Classic book much more than story of a word

By Dennis Minich

Last week, the Harrisonville R-9 School Board held an 11-hour hearing concerning the conduct of a high school teacher and to decide whether an administration recommendation to terminate his contract should pass. I have to admit, the proceeding was unlike any I have ever witnessed before.

Our deadline to get our paper to the printer is normally in the early evening on Tuesdays. But because of the hearing, we decided to hold off sending the paper until the meeting was over. At 1 a.m. I had to return to the office and write what had been talked about. In my haste, I made a couple mistakes which are embarrassing and were confusing to some. I had the day of the week wrong, but more importantly I said the teacher had already been fired and was appealing, instead. The board was considering a recommendation for his termination. I apologize.

But more shocking to me was I spent one hour and 30 minutes writing and still got back to the hearing to listen to another two hours of testimony. For those unaware, the teacher, John Magoffin, is accused of violating the district’s code of conduct relating to the use of language in front of students. The most compelling of the accusations is he use the “N-word” while talking to students. There are also three other occurrences, which the administration’s counsel implied Magoffin “persistently” violated policy.

This incident has been spurred on by publicity generated by another district employee who took to social media to “out” Magoffin and outline his offenses. Others responded to social media and a firestorm of criticism has followed. Often cited during the hearing was the fact that HHS curriculum requires the reading of the novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Administrators said there is no comparison to the usage of the word in “a classic piece of literature” to a biology teacher. The more they talked about the novel, the more I felt like a bit of déjà vu as it seemed many of the same principles I remembered from the book seemed to be coming to life through this incident. I went to the library and checked out the book and as I read, some interesting comparisons jumped out at me.

In the book, an attorney, Atticus Finch, is charged with defending a black man who is accused of beating and raping a young white woman. Although Finch proved with almost certainty his client was innocent, the jury in 1935 Alabama found him guilty because he was black.

During her time on the witness stand, the alleged victim of the crime said, “I got somethin’ to say an’ then I ain’t gonna say no more. That (N-word) yonder took advantage of me an’ if you fine fancy gentlemen don’t wanta do nothin’ about it then you’re all yellow stinkin’ cowards, stinkin’ cowards, the lot of you. Your fancy airs don’t come to nothin’.”

Later, in his summary to the jury, Finch states, “The state has not produced one iota of medical evidence to the effect that the crime Tom Robinson is charged with ever took place. It has relied upon the testimony of two witnesses whose evidence has not only been called into serious question on cross examination, but has been flatly contradicted by the defendant. The defendant is not guilty, but somebody in this courtroom is.”

And finally, while discussing the verdict with his children, Finch says, “The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is the courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into the jury box.”

I will be honest. I left the hearing with a genuine appreciation that I am not one of the school board members who will make the decision.

I left the hearing with very strong feelings on both sides of the issue. I mostly left feeling this case was being brought to the school board for many of the wrong reasons.

It was rushed. The administration officials did a poor job of proving their case. I do know this case is far from over, whatever the school board decides.

And finally, whether Magoffin used the bad word or not, the real issue is there are those who do choose to use such verbiage and have the evil intents which lie behind its usage.

Since “To Kill a Mockingbird” was cited as a classic, I hope the defenders of the book will apply its lessons, not simply discuss the words it employs.