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:

Elizabeth Collins, 05/27/2010, photographed by Laurence Kesterson for The Philadelphia Inquirer

 

 

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.

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ELIZABETH COLLINS is a writer and writing/literature teacher, whose blog (http://prettyfreaky.blogspot.com) attracts an international following to its mix of memoir, personal and political essays, and quirky observations. Collins, a graduate of the University of Iowa's MFA program in English/Writing, won the Columbia University Nonfiction Prize in 2001, as well as other writing awards. Her essays and short stories have been published in a variety of literary magazines, including The Massachusetts Review, Natural Bridge and Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. Collins currently writes YA novels--and her latest, also entitled Pretty Freaky, is about a foreign adoptee's quest to help her adopted American boyfriend find his birthmother. She is also at work on a memoir about teaching.

74 responses to “The Yin and Yang of Being a ‘Public Figure in a Vortex’”

  1. Greg Olear says:

    I of course knew a lot of this already, having read your original essay on what happened with the Palin-drones (a better name than Palinites, I think). I admire your courage in speaking out; I wouldn’t have, I don’t think; I would have found more subtle ways to exact revenge.

    And that WSJ guy is a douchebag. But then, from the pulpit of the WSJ, his job is pretty much to be one, just like yours, as a teacher, is to help students see through douchebaggery.

  2. I smell a book deal and an Oprah date – success is the ultimate revenge on these cretins
    who have threatened and slandered you.

    Also – I always wanted to let you know – I had a closeted Palinite on my facebook friend list
    (childhood friend I haven’t seen since 5th grade – you know how it goes)
    and I am proud to report that she “de-friended” me after I shared one of your blogs on my page.
    I think it was the line, “Stupid is as stupid does” that got her. Because, well, stupid is as stupid does.
    And that’s what it all boils down to.
    The garbage comments fester with their lingering stink, but they will go away.
    But, you, my friend, have an interesting and compelling backstory now.

    I smell book deal.

  3. Joe Daly says:

    It will never cease to amaze me that so often the people (like your assailants) who bleat the loudest about their rights are so often the ones banding together to excoriate someone (like you) for expressing yours.

    I am, however, no longer amazed when people are threatened by contrary opinions of others. Unfortunately you had to pay the price of their inability to manage their emotional shortcomings. This story is but one more reminder that for some people, fear and free time are no less destructive than an explosion.

    Good on you for hanging tough.

    • Joe, you totally hit upon the very deep irony here: decrying “big government” while, strangely, calling for more “big govt” in the schools…it makes no sense at all.

      And yes, some people have no purpose in their lives, it seems, except to torment other people.

      Thanks for reading.

    • Becky says:

      I think it’s less about what her opinions were or that she was expressing them, and more about who she was expressing them to. Conservatives in general, but especially those leaning further to the right, have a serious nerve when it comes to liberalism in the classroom. And liberalism–at least as conservatives define it–is not something that liberals tend to be able to recognize (or are willing to admit) themselves doing.

      Sorry, Elizabeth, for talking like you’re not here. I condone none of the things that happened to you in the course of this nasty affair.

      But there’s also this flip-side to it–shades of it poking out in Joe’s comment and in others–where a discourse like this tips away from a serious discussion about legitimate concern regarding the balkanization of American politics and towards a grateful opportunity to assail perceived mutual enemies…to engage in some of the same torch-and-pitchfork mentality that likely inspired the awful treatment you endured.

      It’s a massive, baffling irony in American politics right now, in my opinion.

      • I understand what you’re saying, Becky. I really do.

        I think that if the “pitchfork” mentality is happening here, it’s because the horrifying end-effect can be seen already. And I know I am relieved to feel “safer” to vent right here. Normally, I am quite even-handed, though. I do try to be respectful–but it’s hard when no respect is shown in return.

        • Becky says:

          Just to be clear, too, I’m not calling you or Joe a pitchforker.

          I think the whole “rise above the fray” thing is sort of a platitude, and I’m a little uncomfortable even saying it, but I think at some point, something like it has to happen.

          But, you know, what does that mean? Does it mean keeping quiet? For you when it comes to talking about your mistreatment? For them when it comes to what they perceive as objectionable ideology in the classroom?

          Neither seems like a reasonable thing to expect.

          I mean, there is that sense on both sides. That “they” need to be tolerant and respectful–but always by the “our” standards, which almost always include “they” adhering to some set of rules and values that is utterly foreign and potentially inappropriate to them.

