Expletives Deleted

By Karen Diegmueller — June 21, 1995   Education Week

Until the night of Jan. 11, Cissy Lacks thought she pretty much knew what to teach in her English classes and how to teach it. After all, she’d been employed by the Ferguson-Florissant school district for 21 years, and, in all that time, her superiors had characterized her performance as “good” or “outstanding.” Only in a few categories--punctuality and conformance to state law and district policies--did her marks fall as low as “acceptable.” Moreover, written comments on the evaluations throughout her tenure specifically praised her creative-writing instruction.

But all that changed when the veteran teacher returned from seeing the film “Little Women” that Wednesday night and listened in growing confusion to a message on her answering machine. “Hello, Cissy, this is Mr. Mitchell,” said the voice of her principal at Berkeley High School. “I would like to talk with you regarding the tape that was done about two or three weeks ago involving your class. ... It’s pretty shocking, and I would like for you to meet me at the administration building tomorrow morning at 8:30. There is no need for you to report to the school. …”


Lacks, who routinely uses videotapes in her English classes, had no idea what Vernon Mitchell was referring to. Failing to reach him on the phone, she tried calling the head of her department and then her union representative, who agreed to accompany her to the meeting the next morning. Terry Reger, who represents teachers in her district for the Ferguson-Florissant National Education Association, kept asking her colleague, “What have you been doing?” Lacks remembered that she had recently shown her students the film “Mississippi Burning” about the F.B.I. and the civil-rights era. Nothing else unusual had happened. “I couldn’t even imagine what it had been,” she says.

When the two arrived at the meeting the next morning, they found the principal along with the assistant superintendents for personnel and curriculum waiting for them. During the brief meeting, the administrators quizzed her about the tapes. Lacks didn’t answer most of their questions, in part because the union representative advised her not to, in part because she couldn’t remember much about the tapes in question, which, it turned out, had been made three months earlier, in October.

The tapes showed her 11th graders, all of them African-American, acting out plays they had written that dealt with such themes as sex, teenage pregnancy, gangs, drugs, killings, and imprisonment, as well as the quest for love. But they also contained a steady stream of profanity, street jargon, and “black dialect.” The teenagers spouted words like “motherfucker,” “bitch,” and “nigger.”


The district officials told Lacks she was suspended immediately. She left the meeting shaken, astonished, and confused about just what she had done to merit such punishment. Two months later, after a public hearing that took place over four nights, the school board fired her for violating the student-discipline code in her creative-writing exercises by allowing profanity. Lacks sued, and the matter is now before a U.S. District Court judge and jury.

What the teacher permitted and how school officials punished her have polarized this suburban St. Louis community. To her detractors, she encouraged students to use extreme profanity in classroom assignments and by doing so fostered racial stereotypes. But to her supporters, what is profane is the loss of a talented, committed, and caring teacher who could reach students regardless of their race or ethnicity. And for the woman at the center of the controversy, it is a case of students and teachers alike being robbed of the voices they need to learn and to teach.


For the past three decades, Cissy Lacks’s life has been defined largely by the classroom. She and her students have won numerous honors, including a national award for student newspaper excellence when she was at McCluer High School here. She and the district were honored for excellence by the Missouri Council of Social Studies for an international-culture center she ran. Lacks was also recognized by the Newspaper Fund as one of the top 15 high school journalism teachers in the United States.

Since her firing, however, she has been forced to shift her focus to self-preservation and to insuring that her legacy does not leave teachers afraid to reach out to their students.

The termination not only jeopardized her reputation; it has threatened her financial future. Teachers in Missouri are ineligible for Social Security, and the 49-year-old Lacks has about 3-1/2 years to go in the system before she qualifies for a full pension. The district also contested her claim for unemployment compensation. But last week, a state official ruled that Lacks is eligible for unemployment because she did not violate her employer’s rules or policies. Until that ruling, she had lived entirely off her savings.

So she spends her days laboring to restore both reputation and security. The two-story house she shares with Catsela, the tortoise-shell cat who turned up on this dog-lover’s porch near death eight years ago, is littered with manila folders filled with papers, documents, and newspaper clippings she has amassed to support her legal claims. A collection of Menorahs claims the paper-free spots on bookshelves, mantle, and dining-room hutch. 

