Capo Valley High's James Corbett Isn't the First Local Educator to Face OC's Cultural Conservatives

Class Warfare:a History
Capo Valley High's James Corbett isn't the first local educator to face the ire of OC's cultural conservatives

Consider these two quotations:

"You are a liberal asshole. Teach school, not politics and religion. You jackass, you are the type [sic] person poisoning our kids' minds, not teaching them history. Jackass!!!!"

Corbett: what kind of glasses are those?
Keith May
Corbett: what kind of glasses are those?
Current and former students rallied  to support Corbett outside Capo Valley High after the suit was filed last December
Christoffer Heckman
Current and former students rallied to support Corbett outside Capo Valley High after the suit was filed last December

"His lack of discretion and his callousness toward the patriotic feelings of local citizens have helped to show that a threat exists right here in our community."

The first is from an e-mail sent last week to James Corbett, the history teacher at Capistrano Valley High School who is now the defendant in a lawsuit filed last year by sophomore Chad Farnan and his parents alleging Corbett insulted Christians and Christianity during class—including by making a much-vilified statement about "Jesus glasses."

The second—while it would fit in well with the vitriol that has been flooding Corbett's inbox since December, and was directed at an Orange County educator—is actually much older.

It was written in 1961, as a letter to the editors of the Santa Ana Register, and refers to Joel Dvorman, then a high-school counselor in Fullerton and a trustee of the Magnolia School District. Like Corbett more than four decades later, Dvorman had become the target of the county's cultural right—not for allegedly criticizing Christianity in his classroom, but for hosting a meeting of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in his back yard.

The parallels between Corbett's and Dvorman's stories are striking, and Corbett is aware of them: His father was a supporter of Dvorman during that controversy.

Last month, a federal judge found the Farnans' lawsuit plausible—based on the claim itself, not on any evidence—and denied the Capistrano Unified School District's request for its dismissal.

The Farnans declined to comment for this story, directing all inquiries to their lawyers. Corbett had refused all interview requests since the Farnans filed their suit, but agreed to speak with the Weekly. He also shared some further correspondence, which includes friendly notes along with the hate mail.

"That's the bizarre thing," Corbett says. "I've never had a letter from a former student except a letter of support. And virtually 100 percent of the letters that are negative come from people who have never been in my class and don't know me."

In breaking his media silence, Corbett is attempting to engage with his detractors, to get his side of the story to the public. Dvorman took a similar tack when conservatives pilloried him for his allegedly communist views, beginning in 1960. As Corbett well knows, the Dvorman controversy helped launch the Orange County front of America's culture war—into which Corbett is the latest draftee.

"The only reasonable thing to do is to resist," Corbett says. "There's not going to be any compromise on my part."

*     *     *

It's difficult to find the ashes of Joel Samuel Dvorman, even for the caretakers at Fairhaven Memorial Cemetery in Santa Ana. Ask a clerk for Dvorman's cremains, and an elderly woman will furrow her brow, trot out a yellowed diagram and carefully explain their location: in Fairhaven's Neoclassical-style mausoleum, in the right-hand columbarium just before you enter its chapel. Niche No. 374, second-to-last column to the right, seven rows up. Here, you'll see a simple brass plaque bolted to marble with Dvorman's name and his years of life. A shriveled petal and leaf sit inside a flower holder just to the left of the niche.

Nothing about the humble resting spot declares, "Here lies the sacrificial lamb in the conservative revolution for Orange County's soul." But the Dvorman affair was that seminal to the county's political culture.

The Magnolia School District is one of the smallest in Orange County, a collection of nine elementary schools spread across Anaheim and Stanton within the rough borders of La Palma and Katella avenues to the north and south, Brookhurst Street to the east and Beach Boulevard to the west. The neighborhoods served by the district were traditionally white working-class but are now increasingly immigrant—mostly Latino, with a smattering of Arabs and Asians.

A New York native, Dvorman was a World War II Army Air Forces veteran who earned the Purple Heart for his injuries in the European theater. Coming to Orange County as part of the surge of new residents in the 1950s, he became a well-liked counselor and math teacher at Fullerton Union High School. He was married, college-educated, the father of two boys and a girl, a homeowner. He ran for and won a seat on the Magnolia School District Board of Trustees in 1960.

But Dvorman immediately proved unpopular. One of his first actions was to vote against a measure proposed by Magnolia's other trustees to distribute Bibles in schools. For a district that had just desegregated five years earlier—long after the historic 1948 case Mendez v. Westminster ended segregation in Orange County elementary schools—this new trustee was too much for some parents: a liberal Jew who was a member of the ACLU and openly participated in protests against the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

With the Cold War just starting, anti-communist hysteria ruled civic discourse in Orange County, and few groups were as reviled as the ACLU. The organization's Orange County chapter—founded in the late 1950s after the Anaheim Bulletin and other local newspapers tried to stop Nobel Prize laureate and anti-nuclear activist Linus Pauling from speaking in the county—always had a hard time renting rooms for their activities. As a result, Orange County ACLU members began holding meetings at their residences. On June 24, 1960, it was Dvorman's turn.

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