August 24, 2006
By HELEN UBINAS, Courant Staff Writer
I figured I'd be writing about the shady shenanigans at the Hartford Housing Authority today. Or the pastor accused of raping and impregnating an 11-year-old parishioner; he was back in court Wednesday. Maybe even Phil Giordano, the imprisoned ex-Waterbury mayor who wants to be paid for unused sick, personal and vacation days. I say cut the guy a check - right after he reimburses the two girls' he sexually abused for their stolen childhood.
But since Sunday's column, my mail has been all Robert Williams all the time, message after message from people wanting to defend the teacher who was suspended for 30 days without pay for poking fun of 13-year-old Jose Velez's pierced eyebrow in front of his classmates:
"When Jose wants to rejoin the human race, he could come back to school."
"Humiliation is used in all cultures. No one dies from it."
"I feel sorry for the teacher who has to deal with these lazy slobs."
"Haven't you lost sight of the messages he was trying to deliver?"
They just kept coming, declarations of support from people - including quite a few Hartford school teachers - who see Williams as some hero, and the students in Hartford as villains. The subtext was clear: These kids are animals. God bless Williams for even trying.
When the story first broke, I reserved judgment on Williams. I've witnessed how chaotic things can be inside Hartford schools. God bless the teachers indeed. Williams' delivery needed some help, but maybe there was an important message behind his ill-chosen words: Appearances do matter. Strive to do better, to be better.
But then I talked with those who've dealt with him and read district records that showed a history of complaints accusing him of using insulting, degrading and racially biased comments. And it became clear that there was more going on here than just a garbled message.
Williams wouldn't talk to me, but a few of his students said he often talked about the military in class. Makes sense, his treatment of at least two of his students sounds a lot like boot camp: Break the soldiers down so you can build them back up again. The only problem is that if you break these kids down, there's no telling they'll ever find their way back up again.
But nobody seemed to get that - or they just didn't care.
The mess in the city's schools is so severe it seems to leave people either totally apathetic or calling for complete control - at any cost. Those who did play at caring made one excuse after another to justify Williams' behavior: Tough love, they called it. Please. Some of the teachers I talked to left me wondering if they even liked kids, let alone love them.
"This is nothing but a race issue," another reader wrote.
Are you kidding me? OK, Williams is white and the students who accused him of unprofessional behavior are Hispanic. But what does race have to do with respect?
Here's the bottom line: Nothing - nothing - justifies a teacher bullying a child.
At first, I was really angry so many people didn't see that. If our expectations for these kids are so low that we don't think they deserve basic respect, then how do we expect them to respect themselves - or anyone else for that matter?
Now, I'm just disgusted. If there are teachers walking into those classrooms, and people looking in from the outside who think these kids are so hopeless that anything goes, these kids don't stand a chance.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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