Then there are the stacks of supportive and informational letters from friends and strangers alike. One of them alerted her to Storm in the Mountains, a book about censorship in a West Virginia school district. She thumbs through it, marking passages that may be pertinent to her case. “I predict, in fact, that the next surge of censorship will concern student writing, which has rarely been criticized before only because it was mostly neglected or limited to some sort of writing about the reading,” writes author and educator James Moffett. “Controlling reading material effectively constrains the subject matter of writing, thus killing two birds with one stone. Students who really [write] outgrow just being somebody’s children.”

So involved is Lacks in defending herself that the law offices of Schuchat, Cook & Werner in downtown St. Louis have become a kind of second home for her. People call her and fax her messages there as she helps lawyer Lisa Van Amburg prepare her case.


Like a Talmudic scholar, Lacks teases apart the nuances of the case. How, she asks Van Amburg, can the judicial system accept statements from school officials that she believes to be lies? While Van Amburg focuses on the legalities, Lacks perceives the situation in ethical terms. Time and again, she expresses astonishment at her predicament: How can someone who has devoted her life to doing what she thought best for her students be punished and humiliated? 

She spoke recently about her firing at a local temple, and concluded that the issues go beyond profanity and censorship. She says institutions have become mean-spirited. “I am also convinced,” she told the congregants, “we are going to destroy any chances for effective communication with each other, and, therefore, trust and pleasure in each other, if we don’t deal with the harm such mean-spiritedness creates.”

National groups that monitor cases of academic freedom and censorship say they are probably more common than the public realizes. But teachers and districts often negotiate a quiet deal in which the teacher resigns in return for a favorable recommendation.

Typically, it is not some “crazy fringe teacher” who gets in trouble, says Deanna Duby, the director of education policy for People for the American Way, a liberal constitutional-watchdog group. Rather, they are teachers who “try to do innovative and creative things that will get kids excited about learning. They should be getting awards; they’re getting fired.” 


Talk to Lacks’s students, whether from the 70’s, 80’s, or 90’s, and they will tell you that she is just that sort of teacher. They say she views each student as an individual and not just as another member of the class. And her students respond accordingly.

“Before Miss Lacks, if I was doing poorly in a class, I would shut off in that class,” says Irsheca Loving, a student in the late 1980’s. “After her, I thought of teachers as real people. Before, all my teacher was was someone who stood at the front of the room.” Loving is now in college studying to be a teacher herself. 


A decade earlier, Greg Falk was in her classes. “Cissy has a certain genius about her approach,” he says. “I don’t think I was ever tested by any teacher other than Cissy Lacks.”

A petite woman, affectionately called “Munchkin” or “Dr. Ruth” by some students--albeit not to her face--Lacks grew up in suburban St. Louis. She is not one of those people whose lifelong ambition was to teach. In college, she took education courses only because many women from her generation and lower-middle socioeconomic class saw it as a means of security. But then, she was sent on her student-teaching assignment. “I fell in love with it. How could you get so much pleasure from it and not want to do it?”


After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English and history from Washington University in St. Louis, she taught in a private school for several years before coming to the Ferguson-Florissant district in 1972. She continued her own education as well, earning a master’s degree in communications from Boston University, a specialist certificate in education administration from Southern Illinois University, and a doctorate in American studies from St. Louis University.

During her tenure, she also taught journalism courses at St. Louis University and took several leaves of absence to work on grant projects that often dealt with cross-cultural issues. Within the community, she also helped put together conferences on race relations, particularly between Jews and African-Americans.

Three years ago, she was assigned to Berkeley High School, one of three high schools in the 11,000-student district, and the only one that almost exclusively serves black students. Of the three, Berkeley is the most isolated. It shares its campus, reached by a heavily potholed street, with a boarded-up junior high school and another building that houses alternative programs for students who cannot succeed in traditional settings. 

McCluer High School, meanwhile, is located on a beautifully sculpted rolling landscape in Ferguson. The more modern McClure North sits next to the administration complex and across the street from the civic center in Florissant.

Some Berkeley students believe they don’t count as much as their peers at McCluer or McClure North. The perception may be unfair. St. Louis airport officials have been contemplating buying the property for some time, so the district doesn’t want to invest much in the physical plant. If the airport buys the land, the district will close Berkeley and transfer its students to the other schools.

