be in this pickle.
I’d expected that. “Yes, I do wish we’d been able to intercept this extremely bad idea you had,” I said. “But that’s irrelevant. I want to know why you had the bad idea in the first place to censor Delaney’s accomplishment.
“You claimed evolution wasn’t in the curriculum, when in fact it’s deeply embedded in our curriculum from seventh grade on. And if a third grader were to master calculus and win a national contest, I doubt we’d say, ‘Well shoot, I wish we could celebrate that, but it isn’t in the elementary curriculum.’ So let’s agree that’s silly and not the reason anyway. Now I’d like to know the real reason.”
She paused, then shrugged. “I wanted to avoid conflict.”
To paraphrase what Huxley supposedly said before he gutted Wilberforce, the Lord had delivered her into my hands. I handed her the summary of that depressing Penn State study I had given Robinson in our earlier meeting, the one showing that conflict-avoiders “play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists.”
But there’s an even more interesting context for this in Georgia, I said — a specific history of removing the word “evolution.”
“Yes, there is!” said Mr. Robinson, nodding enthusiastically and leaning forward. See? Principals tend to know what’s going on in the educational world outside of their own skulls. Even better, he clearly cared. Warner’s blank smile showed that she neither knew nor cared. She was counting the minutes until this annoyance was over.
It was at this point that Ms. Warner began to shrink from view, and Mr. Robinson began to grow. We could exhaust ourselves trying to get a genuine apology from this person, trying to get her to understand that she was an embarrassment to her profession and why, trying to let the school community know exactly what had happened so they could take sides and put Laney in the uncomfortable middle.
Or we could turn the focus toward this nodding, well-informed, well-placed ally.
I gave a five-minute capsule history of the issue in Georgia, complete with handouts, starting with the D grade the state science curriculum had earned from Fordham in 1998. Why the low grade? Largely because in the interest of conflict avoidance, the word evolution had been removed:
Like many Southern states, Georgia has problems with the politics, if not the science, of evolution. In the biology course, the euphemism “organic variation” is used for evolution, yielding such delectable bits as the following:
[The learner will] describe historical and current theories of organic variation . . . describe how current geological evidences [sic] support current theories of organic variation . . . explain that a successful change in a species is most apt to occur when a niche is available.”
The purpose of this approach, of course, is to insulate the study of science from the inroads of politics. But for all its good intent, it makes it difficult or impossible for all but the most gifted students to understand the profound importance of evolution as the basis of the biological sciences. It also isolates biology from the other historical sciences, geology and astronomy, and thus wounds the student’s understanding of the unity of the sciences. [Lerner 1998]
Fast-forward to 2004. State Superintendent of Education Kathy Cox is reviewing Georgia’s new and greatly improved proposed science standards, which include an impressively straightforward approach to evolution. And what does she do? She red-lines every occurrence of the word “evolution,” changing it to “biological changes over time,” which does NOT mean the same thing.
Why did she do that? Conflict avoidance, she said later.
There was an impressive public backlash. Jimmy Carter lashed out in the press: “As a Christian, a trained engineer and scientist, and a professor at Emory University, I am embarrassed by Superintendent Kathy Cox’s attempt to censor and distort the education of Georgia’s students.”
Cox reversed herself. In an interview last year on the occasion of her retirement, she remembered the issue as the biggest mistake of her career:
It was a great lesson for me….The standards are more than a classroom teacher. They represent something to the larger public [and the] entity of the nation. And that was a great lesson for me, that I needed to step out of my shoes as a teacher sometimes and see the bigger picture. And even though I was trying to make it so that our science standards could be such that a teacher anywhere in the state could teach what they needed to teach, it wasn’t the right decision from the bigger picture. And, boy, did I learn that in a hurry – and kind of had it handed to me in a hurry.
Robinson continued nodding. None of this was new to him.
The standards went on to full approval, unbuggered, earning Georgia a B for science overall in the next Fordham review and the highest ranking possible for evolution education.
“So we’ve learned this lesson already, over and over,” I said. “But it just doesn’t get through. And the messages we as parents and educators send these students, both inside and outside of the classroom, affect the way kids will encounter concepts and content later in the curriculum.”
Mr. Robinson was continuing to exhibit not just agreement, but enthusiastic engagement. Warner at this point was too small to be seen clearly.
“We have these extraordinary standards, but because of ten thousand things like this” — I gestured toward Warner’s last known location — “they aren’t finding their way into the actual education of our students, especially in science. I’d like to help get a larger conversation going in the district. We need to help parents, teachers, and administrators get more comfortable with the great standards we already have.”
Mr. Robinson was nearly out of his chair. “Yes. This is great. I would love to see this happen.” He began scribbling notes. “I want to put you in touch with Samantha Burnett, the director of science curriculum for the district. I know she’d love to connect with you and get this going. This would be a very positive thing.”
He added that he wanted to be sure Delaney was taken care of as well. “I want her to know that this school encourages all of her ideas and accomplishments.”
Becca then shared Laney’s heartbreaking response to Mr. Hamilton, her beloved first-grade teacher, and his expression of interest (“I don’t know what I should tell him and what I shouldn’t.”)
“Well there’s an opportunity,” said Mr. Robinson. “I’ll get in touch with Mike and see what we can work out. Maybe instead of just explaining it to him, she could give a presentation to his whole class about the contest.”
That would help a lot. She would be over the moon.
That night we learned from Delaney that Mr. Robinson visited her classroom later that day to congratulate her again on her achievement in the “Evolution & Art contest.”
Two days later Mr. Robinson connected me to the science curriculum director by email as promised. Nothing much came of it, but that was my busyness as much as anything.
In terms of vengeance, the meeting was mostly unsatisfying. But in terms of positive progress, it was immensely satisfying. By being reasonable and well-informed, by leaning forward instead of back, we accomplished the things that mattered most.
Here’s the part of the movie where we learn what happened to the major characters.
- Ms. Warner (not her real name) now works at a Catholic school in Atlanta. Probably for the best.
- Mr. Robinson left the next year to serve as principal of an Atlanta public elementary school. And when he left, he sent me a brief email expressing his appreciation for how we had approached the issue. “I was in even fuller support of your position and concerns than I could let on at the time,” he said, which was nice. (Mr. Robinson is not his real name, by the way. The perfect actual name of this intelligent and gentle administrator was Mr. Rogers.)
- Charlie’s Playhouse, the company that sponsored the evolution and art contest, is sadly no more. But the company’s founder, Dr. Kate Miller, is busy doing top-level science at a center for health care innovation.
- Becca now teaches ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) at a local elementary school.
- And Delaney weathered it all just fine. She’s a junior majoring in physics at Georgia Tech.