Going Viral

Talk about intimidating! Sitting down here to write a new blog post after my “Open Letter to Oklahoma Voters and Lawmakers” exploded over the Internet and across the country and around the world is the most intimidated I’ve ever been when it comes to writing. How do I follow up on that?

The truth is, I don’t think I can. Probably never will. So it’s either abandon my blog, or go on as if that post was only seen by the dozen or so people who would typically read what I post online. That means that pretty soon I’ll be back to posting book reviews and updates on my novel writing or promotion. Speaking of which, I’ll be a guest at the Underground Monster Carnival at the OKC Fairgrounds again this year. Come out and visit me and many other authors, movie makers, make-up artists, and vendors. Organizers Stephanie and Art Sunday have very generously offered to collect donations for my school, and you don’t even have to pay Carnival admission to make a donation. That’s the true spirit of the average Oklahoman.

The response to my Open Letter was overwhelming in many ways. The sheer volume, of course, was staggering. I had no idea that was going to happen, and I am still working my way through e-mails and comments. If I had known what was about to happen, I might have worded a couple of things differently. For instance, it was not my intention to say that everyone working in factories or oil fields are peasants. Those are often good-paying jobs (more than teachers make!) and many people find satisfaction there. That’s great. I was a little impassioned at the time of writing and recalled my own feelings during the 10 years I worked in machine shops between high school graduation and going to college. It wasn’t for me. It wasn’t a trade I chose. I’ve since lost the ability to do the complicated math I did when I was running CNC machines, so obviously there is a level of intelligence beyond mere peasantry needed to do trade jobs. Like I said, I didn’t choose that career; cleaning high production machines was the only full-time job I could get in 1986; once I was in, I worked my way up until a shoulder injury ended that career. The whole time I worked in various shops I was looked at as an oddity because I usually had a book I was reading or parts of a manuscript to edit. I wasn’t happy as a factory worker and I committed a fallacy in the heat of the moment. A better wording to that part of my letter would have indicated that I don’t want my students to be forced into any job due to shoddy education if they aspire to some other profession. I apologize to anyone who took offense to the way that was worded.

Another criticism I saw concerned my mention of Michelle Obama. I stand by that one. School meals are not filling, and under the Smart Snacks guidelines kids cannot get second helpings. If you’ve ever had teenagers in your home you know that they eat a lot of food. In our district, the school meals are the best a lot of kids get, which is why we continue to feed them during the summer. They need to be filled at school because there often isn’t enough food at home. Further, Smart Snacks gutted our most reliable fundraisers, which were selling hot dogs, pizza, chicken strips, or nachos from our school concession stand. Under this initiative pushed by the unelected first lady, we cannot sell alternatives to the Smart Snacks approved meals. Kids are not even supposed to be selling those old stand-by Worlds Finest Chocolate candy bars during school hours. All that said, Mrs. Obama was not the point of my letter and the fact so many people focused only on that mention of her says something about their perspective, in my opinion.

I would also like to point out I was careful not to name the school or district where I work. When I agreed to meet with local reporters from KFOR Newschannel 4 and FOX25 they both agreed beforehand that they would not mention the name of my school or district. Chelsea Washington of FOX25 violated that agreement. It could have been learned, anyway, by people who read some of the early comments to my letter, comments made by personal friends who know where I work and mentioned the school name in their responses. I did not try to keep the school’s identity private because I’m ashamed to be part of Western Heights. On the contrary, I’ll be forever grateful to the administrators who took a chance on a long-haired 40-year-old first-year teacher with alternative certification. I’m proud to be a Jet and proud of my kids. I tried to keep the school name private because I do not speak for the school or district. The views on my blog are my own and are not endorsed by or a reflection of the views of the administration. As expected, once the name was out, there were calls of complaint.

Let me say this: Not every student at Western Heights lives in the conditions I described. Not every parent of a Western Heights student uses drugs, ignores their children, or abuses them in any way. We have some of the best parents you’ll find anywhere. I’ve been lucky enough to have older and younger siblings go through my class and I’ve gotten to know families and count them among my friends and they are excellent parents. But the bad stuff is there, too. The stories about parents who can’t answer their phones are real; a girl who was not the object of my original story stopped me today in the hall to tell me her parents were too wasted to answer the phone sometimes. The story about the boy sleeping on a neighbor’s back porch is true; that was the incident that first opened my eyes to the plight of some of our kids in my first full year of teaching. And yes, I had a female student who was beaten with a cane by her grandfather because I let him know she was failing my class. These are things that never should have happened. Once you see that they do, you don’t forget them. They do not only happen at Western Heights. Those things are happening at your school, too. If you think you are the parent I was talking about in one of those examples, please turn yourself in at the nearest police station.

