Making Her Case


by Jeannette Batz


Students and writer-educators testify on creativity - language, profanity and meaningful education as reinstated Ferguson-Florissant teacher Cissy Lacks sues the district.

It's easier to prohibit something than understand it, easier to make rules than learn truth.

The Ferguson-Florissant School District took the easy way out last spring by firing Cissy Lacks from Berkeley High School because her students used street language in a creative-writing assignment. It didn't matter that Lacks did not permit students to use such language in the classroom. It didn't matter that the assignment was to write a script that had meaning in their everyday lives. It didn't matter that the script videotapes, seized without Lacks' permission, were made only so students could critique their own beginning efforts.

Now Lacks is suing the district in federal court, claiming that they violated her First Amendment rights to academic freedom, and that race was a motivating factor in her firing. A Caucasian Jewish teacher in a school that's roughly 98 percent African-American, she was trying to find ways for a group of disengaged students to connect with the curriculum and discover the power of writing. But the raw, preliminary results - plucked out of sequence and viewed out of context - inflamed conservative African-American administrators determined to uphold middle-class standards of respectability.

It was easy for principal Vernon Mitchell, an African-American, to assume -- despite Lacks' 30 years of committed interracial activism and staunch votes of confidence from African-American educators, parents and students -- that what he saw was "white folks videotaping black students acting the fool." It was easy for John Wright, assistant superintendent for personnel, to begin drafting what he admitted under deposition was "a laundry list" of charges before Lacks even had a chance to explain. It was easy for people to lose perspective, after a press release labeled Lacks' classroom exercise "an affront to the black community."

And when the trial in Lacks' suit began last week in federal court, it was easy for the district's defense attorney, Frank Susman, to cross-examine by quibbling, all the while basing his main argument on a fixed black-and-white view of profanity and policy.

Susman asked witness after witness whether a school board had the right to set whatever policy it chose, reminding them that Ferguson-Florissant policy requires teachers to uphold the student discipline code, and the code prohibits profanity. Surely it is possible for students to write creatively without using such language, he asked, defining profanity flatly as a particular set of words, and measuring its awfulness by their count. "The videos alone used the word "fuck' over 60 times," he told the jury in argument. "Try to compare that with any other evidence you hear."

Lacks, a veteran teacher unfazed by teenage attempts to shock adults or express raw experience, considered the meaning, function and context of students' word. Since her aim was to give students room to recognize their own excesses, she censored only language that degraded others. Hate language was true profanity, she maintained; what her students' scripts contained was a constant patter of street language that, however distasteful to adults, was an everyday part of their lives.

In August, Lacks won reinstatement with back pay in a summary judgment from the court. The other charges hinge on evidence, thus require a jury decision. Legally, that decision will involve constitutional freedoms, language and power. But the case also reveals the difficulties of teaching, learning and coming of age in a suspicious, fragmented society. Its resolution will tell other teachers whether they should even bother trying to connect with their students, or if they should watchdog policy and image instead.

What was going on in Lacks' classroom? A teacher of English, social studies, journalism and photography since 1971, she's won national awards for the district, done multicultural training and lectured on creativity.  In 1992, after finishing a doctorate, she switched from McCluer to Berkeley High School.

"Any special challenges?" her attorney, Lisa Van Amburg, asked in court.Lacks nodded vehemently. "I was used to students responding.... They seemed to be disengaged from the curriculum. I had a lot of discipline problems." Realizing that her students saw neither reason nor opportunity to express their ideas, she combed bookstores for texts they could connect with. She ordered new movies - Hamlet, Boyz 'N the Hood, Mississippi Burning, Stand by Me.  Detouring around her principal's objections, she started a student newspaper, The Berkeley Bulldog Express. She started a literary journal, suggested a poetry contest, put a creative writing component in every class and sent parents detailed letters describing her plans, listing the movies students would see, offering her phone number.

Why didn't she list the movies' ratings? Susman asked. The district gave teachers listings, didn't it?  "That catalog goes to elementary-school teachers," Lacks responded. "Some have 6-year-old students!" Her English III students were 17 and 18. "So you have shifted the burden to the parents to call you and ask if any of these are R-rated?" Susman fired back.

The movies weren't in question, though; the district purchased them itself. Discipline problems were now virtually nonexistent, and the students eagerly participated in class. Controversy arose with the drama unit, which opened with "Fences", a play by Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American author August Wilson. ("Do you have any knowledge of whether, when he was in high school, August Wilson was allowed to use profanity?" Susman asked Lacks. "August Wilson dropped out of high school," she replied. "Without participating in creative writing and using profanity, August Wilson was able to win a Pulitzer Prize," Susman persisted. Had Lacks reminded her students of that? "My students know that August Wilson dropped out of high school," she said calmly.

