© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

The Empire Strikes Back

[Continued from When science goes south]

monkeylukeDelaney was all butterflies the morning of the broadcast. I assured her she’d be just fine.

“But I’m talking to THE PRINCIPAL!” she said in mock horror. “In front of the whole school!”

She was secretly adoring the whole idea, we both knew that, but the nerves were no less real. She’d never done anything like this before.

I drove her to school early, then sat in the front office to watch the show on the monitor. After the Pledge of Allegiance (No, Luke — stay on target!), the camera panned to my daughter and the principal.

“I’m here with Delaney McGowan today who won first place in a national contest,” said Mr. Robinson. “This is amazing, Delaney! Tell us all about it.”

“Well,” she said, “I won an art contest.”


I grinned and shook my head. After all that, she called it an art contest. That’s fine, of course — she can call it whatever she wants. But I did think it was a bit odd. She’d never called it that before, for one thing. And I never mentioned Ms. Warner’s phone call to her. What an odd coincidence.

She went on to describe the contest with the kind of engaging, articulate poise she’s always had, but somehow got all the way through without ever saying any form of the word “evolution.” Extremely hard to do, given the nature of the contest. The closest she came was the word “adapted,” which she used once or twice. Again, it’s a non-issue…if she’s choosing her own words.

When she ran off the school bus as she always does, I engulfed her in a hug. “You…were…AWESOME,” I said. “I could never have been so clear and calm when I was nine! Did you think of all that yourself, or did anybody help you with what to say?”

(Subtle bastard.)

“Well, there was one kind of weird thing,” she said. “About two minutes before the interview, Ms. Warner told me I shouldn’t say the word ‘evolution.'”





“Well…huh. You uh…you did an amazing job, that’s all I can say.”

(I think that’s what I said. It may not have included any actual human sounds.)

“What’s wrong? Something’s wrong.”

“No, nothing, I…well, I’m, I’m, I’m…I’m kind of just wondering why Ms. Warner would say such a silly thing, is all. Why not say ‘evolution’? That just seems weird.”

“Yeah, it does.”
“Didn’t Mr. Robinson say anything to her when she said that?”

“He was out in the hall right then.” Her face knotted up. “But it made me so nervous! During the whole interview, I kept worrying that I was going to say the Word.”

The Word.

Despite my silly graphics in this post — an attempt to keep things from getting too dark — this hit me like a ton of bricks. I’d gone out of my way to keep Laney from getting a negative message about her accomplishment. I’d been low-key and reasonable, and the thing had happened anyway as if I’d never left my chair.

What really hurt was hearing Delaney’s sudden anxiety. My fearless thinker, the one who loves nothing more than a good-spirited tête-à-tête over a plate of theology in the school cafeteria or politics on the playground or current events at the dinner table, who chose freedom of speech as one of the things she’s most grateful for at Thanksgiving, this amazing and unique girl had heard from an educator in her school that one of the great concepts in science was in fact a word she should not use, and by implication, a thought she should not think. Evolution, a perpetual source of wonder to her, had become The Word, a thing to avoid, something vaguely dirty.

Even worse, this woman chose Laney’s moment of excited triumph — of scientific triumph — to display her own likely ignorance of the concept that Laney understands better than most adults in any given room.

Now to fully grasp the complex challenge of that moment for Delaney, a thought experiment: Imagine you’re nine years old. You’ve won the Pillsbury Bake-Off. You are invited to speak to your school principal about it on camera in front of 1,000 of your peers. You’ve practiced what you want to say, over and over. You’re nervous and excited. Then two minutes before you go on, an Authority Figure leans over and says, “By the way: don’t mention baking.”

(Only because the confectionery arts aren’t in the elementary curriculum, you understand.)

At bedtime that night, Laney told her mom something that simply broke our hearts. Mr. Hamilton, Laney’s dynamic and gifted teacher from first grade, a HUGE favorite of hers, had popped into her classroom late in the day. “He said he saw me on the Eagle News,” she said, “but his class was too loud and he couldn’t hear what I was saying. So he wants me to come by his room and tell him all about it some time.” Her eyes watered. “But…I don’t know what I should tell him and what I shouldn’t.”

I hope we’re agreed that this is a very big deal.