When Lacks arrived at Berkeley in 1992, the student newspaper was defunct. There was no yearbook, no poetry classes, no creative-writing classes. “The students had no voice,” Lacks says in her rapid-fire fashion. She set about reviving the newspaper and yearbook, working with the school librarian to offer poetry, and incorporating creative writing in her English classes.


Lacks has never tolerated vulgar language in the classroom. In class discussions and in answering questions, she requires students to use appropriate language. But in the creative-writing units, she followed her long-held belief that she should not censor her students. “If I censor that first [work], then I don’t get to that last good one,” Lacks explains.

Her efforts earned her kudos.

Wrote librarian Rina Krasney in a letter dated Nov. 18, 1993, about the poetry instruction: “You are an inspired teacher, and the results produced are outstanding.”

In January 1994, Principal Vernon Mitchell wrote a memo thanking her and the newspaper staff for producing an issue of the Berkeley Bulldog Express that “included good articles and writing [that] reflects a professional attitude and responsibility. Keep up the good work.”


But then, even the people who fired her don’t doubt that she is a good teacher. They say she used bad judgment and refused to mend her ways. “In this situation, we did what we thought was best for our kids,” says Cindy Reeds Ormsby, the president of the school board.

As they see it, the poor judgement is evident in the two videotapes the school officials confronted Lacks with. Running just over 26 minutes, the tapes show four sets of students performing their plays. Three of the performances are scripted. Their grades ranged from an A-minus to a C-minus. The fourth is improvisational, static, and rarely intelligible. Lacks gave those students a D-minus.

The production values are patently amateurish; the students often speak too quickly or garble their words, resulting in unintelligible dialogue. At times, they appear serious about their work; at other times, they laugh and giggle. What they all have in common, though, are heavy doses of profanity, including the vernacular for sexual intercourse, and black dialect and street jargon.


The playwriting was part of a broader assignment. Initially, the students watched the films “Cadence,” about the cultural and dialectic similarities and differences between a white man and his fellow black soldiers in a brig, and “Stand By Me,” about a group of adolescents who search for a missing boy. They read August Wilson’s play Fences, which examines racial injustice through the story of a father and son’s athletic aspirations. They wrote plot summaries and reaction pieces that were to incorporate their feelings and opinions.

Next, Lacks gave them two weeks to write and produce a two- to five-character script about “something important to you.” In the assignment sheets she handed out, she reminded the students that “drama is not everyday conversations. It is stronger, more dramatic, but, at the same time, sounds everyday, sounds believable.”

The lesson was to culminate with the class working with actors from a black repertory theater. But those exercises and field trips to theater performances were canceled when she was suspended.

The students also decided they wanted the performances videotaped, with the proviso that the video would be seen only by the class. Lacks says she showed it once and then stored it in a locked closet in her classroom.

There, the tapes stayed for three months until at least one student--and possibly two or more--complained to a guidance counselor, who then brought the tapes to the principal’s attention.

Administrators contend that several students told them that they didn’t want to participate in a class where students were required to make obscene tapes. Records show that at least one student complained. Lacks says that student, who had taken her classes for three years, was unhappy because she was no longer getting as much attention as she wanted. She has since dropped out, Lacks says.


On Jan. 11, Lacks sent the student to the guidance office with the aim of getting a transfer to another class, an action that goes against the grain of school rules.


Lacks doesn’t know what happened at this point, and Mitchell isn’t talking. But all the parties agree that sometime after Lacks left for the day, Mitchell went into her classroom and seized the tapes from the closet as well as her grade book from her desk.

It wasn’t just the tapes that got her into trouble. There were two student-written poems, also laced with obscenities, that Lacks herself brought to the attention of the administration to show the evolution of a student’s work. By allowing the troubled and angry youth to express himself freely, she says, he was able in just a few weeks’ time to become so articulate--and without resorting to curse words--that he won a districtwide poetry contest. The administration used the first poems, but not the last, to help build its case against Lacks. 

Mitchell also asserted that he and Lacks had some run-ins over profanity in the student newspaper. There is nothing in writing to suggest that he warned her. And the newspapers themselves show very little that could be construed as obscene. In one story, the word “ass” is designated with an “A.” In another, there are four asterisks, which in context could signify “hell” or “shit.”


