Issue 72, Winter 1998/1999

by Clyde Haberman

A well-intentioned third-grade teacher, who happens to be white, gave her mostly black and Hispanic students a critically praised book about a black girl with kinky hair. Then parents came to Public School 75, which is in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Heaven forbid that they should have troubled themselves to read the book, “Nappy Hair.” They might have found that it is about a young heroine who celebrates that which makes her special. With ignorance in full bloom, they had no problem denouncing the teacher as a racist, often in words of four letters. A couple of them, whose children are not in the third grade, went so far as to menace her—”we’re going to get you,” one said—and to scream antiwhite slurs.

So who did the school authorities choose to investigate first? The well-meaning teacher, or the foul-mouthed, harm-threatening parents?

The teacher, of course.

She stood accused, however falsely, of being “racially insensitive.” And in the touchy-feely twilight of this century, few sins will land you in purgatory faster than presumed insensitivity, especially on a matter of race, sex, religion, national origin or sexual orientation.

The good news is that it took school officials little time to realize that the teacher, Ruth Sherman, was guilty of no transgression more serious than failing to clear the book with her principal. The parents of her students praised her lavishly, as did officials at P.S. 75 and the local district, No. 32.

Having immediately yanked her from her classroom (it was for her own safety, they would later say, not in response to the racism charge), the authorities asked Ms. Sherman to return. She declined out of fear for her safety.

This may be a good place to note that, despite the occasional well-publicized incident, physical attacks on teachers by parents are relatively uncommon in New York’s public schools. Most attacks on staff members are by students, and their numbers have been falling sharply, according to records kept by the United Federation of Teachers. There were 913 in the 1997-98 school year, or less than half the record 1,902 of four years earlier.

Still, they were 913 assaults too many, and as Ms. Sherman observed yesterday, “How do I know that someone won’t spit at me, or push me?” She expects to be reassigned, perhaps today, to a school in another borough…

But this incident won’t disappear right away because there is a larger issue. The message that her instant removal from the classroom sent to many New Yorkers was that a charge of racism, no matter how knee-jerk and baseless, will get you into hot water more readily than threatening someone with possible bodily harm.

Ms. Sherman’s nascent teaching career was turned upside down for no reason. What action has been taken against the menacing parents? Thus far, 11 days later, nothing. And from the often-voluble Schools Chancellor, Rudy Crew, there has been not a public word. So much for the lesson that parents are supposed to instill in their children: behave responsibly, for actions have consequences…

O.K., what then might qualify as the “appropriate action” promised early this week by the district superintendent, Felix Vasquez? Mr. Vasquez would not discuss the issue yesterday. But a Board of Education spokesman, J. D. LaRock, said the P.S. 75 principal “would talk to the parents and tell them that they behaved inappropriately and that they have to behave appropriately when they’re in a school.”

That’s it?

“We’re hoping that with all the attention focused on this episode, the lesson has been learned,” Mr. LaRock said. On Livingston Street, apparently, optimism reigns.

As a coda, it might be noted that two years ago Ms. Sherman tutored the daughter of a woman who threatened her last week. The girl’s reading scores went up, the teacher said. Ironic, some would say. Others might find it all very sad.