Two paths diverge: positive and negative examples at the February school board meeting

I have not yet had time to sit down and write up general notes and comments on the February 21, 2023, meeting of the Board of Education of Caledonia Community Schools. Maybe I’ll do that later. For now, I want to comment generally on the two paths open to us, and I want to point out how the February 21 meeting provided examples of people choosing one path or the other. (A complete videorecording of the meeting is posted on YouTube.)

What are the two paths?

  1. The positive path: Focus on doing the business of educating our children. Focus on realities on the ground here in Caledonia, truthfully described. Approach everything in a deliberately nonpartisan way. Work together constructively and compassionately. Let any disagreements be between alternative positive ways of maintaining our excellent school system. Relentlessly assume that we all want what’s best for our kids.
  2. The negative path: Separate into factions based on opposed loyalties in national or transnational culture wars. Try to turn school board meetings into fights between conservatives and liberals, or Republicans and Democrats, or Christian culture warriors and secularist culture warriors. If the matters legitimately before the board are not conducive to that sort of polarization, just make stuff up. Anything to generate negative emotionality!

We saw both approaches in the school board meeting Tuesday night. I want to mention several examples of the positive path, because these deserve commendation. The more time and energy we put into the positive path, the less time we will give to the negative path. But we also saw examples of the negative path. (And I am thinking of at least one puzzling, ambiguous example as well, but I won’t talk about that because I haven’t figured it out yet.)

The positive path

Here I’ll just pick four positive examples. There were others! But here are my observations on two groups that made positive contributions to the main portion of the meeting, and two individuals who made positive contributions during public comment time:

  • District administrators. The agenda was substantial. Many reports, chock full of content, from our district administrators: Dr. Martin, Mr. Kingbury, Mr. Hess, Dr. Traughber, Dr. Diaz, Mr. Vugteveen, Ms. Devries—and I’m sure I’m missing someone—all reported in ways that reinforced my understanding that running a school district is serious and highly complex business and has almost nothing to do with hot-button issues. And also my conviction that in this district we have excellent people doing the work. (If you want to see all this played out, watch the meeting video.)
  • Board members. Our seven board members conducted themselves with the seriousness and decorum that one would hope for. All spoke respectfully, and most of their questions seemed intended to be helpful, giving the administrators opportunity to clarify points that might have been hard to grasp, or probing issues that will need further work. (Again, see the meeting video.)
  • Angela Rigas. I criticized the school-board appearance of candidate Angela Rigas in May 2022, but in this new year Representative Rigas’s comments have been positive and constructive in mood and content. In the February 21 meeting she gave a quick (packing a lot into three minutes!) overview of legislative activity at Lansing that affects our schools. (You can watch these remarks on YouTube.) Please join me in thanking Representative Rigas for keeping it positive and for attempting to speak to and for all of us.
  • Judy Cizauskas. Speaking on behalf of the Caledonia Education Association, Ms. Cizauskas, a teacher at Duncan Lake, gave a heart-warming roundup of things teachers did with students to get through the recent bad weather. Someone always speaks for the CEA during public-comment time, and in some ways this is the best part of the meeting: teachers standing up to tell the board, and the public, about the positive things teachers are doing to provide an excellent learning experience for our young people. This is what it’s all about! (You can view this report on Youtube, and you can read a summary on Facebook.)

The negative path

In this post I’m going to offer only one negative example. There were others, and I may get back to that. But this one is the quintessential example of the wrong way: presenting falsehood as fact in order to provoke negative emotionality around a controversial topic.

