I’m a journalist. We aren’t the subject of news stories, but the messenger.
But when the twins lost the most inspiring and effective teacher they have ever had, taken down by one intolerant student, as hundreds of other students and parents were denied the right to be heard — I HAD to get involved.
Because of Katrina K. Guarascio, the pre-AP English teacher at V. Sue Cleveland High School in Rio Rancho, the twins were excited about writing again – to the point that my son wrote a novel of 50,000 words in a month for National Novel Writing Month. Yes, he’s 15, and yes, he wrote a novel, and it’s really, really good. He fills up notebooks with his thoughts, turns some into poetry, some into sketches. He joined the Poetry Club because of Ms. G, as all the students who love her call her.
And she is beloved. Today her Facebook page filled up by the minute with tributes about the impact of her teaching in their lives. I had no doubt. I have seen the results in my own house. I knew it the second I met her at the open house. And I keep hearing it again and again, from people in various positions to know her in the poetry community and among her peers — her fierce commitment to free expression and creativity, her contagious enthusiasm for the power of words and her courage in cultivating a classroom that was intellectually rigorous and emotionally supportive.
Ms. G created a mistake-free zone for teens, who are thirsty for the assurance that when they speak, they are not invisible; when they share, they are not trivial; when they let their minds ignite, they will not be crushed.
But getting crushed is exactly what happened when the school forced her to resign after one student wrote a piece about Jesus and pot. (See her interview with KOAT Channel 7 here.) “I love teaching,” Guarascio told Alana Grimstad on camera. “I’m not there to judge them. I’m there to encourage them.”
The controversial piece was for an assignment to rewrite a fairy tale or legend in modern times. One student wrote that instead of Jesus giving out the loaves and the fishes to the hungry, he gave marijuana to the sick.
Guarascio said in the interview that she did not take personal offense at what the student wrote. Neither do I, and neither do the twins. That’s because it doesn’t compromise their beliefs or shatter their personal guidance system to hear other people’s self-expression.
Guarascio said it well when she stated, “It’s not written for me. It’s written for them. It’s how they can express themselves.”
Let teens be clever. Let them be audacious. Let them be wrong. Let them right. Let them be.
In the era of teaching to the test, public school is a slog. It’s really a slog for high-achiever learners like my twins, who crave the few minutes of the day when something interesting actually happens, when they get challenged with something that is relevant to who they are now and who they aspire to be in the future.
That happened in Ms. G’s class, and that is the predominant sentiment among the hundreds of students and parents who flooded the school with emails and phone calls, only to be ignored.
That is why I am calling all parents and students to join me in writing a letter to the school and requesting a meeting with the principal. We are the ones who have been damaged by this decision, and we did not have a voice in it. I am posting on my Facebook page about the time/date/location of the meeting. Please find me there or email me here.
My twins and hundreds of other students will now face a full semester of subs, just as they are preparing to take the SAT and ACT tests that will determine their future. This week, during instructional time in class, one sub handed a student a $20 bill and asked the student to go buy her a pizza. So, students are not reading “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” or “Macbeth,” but driving off campus to run errands for teachers. This is NOT why I pay taxes in good faith.
I am a writer. I am the author of a novel that’s in full manuscript submission with several agents now, and it is all about the fragility of the creative process, about holding that steady commitment to listening for the Muse in the face of a world that does not always support you.
I am the winner of the Montana Prize for Fiction, judged by Rick Bass, for one of the most courageous and poignant pieces I have ever written, “Pretend,” due to arrive this week in The Whitefish Review. My creative nonfiction piece, “Resurrection,” comes out in Fourth Genre in January, a piece about near-death of the twins and my own reconstitution of myself, seeking to restore faith and forgiveness in my life.
All of this is to say that I have cred here — I know how vital it is to create a mistake-free zone around self-expression. The pieces that are winning prizes and publication for me were nearly aborted many, many times. They came to life because of the generosity of spirit that I have cultivated in my life — and found in my many writer friends, most particularly Spalding University’s MFA in Writing program, whose philosophy is to be intellectually rigorous and emotionally supportive.
Did that echo for you? If so, that’s because I used those same words to describe the environment I saw Ms. G masterfully create in her class. I was thrilled to see the twins receiving an experience much like mine at Spalding.
It’s not just artists who need the safe place where they can be authentic — it’s human beings. And teens, who are just discovering these life lessons. This one — that we do not live in a community where it’s safe for everyone to have a voice — is a horrible lesson to teach.
Go here to Change.org (“Stop Penalizing Teachers for Students’ Creativity) to sign the petition to support Ms. G.