Sunday, June 17, 2007

A Postdecisional Sunday Morning Rumination

Another ridiculous Sunday morning. They say it's going to get hot today, but so far I've got the windows open and there's a little breeze, the sun is streaming in, Bela and Chick are jamming on PFW, what more can you ask for? Oh, yes, it's Father's Day, which I always figure they just added to be fair and balanced -- everybody knows Mother's Day is the big one. My wife is out of town, taking care of her sick father, and both my teenagers are at the beach with their friends ... so, oh, this is terrible, Father's Day and I have to suffer through the morning with the whole coffee-pot to myself, great music on the radio, a beautiful summer day on the other side of the glass. Just terrible.

We are in the postdecisional phase of the sex-ed process, waiting to see if any other shoes drop. There was a swell of intensity as we approached the school board's vote, a lot of phone calls, a lot of talk, anticipation. And then they voted. I talked to a reporter immediately afterwards, and I couldn't remember anything, what day anything had happened, who said what, where I was. Now we're in the settled-down phase that follows.

Oh, hey, Superintendent Jerry Weast sent a memo to the members of the citizens advisory committee, dated the day after the vote. He says:
The action by the Board of Education of Montgomery County yesterday in approving the implementation of revision to the family life and human sexuality curriculum of the Montgomery County Public schools reflects an important milestone that was achieved in no small measure by the contributions of the Citizens Advisory Committee on Family Life and Human Development..."

It's actually quite a nice letter, reminding us that our terms are up at the end of the month unless we re-apply, and expressing Dr. Weast's support for Carol Plotsky, the committee chair. And I have to say I applaud her, too -- she did a magnificent job of managing a situation that had train-wreck written all over it from the start.

Looking back, I still wonder why this is so hard. For instance, take the controversy over including the statements by the medical organizations. Richelle was absolutely right when she told The Post, "I can't explain it, and I don't understand it, and I wish I did, why they're not putting this information in the curriculum." These were common-sense statements with the support of scientific and medical researchers and practitioners, and clearly they were statements that most citizens of our county would agree with -- they accurately reflected our community's values. It should have been automatic, here's some good stuff, let's put it in.

I can't speculate on what they were thinking inside the school district. They say there was too much material already, but then at the same time they won't allow teachers to answer any questions or elaborate on the material at all. If these few documents were available, at least they would have given teachers the answers to the most likely questions.

Well look, there's no sense treating this like it was something that had logic behind it. The obvious reason the school district didn't want to include these statements was fear.

I understand that the taxpayers don't like to see their money flushed down the toilet in a lawsuit, and so somebody who threatens to sue has a certain kind of power, they can get somebody to pay attention. It is interesting in this case to note that the AMA, AAP, and APA materials would not have changed the chances of losing in court, but there was some chance that their inclusion would motivate the radicals to file a complaint they might otherwise not pursue.

It wasn't fear of doing something wrong, it was fear of making somebody mad.

The CRC has never had more than a dozen or so active members, in a county of nearly a million people. Oh, you can get people in church to sign petitions that say homosexuality is a sin, whatever, there are really only a handful of extremists fanatical enough to push their anti-gay message out into the public eye.

And the message those few people delivered was complete nonsense. "No unisex bathrooms," indeed. They lied, they twisted the wording of everything in the curriculum to make it sound like something else, they accused people of things that were purely false -- there really wasn't much in the actual curriculum itself to complain about, but that didn't stop them.

The poor folks at the school district are paid to do a job, and part of their job is to make sure there is community input to public school decisions. Unfortunately, that assignment assumes that members of the public are being honest and that they want to make the schools better. The school district can't screen out a group like the CRC who seek to undermine public education and will say anything, true or not, to promote that end. It just isn't set up that way, they have to listen to everybody.

Imagine if the school district could listen for a few minutes and then say, "You're an idiot, go away." Imagine how much faster things would go.

But you see what I mean? They can't do that. The ordinary person is bound by some norms of politeness to water down their message, but in the end you and I don't have to listen to idiots, we can walk away. A formal institution like MCPS, though, has to take them seriously. So when a group like the CRC lists a hundred totally fictional complaints about the curriculum, somebody over at Carver has to write a memo or a brief to address every one of them. They're doing this instead of working on the curriculum, which is what most of them would prefer to be doing.

This curriculum has been under development for five years, at least. Why would it take five years? It's not that there's five years' worth of stuff to talk about in a few health classes. All that time has been spent trying to find a nonexistent middle ground between what the CRC wanted -- bigotry in the classroom -- and what the rest of the community wanted.

The whole process is built on fear. The sad thing is that it's not fear of doing something wrong, it's fear of offending somebody who's just walking around looking for something to be offended by.

In the end, Jerry Weast made a wise decision, maybe a courageous one, when he decided the day before the vote to add the one statement about homosexuality not being a disease. It ain't much -- I mean, look, you're just stating the obvious. Why does this require an act of courage? See what I'm saying? Why in the world would anybody be afraid to say, in the year 2007, that homosexuality is not a disease?

We can't read Weast's mind, and don't know why he made the decision he did at the last minute. He explained it in terms of conscience, in terms of doing the right thing, but Steve Abrams' theory that there was political pressure is not entirely paranoid, either. I'm sure there was pressure on Weast, who would look very bad if the board adopted something against his will, or if they all adopted something that disappointed the good people of our community. He made the right decision, and we applaud him for that, but you wonder ... why is it like pulling teeth to get somebody to do the right thing? Why was it ever a question in the first place? The answer is: fear.

Well ... they were right. It is definitely getting steamy out. I have now turned the AC on for the first time in several days. I think it's time to fill my cup again and maybe crack an egg over a skillet.


Blogger Dana Beyer, M.D. said...

Jerry told me he did it because it was the right thing to do.

As you say, Jim, that should not be difficult, but after thirty plus years of bigots and idiots running things from the right in this country, with a platform that is based on -- you said it -- fear, from Nixon's Southern Strategy to today's Republican candidates all chanting 9/11, then it is hard to remember a time when it was much easier to do the right thing.

Americans want decent, thinking individuals with conviction. It's about time we elected some more of of them.

I heard a very salient comment the other day: The only thing worse than an al-Queda attack would be a gay guy stopping the al-Queda attack. So sad.

Happy Father's Day!

June 17, 2007 2:35 PM  

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