If I were to walk into a bar around here, I would likely be the Most Famous Person in the place.
That’s not saying too much, of course, and since I don’t drink, I haven’t tested it. And also, I suspect that Harley ownership, tooth loss and/or neck tattoos may be required in order to gain entry into any bar in my town, so they wouldn’t let me in.
Still, I am sort of famous right now. I’m not famous everywhere. My face is not known to all. Still, my name has been out there, and lately, I’ve noticed that some people scurry when they see me. They keep looking back, flashing me double (and triple) takes. They wear odd and curious little smiles.
Last week, when I walked into my daughters’ school, teachers and staff seemed to get flustered. Then, they started whispering. They kept peering out at me from behind the glass walls of the office, as if that protected them, as if it were a two-way mirror and I couldn’t actually see them looking.
I knew they were probably already dishing the dirt about me, about what happened, about what they read or heard. They appeared to be carefully examining how I looked and what I was wearing (cotton lace blouse; old jeans; no makeup, hair still damp because I needed to do it).
I noticed their glances and whispers, but I said nothing, of course. I was sitting on the couch in the school’s foyer, waiting for my kids, stuck on my cell dealing with the booking agent for MSNBC (and it feels weird even typing that).
I am normally not the sort of person who takes that sort of call. I’ve also never before been on the phone while entering a school to collect my children, which, I will admit with regret, makes me look rude.
I couldn’t get off the phone, though. I was receiving important, last-minute directions, and I kept having to hold. I was at the school to take my kids home early so that I could change and meet the limo that was taking me to a taping in the city, and so that someone could come over to watch them while I was out.
I don’t know who saw the MSNBC interview. But people seem to know about my story.
At the pool, people are talking about me. Not all of them, mind you, but some of the other mothers. The ones who read the newspaper, the ones who have friends of my friends but who don’t actually know me themselves.
I wonder if these barely separated strangers are some of the same people who’ve been leaving me anonymous comments on my blog? I wonder why it seems that so many people got obsessed with my case—for good or bad reasons. What is it that I represent to them?
Am I, as some have told me, “a hero and a martyr,” or do I just seem like a warning figure or an example of the surrounding demonic liberalism instead?
My current fame is the Elephant in the Room. It is likely going to prove good for me, but it has also been terrible and painful.
This incident, this fame, is the ultimate example of yin and yang.
How did it happen?
Several months ago, the parents of one of my students came after me (in all my years of teaching, this has never happened before). I had blogged about teaching a specific writing lesson, and I wrote that I was “dismayed” that the lesson didn’t click. I wrote that I realized this after I heard “a student’s” speech that had done the opposite of what I requested. I saw then, as I wrote, that in order to fully communicate the lesson, I needed to model a speech for the girls.
After this blog post went up (and I think maybe five people read it), all hell broke loose. When I wrote it, however, I never imagined that I had done anything wrong.
I was accused of all sorts of heinous and unjustified “crimes.” The parents came in screaming at me. I was threatened with death. My children were threatened with death. I was told that my death “in the street” would be highly amusing to watch.
It turns out that what I wrote about “a student’s speech” and about being “dismayed” was not actually, truly, the problem, although originally it was said to be. The issue was really about the fact that I am a Democrat. The people who attacked me are hardcore Palin-ites. I don’t even have to explain what that says about them.
The whole situation was so bad that I actually don’t want to talk about it anymore. Suffice it to say that I threw up after the meeting with the terrible threats; I got incredibly sick in all sorts of ways; and the hell continued unabated through more threats, and attorney-driven demands, until, a few months later, my school administrators caved to the pressure and canned me.
That was actually a relief. Even though I most certainly did not deserve to lose my job—and most people seem to understand this—I could not continue on. I could not live with that stress.
I went public with my story then because I know that there are important lessons here that need to be shared with others. Schools cannot cave to irrational demands made by one set of parents; private school teachers need more job protection and “due process” rights; free speech must be protected in all forums; and political extremism will destroy our nation. Religious intolerance has existed for millennia, but aren’t we supposed to be (a little bit) more enlightened now?
So many people e-mailed me and sent me messages in response to the stories that were published about me and my situation. I received widespread support but I was also blasted (unfairly, I must say) by people who did not really read or comprehend the specifics of my case, but rather just jumped on me for being ‘liberal.’
I took phone calls from people who know the ones who threatened me, who told me this has happened before and it must not ever happen again. I am, unfortunately, not the first person who has run afoul of them; other teachers from other schools have told me how they, too, were attacked. Other people have told me that these self-described “good Catholics” “…must be stopped before they try to destroy anyone else.”
Countless comments have been written in response to every story that has been published about me. It is heartening to read the words of people who “get it,” and many do.
