Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises saw hate when she looked into the heart of a white Harlem Park Elementary and Middle School teacher caught on video using the N-word during a tirade directed at her eighth grade students, most of whom were black. Erica Esha Deminds, the mother of one of the students sent out of the classroom for misbehavior, saw something different: the frustrated teacher’s passion for her students.
What explains the difference? Ms. Santelises, who fired the teacher, saw the woman as an employee who embarrassed her employer. Ms. Deminds, on the other hand, saw the teacher as a human being. Ms. Santelises was angry; Ms. Deminds was compassionate. And while the reaction by Ms. Santelises may be understandable, the reaction by Ms. Deminds was admirable.
Harlem Park Elementary and Middle School is located in a community plagued by poverty and crime. The academic performance of its students, most of whom are black, is consistently among the worst in the state. It is not an easy place to teach.
Ms. Deminds, who is black, likely knows what fate holds for uneducated young men and women on the streets of her West Baltimore neighborhood. And she understood that the teacher was trying to warn unruly students when she told them that without an education, they would wind up as “a punk-ass [N-word] who’s going to get shot.” According to Ms. Deminds, the teacher’s “message was right — her approach was wrong.”
Ms. Deminds saw beyond the meltdown and the language used by the teacher. “It bothered me to see her that way, but she’s not a nasty teacher,” Ms. Deminds told The Baltimore Sun. “She was more so hurt than anything because she couldn’t get the kids to learn, and she couldn’t get them to listen.” Ms. Deminds described the teacher as “a woman who wanted to teach these kids because she’s passionate about her job.”
Ironically, it was Ms. Deminds who posted the video of the tirade, which quickly went viral. It was also Ms. Deminds who put the outcome of the incident in its proper perspective: “She loses her career, the kids lost their teacher. Nobody wins in this situation.”
Ms. Santelises rejected suggestions that the teacher’s meltdown reflected a lack of training and support. “There are many people who struggle with classroom management, but they don’t resort to hate language,” Ms. Santelises said. “We can’t provide enough support to counteract what’s in someone’s heart.”
Ms. Santelises, who also is black, assumed that it was racism in the teacher’s heart that caused the teacher to use the N-word. Why not assume instead that the teacher overheard the term used countless times by her students and blurted it out in the heat of the moment in a well-meaning, but inappropriate attempt to get the students to appreciate the dire consequences of the failure to get an education? In fact, why assume anything at all? Wasn’t it enough to fire the teacher for her behavior and language without condemning her character?
Notwithstanding the unnecessary harshness of her explanation, Ms. Santelises did what she probably had to do by firing the teacher. Ms. Deminds did something that she did not have to do; she displayed empathy and came to the defense of the teacher’s character without condoning her behavior.
It was the ordinary mother, not the professional educator, who taught us a lesson about understanding and compassion.
December 5, 2017
[Published as an op-ed by The Baltimore Sun on December 5, 2016 but not posted to my blog until January 12, 2017. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]