Anti-war teacher quits her job rather than her principles
By ROBERT L. JAMIESON Jr.
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER COLUMNIST
For the kids at Olympic View Elementary, it's the day the music died.
Their popular music teacher didn't come back to the Seattle school this year. Their arts instruction has been left with a gaping hole.
The reason why seems so ridiculous: Instructor Mary K. McNeill -- "Mary K" to everyone at the school -- made the "mistake" of encouraging kids to write and sing songs about love and peace during the U.S. war in Iraq.
A few parents complained. The school principal met with Mary, who had been at Olympic View for a few years and whose methods had been embraced.
Mary was issued an ultimatum: You can sing about peace but in no way can you suggest anything about stopping war.
"I feel I was being censored," Mary told me yesterday.
So just before the school year began she followed her principles -- not her principal!
She walked away from the job she loved. Better that than get canned.
Mary -- an "artist in residence" and not a certified teacher -- got the raw end of this deal. Anyone looking for positive leaders in the classrooms of the beleaguered Seattle public schools now has one less place to look.
Olympic View's principal calls what happened "a tremendous loss." But he says he had little choice.
"Mary and I had a discussion about what is OK to teach your own children at home and what kind of things you can, as a school employee, teach other people's children in the classroom," explains Tim Moynihan. "We were exploring where that boundary was. Mary came to feel a public school was too limiting."
School officials and parents were singing a much different tune just this spring.
They held a big auction to raise money and a good a share of those funds -- some $20,000 -- was collected to pay for Mary's salary for the coming year; a special grant funding her position had dried up. At the time, no one raised a fuss about a teacher many parents said their kids loved.
And hardly anyone peeped when Mary and the kids sang at another event, also this spring, for the local East Indian community. King County Executive Ron Sims was on hand at the Indian spring festival, and hummed along to the young voices.
That song, which Mary's kids had been singing in class, went like this:
We are children of peace.
We are the children of the world.
We are children of dreams.
And we are the children of the world.
We are children of love.
We are the children of the world.
We don't want war anymore -- we are the children of the world.
The last line was the one that caused the teacher to leave her schoolchildren, and what's ironic is this -- the line didn't come from Mary. She often had the kids suggest song lines in class to foster group creativity and involvement. During one session, a 7-year-old student raised his hand and said: "Well, I don't want war."
Thus trouble was born.
"That lyric was the problem," Mary says. "I could keep my job if I sang a song that didn't add the issue of war. I could sing about peace but not against war. But if you look at issues of peace, inevitably aren't you looking at conflict?"
She loathed the idea of having to guard her tongue -- and the kids' tongues.
The school district has a policy that, in a ultrabroad way, speaks to the issue:
"The teacher, as facilitator, should treat controversial issues in an objective manner, pointing out alternative points of view, and ensuring that the major aspects of an issue are honestly and respectfully presented."
It's bothersome how this policy has been applied to Mary, who wasn't about to add a line from "Onward Christian soldiers ... " to the song.
The kids' tune was about war in the most generic terms. War in the Occupied Territories. In East Africa. And many people would agree that war, however necessary, isn't great. Mary had the song translated and sung in Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi, Spanish and Farsi -- just so it could be shared with children worldwide.
But because critics of the song knee-jerked and then shoehorned the song into the current Iraqi situation, they missed Mary's aim: to teach kids universal respect for others in ways and words they understand.
Don't worry. This 44-year-old music instructor will land on her feet. She's got work with an intergenerational choir at a local church. She's also got gigs with a couple of other schools. Mary says she has no beef with Olympic View's principal. She suspects pressure came from higher ups: "It's just heartbreaking all around."
In a flash of war-generated hysteria, in a rush to cave to a vocal minority, a fine teacher is gone. Didn't the school district learn a lesson earlier this year when it allowed outside forces to flush out a talented teacher who mistakenly used the N-word?
So far this year at Olympic View, there isn't anyone serving a diet of music rich with songs about love, compassion -- healthy stuff for young hearts and minds oft besieged by pop culture junk food.
The kids have no music at all. Just silence.
"La vida te da sorpresas...