Fatuous Times at Clemente High

Last night we picked a flier off a sidewalk near our home. MARCH TO HAVE KAY THOMPSON FIRED! said the flier, inviting one and all to join a picket line at the Board of Education. Someone is ranging far and wide to end this woman’s career. She’s the librarian at Clemente High School, seven and a half miles away.

Last January, Thompson, who’s 50, and two other teachers spoke their minds in a long interview printed in the Reader. Eight months later, she’s a symbol of racism. “I think this is a lesson about exactly how powerful the media can be,” says the dismayed young journalist who did the interview. “The wrong people are now being witch-hunted.

“If I had known back in October, when I first interviewed these teachers,” Elizabeth Blanchard told us, “that the costs to them would be so high–if I had known that, would I have still done the interview? I say yes, with one exception. I would have had more conversations with you. I would have relied a little more heavily on you and your judgment and asked you to hold me to higher standards.

“When the press grants anonymity, they don’t mean thinly disguised. They mean, unrecognizable.”

When Elizabeth Blanchard said “you” she did not mean the Reader in some collective sense. So let’s set aside Hot Type’s endearing affectation, the editorial we. Blanchard meant me. I edited her story. It presented “Sarah,” “Patrick,” and “Meg” as an algebra teacher, an English lit teacher, and a librarian “at a mostly Hispanic high school . . . in the Humboldt Park area.” They spoke to Blanchard right after the bitter 1987 teachers’ strike came to an end, and they said exactly what was on their minds about conditions at their school. For whatever legal reasons, they wanted to hang on to their deniability, and we helped them do it. But “thinly disguised” is what they were.

I don’t know what higher standards there could have been. If we’d vetted what they said until it left no trail, there’d have been no story. I told Blanchard to go back to them and ask them point-blank if they were prepared to live with the consequences. She did, they were, and the story ran.

The flier, which says the article “pushes the racist idea that the students are to blame for the problems of the schools,” is among the consequences. This accusation apparently originated with Clemente’s bilingual teachers–who surely knew the article was coming and who would suffer at its hands–and then spread into the community. A Coalition Against Racism at Clemente took shape. The far left International Committee Against Racism (InCAR) got involved. Passions ran so high that, according to Blanchard, at least one of the teachers received death threats.

There was a series of public meetings last spring, and the coalition and the Board of Education made a deal. Sarah, Patrick, and Meg would finish the semester at Clemente. Then they’d be transferred, and that would be that.

Patrick’s at another public high school this fall, while Sarah has left the system and is now teaching at a private school for much less pay. But Meg–that is Kay Thompson–dug in her heels. She went to the ACLU and the ACLU went to federal court. The transfer, her lawsuit alleges, is punitive and violates her First Amendment rights. The board backed down, and that’s why Thompson is back in business at Clemente. Which explains the pickets and fliers and why 150 or so of Clemente’s 3,000-some students have boycotted classes.

One of the leaders of the coalition is Enrique Fernandez of Aspira of Illinois, a highly reputable Puerto Rican agency whose focus is education. (Fernandez, by the way, says the InCAR representative was drummed out of the coalition.) I asked him why Blanchard’s article got people so upset. “First of all, the demeanor of the conversation,” he said. “Some people are trying to separate what one said from what another said. But in our opinion it was a racist conversation. Any one of them could have objected to the tone of the conversation, the demeanor of the conversation, and no one objected. They just bashed the community and the students.”

Here’s an emblematic passage. Sarah says that what really frustrates her is the kid who “comes in and just doesn’t give a damn,” and Blanchard wonders “what sort of cultural things might contribute to a disinterest in learning.” Meg (Kay Thompson) says, “Well, the educational level of the parents, for one thing.” Patrick adds, “There are no books in the house.” Meg says, “They don’t support college. . . . I’ve seen kids, bright kids, who will not get the chance to go to college because [their parents] won’t pay for education.”

Blanchard asks about the teachers she’s overheard speaking Spanish. “Couldn’t that be detrimental to the kids trying to wean themselves from Spanish in an English-based society?” Yes, says Patrick. “A lot of the bilingual teachers will actually cordon themselves off from the mainstream teachers and hang out in their own little clique. . . . It mirrors these kids who have cut themselves off, whether it’s been intentional or not, from mainstream society. . . . There’s no common ground, no common culture.”