          I mean, I’m speaking in the abstract/theoretical at this point. I realize that this is all very real for you, and I think the vast majority of people, I hope even in your town, do not consider death threats appropriate at any level.

          But the broader, underlying notion, for both sides, is that “This person is wrong and different enough from me that I can rationalize my immature, anger-indulgent behavior by way of my own belief in my righteousness and a just have a field day with it.”

          I think this idea is all very civil-rights/Vietnam era, in a way. And as much as some people would like to see a return to that particular strategy of change, I’m not sure it fits the times. Especially when both sides have begun to play the exact same strategy.

          Now I’m babbling, though.

        • I think “rise above the fray” is one of the things Obama is best at. He talks to those on the left and the right, which I think you can tell because he pisses off Bill Maher as much as he pisses of Rush Limbaugh (if not quite with as much volume). So when I think rise above the fray, I think: stay on point. Stay with direction already in mind. Try not to get distracted by meaningless arguments that only detract from actual message.

          I don’t know what liberalism or conservativism in a classroom means. I only know that I want Zen in a classroom; when students learn religion, they should learn religion, and when they learn science, they should learn science.

        • Becky says:

          Obama, whatever. Politicians, whatever. They’ve got a whole different set of motivations. We’re talking about ordinary citizens for the most part. Or I am.

          What I’m talking about is being willing to see things from others’ point of view and, when possible, respecting their boundaries and opinions within reason, regardless of whether or not you understand or agree with their values.

          You don’t know what liberalism or conservatism in the classroom means? Do you mean you don’t know what liberalism in the classroom means? Because I think you’d agree you know what conservatism in the classroom means, at least from a pop media perspective. I don’t want to go there all over again, really, but have we forgotten the TBE issue already?

      • Joe Daly says:

        I was making a conscious effort to withhold my political opinion on the issue. It’s just my internet policy- not an attempt to generalize any group- whether I consider myself on their side or not.

        My implication above is that I have a personal issue with political hypocrisy from any direction, and as I indicated in my comment, I have been frustrated by arguments where a group of people who demand that their rights be left alone by the government, can at the same time advocate government intervention in local issues.

        I’m not sure that’s torch-and-pitchfork mentality advocating, when I’m arguing against a behavior rather than a class of people.

        • Becky says:

          Well, I didn’t mean that you were a pitchforker. I meant (and said) that there were shades of it in what you were saying. I mean, I recognize you being diplomatic, but it’s not like it’s not bubbling under the surface.

          a group of people who demand that their rights be left alone by the government, can at the same time advocate government intervention in local issues.

          I mean. If you’re going to say this, you might as well have just said conservatives.

          SOME people (ahem ahem!)” *wink wink nudge nudge*

          I’m totally not trying to fight with you. I’m just pointing out that this animosity is sort of pestilent and insidious. It’s tough to control oneself. Everyone around you (or me or Elizabeth), left and right, is acting a crazy fool, engaged in this us and them stuff, so why not act a crazy fool, too? Everyone’s mad, let’s all get mad, etc. They’re not listening to me, so I”m not going to listen to them, on and on it goes.

        • Dana says:

          I wouldn’t call those people conservatives. I’d call them hypocrites. And this country is full of them. Including me.

  4. Matt says:

    Been following this as best I can from the west coast, and every time I think about how you’ve been treated just angers me.

    Good for you for speaking out and standing up for yourself. For fundamentalists–of any stripe–bullying tactics like these are designed to scare or pressure you into shutting up and going away. Your silence equals their victory.

    Fighting the good fight isn’t fun, and rarely ever easy, but please, keep it up.

    • i don’t know if I have the energy to ever “fight the good fight” again, but honestly, it is my hope that other teachers/people won’t have to deal with this bullshit that keep me going.

      Thanks, Matt.

      • dwoz says:

        I have someone very close to me that teaches at the high-school level. That person has to tread very lightly, on eggshells, as do the other teachers. The “conservative movement” does actually send their kids in as good christian soldiers, to create “gotcha” scenarios against teachers. Sometimes it’s targeted, sometimes just casting a net.

        It’s not just the biology teachers either. God forbid that a history teacher should ever mention the name “Howard Zinn”.

        But it’s not tin-foil-hat stuff. They write about this.

    • Matt says:

      Oh, and “As a public figure, you don’t have the rights that other private citizens do” is utter and total bullshit. You’re not a politician and you didn’t run for public office. The slander and libel began before you became a “public figure.” You haven’t foregone any of the rights a private citizen has, and any respectable journalist should know that.