Yet, I think it just goes to show how stupid some other people are that they ignore the very important political and social aspects of my case, and instead simply focus on how I look.
Many comments have mentioned that I look Jewish (I am not Jewish, but I only say this for clarification; many of my closest friends have been Jewish, and I never even think about anyone’s Judaism; I don’t care in the least about it). I think this simply shows the religious extremism that I am dealing with, the high-octane Christianity, the longstanding anti-Semitism.
“She looks like Jami Gertz!” (The same person made this comment repeatedly, obviously assuming it had some great, cultural significance, and hoping other people would pick up on it, which they did not).
Do I look like Jami Gertz? Let’s get in the spirit of absurdity and have a vote:
I don’t think I particularly look like Jami Gertz, but as she is widely touted as being an example of “Hot Over 40” (though I am not yet 40), I’ll take it.
That wasn’t the only weird comment I got, however.
There was this one:
“I hate her. Look at her nice clothes! No more nice clothes and cushy private school job for you, greedy! Enjoy the soup line!” (Um, my salary was pathetic. Private school teachers may earn half of what public school teachers generally do. Just because a school charges tuition doesn’t mean teachers are bringing home extra loot. That was an especially absurd–and mean–comment.)
“She seems like a bitch.” (This commenter got ripped upon by fellow readers of the blog, Pharyngula, which also covered my story.)
“That Ms. Collins is pretty HOTTT!” (somebody wrote as a comment after the original Philadelphia Inquirer article about me; Bless you, child. The published photo did not capture my best moment, but I didn’t want to smile because that might have looked even bitchier).
“…if you like cold, dead shark eyes,” someone responded to the HOTTT comment. (I knew it was too good to be true!)
The comments got so bad that the newspaper took them down. It is apparently a standard phenomenon that comments following a news story tend to devolve (like decomposing flesh) after a few days. The nasty drown out the good; the extremists, the crazies, come out in force.
I know all of this. But that doesn’t make it any easier to see such hatred directed toward me, to read such evil words following a piece about me, about who I am, what I stand for and what I try to do.
What sort of people would write such horrible things? I would never do that. No one I know (or thought I knew) would do that.
I wonder: do people feel freer to be cruel when they can also be Anonymous? I believe so. In order to be a good example, myself, I never write from behind a fake name, or take advantage of anonymity. That’s one of the reasons I blogged under my real name: because I am not mean, and because I have nothing to hide.
At one point, at the height of the undeserved vitriol (much of it stemming, I believe, from a very misleading and biased opinion piece published about me in Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal), I honestly felt as though I might fall apart. I called the newspaper’s webmaster to explain my dilemma.
“This is an interesting situation,” she said to me. “You are what we call in the biz a ‘public figure in a vortex.’ As a public figure, you don’t have the rights that other private citizens do. At the same time, you can also be the unwitting victim of all sorts of undeserved attacks, slander and libel. You can’t stop it. But you can defend yourself against it.”
The solution? I knew what it was, but I still had to steel myself to do it. I had to write more. Speak out more. Set the record straight. Endure more insane and nasty comments.
Inevitably, since I went on my PR offensive, I have been attacked for being “narcissistic,” for daring to write Op-Eds, for being “full of myself.”
“Your blog is YOU YOU YOU YOU YOU,” someone wrote to me.
No shit, Sherlock. Recently, it has been all me, but that’s because there’s still so much to discuss and to explain.
If you read my blog (http:/prettyfreaky.blogspot.com), however, you will see that I also write about environmental issues; I also write about politics; I write about social issues and teaching.
I write my blog as a platform for myself, to sell my ideas and my abilities. I also blog to connect with other people, and I blog to learn more.
I am a teacher. Rather, I should say, I was a teacher. But I still can’t help myself. I still teach quite a bit—inadvertently, through my writings, and of course I also teach my children.
Yesterday, we had a big discussion (after viewing “The Karate Kid”) about feng shui, some tenets of Chinese medicine, the concept of chi (and yes, yin and yang). The other day, upon receiving a takeout menu for a new Indian restaurant, I told them, after they asked, that “sag” or “shaag” denotes spinach; I explained the tandoor oven and how to make tandoori chicken; and then the conversation segued into Hinduism, reincarnation, karma, and how/why some people find evidence that reincarnation is true.
I don’t mean to come across as a pedant; I just happen to remember almost everything that I’ve read.Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve read quite a bit.
I do not pretend that I know everything. What I know is that life is a journey, this recent debacle has been part of that journey, and I always have more to learn and more to accomplish.
I will keep blogging. I will keep writing. I will keep speaking out. And someday, somehow, things will change for the better. The comments of the crazies will drift away into the ether, and I will be stronger and better for what I have endured.