Sometimes One Earring Can Cause a Gigantic Headache
It is so small, you can hardly see it unless you stare at his ear. Yet the tiny gold earring worn by this fifth-grade teacher has emerged as a symbol in the battle over what it takes to lift failing kids.
On one side is a charismatic leader, who has ordered a set of sweeping changes that would bind students and teachers in South-Central Los Angeles to a strict code of behavior and dress.
On the other are teachers like the fifth-grade instructor, who for reasons that will become clear would like to remain anonymous. He’s among the much-maligned teachers who staff some of the city’s toughest schools, where kids come to class angry and hungry and graduate unable to read.
At issue is whether male teachers should be allowed to wear earrings--a showdown that pits the rights of hundreds of teachers against their boss’ vision of what it takes for poor kids to succeed.
The boss, George McKenna, will tell you it is not about the earring. If a man wants to poke a hole in his ear, that’s his privilege. But if he wants to teach at one of the 40 schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District region that McKenna commands, “I’m going to ask him to take the earring out.
“I have an obligation to set standards that are wholesome and safe for students,” he says, “and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
A former math teacher who has spent 25 years running inner-city schools, McKenna’s aura extends far beyond the boundaries of South-Central L.A. He reached hero status 15 years ago when his efforts to lift the failing Washington Prep High brought recognition from then-President Reagan and led to a made-for-TV movie that brought his tough-love philosophy into millions of homes.
Last summer, he was appointed superintendent of the most beleaguered of Los Angeles Unified’s 11 regions--a collection of campuses that rank, by almost any measure, among the worst in the state: schools where just over half the teachers have full credentials, a quarter of the students are absent on any given day and nearly 90% are poor enough to qualify for free school lunches.
“We are the lowest-performing school community in the district, and maybe in the state,” McKenna will tell you. “And that has got to change.”
With missionary zeal, he set his course for reform, including a detailed “instructional master plan” that governs everything from how often each teacher must assign homework (every night) to how many new words they must teach students each week (20).
The thick packet does not set a specific dress code for teachers but does require them to adhere to rules for students, and those rules forbid boys from wearing “any gang symbols such as handkerchiefs, earrings, hair designs. . . .”
It is, McKenna says, a question of safety. “I am well aware, working in the inner city for 38 years, that students die because of what they wear. I have talked to enough gang members to know that they signal their gang affiliation by which ear they put their earring in, what type of earring they wear, and so on. So my male students cannot wear earrings, and teachers will be held to that same standard.”
But teachers say McKenna is caught in a time warp, relying on outmoded views left over from his stint at Washington Prep 20 years ago. “He’s a man from the generation when wearing an earring wasn’t done,” says teachers’ union representative Steve Klein. “Maybe it was a gang thing once, now it’s just a fashion thing . . . you see earrings on artists, musicians, athletes”--not to mention the fathers of many of the students in McKenna’s schools.
Even police officers and street gang workers say they don’t consider earrings on boys a sign of gang ties. “Men are wearing an earring almost as an accessory, like a wristwatch,” says Los Angeles Police Department Lt. Ed Wilson, who works the gang detail around McKenna’s schools.
But McKenna is not about to accede to the demands of fashion or culture or convention. “You can call me old-fashioned if you like. I’m old-school and proud of it. I would rather give these young male students a powerful appearance”--the appearance of professionalism--”than to accommodate styles that will hold them back in life. I think that more of them can be employable if they are dressed in ways that are not confrontational, not controversial.”
Each side claims to--and no doubt does--have the children at heart.
McKenna says he is concerned only about student success and safety; union teachers are battling him, he says, because they resent the hard work his ambitious reform plan requires. “They focus on the earring because they want to trivialize it.”
The teachers consider his dictatorial stance an affront to their dedication. “If he wants to help us, how about fewer arbitrary rules and more supplies and textbooks,” Klein said. “How about fixing the heat, so our kids aren’t freezing in winter.”
The more you listen, the more depressing this gets. You sense these clashing worldviews are destined to remain locked in battle, and that the conflict may keep their schools mired in failure.
McKenna, 60, sees a world where the odds are stacked against kids like his, where the obstacles to success are as much perception as ability.
“There are some communities where children can afford to have their ears pierced, and it doesn’t cost them,” he says. “But inner-city kids need to be held up with a superior appearance--in the way we dress and the way we speak--so that we are not patronized by those who would exploit us.”
He can remember when he was one of them, growing up in a poor, segregated neighborhood in New Orleans. He credits his success to the “high expectations and strict standards” of his Catholic school, “which took a bunch of little ragamuffins and produced Presidential Scholars.”
He identifies with his poor black and brown students so strongly that he lapses into “we” when he talks about them. He considers the teachers who oppose him interlopers who do not understand the history or the depth of the challenges they face.
“If you go home at night to a community with no gangs, maybe wearing an earring doesn’t seem like a big deal to you,” he says, angrily. “Maybe you can afford to complain about your ‘personal freedoms.’ But don’t superimpose those values on a community where you don’t have a stake.”
But the teachers are shaped by their history, too. “When we were kids, it was long hair and sideburns that could get you kicked out of school,” Klein recalls. “We learned to get beyond all that, to judge somebody by their character not how they dress or wear their hair. You tell me, what does wearing an earring have to do with how good a teacher you are?”
Klein said he has received several calls from angry teachers. Some are threatening to leave for schools in the district’s other 10 regions, where rules are not so restrictive. Principals are worried that they stand to lose some of their best, most effective teachers.
So why can’t they just remove their earrings during class? Isn’t that a small price to pay for peace? Some say they are willing, but others say that would betray the children they teach in a way McKenna may not realize.
“A lot of these kids--especially the boys--are held back by the idea that being smart means ‘acting white,’ ” says the fifth-grade teacher with the earring, who continues to wear his earring. “I try to show them that achievement doesn’t have a color, that they don’t have to give up their culture to succeed.”
And I just wish I could show McKenna and his teachers how foolish they look, fiddling while Rome burns . . . battling over earrings while their children are watching, and waiting to learn.
Sandy Banks’ column runs on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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