The other day I was thinking about “Big Johnson” t-shirts. These were shirts that featured stupid dick jokes and caricatures of big breasted women. They were popular in the 1990s before we had social media as an outlet on which college students could show their stupidity.
At the time that the shirts were popular I was a T.A. (no pun intended) at the University of Cincinnati. I taught Freshman English and I had a student who wore one of these shirts almost every day. I remember a couple of times, when trying to teach about debate and presenting opinions, bringing up the shirts, asking others to discuss why they were or were not appropriate in a classroom. I was desperate to involve the student in the class, and I thought maybe talking about his shirt would help (in my defense I was 24 years old with zero teaching experience and in charge of a class of people 5 years younger than me).
As you might predict with a roomful of 19-year-olds, the boys all said the shirts were “fine” or “funny,” the girls looked uncomfortable and said nothing. The guy wearing the shirt only participated in the conversation once, he said “Why should I care if anyone is offended?” I went back to using “Should 18 year olds be allowed to drink” as my debate example.
I was thinking about these shirts the other day both because Slate published a surprisingly nostalgic article about the shirts and because I got an email from a teacher. The email was signed with a greeting that in my experience is almost always an expression of faith.
Now, I am not offended by expressions of faith and I am not offended by dick jokes, but I do feel they each have their place, and a public classroom isn’t the place for either of them.
I asked on Facebook what others thought of the signature. Opinions ran the gamut from “Totally inappropriate” to “Inappropriate, but what are you gonna do” to “Absolutely not inappropriate” to “Wait, you think that’s religious?” and shades of thoughtful nuance in between.
But there were two responses that kept coming up in various forms that irked me. One was the idea that “If you are offended, you should say something, you should educate the teacher.” The other was the contrasting idea that while this wasn’t appropriate, it wasn’t something big enough for me to be upset over or to bring up.
It’s taken me a while to put my finger on what irks me about those responses and it goes back to the dick joke shirts.
It is unfair that a young woman has to say to a young man, “I don’t really like looking at pictures of dicks and big boobs when I’m trying to get an education or do my job.” It is unfair that she should have to risk making herself vulnerable to charges of being humorless or thin-skinned. It is unfair, but it’s also ok, not everything is fair.
As a private individual my student had every right to wear whatever he wanted, no matter how offensive. Others, including me, his teacher, had the right to be offended or not and to express that state of offense to him. Despite what the current culture of trigger warnings says, being offensive and offended is part of the college experience, it’s part of how people learn. If you are offended by something a private individual does, you either need to say something or deal with it. My student made his opinions of other people’s feelings clear, and that was his right.
Despite the fact that her statement of religious belief was innocuous and well-meant, and not the least bit offensive, the public school teacher, sending an email from a government-owned computer, on government provided email, discussing official school business, does not have the same rights.
Why is it up to the Jewish or atheist mother to say, “I don’t find your expression of religion in a public school appropriate.” Why do I have to leave myself open to the accusation that I’m weird enough to be offended by good wishes?
Why is it up to a parent to have to weigh the different inappropriate things and decide “You know, I’m going to mention the historically inaccurate information about Jews that this teacher teaches, but I’m not going to mention the religious Christmas music blasting in his room.”
Why do I have to decide if it’s worth risking my children’s relationship with their teachers to point out that a public school should not be contracting for outdoor education with an organization that has as their stated mission, “bringing people to Christ through the outdoors”?
If it’s not a big deal for a teacher to use a religious expression in her signature, shouldn’t it also not be a big deal for the school to ask her to change it? Why is the presumption that if it is not a big deal the person bothered should keep their mouth shut?
If I’m being generous, I could also ask, why should it be up to the principal of the school to constantly have to weigh the concerns of parents against the fact that she has to work with her teachers a lot longer than she does the parents?
The answer is fairly obvious, it’s up to the parent or the principal because being sensitive to the various religious sensibilities of parents is not any more a priority to the school district than caring what others thought of his dick shirt was to the 19-year-old freshman.
If being sensitive were a priority, we would not be locked in a constant cycle of “troublesome situation, parent addresses situation, school apologies for situation and on to the next troublesome situation, surprisingly similar to the one before it.”
It is ok for a 19-year-old to not care if he is offending anyone with his shirt and to put the onus on explaining that offense on those offended.
It is not ok for a school district to not care if they are violating the law and to put the onus of explaining that violation on parents.
I will not say anything to this teacher or the school about this email signature because I have gone down this road one too many times before with this school. I know that the very best I can hope for is that I will get an apology from the principal, a promise to discuss the issue and then, two weeks from now, I will learn about some other issue that maybe, probably I should bring up.
It is ok for me to value my own sanity above trying to teach religious diversity and sensitivity to a teacher or a school. It’s not ok that I’m constantly asked to make that choice.