a personal column by Greg Freeman of the Post Dispatch, November 22, 1996


LET'S HEAR IT for those teachers who are willing to go outside tradition to make sure kids learn.

That's the kind of teacher I consider Cissy Lacks to be. And that's why I was pleased to see her win a jury award of $750,000 from the Ferguson-Florissant School District.

The district fired Lacks last year by the district from her teaching job at Berkeley High School for letting students use profanity in a creative writing assignment.

Most high school students have heard these words. I've got a teen-ager, and while he doesn't hear them from his mother or me, I'd have to be an ostrich with his head deep in the sand to think he hasn't heard them from other kids at school, from the movies, from music, even from TV.

That's still no excuse, some will say. Indeed, a reader wrote me this week to express disappointment in the court judgment and subsequent jury award.

"Resorting to the use of profanity has always been viewed by the society that I am part of as a lack of adequate education of the speaker to find acceptable language," the reader wrote. "If teachers instruct that use of profanity is acceptable, is that instructing the students that day-to-day business will accept that language as normal? I sure hope it never gets to that point."

I can only speak from experience.

When I was a student at Beaumont High School, I belonged to a creative writing club. It was called Writer's Workshop, and our goal was to produce a book of our stories and poetry. The book was called "Freedom in a Straitjacket."

It wasn't very good, really, although we thought it was great at the time. I was probably the worst writer of the bunch. There's a good reason I never became a poet.

Some of the students' writing included profanity. It was the way some students expressed themselves. Our sponsors were two teachers, Larry Mitchener and Bob Earleywine, who encouraged us to write what we felt. While I didn't use profanity - my folks would have killed me - some of the other students did. Yet Mitchener and Earleywine didn't restrain us. Their goal was to get us to open up, to express ourselves.

They succeeded. All of us got into our writing, into learning how to express ourselves well. For the two teachers, I suspect it was much like teaching someone to swim. The first step was to get us into the water; once we were there, they could teach us how to best move ourselves across the pool. But you can't move across the pool if you don't get into the water first.

My feeble efforts at writing eventually took me into the field of journalism. For others, their efforts taught them to become better writers. And something that I - and I'm sure my fellow students - know today is that it doesn't take profanity to express yourself well. But that was something we had to learn. For us, the teaching experiment worked.

Mitchener and Earleywine weren't your typical teachers. Rules weren't the most important things to them. Teaching was. It wasn't as important to them that we colored between the lines as it was that we learned the brilliance of the colors and how to use them to create.

Cissy Lacks did those sorts of things as a teacher. She worked with kids - sometimes kids others had given up on - and drew out their creativity. She taught them how to express themselves on paper. It may not have been the way you or I might express ourselves, but it was expression nonetheless.

That was what was troubling about her dismissal last year. The School Board's decision to let her go sent an ominous message to teachers: Be safe. Go with the flow. Don't be creative, and never, ever color outside the lines.

Sometimes, though, it takes some coloring outside those lines to learn how to eventually color within them.

Unconventional folks often make the powers-that-be nervous. They test the limits. They aren't predictable. They push the envelope.

But they're often very creative. Sometimes they go about things in a different way, and that's not always a bad thing. Sometimes they tackle problems from a different direction when they see problems aren't being resolved from another direction.

Sometimes the ends justify the means.

Had she realized that the writing assignment she gave her students would have caused her all this trouble, I suspect Lacks may have made some adjustments in the writing assignment she gave. But she didn't commit a felony here. She didn't assault a student. She didn't teach her kids to lie or steal.

She tried to encourage some students to write.

It's difficult for me to fault her for that.