Monday, December 14, 2009

Are there no prisons? The value of little black girls or a modern Christmas carol


Are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons?

-- Ebeneezer Scrooge, Charles Dickens' "A Christmas
Carol"

WISN-TV in Milwaukee reports:


A Milwaukee teacher is charged with disorderly conduct after punishing a first-grader by cutting her hair.

Lamya Cammon is angry, confused, and scared by the incident last week in which the apparently frustrated teacher cut one of her braids off after she wouldn't stop playing with them in class. Cammon, 7, sports a few dozen braids, but one is conspicuously absent. "She told me to stop playing with it. Then cut it off and sent me back to my desk," Cammon said. Cammon's a first-grader at Congress Elementary and said her teacher used a pair of classroom scissors to cut off one of the braids after she absent-mindedly kept playing with them. Read more...
This report made my breath catch in my throat.

What would so enrage an adult who is sworn to assist in the growth and development of children to make her lure a sweet-faced little girl with the promise of candy then hack off a piece of the child's hair with sharp scissors, sending her back to her desk with a smug, "Now, what are you going to go home and say to your mama?" The action is gratuitously mean and mentally abusive.

Parents send their little ones to school to be educated, to spark their intellect, to make them curious, useful, creative people and good citizens. Discipline has its place in the molding of young minds. But it is hard to see how the draconian punishment meted out by Layma Cammon's teacher will contribute to making the child a stable and productive adult. The actions of the Milwaukee teacher, who has since been issued a meager fine, seem more suited to a Dickensian tale than a modern school system.

Speaking of Dickens, I took my nieces and nephew to see the play, "A Christmas Carol" on Sunday. There is scene when Ebeneezer Scrooge, accompanied by The Ghost of Christmas Past, watches himself as an innocent young boy being smacked with a ruler by a uncaring and mercenary headmaster for the sin of coughing. Fans of the classic holiday tale may remember that Scrooge's mistreatment as a young, poor child, forged him into the hard man he eventually became.
We don't treat marginalized children this way anymore...Do we?

Perhaps.

I know nothing of the financial status of Lamya Cammon's family. I do not know if she is marginalized by her class. But I can see that she is a little black girl. And experience tells me how little society values black children, girls in particular. I know the sorry state of education in many black communities. I know how little attention is given when black girls and women go missing. I know what happens when a popular R&B artist is seen on videotape sexually abusing an underage black girl. And now I know what happens when a teacher calls a young, black girl to the front of a classroom and physically assaults her. The teacher is fined less than $200 and allowed to continue teaching other children. It is no wonder that in the classic novel, "The Bluest Eye," Pecola Breedlove yearns to be a litte, white girl with blond curls and blue eyes--a girl that people find lovely and want to love and nurture and protect. We just don't seem to cherish black girls in the way we do other girls. We don't seem driven to protect them.

Note some of the reaction to the incident from commenters on the WISN-TV Web site:

Maybe if the kids actually paid attention and listened to their teacher none of this would have happened.
Wow, MPS is such a joke. I don't know what's worse, the fact that a seven year old and her teacher can't use proper English or the fact that the scummy teachers union blames the budget. Because I work for the city, I'm held hostage and will have to pay around 12,000 dollars a year to send my kids (when I have them) to private school to keep them away from MPS... What a joke.
Again, David I do agree with you! This is not an issue over RACE, and in NOWHERE of any of my comments, did I ever state such a rude justure, Mr. cryaway! I am not against any color, creed, race, or religion, I love people of all races, color, etc! The teacher was wrong to cut her hair, but she needs to be corrected and learn better stress management, and as far as the child goes, we really do not know what actually happened in class? Does the child get disciplined at home? That has a lot to do with it also, in behavior, or does she have some type of attention disorder, which would give a reason for the behavior? When we were in school, we had our fingers hit with a ruler, if we did not pay attention, and we learned and paid attention! Plus, the teachers then, were not charged with any type of crime, and the students were actually smarter than today! I feel sorry for the child and her parent, and yes, I would be upset if it were my daughter, but I would completely investitgate the dilemma first before jumping to concluetions.
The kid wasn't listening to the teacher. The teacher was stressed, obviously for countless other reasons. The teacher did something very stupid. The kid lost a braid. To be honest, I think you all should re-read your comments and reflect on your own issues, because I think this story is not so complicated.
I am a bit awed by the responses I'm reading. While the behavior by the teacher was wrong, by all means it is NOT child abuse... how can you put this on the same level as a child being beaten? What we don't know yet is what the exact behavior the child was exhibiting, and was it chronic behavior? Again, the cutting was not appropriate, but I am wondering what the roll of the child was in all of this?
Lamya should be happy that it was just a braid. It will grow back in time. The momentary humiliation could have been a lesson to serve her well in adulthood (a "teachable moment, as Mr. O. likes to say), except that her mother completely negated it with her tirade and taught her daughter the exact opposite. Now the girl will think you can get away with anything, as long as you bellyache and whine about it enough. Instead of punishing the teacher, she should be praised for trying to teach her young charges about citizenship and paying attention in class. I remember being humiliated when I was in grade school; the result is that I can now sit still and be attentive in a meeting or classroom situation. It's annoying to have to share those spaces with adults in their 30s and 40s who still act like Lamya.
Now, I should mention that several commenters found the actions of Lamya Cammon's teacher outrageous. But far too many sounded like the ones above: There must be something the public doesn't know. The seven-year-old must have brought the punishment on herself by constant and flagrant hair playing...and by speaking poor English. Lamya must be guilty somehow. If she is not punished now, she may grow up to be a 40-year-old ne-er-do-well. After all, it's annoying to have to share those spaces with adults in their 30s and 40s who still act like Lamya. You know which folks the commenter is talking about...don't you?
Back to Dickens...reading the comments above made me think of Scrooge's retort when asked to help the poor during the holiday season. He didn't see the value. And some folks clearly don't see the value in nurturing children like Lamya--of cherishing them, treating them like they matter, like they have a future. Some children we treat as innocent blessings. Others, like criminals.

What is the point of molding little black girls into curious, useful, creative people and good citizens?

Are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons?


12 comments:

Mindy and Baldwin said...

Barf to the people that wrote those awful comments saying that the little girl deserved that. How awful. What is wrong with people?

Reggie said...

That teacher certainly crossed the line when she put her hands on that child. It amazes me that she actually thought that what she did was justified.

This whole thing reminds me of that movie "A time to kill". I wonder how those people that responded would have responded if they thought that the little girl was white.

M and M said...

Having just read Gloria Ladson-Billings "The Dreamkeepers," and knowing that ReThinking Schools is actually a think tank out of Milwaukee, and as a teacher myself....I am horrified at the RACIST and demeaning actions of that teacher and even MORE horrified that the institution is absolving the teacher and itself of racist actions. Come clean! It's racist.

iamatraveler said...

This so makes me want to cry. The teacher was wrong on so many levels. I wish the little girl's mother could afford to take the teacher to court. For those who have written those awful comments, shame on them. Shame, shame on them. Shame on this society for not seeing the beauty of our darker skinned sisters and little girls. Shame on our society for not realizing how precious and beautiful our crown of glory, our hair of hair is. Shame shame shame on them.

RiPPa said...

Good post Tami.

I rarely read the responses on sites with stories such as these. As if the story itself wasn't outrageous enough. One has to wonder if some of the opinions are reflective of society at large - or a sizable segment of it at least. I think we know the answer to that, right?

brownstocking said...

We are never fully human to the faceless masses, who probably don't interact with POC anyway. I despair for our "civilization." WHEN is there every any justification for that? Let someone cut off the braids of those insensitive clods, and see who gets fired by a school board.

Lady C said...

Tami, if I approached someone with a pair of scissors, even if that someone were an adult, I do believe I could be charged with terrorizing that person with the intent to do harm.

My third grade teacher slapped me so hard I nearly fell out of my chair. When I turned around to face the class some of the kids were snickering and some were in shock. I was too embarrassed to cry. My crime was, I turned to see who the teacher was talking to. Someone was talking in the back of the class, but when she got to me she hauled off and slapped me and told me to stop talking and pay attention in her class.

I am 60 years old, but I remember it as though it just happened.

That little girl will never forget that her teacher cut off her braid. It was probably humiliating and hurtful.

The Original Wombman said...