      Oh, wait, forgot we’re talking about the WSJ….

  5. J.E. Fishman says:

    Liz, wow. I am blown away by all this, catching up to it late. Can you take the trouble to provide some links on a timeline, starting with the original blog post? It would help some of us catch up. When I’m up to speed, I’ll comment.

    • Hi Joel,

      It’s pretty much there, on my blog, though I did take down the original blog post about the speechwriting, because I get way too many comments about it (most of which are politically motivated and miss the point). I will send it to you separately, if you want.

      Best,

      EC

  6. dwoz says:

    Not wanting to wade too deep into the political swamp, lest I raise Irene’s ire…

    There is a tremendous, phantasmagorical difference between today’s conservative movement, and that of even just 25 years ago.

    In 1970-80, the dialog was commanded by thinkers and debaters like William F. Buckley, while today’s dialog is coming from the likes of Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter.

    Now, ENTIRELY ASIDE from the merit of their points or lack thereof, what is obvious to anyone who cares to look, is the wholesale deterioration in the quality of the rhetoric itself. Where Buckley was concerned with, and eloquent in treating, ideological positions, the current pundit breed seems rather to simply pander, wallowing in every logical fallacy and debating sophistry that they can fit into their 2 minute TV pundit cycle. Nuance is irrelevant, treated as rounding error in the effort to devolve a position into a 9 word sound bite.

    And of course, the blame doesn’t rest entirely with one side. But I feel confident in saying that during the 2000 to 2008 period, Orwellian double-speak was raised to an art form, and ideology was yet further reduced to form, void of actual substance.

    So then, what results, is an entire generation of young minds who have never encountered an actual rhetorical political debate, and so are utterly unable to actually construct one on their own.

    The blog comment phenomenon is something else. The dream of the internet was that by it’s very egalitarian nature, it would democratize the zeitgeist. The reduced barriers to entry into the civic dialog would be a Good Thing. If empirical evidence can be trusted, though…we may be waiting a long time before that ideal is realized. The promise of ubiquitous personal publishing makes a very big assumption that is almost never examined: That the vast majority of people who enjoy new-found access actually have something relevant and non-banal to say! As well, on the internet, we find another problem, that of old-world assumptions overlaying onto new-world realities, resulting in cognitive disconnects. Specifically, out of habit we tend to smear the old “one voice, one vote” pattern into the new world of the internet, where that most certainly is no longer valid. On the internet, a very small cohort can create an inordinate amount of noise, far out of proportion to their relative importance.

    And, of course, bullies are bullies, always have been, always will be, and when you’re a target, it will suck, no matter what.

    Elizabeth, I have gone out and done a bit of searching on your trial…and it is profound, but hardly surprising, the kind of horrific vitriol you’ve been subject to. Without question, your detractors do not survive the “shoe on the other foot” test. Were you a conservative and your student anti-Bush, you would have been a champion to those knuckle-draggers (FAIL). And paradoxically, you would PASS the same test with many of the Godless Liberals.

    Again, though…ultimately this is not about politics, but more about the extinction of classic debate and rhetoric in the public sphere.

    And also, of course, about the utter lack of sack on the part of administrators, in facing up to the wrath of a Good Christian who’s busy bringing a plague on his neighbor’s house.

  7. Well put, @dwoz.

    The gentle criticism I made about the student speech was that it was hostile (like the usual from G. Beck) and ranty. As I was teaching argumentative rhetoric, I asked for and expected more sophisticated discourse.

    Your last point is especially prescient. That’s *exactly* what happened.

    Best,

    EC

  8. Irene Zion says:

    Elizabeth,

    I don’t know how I didn’t know this was happening to you. Somehow it slipped by me.
    I am so terribly sorry that you have been treated this way.
    I can’t find anything in your blog that is the slightest bit offensive to anyone.
    This makes no sense to me.
    This is why I hate politics and politicians of all kinds, (You could perhaps tell that to Dwoz, up there, who does not appear to know a thing about me, but has made assumptions nonetheless….)
    I despise people who write anonymously hateful things to anyone.
    I despise the loss of civility.
    I am so sorry this is happening to you, Elizabeth.

    • Thanks, Irene.

      Another irony is that I did not actively hate people of the uh, other political persuasion before. But it is very difficult not to, at this point. I’m still trying, but it’s still hard.

      Best,

      EC

  9. Irene Zion says:

    Elizabeth,

    I think you look like a Taoist, sort of.

