Letter to the Editor: A Disillusioned Optimist, Dreamer, Felon

| March 24, 2013

Recently I was suspended by my school district for making a Harlem Shake video, and if you’ve been following the news, this would sound like a good punishment for students; however, I’m a member of the faculty.

Yeah, I know – BIG problem! What would compel an old man with a retirement account and tenure to make such a reckless decision? – Divorce? – Midlife crisis? – Prescription medication? No! No! and No! – despite my critics’ insistence that it’s all three!

Let me back up a few steps, so I can give you an idea of who I am. The only reason that I ever wanted to be a teacher was to inspire youths to live each day more gloriously than the day before, to find self-fulfillment, and to be happy.

I’m burnt out on useless legality and paperwork. I’m disillusioned by lawyers, politicians, and bureaucrats masking as kind-hearted reformers.

It was my mistake to think that my school would rally behind me and allow me to take the lead role in “fixing” education through my students’ acts of self-expression.

Based on the number of Harlem Shake videos that are on the net, I stand at the head of a very large fraternity of people that may be getting into some trouble for their involvement in the meme.

Even though I angered and disappointed staff, administration, and the superintendent, I must to tell you – it felt great! For the first time in many years, I actually helped my students do something that they were proud of. I helped my students see that they have the capacity to speak to the world and be heard! No standard course of study teaches that, no common core, nothing. It wasn’t Harrisburg’s answer to our problem; it was me finding a solution to what I thought was a local problem.

Most of my business as a teacher has become mindless paperwork and numbers. Today’s students know their basics, but they suffer from the inability to think, create, and do. These are the things that will make them better sons, better daughters, better employees and great leaders in the future. I feel like I want to expose the system for what it is – an empty shallow pit of numbers, half-truths, and legalities, things that most members of the general public wouldn’t even be interested in knowing….But, I’ll save that for an angry book.

This problem which led to my suspension began in the most innocent of ways. I like to show my students motivational videos before class starts. This gives me time to do attendance and handle some make-up work while they get their books and work prepped for class. About a month ago, I found the first Harlem Shake offering from a group of soldiers in Norway. I showed it to the kids, and they went bananas. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, now may be a good time to see what the meme is about for yourself.

Harlem Shake (original army edition)

When they begged, “We have to do this! Please!” I’ll admit – I fell victim to my own motivational language. It seems that all I ever do is talk about the power of the internet, communication, creativity, and the importance of dreams. I went straight to the office with the hopes of getting permission for my stunt. The dreamer in me was thinking: Surely, after I explain that the video is about youths who wish to remain a part of a larger group, while demonstrating their individuality and creativity, they would let me do it! …So, I passionately made my case.

You can guess how the conversation went, and that is why I was punished so hard. I chose to move forward in the production of our own version of the Harlem Shake without permission. It probably would have been better for me had I been apologetic – the expected response – but I verbally attacked my bosses in defense of the project. I didn’t count on their resolve to protect the system and their will to marginalize those who display any contempt for their authority. I felt like a fool for caring as strongly as I did!

Don’t worry about me, though. I’ve got a shiny new collar to match my chains, and I’ve been snapped back into a zombie state. I’m following my planned course of study to the letter, and the kids are turning in boring and uninspired work. School is working just the way it’s intended.

Taxpayers extinguish your torches! Still, it’s ironic how I teach a media relations class, but I’m not allowed to relate to the media. I know now that I’m the crazy one.

And, of course, I know what some of you are thinking by now, “Good for you!” or “You’re a bad teacher for wasting precious minutes of class time!” or, better yet – ”Disobeying your authorities, all the while without parental permission, for shame!” Trust me, I’ve heard worse!

Despite everything that has transpired, you cannot even fathom how good it felt to stand in the middle of all those kids and know that they were inspired, happy, and proud to present something that they created! Their day was not gray and clouded by the useless volley of rules and test scores, but that is probably an accurate reflection of their society. Most adults don’t know how to find their voice, and all our government has to offer is laws.

For a time, I felt like George Bailey in my own version of “It’s A Wonderful Life.” I enjoyed an outpouring amount of support from the parents and community, and for a time, I thought things might be different at school….but, that was just the dreamer in me – wishing for it to be so.

In retrospect, I really think that the video was a catalyst, a way of determining if I could teach another 18 years, while trying to wrestle my pension away from the crooks in Harrisburg.

I’m sending out my resumes. What kind of a teacher would I be if I didn’t lead by example?

Robert Whitlaw ~ Optimist, Dreamer, Felon

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