I actually thought Lamya's mom was quite calm. The teacher needs to be fired and that's it. If a trained professional cannot figure out an acceptable way to stop unwanted behavior in her own classroom, then she doesn't need her own classroom. We all know the issues surrounding Black hair. But beyond that, you can see that Lamya obviously values and loves her hair. This was psychological abuse plain and simple--trying to mentally pound a little girl into submission. If the beads were a bother, she should have written a note home to the mother or if it was disruptive and she couldn't teach, just have Lamya sit next to her, close to her so she could if she needed to gently remind her to stop touching her hair. Lamya is not 2 and these are basic strategies you learn when becoming a teacher. I'm just so utterly appalled by the whole thing and the fact that anyone can fix their mouth to say that it's all because of stress from budget cuts.

Sandy said...

That teacher needs to be fired and the accrediting institution in Wisconsin needs to revoke her certificate. That much is evident. But those comments bring tears to my eyes more with their linguistic snobbery (I'm an English/Secondary Ed major). This aggravates the hell out of me every time I see it. First off: There is no such thing as "proper" English, and if there were, 99% of the people who think they're speaking it really aren't. It may seem like semantics, but the "proper" term is Standard American English (I think observing that difference is important). That is the dialect that has overt prestige in our country; that absolutely does NOT mean that any other dialect is any less linguistically valid. Not to mention, if an American child is not speaking Standard American English, it can be traced back to the teacher, the administrator, and the school district itself. In our homes, we teach our children our own dialects. I was raised saying "ain't" on a regular basis, and still do, as long as I'm not in a situation (i.e., school or work) where SAE is expected/required. This was a horribly traumatic experience for Lamya Cannon, and I think when you heap linguistic racism on top of the other forty gojillion things that were done wrong in this situation, you just add insult to injury.

Cindy said...

More Ick! I hate it when these things are CURRENT events. Of course this was abusive, inappropriate and racist. This was a 7 yr. old child who probably has a nervous habit that becomes more pronounced with stress. Even a child being deliberately defiant should not be treated in such a manner. Not ever. Shame on the idiot commentators. My holy crap file runnith over!

Christine said...

Barf ON those people who wrote those awful comments. She put her hands on a child. Held a sharp object up to her body. Cut off hair. In order to humiliate her. That behavior is soley the problem of the teacher and no one else's. It speaks volumes about her and is reflective of no one else.

If a teacher decided to trim my kid's bangs or take off some split ends as a favor I would have a fit. This is disturbed behavior and she does not belong in a position of responsibility regarding children. The world would be a better place if she got her license revoked and was employed in a job in which she cannot humiliate anyone.

Just found your blog. It's great. :)

Apple said...

I am a black woman raised by a teacher, and I have several friends who've been teachers for more than a decade. I had an interesting chat with one about this incident. Though shocked by the story at first, this person quickly said, "You can't begin to understand what it can be like in some classrooms right now, unless you've done it."

This person, who is black, continued: "Somebody in that school's administration HAD to have known that teacher was on the edge." Now, I imagine their opinion might have been slightly different, and perhaps more critical, if they knew the offending teacher was white. That's a detail we don't know yet, though I'm sure someone will make something of it soon enough. To me, it shouldn't matter.

Tami, I lean more toward your empathy for this child and her mother in this situation, mostly because I vividly remember the deranged nastiness I endured from two different (white) elementary school teachers, one who I believe deliberately tried to crush my spirit. I despised them both, but I was lucky: My teacher mom knew how to balance her maternal desire to protect me with a keen ability to discern which educators and administrators were on the up and up. She supported me, we got what we wanted most of the time, and I excelled.

On the other end, I don't necessarily believe my teacher friend was blaming the victim in Lamya's case, but her reflexive, "you don't know what it's like" response spoke volumes, at least to me. No doubt, Lamya's teacher was dead wrong and apologized, but perhaps there's a backstory we don't know, one we may never know fully. This teacher may have long been completely mentally unfit for that environment, terrorizing students like Lamya for years while supervisors looked the other way, yet no one, including her union, sought to put her out.

The flip side of this: This woman's class could have been too large, unruly, and poorly supported by the administration and parents - the situation in many public schools. And, as my friend and my mother have long said, parents nowadays often believe the teacher is at fault for everything though their children may have a documented history of poor or disruptive behavior. I understand if you disagree, but Lamya could have been one of those kids, despite her sweet appearance in that one-time video, in front of all those watchful eyes. Of course, even if that were the case, that doesn't negate what her teacher did. She should still be reprimanded, and I probably would have wanted to wring her neck had she done that to my child, but considering all of this does give me pause.

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