I gave myself an hour to calm down, then wrote an email to the principal, still careful with my word choice. For one thing, I was “surprised and disappointed” that this had happened. Why? Because I do not want to waste a milligram of effort defending my tone. “Disappointed” is the go-to word in these situations. If you’re “furious,” the other person stops listening and starts defending. Disappointment says, “I expected more from you, and you let me down.” When someone expresses disappointment in me, I’m mortified and immediately begin trying to make it right. It’s an action word.

I also amended my desire to see Warner slowly strangled with the strings of a thousand Steinways (in the email, if not in the darkest corner of my heart). I made it clear that I was very unhappy and asked to meet with them both, very soon.

As I expected, Mr. Robinson was completely mortified when he heard what had happened. He had not spoken to Warner after our meeting, he said in his reply, “because I assumed that I would be the only staff member discussing the broadcast content with Delaney.” A reasonable assumption. Instead, he had used my input to be sure his interview questions gave Delaney the maximum ability to openly express her ideas. He simply hadn’t counted on Warner taking advantage of the two minutes he stepped into the hallway to push her agenda. There was still only one real perp in this and one clear ally.

No matter how the meeting went, I knew this would make a serious mark on her next performance evaluation. Of course we wanted a whole lot more than that.

We wanted an abject, unequivocal apology from Ms. Warner.

We wanted a school-wide statement explaining what happened and describing the real nature of Laney’s accomplishment.

We wanted Ms. Warner’s head on a platter.

We wanted damage control for Delaney.

We wanted a greatly-reduced chance of this kind of thing happening to another student in the school.

But wants are not the same as needs, and that’s where we sometimes go off the rails. Focusing too much on punishment of the perp shifts attention away from getting changes made and repairing damage. It’s a mistake I have made. It can also put your child in the middle of a struggle between adults in which the original point is completely lost.

Those first three wants would be so satisfying, but we knew we couldn’t allow them to get in the way of the last two.

It was going to be a challenge to keep our heads where they belong — especially when we had such a firm idea of where HERS belonged.

Next time, the meeting. (SPOILER ALERT: it goes well.)



This was written on Thursday, 17. February 2011 at 11:54 and was filed under action, Atlanta, Can You Hear Me Now?, church-state separation, diversity, Kerfuffles, My kids, Parenting, Raising Freethinkers, schools, Science, values. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Oh I would be livid!

    Comment: stbloomfield – 17. February 2011 @ 12:58 pm

  2. I do look forward to the next part that your teaser hints at going well…but I also wonder about some of your interaction with Delaney herself.

    I know from past postings you have covered the differences in various forms of lying, from the protective, white and omission forms to the lies which no moral systems would attempt to justify (and the spectrum in between).

    Since the contest was explicitly an evolution and art contest, she was directly told by her teacher to lie to all those listening when talking about it. I’m sure you’ve had many more talks, particularly since these public incidents and the invitation to talk by the former teacher; but, where does Delaney put this particular request (order?) by someone in authority for her to lie in some way or another? From behaviours and comments you describe she is obviously greatly conflicted, I’m very curions where in the spectrum you have been between letting her work out the implications and future behaviours herself and explicitly giving her your opinion on the matter.

    Comment: pckizer – 17. February 2011 @ 1:04 pm

  3. @pckizer: Honesty ends up being at the core of the story from this point on. As Becca points out in the meeting, honesty is one of four “Habits of Mind” around which our state curriculum is built, and this was a direct contradiction of that value.

    We haven’t hesitated to share our opinions with Laney, even as we try not to put her at the center of a maelstrom. She knows we’re very upset, that she did nothing wrong, and that Ms. Warner made a mistake in asking her to lie. It’s been a nice intro to the fact that adulthood is no certain vaccine against screwing up (not that her parents haven’t already demonstrated that). And she’s received a lot of reinforcement from people whose opinion she values.

    That will all be fodder in the formation of her own thoughts on the matter. As usual, our main concern is removing fear from the mix so she can work out her own thoughts and feelings.

    Comment: Dale – 17. February 2011 @ 1:15 pm

  4. @stbloomfield: Oh that’s funny. “Livid” ended up being Becca’s word of choice as she paced ruts in the floor.

    Comment: Dale – 17. February 2011 @ 1:17 pm

  5. Delaney’s obviously a brilliant kid. Now she’s probably beginning to see that certain people will go to stupid to stomp on her intelligence, but I bet she’ll come back strong.

