Editorial, March 12, 1995, Post Dispatch



After extended sessions held by the Ferguson-Florissant School Board for the purpose of firing English teacher Cissy Lacks, the case comes down to this: In trying to encourage students to express themselves in the most natural way possible, Ms. Lacks let them use offensive language. For that, district officials want to end her career. Based on the testimony from both sides, that verdict would be a sad mistake, for her and her students.

Ms. Lacks is the veteran, award-winning teacher at Berkeley High School who was suspended without pay in January. Her offense was simply asking students in her creative writing class to write dialogue about situations based on their own experiences. Not surprisingly, the language was closer to the streets than it was to Shakespeare. A 38-minute videotape of the students reading their works was a prime piece of evidence for the district.

The assignment came after the teen-agers had studied the play "Fences" by August Wilson, the prize-winning black playwright whose work is moving and powerful - not because it is gentle and proper but because it is raw and reflects what people really feel and how they really say it. No one would call him an example unworthy of study.

Once students were given free rein to use whatever language they wanted to use in a creative assignment, some of them went overboard, testing limits as only teen-agers can. The easy way to handle such situations is to clamp down on them, with rigid rules that try to preserve decorum - and dampen the creative spark that schools too often extinguish. The wise and courageous teacher will not destroy that spirit but will mold and encourage it, to show students that their minds and their feelings are worth her time and expertise.

School districts have the right to draw up standards for their teachers. But when they do so, they should show the flexibility to respect the methods of teachers like Cissy Lacks, who refused to take the simple road. Instead, for her drive to demand the best from her students, she is being hounded.

Her methods and the end result were not easy for everyone to accept. But she acknowledges the difference between behavior in the classroom and the creative impulse, and the fact that nurturing that impulse is education's most important job. Her way gets results far more lasting than timid, traditional approaches that ruffle no feathers. If Ferguson-Florissant believes in education, it will accept and value Ms. Lacks, not banish her from a profession she loves and does well.