  10. angela says:

    you make a great point (one of several):

    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.

    i think people do feel freer to be jerks when they’re anonymous. you’ve put yourself out there, and they offer nothing except some stupid not-well-thought-out comment.

    i’m going to read your blog and catch up on the controversy!

  11. Holy moly–I don’t know how you handled (handle) all that! I would have fled to France with my head covered in some cape like the French Lieutenants Woman. You’re prettier than Jamie Gertz, by the way.

    • Aren’t you nice, J.A.B.? (I have to read your new piece–just saw it–the description is too enticing.)

      One thing I did with the Op-Eds is I didn’t even look at the comments. Mostly.

      I have learned that looking at the comments is…not healthy.

  12. Yes, it’s like looking at reviews, I suppose. Always better to just exist and not take into account what anyone is saying about you, good or bad. But, seriously, I don’t know how you held up so well while those HORRIBLE people were saying HORRIBLE things!

    • Aagh, don’t remind me. I have blocked it out. For the most part, I knew there was going to be a half and half division (reflective of the two major political parties, basically). It is a fact, however, that the “cons” (ultraconservatives) dominate comment boards in most places. I also realize that most people can recognize irrational and/or hateful verbiage and disregard it. Still, though, as the subject you tend to worry that people will take stupid comments as Gospel.

      I just let it go. It did build up and get to me, but it’s not worth my time or health.

      Writers dealing with reviews have the same issue. The trick is to have other people read the reviews…I kept the Warhol quote in mind, too (“Don’t read what they say about you, just measure it in inches).

      The controversy has a payoff for me, so I knew it would probably end up being worth it.

  13. Cathy Kaling says:

    “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.”

    I really can’t imagine why anyone would take issue with you. Listen to yourself. Talk about self-obsession, elitism and inflated sense of self. I don’t think this entire incident could have possibly pained someone who clearly craves the attention.

    • Wow. You do not get it. You obviously have no idea what actually happened. Did you read the piece?

      It is not about me anymore, and that’s the way I want it. This is about anyone else who deals with these sorts of unjustified political persecution issues, who is bullied by grown-ups with money.

      I wouldn’t even talk about it except for the fact that 1) it helps me professionally and personally and 2) there are larger ramifications here for many other people.

      I think the piece is pretty clear how I actually *don’t* want this attention. How’d you do on the SAT? I could help you with Reading Comp.

    • Aurelie says:

      Cathy,

      I think to best understand the beginning of the essay, you have to imagine someone who is shell-shocked by what’s just happened to her. I was once at the receiving end of a very nasty blog post by someone who has some documented past issues, to put it mildly, and that’s the feeling I had too when I walked anywhere. I kept thinking: how many people did read the blog post? how many believe that trash? is this an odd glance someone just cast me or am I just imagining things?

      I think “Most Famous Person in the place” was just an attempt to look at the situation with a bit of humor because otherwise she could just sit down and cry forever. I can see how you might have been annoyed by it – I hadn’t heard of her before and found myself skipping ahead to figure out what had happened. But she’s just trying to make the best with the cards that have been dealt to her. Don’t make your opinion based on the beginning of the essay only. If you read her blog, which I did yesterday, you’ll see that the little speech exercise she got in trouble for really didn’t warrant her losing her job. I can’t believe some people got so upset about it. I was impressed by the high standards she had for her students. (Elizabeth: sorry to be writing as if you were not there. I find your situation sad and inspiring at the same time. I believe everyone has a purpose in life and maybe yours is to be an activist for teachers rather than a teacher. Stay strong. I’ll be in touch.)

      It’s hard to convey in a short essay the feeling of having just been hit by a freight train, of being made sick to your stomach by some people’s attempts to destroy you as a person just because they disagree with you. (The “someone” in my case also tried to hurt my career, although my blog was independent of my job. Thankfully, my performance at work was rock solid and the horrible blog post he wrote about me helped discredit him. But I can see how the situation could have turned differently for someone else.) The attention is not enjoyable, let me tell you that.

      • Thanks, Aurelie.

        You covered it quite well…my use of the opening line is really tongue-in-cheek. I mean, who cares (I don’t) about being the “most famous” person in one of the super-cheesy bars here in my town? It’s not a good thing.

        I am also trying to discuss regional notoriety vs. the more vague national mentions. In the case of the former, people know your face. They don’t (and they conveniently forget your name) in the latter situation.

