Ethics Hero: Florida Catholic School Principal Tonya Peters, No Weenie She

In a seventh grade English class at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School in Port Charlotte, Florida, the teacher was presenting Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer,” using an uncensored version, which is to say, “Tom Sawyer.” The classic novel, like its larger, more ambitious cousin “Huckleberry Finn,” uses the now taboo “n-word” in a society today that should be too sophisticated and wise by now not to know that declaring words taboo is ethically and intellectually indefensible. One African-American community website’s news report on the incident states, “Anyone who has read an unedited version of those books know how racially insensitive they were.” Well:

  • Any one who has only read an “unedited”, meaning bowldlerized, version of “Tom Sawyer” hasn’t read “Tom Sawyer,” and
  • Great literature isn’t supposed to be “racially sensitive”; it’s supposed to be enlightening.
  • The issue of watering down language that some may find offensive in literature is well-considered in this essay.

As described in the letter above, when members of the class read the book out loud and the word “nigger” was uttered, the students began “acting up,” laughing, making comments, and generally acting like undisciplined 7th graders, which they were. When the teacher could not calm them down, she improvised a creative but risky solution: having the children repeat the word over and over again. The idea, obviously (though not sufficiently obvious for any of the media reports to figure out) was to rob the “taboo” word of power by repetition. It’s an old linguistic trick that kids should be familiar with (i know I was): when any word is repeated enough, it becomes just a sound, which is all any word is. (This device becomes the climax of the excellent horror film “Pontypool,” in which something causes the English language to become deadly, destroying everyone’s brains.)The kids may have learned something from the excercise; it’s hard to tell from the limited reports.  Many parents complained however, and when it became clear that the teacher, only identified as “Mrs. Zimmerman,” would not be disciplined or, as some demanded, fired, the mother of a black child in the class went to the news media. “It was horrible. It was awkward, it was embarrassing,” said the mother. “You don’t want to even think that would happen to your child.”

What “happened to the child”? I think it’s called “education” and “learning perspective.”

“You already know that word takes people back to a certain time,” the mother continued, “and they don’t want to remember that.”

The children don’t “remember that.” Literature brings past times and human nature into focus. People who don’t want to learn and understand these things become ignorant.

The mother described her confrontation with the teacher, saying, “And I asked her, ‘If the word was: F-U-CK, space, Y-O-U,’ would you tell the class to all say it together in unison?’  She said no.”‘

Too bad: the teacher obviously wasn’t ready for the question, because if she were teaching an age-appropriate book that contained the word “fuck,” the device she used with “nigger” would be just as appropriate. She should have said, “Yes.”

Yet despite all of the uproar and pressure, the leaders of the school refused to grovel or sacrifice the teacher because word-policing is in vogue with the woke. Instead, the principal, Tonya Peters, backed by her assistant, placed the blame for the incident on the misbehaving students, and, by extension, their parents and peers. The teacher apologized to the class by saying that she wished she had handled the problem differently; that’s an easy conclusion, since what she did blew up into a major controversy. She, however, was not and is not responsible for the underlying problem.

Making students shut up and pay attention is part of the solution, the uncomplicated part. Persuading society to stop dealing with problems and controversies by making them difficult to discuss is the real challenge.

The uncompromising letter is only a start.


4 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: Florida Catholic School Principal Tonya Peters, No Weenie She

  1. Veteran of a year of teaching seventh graders in a Catholic Parochial grade school here in the Myer Lansky part of North Miami Beach during the year of the Carlton Fisk Red Sox and Bucky Dent (A Miami-Dade North alum, as I recall). I had the backing of the principal and the Pastor in kicking out the compulsively disruptive son of a New Jersey mob boss who paid the parish’s electric bill and other obligations when the Sunday collection was insufficient. No one can teach without the absolute backing of the administration. Certainly not seventh graders who are notoriously THE WORST. Delighted to see Catholic schools still have some spine.

  2. The letter raises a question: if there is a disciplinary process outlined in the school handbook, why is it necessary to announce that the “new policy” is that it will now be enforced? I daresay some of the behavior problems the school is seeing are at least partly of the school’s own making if they haven’t been disciplining the students according to their own rules thus far.

    Seventh grade American children are little more than wild beasts, awash in developing hormones and primed to push every boundary they encounter. Having a code of conduct and not enforcing it with such diabolical creatures is asking for trouble. Good for the school that they recognize the problem and are applying the proper solution in spite of criticism, but this policy should have been in place all along.

    Hopefully Principal Peters will be ready with the proper response to any parent who complains about the new policy, which is “Perhaps you are not a good match for this school, and you are welcome to enroll your child elsewhere.”

  3. I pray for the teachers of 7th graders every day. they work in an environment fueled with hormones, that lead to stupidity in word and action. While stationed with a NATO group in Belgium i noted the lack of British adolescents. At a social event that included the vicar’s wife, I asked where were all the teenagers. She said, “Oh Major, they are all sent to boarding school, far away. We don’t pick them up until they are human again!”

  4. The student minister at my church – I teach Sunday School – noted a few weeks ago that, across the board, they are seeing kids a good two years behind in maturity. High school kids are behaving like junior high schoolers, junior high schoolers are behaving like grade schoolers and grade schoolers are being behaving like pre-schoolers.

    I can attest that it is becoming nigh impossible for me to get through a ten minute Q&A on the lesson because of disruptive students.

    He said the pandemic is probably responsible for some of it but that blame can also be placed on parents who are sheltering their kids more and more.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.