One last thing for tonight. Many, many, many thanks to everyone who expressed support for what I wrote. The response, as I said, was unexpected and overwhelming. People have brought me boxes of food, a case of copy paper, poster paper, and one kind soul send $250 to my PayPal account to use to help my kids. Several of my former students shared the post with personal notes about our time together, and more than a few of those put a lump in my throat and a mist over my eyes. I didn’t write the letter to get free stuff, or to goad my graduates into stroking my ego. Those things were as unexpected as the 85,000+ views the Open Letter currently has. Spiritually, there is no better profession than teaching and no reward greater than when a successful young adult tells you that you made a positive impact in his or her life. It doesn’t keep the electricity on, but it fills the heart and reminds us why we put up with all the negatives of being a classroom teacher. Thank you all!

I’ve rambled. Tomorrow or Friday I’ll share the modified version of my Open Letter that I sent to the state senators and representatives for my district and the district where the school is located. So far, I have not received a reply from them, or from Gov. Mary Fallin. In the meantime, I’ll leave you to ponder the most recent lunacy from the Oklahoma legislature: Mandated anti-abortion instruction.

10 responses to “Going Viral”

  1. Your original article had a huge impact on me, and I can’t believe so many people missed the point. Went right over their heads because of the education they didn’t get, I suppose. Keep fighting the good fight!

    1. Thanks, Nick. I’m glad it meant something to you. Thanks for reading!

  2. Steve,

    I have this visual of how this happened. You are sitting around waiting for your wife to get ready to go to the concert when you decide to vent on your blog. Shoot, many of us do it. Like many of us, we do not expect people to read our feelings….even if they are posted on our blog. I cannot imagine what it must have felt like to go viral.

    The other thing I noticed is how soooo many people cherry picked what they wanted to complain about and totally missed the point. I followed the comments for as long as I could, but sadly, got to the point that the stupidity of some people made it no longer an uplifting thing.

    You have been a very positive influence in the life of my daughter and her small cadre of lunatic friends. Your room was their refuge. They had to find their own way once they left the Heights. Amanda joined a sorority and Shannon got a boyfriend (think this sort of thing was mentioned in Revelations). Yet, they look back on the time in your room as their safe zone. I thank you that. You are a good man Steve Wedel.


    1. Bill, you nailed it on several counts there. It was surreal watching the thing take off and getting all that notice. And yeah, the cherry picking was weird, but I’ve looked at enough comment sections of news sites to not really be surprised at how people reacted to me or to one another. I look back on my Class of 2014 and I know that was the best year I’ll ever have as a teacher. I miss those kids every day. And I never expected Shannon to have a real boy. I just assumed she’d build a mate from stone or metal someday.

    2. Catherine Harris Avatar
      Catherine Harris

      Read what he writes in his social media page about how his students are “stupid” and how their essays “suck”. He not loving or caring. He’s a fraud who is trying to get attention.

    3. Catherine Harris Avatar
      Catherine Harris

      Read what he writes in his social media page about how his students are “stupid” and how their essays “suck”. He not loving or caring. He’s a fraud who is trying to get attention.

  3. Steven,
    When I read your Open Letter, I connected right away. Perhaps it was the peanut butter crackers and the blankets, both of which can be found in my own classroom. I keep a “mom drawer” the kids can access for what a mom might supply if they need it, and I, too, have sad, scary, but also happy stories from my time with students. I thank you for speaking for so many of us. I shared your letter via Twitter and saw it liked and retweeted several times.
    I’m just a little southwest of you and teach journalism, some technology (I get them blogging) and reading. If you’re interested, you can read some of my posts at teachjournalism.wordpress.com.

    Lisa Snider, @snidesky on Twitter

  4. Catherine Harris Avatar
    Catherine Harris

    You call your students “stupid” and say their essays “suck”. And you do this on social media. We know how you really feel, so stop trying to drumb up readership for your drivel you call authorship. You are a fraud and have no place in education.