    It makes me furious too, reading this, and I’m glad to hear it gets better. I eagerly await the conclusion!

    Comment: Michelle Galo – 17. February 2011 @ 2:03 pm

  6. This is an amazing story so far. I’m glad you put the spoiler alert in there, otherwise I’m pretty sure I’d be fuming until your next post.

    Comment: BrianE – 17. February 2011 @ 2:36 pm

  7. So glad to see this post at last. I have been checking your blog almost hourly!
    I share stbloomfield’s feeling: I would be livid, too. And possibly struck totally dumb – I really enjoy the way you describe your reactions, and can totally relate to those exact inarticulate attempts to respond to a child without completely blowing your stack over what happened.
    How good that you let yourself cool off before composing your email. How thankful I am for email! It just saves a lot of trouble/avoids potential emotional pitfalls, when you can write and rewrite until the tone is just right: making the point clearly without raising the defensive hackles and shutting down productive dialogue.
    I am so relieved to read that the next stage goes well. Can’t wait for the next post!
    Most of all: Hooray for Delaney! Not only has she won the Evolution art contest, but she demonstrated outstanding poise and presence of mind to go into that interview mere moments after having a disorienting curveball thrown at her by an authority figure. Your daughter is going to do great things in her life!

    Comment: niftywriter – 17. February 2011 @ 2:49 pm

  8. Wow. I sure wasn’t ready for that development! It makes one think that it might be best to stick close to your child–who would have thought an adult would undermine Delaney (and you and the principal) so overtly. Did Ms. Warner know how you and the principal felt? Did she know about the meeting you had with the principal? If so, she’s an underhanded person obviously working to her own agenda.

    I, too, have been checking your blog for part II very regularly. Now, I’ll have to do it again.

    Comment: Lynn Wilhelm – 17. February 2011 @ 3:00 pm

  9. My spoiler alert is doing just what I hoped. There’s plenty to infuriate in this story, but there’s even more that’s encouraging. I don’t want that to be overlooked.

    Comment: Dale – 17. February 2011 @ 3:08 pm

  10. “Parental Advisement: Explicit Scientific Terminology”

    Censorship does no one any good… Sounds like she explained the process of evolution well, and at a level her audience could understand (minus one admin). What a great learning opportunity for the entire school that was lost since she was prevented from saying at the end “This process makes sense, huh?! Easily plausible, and a great explanation for life’s diversity, isn’t it?! Well, guess what, this is the theory of evolution!”
    By your spoiler I can hope that measures are in place to prevent other kids in the future from being censored like this, but that whole school can never get back the lost opportunity to connect a clearly facilitated explanation (by your recount) to an elegant (and widely misunderstood) scientific principle.

    Comment: TomZ – 17. February 2011 @ 4:15 pm

  11. @TomZ: You expressed my own feeling of lost opportunity perfectly. That’s why I’m determined to turn it into a much larger bonus for the students of the district and state. More next time.

    Comment: Dale – 17. February 2011 @ 4:33 pm

  12. Wouldn’t the ONLY appropriate and fair thing for everyone concerned be for Delaney to go back for another public interview with the principal in which she is ENCOURAGED to speak EXPLICITLY about evolution and the characteristics of her island and the creature she drew and why she drew it that way and how her accurate depiction led to her success in the contest? And to then be heartily congratulated and praised by the principal once again?
    And in particular, perhaps an assistant principal, or some sane parent, might be posted in Ms. Warner’s classroom to make certain that her class in particular hears the broadcast.
    I can’t imagine ANY other action by the principal that would appropriately address this matter.
    Unless, of course, said principal is just shining you on, Dale, and he’s actually an integral part of the whole dishonest and shameful “Christian” manipulation of your child. (Next installment lays that thought to rest, perhaps?)

    In any event, these events are by no means a surprise, as your earlier posts suggest, as does this article:

    Also not a surprise is that even most “liberal” and “science-minded” religionists, Christian or otherwise, while simultaneously claiming utter confusion that atheists might be angry (At us? Why on earth?), generally do and say absolutely nothing about creationist anti-science interference in science education, which goes far to make our nation’s children STUPID in comparison to the children of other modern nations.
    This is because, they say, “it’s just what they (creationists) believe.”
    To criticize, not to mention castigate, others who believe things that simply bring them personal satisfaction in the face of mountains of clear, contrary evidence would threaten their very own “liberal” beliefs held on precisely the same basis.