What her students saw was a video in which Wilson advised young writers to "go on the streets and listen to people, and then come back and write." The assignment that followed was to write a play about something important to you, and make sure the dialogue is natural to the characters. So the students, drawing on their own lives, TV, movies and hearsay, divided into four groups and wrote skits about gang violence, young romance, drug use and parents in prison.

Judging from their reaction, district officials were hoping for something more like Wally instructing the Beav about study habits. But witnesses pointed out that one of the students in question had witnessed the random shooting of a child by warring, another had been arrested on drug charges, several belonged to gangs and all lived in a world whose talk, music and film were soaked in such topics. When Van Amburg asked one of the script's main authors, Shantia Burse, why she chose the language she did, it took 18-year-old Burse a minute to even understand the question. "Oh," she finally exclaimed, looking around at the clueless adults. "Because that's what I deal with every day."

Lacks' classroom method is "student-centered teaching," formally established 20 years ago, and recommended by the Ferguson-Florissant district. Their Writer's Project guidelines tell teachers not to criticize: "Don't tell writers what should be in their writing.... Build on what writers know and have done." For Lacks, such guidelines were a reminder that students "are writing what they think they know about and what to them is important. Don't tell them, "Sorry, you can't do this, you have to lead a different life, I don't like this experience."

Lacks distinguishes carefully between judging and criticizing the content of a student's creative work and exploring, with gentle interest, the possibilities of its techniques. The distinction was lost on Susman, who asked, "Aren't these subtle questions just another form of critiquing?" So Van Amburg called Eugene Redmond, English professor and editor of literary journals at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, poet laureate of East St. Louis and winner of the American Book Award. Redmond has taught in Europe, Africa, Canada and the Carribbean; his method is similar to Lacks'. "You try to make the models as real as their lives are," he explained, stressing the importance of understanding students' culture. As for censoring, "When you say creativity, you mean" freedom. It's them and the language after that."

The next expert witness, also African-American, was Katherine Nelson, who over her 49-year career has trained teachers, worked as an officer of the Danforth Foundation and consulted with high schools about the needs of students outside the mainstream. "They believe writing is something experts do," she said, stressing how easy it is to "lose" today's students unless you touch on their experience of the world. As a child, asked how she spent her summer vacation, she used to write a story about visiting her grandmother on a farm. "I didn't have a grandmother," she added dryly, "and I'd never been on a farm."

Telling students not to use certain words would only draw their attention to the barriers, Nelson remarked. As for criticizing a student's language after the fact, "the risk is that the student will feel like his work has been rejected." But knowing the teacher will listen even if he doesn't say it right "is a door open."

After hearing Lacks' former students testify, it was easy to understand why the district doesn't want that door opened. Robert Liddell, now in college, said Lacks gave him freedom to express himself, "which I hadn't had as far as I could remember ever" in school." Lacks let him write about his Christianity, he recalled gratefully. "What came out, that was you, and she did not try to adjust it."

Patrice Singletary, now in her early 20s, studied under Lacks at McClure: "We were to respect ourselves and others and stay focused on what the agenda for that day was." Singletary used street language in a short story about a love triangle, and again in a monologue she performed as a 68-year-old man. "It was exciting, it was something different," she recalled, her serious voice taking on life. "I was allowed to be free. I was allowed to actually absorb my character, to speak as my character would speak." What did she learn? "That writing could be wonderful! I had never enjoyed it that much."

Why did she use profanity? "At first, to see if she would blink," Singletary admitted. "She didn't, so I had to find other ways to make her blink, and my writing got better ... and the fact that it was a good monologue got her attention." Singletary started reading more in order to write better, and she went on to college -- even though she'd gotten pregnant at 18. "All the rest of the teachers basically treated me as if my life was over. Ms. Lacks was the only teacher, theonly teacher, who still encouraged me to go to college. Stick to the agenda."

In cross-examination, Susman asked how many times the word "ass" had occurred in Singletary's monologue.

The following day, her mother, Patricia Brown, testified that when Patrice took Lacks' class, her grades went up for the first time in years and her behavior improved so dramatically, Brown had to investigate. A strict disciplinarian, she, too, was bothered that Lacks allowed her daughter to write so freely. But after a long conversation with Lacks, Brown realized that freedom to write and not be reprimanded "was the key to everything.... The improvements in grades made her open up in other areas. Her household duties? No struggle, she did them. It made me take a step back, say,'Wait a minute, let's listen to her.' That was the message I got from Ms. Lacks: to listen."

