By : Yohuru Williams
The publication of Time magazine’s cover attacking teacher tenure also marked the one-year anniversary of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s infamous attack on New Jersey middle school teacher Melissa Tomlinson.
In the fall of 2013, Christie, then up for reelection, crisscrossed the state spouting the now familiar subterfuge of failing schools and attacks on teachers and teacher unions associated with corporate education reform. In speech after speech, he rattled off brazenly against underperforming teachers and schools, without acknowledging the more than $1 billion in funding cuts he initiated in his first year in office; those cuts severely compromised the state’s system of education. Equally troubling, the governor reiterated his desire to channel more resources away from underfunded public schools to unregulated charter schools and through a proposed voucher program even eventually to private schools. “I would be happy to take as many dollars as possible away from failure factories that send children on a no-stop route to prison and to failed dreams,” Christie told one such audience in Teaneck. He claiming he wanted to “take that money and put it into a place where those families have hope.”
It was a winning, if dishonest strategy, for the gruff governor unaccustomed to challenges to his authority. His reputation for not only bullying and berating opponents but also retaliating against those who opposed him however, did not deter Tomlinson. She arrived at a Christie rally in Somers Point, NJ on November 4 with a simple question for the governor. When presented the opportunity, the otherwise soft-spoken Tomlinson boldly stepped forward, asking Christie why he continued to persist in falsely “portraying our schools as failure factories.”
The question immediately set the short-tempered governor off. “I’m tired of you people,” he barked at Tomlinson finger jammed in her face. “[Schools] have more money now than they’ve ever had before,” he lectured her, the entire tirade documented by Slate reporter Dave Weigel. “This is an old story from you folks,” Christie continued, “and they fail because you guys are failing in those schools.”
The image of the Governor sternly chastising a polite middle school teacher for asking a question, against the backdrop of a state wide investigation into fiscal mismanagement in education, made national headlines propelling Christie and Tomlinson into the national spotlight.
Denied the opportunity for a reasoned dialogue by Christie’s angry outburst, Tomlinson responded in a post on Badass Teachers Association co-founder Dr. Mark Naison’s blog. “What do ‘we people’ want, Governor Christie?” she asked again seeking the space for dialogue. “We want our schools back. We want to teach. We want to be allowed to help these children to grow, educationally, socially, and emotionally. We want to be respected as we do this, not bullied.
Tomlinson never anticipated that her story would make the national news Nevertheless; she was encouraged by the expressions of support that poured in from around the nation. Most were emails and letters from teachers appreciative of her courage in speaking out.
It was an important moment. Tomlinson symbolically stood for every teacher silenced and bullied by politicians, pundits, and public administrators quick to blame teachers for problems in the schools. “It was galvanizing for me,” recalled Arizona teacher and activist Kathie Wing Larsyn. In subsequent interviews, Tomlinson deftly linked race and poverty to her message, continuing to touch a nerve with many parents and teachers disturbed by high stakes testing and other signs of decay in corporate education reform.
According to Bronx teacher and education activist Aixa Rodriguez,
Melissa was the canary in the coal mine. We saw what he did to her and we were like is that all you got. Now we see kids taking the streets and the parents taking the streets in Newark and Camden. We are no longer afraid.
Highlighting her association with the Badass Teachers Association, Tomlinson offered teachers another outlet to find support and express themselves. “BATs exploded after Christie stuck his finger in her face,” recalled BATs General Manager Marla Kilofoyle.
Here you have this tiny woman step up and confront a man who had bullied and pushed around her profession. She didn’t back down and I think that she raised the bar for what we really need to do. We need politicians to be afraid of that wherever they go.
Tomlinson was not the only teacher to stand up, of course. But, her story resonated with many who had become accustomed to seeing the plight of public education as hopeless and victory by the corporate education reformers as inevitable.
Ohio teacher and education activist Dawn Neely Randall best summarized the significance of Tomlinson’s individual action. “Here we had one dedicated teacher,” she explained, “who courageously took her humble pebbles of questions and went to the frontline to confront the goliath who was spewing harmful rhetoric that was a direct assault on the good that was going on in classrooms across her state. She continued, “Melissa made me realize that I needed to not be afraid to confront the goliath in my state of Ohio, too.”
Perhaps, she will never join the ranks of other celebrated persons in history whose acts of courage and defiance helped to advance the cause of justice. It may still unfortunately, be too soon for many to appreciate the importance of the battle by teachers and others to roll back the corrosive effects of corporate education reform. Nevertheless, Melissa Tomlinson remains a powerful symbol of why teachers need to lend their voices to this struggle in whatever capacity. Her defiant stand still has the power to inspire. As Connecticut teacher Jo Lieb explains, “Every time I see the photo of Melissa standing up to Christie, I feel empowered as a teacher to stand up for my own students.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote memorably in his masterpiece, Crime and Punishment, “Power is given only to him who dares to stoop and take it … one must have the courage to dare.” In speaking out against Time Magazine and up against the likes of political bullies like Chris Christie, Andrew Cuomo and Tom Corbett who have waged war on public education, teachers like Melissa Tomlinson and others dare to speak truth to power in pursuit of true educational equality and economic justice.