The other charge critics like to make is that Lacks is “independent,” which sounds like another dirty word when they use it to describe her. While those who know her well agree that she is independent, they say she is by no means a renegade.

For example, some years ago, some of Lacks’s students wanted the cafeteria to stop using plastic and paper products. She supported them. “She lets the kids lead,” says Reger, the union representative. “Sometimes, it takes her in the direction that doesn’t make her popular with the upper echelon.”

She has also been accused of arrogance and egotism, to which she pleads guilty--at least in the classroom. “I had a very large teaching ego,” says Lacks. “I think that’s great. I want students to have very large student egos. All the time we’re thinking we’re going to be doing something wonderful together.”


The years at Berkeley have been the toughest of her career, Lacks acknowledges, especially the first year. Nothing she tried worked. The students found their literature anthology bland. Even the films she showed didn’t click.

She started making changes to the curriculum, adding more African-American writers, shorter stories, and different films. She sent syllabuses home to parents to alert them to what she was doing. If a student returned without a signed letter, he or she couldn’t read a certain piece or view a certain film.


The students talked her into “Boyz ‘n the Hood,” a hard-driving film about black youths living in a violent society. She told them it was pure fiction, an exaggeration; her students told her it was for real. But she also got them interested in Mel Gibson’s version of “Hamlet,” in which they could relate to the concept of revenge, though they didn’t think much of the character’s method of carrying it out.


“When something isn’t working, it drives me crazy,” says Lacks. “That doesn’t mean I can always fix it, but I’ve always felt at least it was an obligation to try to do something that affects them and they take seriously.”

What Lacks doesn’t tell you about are the other ways she tried to build rapport with her Berkeley students. She would challenge them to basketball games. She has also been known to throw herself into the middle of a fight. Lacks says it was her size that made the ploy effective because few students were willing to continue once she was between them. Nonetheless, “she took her share of punches,” says one student.

By the second year, she says, everything started to click into place. “I did my best teaching at Berkeley High School. I faced challenges I hadn’t faced before.”

Her students support that contention. “This is the 90’s,” says Shantia Burse, who was in Lacks’s class when she was suspended. “We need a new era of teaching because kids are different today. If the teachers who do try to change with the kids always get in trouble in the end, what kind of teachers are we going to have?”


Robert Liddell, who graduated last year, told the school board about the two types of teachers he had encountered: the kind who would send him to the principal’s office when he acted up and Lacks, who would talk to him and try to find out what was troubling him.


Liddell testified during the public hearing that he “could deal with the negativity of teachers,” but, at first, didn’t know how to cope with “someone showing me concern.” But it was more than Lacks’s concern that turned Liddell around. In her classes, “every day, every week, there was something new to be learned,” he said.

She also didn’t try to prevent him from writing about his strong Christian beliefs, like others had, and she guided him in making decisions about college and filling out his financial-aid forms when the guidance counselors didn’t have time for him.

How would you describe her as a teacher? Van Amburg, Lacks’s lawyer, asked.

“Like a mother,” Liddell replied. “As funny as it sounds--you know, there is a difference, skin color, race and all, that’s obvious. But I believe when a person shows you love and concern, it sees through all that. It goes through all the color.”


The technique Lacksuses in creative writing is called student-centered, which encourages students to write from their own experiences. “My particular philosophy in creative writing is if you don’t understand your own voices, you won’t appreciate or understand other people’s writing,” she says.

The National Council of Teachers of English strongly supports the pedagogy. “Dr. Lacks’s instructional activities ... appear to demonstrate approaches that the profession has long valued--providing literary models for students to read, enjoy, and emulate; encouraging students to write freely and creatively from the basis of their experience and imagination; acknowledging that some student depictions, like those of professional authors, properly involve realistic plot and dialogue; providing appropriate audiences for student works so that they don’t become mere English-class experiences,” Charles Suhor, the deputy executive director of the N.C.T.E., wrote to the Ferguson-Florissant school board after Lacks was suspended.


Other English teachers in the district also accept the instructional method, although not all of them allow their students to go as far as Lacks does. “Some of us are less comfortable than others with the profanity,” says Susan M. Stoeberl, the president of the Greater St. Louis English Teachers’ Association and a Ferguson-Florissant teacher. Yet, she acknowledges that Lacks’s approach can pay dividends. “She has the trust of her students that many of us aspire to.”

