March 2006

Policing your thoughts

By David Feela

Somewhere inside an American public school a teacher had just about had it. It was nearly the end of the week. He slid a stack of essays into his briefcase, turned off the classroom lights, and headed straight for the main office. The principal occupied her desk with a cell phone pressed to her ear, but she waved him in, gestured toward a chair, indicated with a single finger that she’d be just another minute.

He stood by the door. He waited. The essays in his briefcase got heavier as each minute passed, but he grew stronger, his resolve solidifying around the arch supports in his shoes.

“What can I do for you?” the principal finally asked as she snapped the cell phone shut.

“I’d like to turn myself in.”

“Turn yourself in?”

“Yes, I’d like to surrender myself to the administrative team and take what I’ve got coming.”

“Oh, please, sit down. What’s going on?” the principal asked.

“No, I can’t sit down. I shouldn’t even be in the building. Put me on administrative leave. I said something unacceptable in front of a classroom full of students. And what’s worse, they were listening.”

The pause lasted longer than usual. She stared at him, he stared at her. She sighed.

“You can’t be serious. You said something unacceptable two weeks ago too. And it was on a Thursday, just like today. And anyway, two science teachers are on administrative leave this week, and the basketball and wrestling teams are traveling tomorrow, so there are no substitutes left. We’re just going to have to ignore this one.”

“You can’t ignore it,” the teacher said. “I’m a danger to our youth. I’m a rip in the social fabric of the American dream. I’ve got to be silenced. I say things.”

“But I haven’t even received a parent complaint.”

“It doesn’t matter. You will. Sooner than you think. After all, I’m a teacher.”

The silence between them lasted another palpable minute while the secretary in the outer office grabbed her purse and fled. Finally the silence ended and the bargaining process began.

“OK,” the principal conceded. “I’ll admit that you are, if not dangerous, at least a little to the left of the center line. I can live with that. Really, I can.”

“But what are you going to do about it?” the teacher challenged. “You can’t just put me back in a classroom to go off half-cocked again. Oops. Sorry. I shouldn’t have said that either.”

“Is that what you said to the class?”

“No, but it was just as bad.”

“Well, you didn’t show a movie about it, did you?”

“Actually, I don’t think anyone’s ever made a movie about it.”

“There’s something in that at least, which demonstrates a modicum of judgment on your part. It may be that I’m going to have to put a stern letter in your file, this time, and next time, who knows. Let’s hope there isn’t a next time.”

The teacher stared down at his shoes. No next time? But he needed a few days off next week to get caught up with his paperwork. After all, teaching students to write requires reading their writing, doesn’t it? And teaching students to think critically contains the risk that they may themselves harbor inappropriate thoughts. Then, like a tiny tsunami, the blood in his brain swelled until a new idea covered the surface of his tongue.

“Isn’t it inappropriate thoughts that ultimately lead to inappropriate words?” the teacher asked.

The principal considered her options. If she answered yes, she was sure to be short one more teacher before Friday even started. And she’d likely have to put herself on administrative leave for what she’d been thinking. If she said no, well, at least she’d be defending a democratic principle, one of those freedoms that social-studies teachers require their students to memorize. She decided to say no.

“No,” she replied.

“Do you mean to say that words can be initiated without thought?” The teacher smiled. His college philosophy class was finally paying off.

“Well, I don’t know. No, probably not.”

“Then I submit to you that for me to have said anything inappropriate, it must have been prompted by something equally inappropriate that the class was thinking.”

A tiny belt on one of logic’s pulleys had broken – she was certain she heard it snap, but the cell phone in her pocket was vibrating again, and she didn’t have time to search for the culprit.


“So, I’d like to request that all my students be placed on administrative leave until we can meet with their parents and determine where the inappropriateness originated.”

“All of your students?”

“Every last one of them.”

The phone on the desk started ringing.

“If I suspend the entire class, you’ll still be here tomorrow, in your classroom?”


“And it’s just that class where you said the inappropriate thing?”


“OK, done. Now get out of here before I change my mind.”

The teacher turned and headed out the door. His briefcase felt light as a box of Kleenex; a weight had been lifted. He felt like whistling the theme song from “Brokeback Mountain.”

“What did you say?” the principal called after him.

“Nothing,” the teacher replied, but really he’d been thinking about everything.

David Feela is a teacher at Montezuma-Cortez High School.