This speaker said she was speaking for another parent. (Already a problem: this report is second-hand.) This other parent told our speaker that her twelve-year-old child complained (oops! one more remove—it’s third-hand) about a questionnaire used by school counselors to check on students’ well-being. The parent said the form begins by asking questions about “how they are doing and how they are feeling.” The parent acknowledged that this is a good thing. But the presenter continues:

However, the story about mental-health check-ins didn’t end there. Apparently the form also asks the students their pronouns. You know what my twelve-year-old’s response was? Her words: “I hate that they ask us that. If they can’t tell what I am by looking at me, they are the ones with the problem. I am so tired of all of that.” She’s tired of it! She’s twelve, in sixth grade, and she’s tired of it. Why would you subject every single student to this pronoun insanity when the majority of them do not even want anything to do with it? Why does that question need to be directly asked? Why can’t Sally who thinks she’s Billy just be given the space to do that without subjecting every sixth grader in the school [to this insanity].

The simple question, “Is there anything you are struggling with?” opens that door not only to the gender-confused child, but the one who is getting bullied, the one who is hungry because there isn’t enough food at home, and the one who feels like they have no friends. Why are we allowing our twelve-year-olds, who we do not allow to drink, drive, get tattoos, watch R-rated movies, or even just go to the mall unchaperoned, the freedom and information that [they] can be physically something that they simply are not? . . . The vast majority of students do not want to deal with this insanity. Stop making the majority feel uncomfortable for the sake of the few. Please focus your energy on those that are struggling with any issue that comes to light, but do not make my child feel awkward, frankly annoyed, by your woke agenda.

In short: somebody said that somebody else said that the checkup form that middle schoolers are asked to complete asks them to supply their preferred pronoun. This assertion then justifies a public rant, in a school board meeting, in which the speaker:

  • vents her negative emotions (attributed in her account to someone else’s child: “I hate . . ,” “so tired,” “uncomfortable,” “awkward,” “annoyed”)
  • expresses her opinion (again, attributed to someone else’s child) that if you can’t discern the truth about someone’s gender just by looking at them, you are the one with a problem
  • demeans young people who experience gender dysphoria (“Sally who thinks she’s Billy”)
  • dismisses the reality (not her own reality—so it must be false!) of gender dysphoria as people “thinking they can be something they simply are not”
  • reveals that she sees measures aimed at protecting minorities as “making the majority feel uncomfortable for the sake of the few” (How would she have coped with the early days of racial integration? Desegregation made white majorities in many schools, or their parents, uncomfortable.)
  • characterizes as “insanity” the courtesy of recognizing the right of individuals to say what name they should be called and which gendered pronouns should be used of them
  • asserts that it is administrators’ responsibility to ensure that nothing happens in school that would make her child feel awkward (bless her heart—does she imagine that the point of education is to ensure that the person being educated is never made to feel uncomfortable?)
  • and finally—and I think this was the real point of this whole oration—gives the board and administration the middle finger with her concluding phrase, “your woke agenda”

There you have it: it seemed to me that the entire point was to hurl that stock culture-wars insult: “Your woke agenda.” But Caledonia teachers and administrators—at least the ones that I have met or heard speak—do not have a “woke agenda.” That’s a bigger lie than the one about what’s on the form.

Wait, did I just do a spoiler? Because here’s the real kicker: the central contention, the triggering event that justifies this whole cascade of willful misunderstanding and (call it what it is) bigotry—namely, the complaint that on their check-in form our middle-school counselors are asking every student to pick their pronouns—IS NOT TRUE!

That’s right: this whole rant was based on a falsehood.

How do I know? As any parent or any other concerned member of the community could do, and as this speaker should have done, I sought verification. I asked for the forms.

I received two PDFs. Here they are:

I do not know which of these two forms was completed by the child of the parent to whom the speaker referred. The two forms have similarities and differences. But here is something they have in common: neither one asks for the child’s pronouns, and neither one refers in any way to sexuality or gender. It simply is not there.

Not until after the school board meeting did the parent of the complaining child contact the building administrator. The building administrator in turn contacted the counselors and ascertained that the surveys do not ask about pronouns. The administrator then passed this information to the parent—and then was told that the parent had not thought that what their child said was true!

Nevertheless, another person—not that parent, but a friend of that parent—took it upon herself to poison the atmosphere at the school board meeting with an indignant speech based on a third-hand falsehood.