Not all English teachers, of course, use this approach. Some use a form-based method in which the student writes to fit a structure or formula. The form-based approach generally requires writers to manipulate abstractions and then shoehorn their ideas and emotions into the structure. “There are all these hurdles,” says Suhor. “Most [students] handle it as a classroom exercise.”


A parent who described herself as a strict disciplinarian also came to Lacks’s defense. She said her daughter, who had been a behavior problem, markedly changed her ways after Lacks introduced her to creative writing. “What I have learned,” Patricia Brown told the school board, is “that when you censor children, teenagers, they turn you off.”

But even some of those who agree with her pedagogy question her judgment.

Terry Proffitt, a principal who once supervised Lacks, is among them. “I don’t think it’s a question of style,” says Proffitt. “The Cissy Lacks I have observed would never have had the students at McCluer North participate in what I saw in the videotape.”

Proffitt says he knows many of the students in the tape, knows their families, and disputes the notion that they are street kids who run with gangs, use drugs, and are otherwise exposed to violence. “They are on a higher plane,” says Proffitt. “They were capable of better writing.”


Adds Reeds Ormsby, the school board president, “I think she misread the community and the class.”


Race became an issue, or maybe it was there all along. A transcript of an interrogation of a student shows Principal Mitchell, who is black, chastising the student for “acting a fool” in front of the white teachers and the audio-visual technician who attended the videotaping of the students’ plays. “I was offended watching my students act like that, because it’s a very bad stereotype of black people,” Mitchell said.

A parent who was offended voices the same opinion. “I don’t think you should encourage the use of profanity, racial slurs, sexual suggestion,” says Helen Dunbar, whose son was in Lacks’s class last year. “That is giving children permission to act a complete fool as far as I’m concerned. I still don’t see an educational value.”

During the hearings, Proffitt says, he saw two black parents in the audience weeping and saying, “Our children are better than that.”

But a student-written play, performed for the public in 1991 and videotaped, depicts many of the same themes contained in the tapes of Lacks’s class--only much more graphically. The boys and girls intimately grope each other during a dance scene, and the killings are portrayed much more realistically than in Lacks’s tapes. The same profanity is used, but more sparingly. At the end of the tape, Mitchell is applauding and repeatedly thanking the students, whose teacher was black.

Some critics of Lacks’s also intimate that the students scammed her; that as a white woman she was only too willing to encourage a portrayal of African-Americans that whites buy into. “She just ate that stuff up,” says Frank Susman, the school board lawyer, who is white, as are all seven members of the school board.


Burse doesn’t see it that way at all. “Some African-American teenagers don’t cuss, but it’s very few,” says the high school junior. “I have white friends. They talk the same way. It’s no black-and-white issue to me, but they made it out that way.”

She also says that there are teenagers who hang out on the streets and get involved in gangs and drugs. “What is wrong with Ferguson-Florissant is they don’t want to see it.”

The administration initially lodged a half-dozen or more charges against Lacks. For example, she was cited with sexual harassment because she allowed her students to be exposed to profanity.

Almost immediately, all but one charge was dropped. The student-discipline code prohibits student use of profanity. It is a Type II offense, which is considered a lesser offense than Type I behavior. Possible punishments include verbal reprimand, loss of class or school privileges, special work assignments, change of class schedule, and temporary separation from peers.

It was under this code that the school board found grounds to fire Lacks. “The policy,” Reger says, “was never meant to be used against teachers.” Indeed, the union rep says it has not been used against a teacher in the nearly 25 years she has been in the district.

The audio-visual specialist who did the taping and another teacher who observed it received two-day paid suspensions and letters of reprimand in their personnel files. The students were not disciplined, district officials say, because they were under the influence of their teacher.

Had her client been charged with just about anything else, says Van Amburg, the state teacher-tenure law would have required that she be given written warning and 30-days’ notice of the district’s intentions as well as other due-process protections. The lawsuit Van Amburg filed last month seeks Lacks’s reinstatement as well as back pay and benefits. The suit was filed in state court, but a judge later referred it to federal court. Lacks has also filed a racial-discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The suit alleges that the district charged Lacks with violating the student-discipline code only as an afterthought. Because the district was unhappy with the way she taught creative writing, it should have charged her with incompetence or insubordination and dealt with her under the teacher-tenure law. The brief accuses the district of violating the teacher-tenure law and the free-speech and academic-freedom clauses of the U.S. and Missouri constitutions.