        It is not going to be easy to have my name, my blog’s name, etc., all so easily Googleable. I am worried, as I should be, about finding another job.

        That’s why I have to use this to my advantage wherever possible. If that comes across as narcissistic, trust me, it’s not. It’s business. It’s trying to be proactive. It’s also about spreading truth, not the twisted facts.

        The Op-Eds definitely helped me (though the comments afterward, which I have barely glanced at, are predictably stupid and obviously written by the same group of oddballs who attacked me in the first place), and allowed me to get the angle of the story told in the way I wanted it. I was also able to deflect some of the criticism I got after people misread the original news story, and jumped to their own wild, politcally motivated conclusions.

        Sorry to be rude to you, Cathy. I have simply had it up to here with people saying nasty things about me, and I always reserve the right to defend myself. If that’s “narcissistic,” then so be it. I think it’s just smart.

        Best,

        EC

    • dwoz says:

      Cathy, I know several really good blog troll schools that I can hook you up with. They cover all kinds of excellent topics like using Google to internet-stalk, how to set up sock puppets, how to disguise your writing style, Ten easy ad hominem techniques, and much more.

      it’s clear from your post that you are a novice, and while your rookie style has a certain freshness and naive charm to it, you can’t really bank on that for very long. Pretty soon you’ll need to really stand out from the pack, and in your current state of training, you’ll be eaten alive.

      You need the advanced techniques that an accredited blog troll school can give you.

  14. Marni Grossman says:

    Oh, Elizabeth! I’m so sorry this happened to you! Head high! It’ll be okay!

    Also: it always surprises me that people don’t realize that private school teachers make considerably LESS money. There are, of course, benefits to teaching at a private school. Money just isn’t one of them.

    • Absolutely. The personal freedoms and what I always enjoyed before as intellectual freedom (before a new sheriff rolled into town and made things all weird), the ability to teach what I wanted how I wanted–that was all pretty priceless. And the kids were great.

      I never imagined something like this could have or would have happened to me, actually.

      Anyway–it is not possible for a woman to support herself on a private school teacher’s salary, and that’s a remnant from the old days, to be sure.

      Thanks for reading.

      EC

  15. simply scott says:

    I guess if you really want to divide America into two groups, you can have the people who think and are open to new ideas, and those who don’t. The people who are on the supportive end are most likely people that think. They may not agree with you, but they are willing to consider it. The condemners are those who don’t think, and they have no problem bashing you for saying something, anything, that’s outside their tiny four walls. (Sadly Darwinism seems not to come into play with narrowmindedness.) Luckily for me, I’m in the former group. I really don’t know that much about you, but I’m already interested.

    • Thanks, Scott.

      The story here is representative of the partisan divide in America–particularly, how extreme it is. I am all for different ways of thinking. I believe it’s when we tell people what they can and can’t say that we get into trouble (and things should always be said with a modicum of intelligence, not just rantiness).

      I will also battle closedmindedness…forever.

      Best,

      EC

      • Becky says:

        But if it’s a private school, they have every right to tell you what you can and can’t say in class. I mean, even a public school has that right, which they exercise often enough.

        And a Catholic school? A perception or fear that you have an agenda or a “battle” not consistent with the values they thought their kids would be around in such an environment is probably what led to the disproportionate reaction. I mean, were they right?

        If I’m being perfectly honest, I guess it just strikes me as a little naive (in terms of general indignation expressed here) to be surprised that there wasn’t much tolerance for anything that could be even mildly construed as liberal activism in such a classroom. A lot of people send their kids to private religious schools precisely for the purposes of avoiding what they perceive to be a left-politicized public system.

        Whether we agree with them or not, that’s kind of their prerogative. Isn’t it? To pay for the education they prefer their children to have and get what they pay for?

        Jeeez…what is with me and the letter P today?

        • Hi Becky,

          Yes, the school is Catholic. Technically, any private school can fire a teacher for any reason; there are no unions or rights attached to teaching in a private school. If it’s not clear, I do believe that’s a problem, and I wonder who will want to teach in a private school if they are so vulnerable.

          That said, however, this was an unusual situation. It had never happened before (where I was), and because my adminstrators supported me for quite a while, it was a very strange, sudden thing.

          I also had a special reputation there, for my teaching and my “realism.”

          The school is supposed to be all about “loving the poor” and being all lovey-dovey supportive of everyone. I believe it shows hypocrisy and possibly corruption that certain people would suddenly “cave” to the demands of one couple who has money. (A very similar thing happened a few years ago at another local private girls’ school. People were outraged–or, half were, half weren’t). It really goes against the institutional mission, actually.

