Friday, August 6, 2010

Outside the Lines

The following article appeared via Associated Press in the Oregonian newspaper this morning:

SALEM -- A Klamath Falls teacher placed on administrative leave after an uproar over a film clip containing profanity has won an Oregon Supreme Court ruling saying he is entitled to unemployment benefits. Robert McDowell was a probationary first-year high school language arts and drama teacher for the Klamath County School District when he showed his senior English classes a clip from the film "Glengarry Glen Ross," based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Mamet. The clip contained some profanity intended as a lesson about language use and misuse. McDowell resigned rather than risk being fired while on leave. But the state denied him unemployment benefits for alleged "misconduct," a decision the Oregon Supreme Court overturned today.

Over twenty years ago I was teaching 8th grade English at Cedar Park Middle School in Beaverton, Oregon.   Glengarry Glen Ross was being performed as a student matinee and I wanted to take my classes. I sent a letter to parents explaining what we would be doing, how it fit into our study of English, and invited them to opt their child out of the planned field trip.  Out of 90 families, one opted out.  The field trip was a smashing success.  Students questioned the actors after the performance about themes in the play, including the prolific use of profanity.  Mamet doesn't use profanity blithely in the play, it serves a particular purpose.  Prior to viewing the play, I shared a list of the profane words with the kids and asked them to let me know which they had never heard or seen.  An interesting discussion about the differences between spoken and written English ensued as there were words the kids had heard but had no idea how to spell as they had never seen them written.  I was surprised that, in this group of suburban eighth graders, there were no "unknown" words.

I have to believe the seniors in Mr. McDowell's English class had not only heard the profane words, but used many of them regularly.....out of his earshot, of course.  I've visited Klamath Falls.  Everybody uses the same profane words found in Mamet's play.  The Klamath County School District was wrong to place him on administrative leave and should offer to rehire him.  He should, out of principle, probably refuse their offer.  Too bad.  He has the makings of a superb English/Drama teacher, the kind students remember, treasure, and trust.  Glengarry Glen Ross is taught and performed all over the United States.  It should also be taught in Klamath County, Oregon.

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