    OK, rant off.

    BTW, of course I don’t know the area of Atlanta in which you live, but I live part time in Powder Springs / Hiram, where I’d bet a dollar your daughter would never have been congratulated at all if there was even a possibility she might utter the “E” word.
    Out here, on the fringes of literacy, if not dentistry, “If it ain’t King James, it ain’t Bible!”

    Comment: Brad – 17. February 2011 @ 5:15 pm

  13. @Brad: A fine rant! As it happens, Delaney herself is not at all likely to want the second interview solution. She’s been made very uncomfortable about the topic, and putting her back on camera is not the way to make her less so. I’d essentially be using her to score my own points. Instead of reversing this local drama, I’m looking toward a much more far-reaching solution. Don’t know if it’ll reach Powder Springs, but I’ll do my best.

    Comment: Dale – 17. February 2011 @ 5:29 pm

  14. Hi everyone. Kate here, from Charlie’s Playhouse.

    Dale, you really are shameless the way you dole out the story in pieces. And for such a levelheaded person as you, to whip us up into a frenzy!


    As you know, I’m most interested in Delaney here. Her reaction is just heartbreaking, and as the contest sponsor I feel somehow weirdly responsible. Do you think she would like it if I wrote her a note of support or encouragement? (Maybe using the word evolution a lot?) Anything else I can do?

    Comment: Hallucigenia – 17. February 2011 @ 6:24 pm

  15. I have an 8 year old boy and I’m trying to instill in him a healthy skeptical attitude towards authority figures. One of things we talk about is the “it’s illegal to follow an illegal order” protocol. If an authority figure tells you to do something that you really really think is wrong call me – at anytime.

    Example, we were talking about the Pledge of Allegiance and I mentioned that he doesn’t have to say “under God” if he doesn’t want to. He raised the concern that he would get sent to the office if he didn’t say it. I gave him a look and said, “You have them call me if there is a problem.”

    He’s a nice kid and doesn’t look for trouble, but kids shouldn’t feel bullied by adults.

    Comment: Andrew Hall – 17. February 2011 @ 6:33 pm

  16. @Hallucigenia: Being interviewed and otherwise featured on your site was more than enough. She was over the moon and still is. She’s doing great — it was a sensitive subject for about two days, but this is old news to her now, so no need.

    @Andrew: Absolutely true. Nary an MLK Day passes without me bringing up the moral responsibility to break immoral laws to one of the kids. Did it once in front of a Baptist minister uncle, who nearly vibrated right off his seat.

    Comment: Dale – 17. February 2011 @ 6:55 pm

  17. Just read this heartbreaking story to my daughter (the child judge in the contest BTW).

    She was AMAZED that Laney did so well, If a vice-principal told her not to use “the word,” she’d panic and stutter and mumble her way through. She would hope that she’d have presence of mind to ask the principal to do it some other time.

    Or she (a smirk forming on her face) might have disobeyed her entirely.

    We can’t wait for the next installment!

    -Signed “Team Delaney”

    Comment: cswedberg – 17. February 2011 @ 10:59 pm

  18. “Or she (a smirk forming on her face) might have disobeyed her entirely.”

    Right on, sister!

    Comment: Hallucigenia – 18. February 2011 @ 7:20 am

  19. Love this story. I love how you approach things. Too bad that you didn’t talk to both the principal and “the bad guy” in the first place. Part of me wonders ifit would have made the difference.

    Comment: Dea – 18. February 2011 @ 12:54 pm

  20. @Dea: Yes, I think it would have. My intentions to keep things civil occasionally backfire. At that stage I had hoped to quietly pre-empt the situation without calling her on the carpet in front of her boss. Live and learn.

    Comment: Dale – 18. February 2011 @ 1:34 pm

  21. I am a new reader of yours and am on the edge of my seat. Having checked for the next “episode” at least 10 times since Thursday, have finally realized the need to breathe deeply and …..wait.

    Delaney is an inspiration and I wish her much success down the road
    Your intentions with regard to Ms. W were reasonable and, I’d say, loving, but, next time…….. Well, like you said, “Live and learn.”

    Comment: Jennifer – 19. February 2011 @ 12:25 pm

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