How much unnecessary damage was done? How many people left that meeting steaming at the fact—or rather, the falsehood—that our middle school-counselors are routinely asking students to complete a form indicating their preferred pronouns? And how many of them will ever learn that what this speaker said was false? Will she stand up in the March school board meeting to correct her error and apologize?

The positive path again

I don’t like ending on a downer—not with regard to the February meeting in general, and not even with regard to the person who made the little speech that I just described as the quintessential negative example.

Even this negative speech includes expressions of concern for students who might be dealing with hardship of any kind other than gender issues: including bullying, loneliness, severe poverty—and “any issue that comes to light.” I commend this speaker for this concern! It shows goodness in her heart, and I assume that appearance of goodness is authentic.

But the kindly impulse to help students dealing with “any issue” comes to a screeching halt, and turns to nastiness, if the issue they are dealing with involves how they are treated, and how they are talked about, because they are a member of one particular sexual/gender minority, that is, if the minority to which they belong is the T in LBGTQ.

But it is neither good nor necessary, after we have become used to professing acceptance for racial and ethnic minorities (Blacks, Latinx, Asians, etc.), and even to some extent for other sexual minorities (gay, lesbian), to make transgender kids the last acceptable target of hate, ridicule, and exclusion.

I predict that it won’t be possible get away with doing that anyway. I predict that if you raise your kids to be uncomfortable or awkward about treating trans people with respect—if you teach them that it’s their right to make snide, “Billy thinks he’s Sally” remarks about them and to refuse to use their preferred pronouns and names when speaking to or about them—you may be setting them up for a very tense meeting with the HR office of any large corporation or institution they may end up working for. If you want to spare them awkwardness and discomfort: you ain’t seen awkward and discomfort till your kids get fired for bigotry and hate speech because that’s how you raised them.

Let me speak to my fellow Christians for a moment: If you think that the Bible requires or permits you to treat trans people as less than fully human, I understand. Many Christians in the past have thought that way about Blacks, women, and others. I myself was raised in conservative white evangelical (fundamentalist in many respects) Christianity that excluded Blacks, subordinated women, and reviled and excluded queers, and it took me many years to come to understand that the Bible, the Christian tradition, and—to put it most in the sharpest possible focus—the example of self-sacrificing love for the unworthy provided by my Lord and savior Jesus Christ neither require nor permit me to treat any class of human beings with anything less than self-abasing, all-embracing love. If anyone wants to talk about that, I’m happy to put on my pastor/theologian/biblical-scholar hat and sit down with you to discuss, or to put on my Christian publisher hat and recommend some helpful reading.

Treating every human being with love does not mean thinking that nothing is wrong and everything anybody wants to do is right. And Christians may always reach different conclusions about what is right and what is wrong in some matters. But it is not only possible but an absolutely required element of Christian discipleship to treat even people who you think are in the wrong with compassion. This is a required virtue for several reasons, one of which is this: if you are unwilling to obey our Lord’s command to love your enemy, a San Andreas Fault will run right down the middle of your ability to obey the command to love your neighbor, including your closest neighbors (your spouse, your children, your parents), because every one of them will at a certain moment appear to you to be wrong, and will at some point appear to you to be your enemy. Here we see not only the love but also the wisdom of Jesus.

Back to speaking to everyone, Christian or not: The positive path must be the way of compassion. On this point, I will refer you to one more little speech in the public-comment section of the February 21 school board meeting: my own. For that, see my earlier Verba Sparsa post and the video link given there: Everyone Needs Compassion.

The two paths

Two paths diverge.

We can all work together to keep Caledonia Community Schools excellent. We can try to treat each other, and our students, with compassion while addressing issues with scrupulous honesty and seeking win-win solutions.

Or we can sow division and fuel hostility by either negligently or deliberately spreading falsehoods in service to partisan aims.

I hope, and we should all make it clear that we expect, that our school board will unite in following the better path, and that members of the public who speak during comment time will do so as well.

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