          I really don’t want to get into a liberal vs. conservative argument of any kind. I am not a political pundit, and I am very much over that. I also don’t see what the point is, as no one’s mind will probably ever be changed.

          I understand all of your philosophical points, but I don’t have the energy to debate most of them. I am so tired (don’t take this personally!) of doing so.

          The focus, I hope now, will be on the larger (outside of me) issues of teachers’ rights to due process, freedom of speech, not attacking teachers for having ideas outside of the classroom, etc.

          Best,

          EC

        • Becky says:

          But wasn’t the model speech given in the classroom? Or am I confused?

          I mean, there’s a fine line there between an innocent “this is what I would have said if it were my speech” and the potential for it to be perceived or characterized or sold as a “slick” attempt to politicize the classroom.

          And, I guess, that’s sort of my thing. I think IN the classroom, like so many things, freedom of speech is not a right in the way that it is outside of the classroom.

          And there are two different issues in play, too. There’s the political aspect, and the notion of how appropriate or inappropriate it is for any teacher to talk about his or her minor students outside of a professional setting. I think you may have been nabbed on a technicality in that respect.

          I mean, it’s murky territory, and one that the couple may have simply capitalized on in an attempt to exact their own agenda, but murky nonetheless.

          I don’t blame you for being tired of the politics and I certainly understand. It’s (the juncture of politics and education) just an interest area of mine, so I can’t resist.

        • dwoz says:

          What’s very odd about this, Becky, from a religious beliefs standpoint, is that for the most part, the Catholics are very pragmatic, as an organization, about things political. They do have a couple of hot buttons…contraception and abortion…but go beyond that, and they’re really not out there pounding their breastplates and making loud noise.

          The Roman Catholic church has been at the top of the heap for over a thousand years not by taking sides, but by playing the sides against the middle. It’s the evangelicals that get out there and get all dirty playing politics, conducting partisan advocacy from the pulpit, etc.

          Not that it doesn’t happen with Catholics, but it is much subtler, much less overt. Hell, every single Democrat holding office in Boston is a Catholic.

          So yes, this happening in a Catholic girl’s school is certainly an anomaly.

        • Becky,

          No, the model speech was never given. No one ever got a true whiff of my actual politics, though yes, in the past, I had mentioned that I support universal health care and other more innocent issues. I never talked about (and always warned against talking about) the big, divisive issues–and you know what those are.

          In my school, as long as you didn’t talk about the big issue, you were fine. I also took pains not to be all like “If you think this way, you’re just stupid.” I was always really nice, actually, because I didn’t want to alienate anyone or scare people into having to think my way in order to earn a good grade. I never cared, particularly, what anyone believed, as long as my students could construct and present an intelligent argument for it.

          EC

        • Becky says:

          I don’t think it works to glean the “normal” motivations of all Catholics from the vacillations in political emphasis/battle selection of the Vatican. Trust me when I say that I don’t lack for knowledge of religion and religious history.

          Certainly, as with most religions, all kinds of different shades of the political spectrum can be found among Catholics. And with a private school, as with any number of private (and arguably public) entities, if you have an influential contingent of very politically sensitive and vindictive people–religious, atheist, or otherwise–this type of outcome is not the least bit shocking.

        • True.

          Having been raised as a Catholic Democrat by people who revered the Kennedys (and hailed from the New England area, generally), I did not realize until quite recently that there now exist much more strident, neo-Catholic Fundamentalist types. I had no idea.

        • Becky says:

          Well, that’s another aspect, too.

          Are New England Catholics Democrats because they’re Catholic, or because they’re in New England?

          Chicken-or-Egg situation.

        • dwoz says:

          Too broad a brush, Becky.

          In Massachusetts, yes, they’re democrat because they’re Catholic. Not so in NH, Maine, Conn. Rhode Island has a larger latin/portuguese contingent, and they’re staunchly Catholic just because.

          I think Vermont tends to be more in the FSM congregation. Overwhelmingly in New England, the Catholic Church is moderate. The baptists up here ARE political, but not nearly as rabid as the revivalist/megachurch varieties down south.

        • dwoz says:

          bear in mind too, that my original comment was about the church organization itself, not so much about individuals or factions. As you say, they can be all over the map.

        • Becky says:

          Now sure how I used too broad a brush when I never made a statement. “It depends,” is a perfectly acceptable answer to my question.