The district itself has an academic-freedom policy that prohibits arbitrary limitations on “the study, investigation, presentation, and interpretation of facts and ideas in the classroom,” provided that the work falls within the framework of district curriculum objectives and school board policy.

In fact, Ferguson-Florissant has long had a reputation of not only accepting innovative teaching but encouraging it, says Stoeberl. Indeed, the uninhibited climate and history of trust between teachers and officials has made what happened to Lacks all the more alarming to the faculty.

Yet, to school officials, the issue is crystal clear: Lacks willfully and persistently violated and failed to follow the board’s student-discipline code. “Do these acts violate the policy? That’s the whole case,” says Susman, the district lawyer.

Moreover, says Susman, “She would not agree to change anything.” And, adds board president Reeds Ormsby, she wouldn’t apologize. “I think it would have made a difference if she had apologized and said she wouldn’t do it again.”


Citing the pending litigation, none of the central administrators, including Mitchell, will talk to reporters.

Lacks refuses to repudiate 20 years of effort. “Why would anyone put me in the classroom, with my experience, with my credentials, and tell me not to do something that I know works?” she asks.

The two sides also disagree about whether attempts were made to resolve the dispute other than termination or resignation.

During the hearing, administration officials testified that neither the teacher-tenure policy nor the academic freedom policy was relevant. Nor did they feel the need, they said, to identify the complainant, as district policy requires.

“After we saw the tapes, students were no longer the issue,” said John Wright, the assistant superintendent for personnel. “It was the content of what was taking place in the classroom that became the issue.”

In another exchange, Van Amburg asked Wright if he was charging Lacks with ordering her students to use profanity. “I’m charging her with setting the tone,” Wright replied.


The local media have had a field day with the story. Editorial writers and columnists almost unanimously sided with Lacks. “Her way gets results far more lasting than timid, traditional approaches that ruffle no feathers,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch declared. “If Ferguson-Florissant believes in education, it will accept and value Ms. Lacks, not banish her from a profession she loves and does well.”

But school officials hung tough, claiming that they represented the great silent majority in the community. Though Lacks’s advocates were louder and more numerous, district officials maintained that she had manipulated the media with a public-relations machine made up of a network of outsiders.

The half-dozen former students sitting around Lacks’s dining-room table one day last month scoffed at the notion that a slick P.R. campaign was drummed up to save her. Some of them had kept in close touch with Lacks since graduation, others hadn’t seen or spoken to her in years until they heard of her plight.

Regina Engelken, a student from the early 1970’s and the mother of a 15-year-old, says that when some of her former students found out that Lacks had been suspended, they started a phone chain to alert other students and ask for their support. Lacks’s sister thought up the idea of producing “I Support Cissy” buttons and postcards. “That was her well-orchestrated network--her friends,” Engelken says.

“This shows you what happens when you have a teacher who touches lives,” says Lee Walker Falk, who graduated in 1978. “You can’t not do for someone you owe so much to. That’s what life is all about.”


The former students who have gone on to raising their own children reminisce about their clearly beloved teacher. She has gone upstairs while the interviews are underway. Earlier, though, she fretted over them, as she is wont to do.


To the students, she was “the best"; she was “phenomenal.” She gave them the freedom and responsibility to learn, the freedom to make mistakes, and the freedom to learn from the mistakes.

They also dispute some of the allegations that have whirred around Lacks: that her classes were unruly, that her students were disrespectful.

In the mid-70’s, Mark Weible used to drive his girlfriend, who edited the student newspaper, to Lacks’s house to feed her dog when she was out of town. The teenage Weible figured it was a great opportunity for the couple to be alone in the house. But his girlfriend would not so much as kiss him there. “That’s how much respect she had for her,” says Weible, now the father of two teenage boys in the district.

It’s hard to say the community is divided. The physical evidence overwhelmingly seems to support Lacks, but there are letters in support of the district. A stack contains such recurring themes as the tapes being demeaning to African-Americans and English class being a place for learning proper grammar.