The strongest testimony of all came from Reginald McNeary, who used to walk into Lacks' class and put his head down. "I thought it was like, writing, and boring," he confessed, his white shirt baggy, his tie loosened but present. "Ms. Lacks explained to us that writing was just what is inside you, what you feel and what's on your mind. Anybody "can do that. It's really hard to write what Ðsomebody else wants you to write, because then they might not like it." Intrigued by Lacks' comments on rap as modern-day poetry, McNeary wrote a rap-style poem and, for the first time that year, asked to read it aloud in class. It was full of anger and hatred, Lacks recalled she told him anger could be effective in poetry but that he might want to try the techniques they discussed in class. By the end of the poetry unit, he'd written "Alone," a vulnerable, artful poem that won applause from his classmates and a district-wide contest. (The evidence against Lacks in her public hearing included McNeary's first poem, but not his last.)

When Van Amburg asked McNeary how he would have felt if Lacks criticized his initial language, he said, "I probably wouldn't have wrote again. I probably would have told her something." When she probed further, he burst, "I don't think you understand where I was" in this class. To write anything "would be like a big effort, and if I was to come out of my shadow and somebody was to cut me, it would have made me mad. And it would have hurt my feelings."

Since Lacks' class, McNeary said he's written "a massive pile of stuff," including a book about his life. Susman asked if he was finishing school, and he said he was a senior, then mumbled something about maybe taking the GRE instead of finishing. Susman pounced, asking why. "The other day my friend got shot," McNeary said, staring straight at the attorney. "I'm not going back to school ever again."

When Lacks' students first urged her to see Boyz 'N the Hood", her first impression was that the language was profane and everything was exaggerated. They told her she was wrong, she needed to listen. Then they watched the film together, and understanding changed everything.

The courtroom got a taste of that understanding when Redmond testified that the videotapes' "profanities" were sometimes used as endearments ("Nobody's going to kill my motherfuckin' boy and get away with it!") as linguistically accurate records of speech, or as a way of "boasting and toasting" in the verbal sparring matches by which young African-Americans prove themselves. "You have to be fast, you have to be good and you have to be original," he explained. "If you are tough enough to take an attack on your mother and not fight, you are tough enough to withstand racial epithets outside the culture. It's a head-toughening process that is supposed to keep you alive"."

What if Lacks had said such language could not appear anywhere? "That's devastating," Redmond said instantly. "I don't think any serious teacher would do anything like that."

No serious teacher will, if she's worried about job security.

The usual procedure for teaching problems is to document them and write a plan for improvement - but Lacks' evaluations were all excellent. When she met with administrators, they mentioned the "appalling" tapes, but they also grilled her about attendance, her grade book and several other matters. In two meetings, they never stated policy violations of any kind. When Wright finally ticked off 10 board policies Lacks supposedly violated, the list did not include violating the student discipline code. The following week, it suddenly appeared in the formal written charges.

On March 1, the evening the public hearing began, the administration dropped all charges except "violating the student discipline code."

The school board voted 5-2 to terminate Lacks for that violation - even though profanity is "Type 2" behavior, for which a student might receive a verbal reprimand or loss of privileges, at the teacher's discretion. Witness after witness testified that they'd never" heard of a teacher "being disciplined because her students" violated code, let alone in the context of a creative-writing class.

The plot thickened last Thursday, when the judge allowed evidence that in 1991, when teachers filed a grievance against Berkeley principal Vernon Mitchell), for violating certain board policies - including the student discipline code - the board dismissed the charge, saying that code was intended for students.

Was the motive race? In opening argument, Van Amburg cited Mitchell's conviction that white teachers did not care about black students, as well as a board member's admission that he had a reputation for prejudice against white teachers. And when an African-American teacher's students performed a play before a large audience, including Mitchell, the content included gangs, killing, ethnic slurs, desecration of a body, teen pregnancy, drugs and guns. Nothing happened.

Lacks, however, was fired. Unable to get another teaching job, she was called a "hot potato" in one interview, and she's been dubbed "the profanity queen." All last year, she received threatening phone calls. The most recent, played for the judge last Thursday morning (but ruled inadmissible because it might prejudice the jury's sympathies), called Lacks a "nigger-lover" and ranted about murder and her dead body.

As for her students, their raw, quickly produced skits have been broadcast, without their consent, to the community, on TV and in court. With Lacks gone, there are no journalism classes. The "Bulldog Express" hasn't been published; neither has the literary magazine. Contributions for the poetry contest, which is now censored, have dropped significantly. So the creative writing - what little is left - is clean as a whistle.