          On the other hand, you still have whole states operating under the same motivations.

        • dwoz says:

          But a question can be over-broad too, yes? A question answered with an ambiguity is not a final question.

          As far as states go, you’re used to living in states that can’t be crossed in 2 hours. But sure. In NH, the more populated areas to the south are much more progressive/moderate than the upper part of the state. Hanover(Dartmouth), Peterborough (MacDowell Colony) Portsmouth (seacoast) are shading toward Godless Liberal, and the rest of ’em are shading toward Goldwater Republicans.

          My problem is that i was raised here, and haven’t really spent enough time around the country to really swim with the hardcore fundies. Religion in New England has a very strong pragmatist tradition, so my own views are certainly skewed by that. I likely simply fail to stand in a place where the rabid fundamentalism and church-centrism are driving political forces, so my ignorance is on display

        • Becky says:

          A question can offer a false dichotomy, which is what I think you meant to say. But mine wasn’t meant to be an absolute either/or; rather, it was a statement of agreement posing as a rhetorical question. But we stray from the point.

          My point in mentioning Catholic school is that–and as a public school graduate, I could be wrong–one would expect to find a larger propensity towards conservative politics in private religious schools than one might in other schools, whether it’s because conservative parents are religious and want their kids educated in that environment, or because conservatives have a problem with politics of public education, or because some are rich and can just afford to or don’t want their kids mixing with the hoi polloi.

          Though the undercurrent of class evil as synonymous with conservatism and the equation of Catholic school and wealth that seems to underlie some of the comments here is troubling to me, since liberals are weathier than conservatives, on average, nationwide, and furthermore, my husband grew up on welfare and still went to private Catholic school.

          So, while Elizabeth’s antagonists may well have been wealthy, there’s another stereotype resentment lurking there. I mean, conservative, wealthy, religious. That’s the trifecta for the archetypal liberal villain. It’s like Joe Campbell has risen from his grave.

        • Becky says:

          Whoops. “Liberal villain” should be read to mean “antagonizer of liberals” or “villian in the eyes of liberals.”

          Sounds like I meant “liberal who IS a villain.” Not so.

        • dwoz says:

          for some reason, the intended meaning was clear, even though it shouldn’t have been.

          I think ultimately my read of Elizabeth’s situation comes down as much to classism as it does to politics.

          Daddy got his ass hurt from the bunched panties he received when his daughter wrote a shitty paper for English class.

          Not to mention, the fact that the child had initiated a provocation herself has been entirely glossed over. One of the asides to Elizabeth’s story is that the parents were keeping a log of what they considered to be offenses. In fact, the parents were monitoring her outside activities (her personal blog, not her school web presence).

          This was a hit job, pure and simple, and I think it had just as much to do with a do-no-wrong daddy’s princess at risk for a bad grade as it did political views.

          But the fact that it was a hacked homework assignment seems to keep being lost. It was Elizabeth’s error to disallow CURRENT political figures in her assignment. For example, she should have made them write about one of the ancient history Presidents like Carter or Ford.

        • Becky says:

          Well, yeah. But it’s a child. I mean, botched assignment, provocation or not, she can’t be held responsible for this, really. It’s being glossed over because it isn’t a very fertile realm for debate.

          The only action of real significance or dispute in this scenario is that taken by adults.

          And of course, there is considerable precedent for monitoring of public online activity by employers and using any information resulting from such activity to discontinue employment.

          I mean, it may be a hit job, and that might suck, and the motivation might not be pure, but it is not an invasion of privacy to access public online material, and if there is something there that is significantly objectionable enough in the eyes of the employer (or if, in this case, someone else can convince them it’s objectionable enough) to reflect poorly on the business (in this case the school), then they have the right to terminate employment.

          Like I said. I think she was caught on a technicality that had nothing to do with her antagonizers’ real motivations, but this has been run through a million times in other lawsuits resulting from termination of employment based on online content, and generally speaking, the employer wins. At least that’s my perception.

        • dwoz says:

          are you saying that with a sigh of resignation, a tinge of lament that the balance of power is tipping that way; or with a sort of final cadence, that expresses your endorsement?

          I’m certainly not naive about the issue of discussing the workplace, outside work. I myself am under numerous Non-disclosure agreements, and I’d be fired if I, for instance, said much of anything about the project I’m working on, here.

          So I get it, that you can’t tell tales out of school. But there is a question of whether there’s a thin bright line. Can Elizabeth, as a teacher in a private school, blog about the topic of teaching? Or must she not? if her blog was indeed a political blog, where the topic of teaching never came up (except perhaps discussing the defunding of Head Start), is that fair game?

