Much of the time, outrage over “offensive” memes or tone-deaf jokes is manufactured by the hyper-political or the media-motivated. This time, though, my Rage-O-Meter just hit the red zone. A high school teacher in Newburyport, Massachusetts assigned the following homework problem to students:
— Kathryn Burcham (@kathrynburcham) November 1, 2017
That’s right. Of the infinite possible hypothetical sets of facts, this teacher chose the 9/11 attacks to teach…. wait for it… algebra.
If the general stupidity of using terrorism as a fact pattern isn’t enough on its own, it’s definitely worse when one learns that Tom Percorelli, a graduate of the same high school, was a passenger on hijacked Flight 11, which flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Truly, I’d expect the teacher to have had more sense even if no one from Newburyport had ever even been to New York – but somehow, the school’s direct connection to the tragedy makes it feel even worse.
Don’t worry, though. The Newburyport Superintendent Susan Viccaro released a statement, which said the following:
“As a community, the Newburyport Public Schools recognizes the importance of honoring our First Responders and the brave men and women who lost their lives during this terrible act of terrorism. This assignment was not intended to be disrespectful to the thousands impacted by this horrible event. Rather this was an exercise of poor judgement by the educator who intended to use the historical event as a mechanism to engage students in a thoughtful discussion. In the future, we will work with our educators to find more respectful and mindful ways to continue the important and valuable discussions that should take place around these significant events without diminishing or otherwise disregarding the respect and reverence that is due.”
While I have no doubt that the Superintendent (as well as most civilized people) does indeed want to honor 9/11 responders and victims, I have take serious issue with her lame attempt at damage control.
First, Superintendent Viccaro really needed to actually criticize the teacher’s actions. Minimizing the error by saying that the teacher, “intended to use the historical event as a mechanism to engage students in a thoughtful discussion,” is just silly. This was a math class, and I’m betting the teacher wasn’t planning a lesson on the aftermath of terrorism. Second, they’ll, “work with our educators to find more respectful and mindful ways” to discuss national tragedies? Again, this was an algebra problem, not a counseling session gone awry. Sometimes, the right response to a mistake is a simple admission that sounds like, “Sorry. That was a mistake. It won’t happen again.”
I’m sure the 9/11 reference was not meant to offend or upset anyone; the author simply thought it was a clever way to teach a particular concept. Sometimes, though, ideas are bad; those times, teachers should exercise better judgment, starting by passing press releases through spell check. There’s no “e” in judgment in American English.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.