The conversation shifts to the behavior of students, and Patrick says, “We’ve got the cross-dressers, we’ve got the homosexuals, we’ve got the Pentecostals, we’ve got the gang kids–and the gang kids are pervasive–and then we’ve got just your normal, average kid. A kid kid.” Blanchard wonders how many of those there are and Patrick says, “It’s not very high. The gang culture dominates.” Soon Meg says–words that are going to infuriate some people–“You hear such horror stories. . . . This one girl, she was telling me she had to sleep on a mat on a floor, her mother had to sleep on a mat on the floor. She got a scholarship to college and they had to practically sneak her out of the house, her father was so against it. I tell you, when I hear stories about a family that’s still intact [with a male still at home], I get worried because I’ve heard so many stories about incest.”

Says Enrique Fernandez, “That’s clearly a racist statement. I don’t understand what connection you can make between Latino students and incest. If you are a teacher, I would expect a responsible attitude before you make a statement on that problem, which we all face.”

One of the teachers who came under fire at Clemente is black, another (Thompson) was once married to a black, and the third is married to a Puerto Rican, which makes the charge of racism awkward to sustain. Fernandez insists on a subtle variety. “They could be well-intentioned individuals who were working really hard. . . . But their cultural backgrounds . . . made them ineffective. So they blamed the victim–instead of asking ‘What is my shortcoming here? Why is the school system failing this kid?’ Let’s see how we can work with the community. How we can work with the parents.”

Fernandez speaks earnestly, but I’ve got three reasons for not being persuaded. The least of them is Thompson’s professional record, 13 straight superior ratings at Clemente, the most recent given her by her principal this past June. More important is the opinion of a friend active in Humboldt Park who describes the movement against Thompson there as noisy but narrowly based. She went to Clemente High and she says Thompson is “a caring individual who was interested in helping the young people, who was enthusiastic in studying new things, in encouraging students to move up in life, to move on, to be successful.” Then there’s Clemente’s dropout rate, which Enrique Fernandez himself puts at a horrendous 80 percent. Yet he’s picked a fight with three teachers who point out that the high school is failing; they’re now the heart of the problem because of how they discussed the problem among themselves. This is fatuous.

Elizabeth Blanchard didn’t pick the first three teachers she ran into in the Clemente parking lot. “I happened to live with a teacher who taught at that school,” she told us. “So I was hearing from a teacher every single night [during the strike] and I thought there needed to be an outlet for their frustrations. I wasn’t interested in talking to teachers who had burned out. I wanted to speak to teachers who were enthusiastic about their jobs and were considered good teachers. I visited the school at least three different days. I sat in on classes. I spoke informally with 10 or 15 students. I’d say, what do you say about Mr. So-and-so or Mrs. So-and-so? And they’d say, oh, he’s really cool! I relied more on the kids’ judgment in the final analysis.”

She does wish she had chosen a Hispanic teacher to round out her group. “It’s not that I decided they were poor teachers,” she said. “It’s just that these three were exceptional.”

The last time we talked, she’d “sort of rethought” the notion that her subjects should have been better protected. “I would have muddied the article and what they were saying if I’d made them more generic,” she said. “Such as when Patrick refers to teaching from tattered copies of Franny and Zooey [“I’m teaching copies of Franny and Zooey that look like somebody’s eaten them”]. Do we cut that?”

The answer is no, no matter how much it hurts now to see the way three well-meaning people who befriended her have been hung out to dry. They said they’d accept the consequences. Sometimes there aren’t consequences. This time there were.


North Michigan Avenue is nearly perfect now. A few nagging concerns remain.

The gaping wound of commerce-free real estate on which the Fourth Presbyterian Church stands has everybody worried. No one is making any money there. Yet preservationists speak well of the old stone church. What to do?

The new Bloomingdale’s building across the street at 900 N. Michigan points the way. The church would just about fit inside the atrium of 900 North. We can build the next mall around it.

Across the avenue, a tempest is brewing. Should an atrium conceal the front of the Hancock Center? Preservationists cry no. That’s the wrong stand.

A hundred years from now, architectural critics will write happily about our era’s faddism and bad taste. Draymen will enjoy handsome paydays clearing the rubble. While balloons bob, crowds will gaze happily at the beloved old Hancock, restored to its original charm.

Provide for the future, we say.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John C. White–Chicago Sun-Times Inc..