I have a penchant for good literature. It’s not only the story that’s appealing, it’s the opportunity to transcend time and live through history. When I’m reading, my mind allows me to enter past dimensions and speculate who I would be and how I would react.
I’ve seen myself as a Spartan at Thermopylae and as a patriot with George Washington. Good literature takes us into the world of the story.
However, there’s one literary world that I have refused to enter. The place is near Boston; the setting is circa 1650, and the story is “The Scarlet Letter,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The story is about Hester Prynne, a young woman who has a child by a man other than her husband. For this transgression, she is forced to wear the scarlet letter. She is tried, judged and convicted in the court of public opinion and subsequently experiences the wrath of the people.
“The Scarlet Letter” and its look at Puritanism brings to mind the Salem witch trials of the 1600s. They were public hearings for people accused of witchcraft. This was a macabre time in colonial history and depicts one of the most famous cases of mass hysteria. What happened in Salem has been used in literature as a cautionary tale about the dangers of a rush to judgment based on emotion, bigotry, false accusations, personal agendas and lapses of due process. Throughout “The Scarlet Letter” there are subliminal warnings regarding what happened in Salem.
All of which brings me to a situation right here at home in our own school district.
I have a cursory understanding of math teacher Gabrielle Leko’s plight with the district regarding the accusations against her. Did she or didn’t she use the term “Jew Boy” referencing a student? And if she did, what was the context of her reference?
I am not insensitive to the grievous nature of her alleged remarks, especially toward someone who is Jewish. But I don’t believe in piling on, and I’ve heard from many sources that she is a great teacher.
I’m not grounded in the facts. But after the district’s investigation into this matter, she was ordered to participate in sensitivity and diversity training. However, I am aware that she also was tried, convicted and sentenced in the court of public opinion. The comments against her are fueled with emotion and vehemence. Are they proportional to her alleged transgression?
There is a greater danger than Leko’s alleged offense.
Is society becoming too sensitive? In America today, if your sensibilities are offended by something that has happened, you get an enormous amount of credibility and are taken very seriously. Christian Bovee, a 19th-century author, tells us, “Sensitiveness is closely allied to egotism; and excessive sensibility is only another name for morbid self-consciousness. The cure for tender sensibilities is to make more of our objects and less of our selves.”
I was schooled by strict taskmasters who were proponents of the axiom, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Brother Cyprian, my freshman English teacher, was a cross between Genghis Khan and Ralph Waldo Emerson. After delivering one of his verbal lashings, he’d ask, “Do you want me to smack you with the right hand or the left?” I’d answer, “Brother, hit me with your strongest hand.” I wanted him to know that I could take it.
Brother Cyprian was a great teacher. He taught us how to write; and his tough love approach kept many boys away from delinquency.
It is detrimental to expose ourselves as a victim. One qualification for that is that you have these exquisitely tender feelings about things and sensibilities which are easily offended.
Let me leave you with an excerpt from “Frankenstein,” by Mary Shelly: “… we might be nearly free if we were not moved by every wind that blows and a chance word or scene that that word may convey to us.”
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.