    1. Catherine, common sense tells me to go on ignoring you and let you bleat until you find something else to fill your days, but if I followed that I suppose I wouldn’t have posted the original letter in the first place. So let me tell you something. You don’t know me. You don’t know my kids. You don’t know my school. I imagine my open letter came to your attention when it inexplicably exploded across the Internet, then you scrolled back through my Facebook and found me venting about kids not doing their best work. Like students who say To Kill a Mockingbird is racist because it uses the word “nigger,” you chose a couple of words and decided you know all about me.

      I’m not a great teacher. I’ve never claimed to be. Sometimes I’m not even a good person. But if you think I’m a “fraud,” I’ll challenge you to post your above comment on my Facebook, where hundreds of my former students have chosen to be my friends now that they’ve graduated. Post it and see their responses. They know what I expected from them when I made an assignment and they knew they’d hear about it in “real language” when I didn’t get their best work. And they know that, whether they get through my class with an A or an F, that I cared about them then and I care about them now.

  5. Hi, I’m an ESL teacher in Beaumont, TX… I posted a response on the TeachThought website, but I thought I’d respond here as well.

    Like you, I got to teaching late – when I was 40. My first school was a disastrous inner city school in Houston where things had gotten SO bad that the administration and the teachers had become each other’s enemies. I did not know that going in, nor did the large number of other brand new teachers, many from Teach For America and small rural areas. By October many of them were crying during their conferences and lunch periods. By December, half of the 10th grade English team (which was 5 out of 10) teachers had quit. English was being pressured harder than everyone else because at the 90% Hispanic school, most students could not pass the STAAR state end of course exam. We were all forced to teach the same lesson plan on the same pace, regardless of our students. I lasted through the end of my contract, but had let them know I would be resigning effective the last day of school. 9 out of 10 of the 10th grade English team did not return the next year. To lose 9 out of 10 teachers in one grade level should be a sign that the problem is not the teachers, but rather the administration.

    I fled that disaster and was given an opportunity by my current school. They took a chance on a 40-year old long-haired SECOND year teacher with alternative certification (in its second year since the first school did not endorse me). By the end of the year I was definitely a part of the team and am on my way to completing my second year there.

    I jumped out of the fire into the frying pan. For me, things got better. But I had moved to a district being torn apart by financial shortfalls, accusations, fighting, lawsuits resulting in repayment of taxes to Valero Corp, the state of Texas actually removing the voter elected board, unwittingly playing the latest move in a decades old segregation fight, replacing the board with a non-elected board of local businessmen and others with no board experience. Also in this disaster, the district laid off hundreds of teachers the summer I was hired. I was only hired because I had to fill a required position (ESL Teacher) which had emptied due to the previous teacher retiring to avoid the coming nightmare. They also laid off the assistant I was supposed to have, so I have to do both classroom and administrative tasks (without any administrative time or pay).

    Department chairs found their budgets cut from thousands of dollars to a few hundred. So now, if you are not a department chair, you cannot get money for ANYTHING, not even pencils for your students. You have to fight for every last scrap. I had to dig through the materials left by the previous teacher looking for unused workbooks. She had, in times of plenty, torn out pages from workbooks to copy, handed them out to students to use, etc. In a number of cases I had to buy clean workbooks on Amazon with my own money just to have a single one I could make copies from. With my own printer. With my own ink.

    Of course, classroom sizes nearly doubled in most content areas. Then state test scores plummeted. The district’s response was to implement a new APPRAISAL system (more anti-teacher), hire a consultant to tell us how to teach (but they can’t pay him enough so he only talks to department heads) and brag about how they were able to give a tax cut this year.

    I love my students. Some of them have no other teacher in the school who notices or cares about them, because they do not speak English well and most teachers don’t have the time (thanks to doubled class sizes) for them, or even the desire to try to communicate with them.

    Sometimes, though, I feel like I made the wrong choice going into education. I’m committed at this point. I have bills to pay. I let other job skills and prospects atrophy and have massive student loan debt from a college degree, and at 42 years old now, I have retirement in 25 years to think about.

    Teaching should not be a rage against the machine. It should be for the students – for the future. I fear that the more time I spend raging, the less time I will be able to give to my students.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: