I Am a Terrorist: I Teach

A radicals journey from thin mints to the classroom

Education Secretary Rod Paige's characterization of the nation's largest teachers' union as a "terrorist organization" compels me, a professor and member of the National Education Association, to come clean.

It began in Girl Scouts. Newspaper-collection drives funded field trips to summer camp, where uniformed girls sat in the firelight, singing anthems penned by, yes, blacklisted folksingers. Hearing Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" still causes me, Manchurian Candidate-style, to repeat the Scout motto and march to the cupboard for graham crackers and marshmallows.

Brainwashing as a result of this guerrilla training (not to mention selling cookies and calendars for the revolution) did its evil work. My nascent feminism, encouraged by strong female role models, accounts for my later support of the National Organization for Women and its doomed revolutionary ploy, the Equal Rights Amendment.

In high school, I was recruited to my first protest by a foreign-exchange student. She belonged to Amnesty International, a terror network posing as global pen pals that provided comfort to terrorists behind bars worldwide. I signed post cards and petitions. Soon I began receiving communiqués about whales: I'd arrived on the mailing list of another international terror conspiracy, Greenpeace. Before I knew it, I was on other lists, and sliding down that short, slippery slope which landed me in my current affiliation with the group that so alarms Paige.

In college, I marched for a nuclear-arms freeze and against South African apartheid. After graduation, I worked days as a teacher's aide in a special-ed classroom, nights supervising a telephone bank for the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador—the same CISPES, you will recall, targeted by the Reagan administration and investigated by the FBI.

By now, I was in so deep that I couldn't get out. There is no other way to say it: membership in the ACLU. Subscriptions to Mother Jonesand The Nation. The Catholic Worker soup kitchen. An AIDS walk-a-thon.

But that's not the worst. As a teacher, I've become what Paige must fear most: a corrupter of youths who stumble innocently into my hands.

Consider my professional terror curriculum vitae: at Irvine Valley College, I am faculty sponsor of the campus Earth Club. Adviser to its campaigns for on-campus recycling (as doomed, thankfully, as the quixotic ERA) and local beach cleanups. I support MEChA, the revolutionary Mexican-American student cadre identified as Public Enemy Numero Uno in last year's recall election. To think that I stood behind a smoky grill selling tacos and tamales to raise money for scholarships. How complicit was I in MEChA's terrorist ruse, camouflaged in salsa, folklorico dancers and mariachi music? Mucho!

There's a clear pattern here, a trajectory of terror: thin mints, folk music, political prisoners, fur seals, nukes, tamales and, finally, a membership card in, yes, a terrorist teacher's union. And not only do I belong, but I also sit on the California Teachers Association's state council. Hundreds of deep-cover operatives like myself regularly gather in plain sight at an LAX hotel for a weekend of cell meetings and training workshops, receiving our marching orders and instructions on disseminating the goods to our locals: "Read Across America" curricula, school-bond bumper stickers and research on student-teacher ratios.

The late Neil Postman declared teaching a subversive activity, especially teaching critical thinking and reasonable discourse. I see now that he was a terrorist, too. Defending public education, students and educators is suspicious activity, and I see that the NEA's position against the so-called No Child Left Behind proposal merits Paige's name-calling. This is because when I am not being a terrorist, I spend a great deal of time teaching the power of language, impressing upon students the lesson that the words we choose are vital to the message we wish to communicate.

Paige's words, he claims, were poorly chosen. I wonder. Is it possible that a member of the president's cabinet does not recognize the full import of calling the NEA a terrorist group? Or is it more likely that, in choosing his remarks, he was cleverly providing dupes like me the chance to re-evaluate our allegiances?

I, for one, am grateful for the secretary's remarks. I am going to turn myself in.

Lisa Alvarez is a professor in Irvine Valley College's School of Humanities & Languages.
 
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