          What I guess I’m struggling with here, is whether there even IS a line? Is the prohibition arbitrary? We can obviously agree across the spectrum of illegal behavior (i.e. pedophile, etc.) and directly work-related discussion (objection to policy, talking about school events in concrete terms). But where IS that pesky line?

        • Becky says:

          I don’t know if I lament it or not. I don’t see it as a tip in the balance of power, necessarily. I think people, individuals, have the bulk of power in the online world. Especially with the availability of private sites, privacy controls, etc. The ability to make things NOT public.

          I know that I wouldn’t say awful things about my family online and then expect them to treat me warmly as ever, as if it never happened, for example. I mean, just because it’s online doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t be held accountable for the things we say and do. I don’t tend to think that the internet is some kind of free-for-all “ghoul” where no one can get tagged.

          Feelings that it should be that way seem–ironically, maybe, given the context of our discussion–to be at least somewhat related to the troll’s motivations/perceptions/feelings about online behavior. It’s anonymous;it doesn’t count in the real world; I can do/say whatever I want with no consequences.

          I think that line will never be clearly defined, really, because it can’t be. An employer is not the federal government, and policies likely change from place to place. I’d suspect you could talk more and in more specific terms about a job at Arbys than about a job in the D.O.D. or when dealing with children, for example.

          Most work agreements say you could be fired at any time for any reason (barring discrimination), and it was like that long before the internet.

          I got fired once for telling my boss that everyone hated him and liked the assistant manager better. It was true. Was my freedom of speech infringed upon or was that just, plainly, a stupid-ass thing to say for which I paid the obvious price?

        • dwoz says:

          I got fired once for saying my new employer (man who purchased company I worked for) was the spitting image of one of my uncles, only shorter.

          Not realizing my own tone-deafness until I saw the look in his eye, this sort of enraged, maniacal but calm look, like there was a hurricane inside those corneas. He was, of course, one of the little napoleons. About 5’1″, and enough swagger in his step to be seen from centerstage all the way back to row ZZ12 in the upper balcony.

          It took him a couple weeks to find a worthy reason to pull the trigger, but I knew that I was fired the moment those ill-considered words had left my mouth.

          Was he within his rights? perhaps. Like you say, “freedom to work” means free to be fired. Is it fair? no fucking way. We’re talking about people’s lives here. Mouths to feed, etc.

          Are we still serfs who exist at the pleasure of the lord of the manor? you bet.

        • Becky says:

          Like ma always said, “Life isn’t fair.”

  16. Dana says:

    I helped out with bookkeeping duties at a local private school several years ago. I’d already seen the ridiculous tuition bills my boss was paying to them so I was absolutely appalled at the pay rates of the teaching staff. Except for receiving reduced tuition for their own children, (and as you mentioned) a fondness remembered from their own childhood, I can’t imagine how they ever keep them staffed.

    I’m sorry that you have to go through this.

    • Thanks, Dana–

      Yes, aside from the reduced tuition for your own kids, and–depending on the school–a usually-more-pleasant-atmosphere for teachers, there isn’t much sense taking the pay cut or the career risk.

      Best,

      EC

  17. Holy shit! Elizabeth, I don’t know how I missed all this, but I had no idea this was going on. My god. What a nightmare. I’m so sorry you’ve been put through this. What a ridiculous and sad mark of shame on our country, that things like this can even happen here. Isn’t this exactly the opposite of everything we supposedly stand for? And aren’t some of the people who are attacking you supposedly the most rabid about preserving the Constitution? Um, ever heard of Freedom of Speech, assholes?

    I wish there were something I could do for you. Congratulations on your bravery in speaking out. I’m glad some people have been willing to listen and provide a platform.

    • Hi Gina,

      Thanks for writing.

      The whole situation is really weird because–as was sort of noted above–I grew up learning that to be Catholic meant you HAD to be a Democrat. There was no other way, not if you cared about helping other people. Now, because of abortion, things got reversed in some people’s minds. Not mine, but then again, I don’t even go to church anymore because I can’t deal with all of this.

      I am probably going to have a book on the subject, but I don’t mean necessarily this crisis. I mean a teaching memoir, more general. Certainly, I will touch upon this, because it’s what got me out of teaching. Getting into teaching was a total accident; I was basically recruited.

      Anyway–best of luck with your new book. I have to read it!

      EC

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