TEACHER A REACHER - IN CLASS OR OUT,
CISSY LACKS LIKES TO EXPLORE

* By Phyllis Brasch Librach, March 26, 1995, Post Dispatch

 

At age 9, Cissy Lacks snapped a boxy Brownie camera to capture portraits of residents at an old folks home off North Grand Avenue.

Four decades later, Lacks is still clicking. Now a professional photographer, she shoots faces of people on city and suburban streets through the lens of a 35-millimeter Minolta.

Until Friday, Lacks taught English and journalism at Berkeley High School without censoring her students' work. She also shared with students her enthusiasm for writing, hiking, recycling, cultural exchange and global travel.

That mix of academic freedom and artistic expression probably cost Lacks the teaching job she held for 21 years. The Ferguson-Florissant School Board fired Lacks Thursday in a closed session. Lacks learned she had lost her job Friday morning when the district hand-delivered the board's decision to her brick house in University City.

They fired Cecilia "Cissy" Lacks because her English students used raw street language in October in videotapes and poems they created as assignments about their lives. The board argued that violated district policy prohibiting students to use profanity.

"During the hearing, the use of profanity by her students in class assignments has been described by Ms. Lacks and some of her witnesses as `extreme' or `disgusting," board President Leslie Hogshead said in a statement Friday. "The board . . . agrees with those descriptions.

"The video produced in Ms. Lacks' class demonstrates a serious and extreme lack of direction from the teacher. Teachers do not have the right to abdicate their responsibility to set standards under the guise of creativity."

At the hearing, which lasted six nights earlier this month, Lacks defended her right to leave students' creative work uncensored. She contended that the district lacks a written policy directing teachers to censor literature or creative work that includes raw language.

The School Board argued that Lacks "willfully and persistently" violated district policy that bars students from using profanity. Opponents contend profanity has no place in public schools, whether sheltered in original works done by students or read aloud from literature. They call Lacks a rebel who shows a lack of discipline, and a teacher with an enormous ego.

News of the decision captured national attention. Network crews filmed Lacks, a radio station called from Kansas City, a reporter phoned from an Ohio paper, and a nationally syndicated columnist from New York interviewed her. Friday, a clothing manufacturer called from California, eager to make T-shirts for Lacks' supporters.

Lacks appeared on TV screens across America wearing tailored suits and soft blouses, her short, black hair accented by dangling silver earrings.

Lacks plans to take her case to St. Louis County Circuit Court, where her attorney must prove the board failed to make a decision based on substantial and competent evidence.

If she loses in court, she faces a premature and costly retirement. Lacks, who turns 50 later this year, never married and has no children. She is about two years away from full retirement in Ferguson-Florissant schools.

Lacks said she will try to find another teaching job that is also part of the statewide retirement system for educators.

The board had suspended Lacks with pay and benefits Jan. 12, the day after board members saw videotapes of plays students wrote peppered with profanities used in their everyday lives.

Lacks had asked students to write about something important to them after they had read "Fences," a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama in which author August Wilson leaves characters' speech uncensored.

The students' scripts included gang members cursing and shooting, a girl in prison, her sister hooked on crack, young men smoking pot and talking about sex.

Lacks earned $31,200 a year at Berkeley teaching slightly more than half time. She also has grants to produce a documentary on Jewish traditions for cable TV based on the rabbi who leads the congregation she attends. And she works part time for the Missouri Humanities Council. *****

Making Statements

Lacks once did photography just for herself. But she changed her attitude when she had her first one-woman show in 1985.

"After that, I knew I was building a body of work, and that carried over to teaching," she said. "I began to see everybody building a body of work. It didn't matter who you were. I realized students need to know statements they make are important."

When she came to Berkeley High School in 1992, Lacks started the school paper and coached students who wrote award-winning poetry.

Her professional credits portray an artist and educator with concern for what goes on in the classroom, around the corner and around the world.

Lacks founded the International Culture Center in the Ferguson-Florissant schools and help found the International Education Consortium in Clayton.

Three years ago, Lacks wrote an as-yet-unpublished novel, "Miriam's Way," based on the true story of a teen-age girl who survived the Holocaust in the woods. She also has written theater reviews for The Suburban Journals.

When Lacks travels around the world, she prefers to stay at people's homes, not hotels. She has hiked remote areas of The Sinai and Norway, driven alone through Eastern Europe and taken local buses in Colombia.

Even as a girl growing up in University City, Lacks itched to travel. But it wasn't in the family's modest budget. Lacks settled for being a teen who wrote a dozen or so pen pals in foreign countries.

She graduated from University City High in 1963 as a varsity athlete active in student government. During college, she lived at home and graduated from Washington University in 1967. That same year Lacks stamped her passport for the first time when she went to Israel.

When she returned to Israel in 1970, she wrote about her trip for the Post-Dispatch. An Israeli collection of metal and stone menorahs, candelabras that Jews light at Hanukkah, line shelves and the mantle in the living room of her brick home with a bay window in University City.

Lacks went on to earn graduate degrees in communication and American studies while teaching at area schools, including John Burroughs and St. Louis University. But she spent most of her career, 21 years, in Ferguson-Florissant high schools. *****

`Not A Witch Hunt'

Even as a teacher, Lacks made time to travel, photograph and write. But recently, the fight to keep her job consumed her days and nights.

Hours past midnight, the teacher and her attorney, Lisa Van Amburg, built defense strategy at Lacks' round oak kitchen table, cluttered with newspaper clips on the case, fresh-cut flowers and pink candles. Neighbors brought covered dishes: sweet potato pie, chicken, lasagna and salad. All the while, her cat prances around the house filled with framed photos, many shot by Lacks.

Frank Susman, attorney for school district, defended his client's stance. "I don't think it is a free-speech issue, or a matter of censorship," he said. "This is not a witch hunt to seek out every damn and hell. Profanity is not appropriate and not necessary. This is not the moral standard schools should be setting for students."

Susman contended the only issue was whether Lacks violated district policy that the School Board is enforcing.

Van Amburg disagrees. "The board's ruling goes far beyond Cissy Lacks and Ferguson-Florissant schools," said Van Amburg, hired by the Missouri National Education Association to defend Lacks. "It serves as a model to terrorize English teachers throughout Missouri. It will be heard all over the country. It has broad, broad impact."

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