“To give those young people a guideline for the content and language used to express themselves is not stifling their ‘creative flow,’” one parent wrote. “All young people need guidelines.”

“The children who were on camera were not being expressive; they were merely taking advantage of an opportunity to curse with a smile and not feel as though they were going to be disciplined for it,” wrote another. 

In Lacks’s home, though, the phone rings incessantly. The calls come not only from close friends and family but from a student she hasn’t seen in 20 years to strangers from near and far who just want to offer support and suggestions.

One of those strangers is E. Douglas McFarlin. The father of two grown sons, he is a local black businessman who spends his spare time coaching track with 5- to 15-year-olds, and he knows how difficult it is to develop a rapport with today’s youths, whose values seem so different from the previous generation’s.

After reading about her plight in the paper, he called and offered his support. He also attended the hearing and listened to the award-winning poetry her angry young student produced. “That night, I sat there and wept inside,” McFarlin says. “You have to relate to somebody before you get them to do that. What Cissy was doing was showing kids there’s another kind of power that doesn’t end them up six feet under.”


Two weeks after Lacks was suspended, a 15-year-old girl was sexually assaulted and beaten to death at McCluer North during the school day. The youth who has been charged as an adult in the case had transferred to the school within days of the brutal attack.

Community members, the girl’s mother, and the media accused district officials of badly mishandling events leading up to and following the girl’s murder. The fact that the boy was black and the girl white further inflamed the issue. Racist fliers were posted at the high school, and one radio talk-show host fired up his audience by declaring that “black scum-bag punks are killing the city, the suburbs, and the schools,” according to the Post-Dispatch.

Many of Lacks’s supporters believe that school officials came down hard on the teacher to prove they were strong, in control, effective in the wake of that criticism. District officials insist that the two events are unrelated.



Meanwhile, Lacks’s firing has teachers worried about their own classroom behavior. Frustrated students occasionally curse as they explain their problems to Susan Farkas, a guidance counselor at McClure High School. Now, she says, they are not as spontaneous for fear their vocabulary may get her into trouble.

Beverly Hopkins, an English teacher at the school, says the district’s actions have major implications for educators. “A teacher could possibly be in jeopardy for allowing students to read aloud a text that contained profanities,” she says.

And they wonder what to do about the student who deliberately wants to get a teacher in trouble.

Roni Hildreth teaches in a neighboring district. In the midst of the Lacks hearing, she says, teachers at her school were scrambling to find out if their district had a policy that addressed the issue. They found one that was “so vague,” says Hildreth, “any school board can interpret it any way they want to.”

The testimony of John Wright, the personnel director, and Barbara Davis, his counterpart in curriculum, only heightened the anxiety.

Wright told the school board that if profanity offended just one student, then a teacher should not permit it even if it were a literary character talking.


For her part, Davis testified that if a student read aloud a profanity in a district-approved book, the teacher could be guilty of violating the student-discipline code.

The district’s actions already appear to have had a chilling effect. Since Lacks’s firing, a drama teacher at one of the other high schools was told to excise the “damns” and “hells” from its production of the quintessential high school musical “Oklahoma.”

Reeds Ormsby, the school board president, calls the order to censor “Oklahoma” a “knee-jerk reaction” that should not have happened. But she also says there is no need to write a new policy, although the board will clarify policies already in existence.

“If they clarify the policy,” says Farkas, “I don’t know how they can convict Cissy the way they did.”

As she listened to Lacks testify to save her job in March, Beverly Hopkins suddenly felt the distress over her colleague’s predicament pushed aside by a surge of pride in being an English teacher.

In those moments when Lacks described to a packed crowd what and how she taught her high school students, Hopkins recalled the words of King Alcino"s in “The Odyssey": “You have told it like a poet who understands his craft.”


“Apparently, those people who mattered and made a decision didn’t see the same thing,” Hopkins laments.

Ann Rivers Mack, who has worked with Lacks on environmental-education projects, says it saddens her to think that Lacks is not in the classroom having an effect on students."Then, I think of the message to teachers who are about to begin their 20 years,” says Mack, shaking her head.

Lacks has been looking for other teaching positions; she even had an interview. But the administrator told her that while he would love to hire her, his school board probably wouldn’t want to take the chance what with all the scrutiny that would surely follow.

So, for now, Cissy Lacks isn’t practicing the craft of teaching.