A beloved teacher, Mr. Matthew Haig

Seeing Red: East Williston School District Has Enraged Current and Former Students and Faculty

In ALL, JUDY BLUME MOMENTS by Stephanie Klein

I went back to high school today. No, I didn’t eat my feelings or have a three-way phone call. I physically returned to attend the hearing of a beloved teacher who’s been targeted by East Williston School District administrators. A treasured teacher for 30 years, Mr. Matthew Haig was suspended, charged with insubordination, neglect of duty, and conduct unbecoming of a teacher. Go on, watch his video message below. He’d posted this in response to the outpouring of support from current and former Wheatley students and faculty.

I never wear red. I only own something red because my 9-year-old daughter told me it was the single color missing from my closet and that I had to get it. I wore red in solidarity with the droves of Haig supporters who came to show their allegiance at today’s 10AM hearing, which turned out not to be a hearing at all. In the wheel of colorful adjectives used to describe these unjust allegations, I don’t know which to select. “Deplorable,” “heinous,” and “ludicrous” look like a close match when I pin them to the wall, but when the light hits, they seem a shade off. The trumped-up charges are outrageous. That’s the one. Rage. It’s an outrage. Red, it works.

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They were behind closed doors in negotiations all day, so there wasn’t a hearing. Not yet. As of the posting of this entry, there has yet to be a hearing. All I was hearing is that the East Williston Board of Education was looking for some admission of guilt. Pay a fine, as if to admit guilt. There were negotiations that came down to wording, I heard. I also heard that the principal, Dr. Sean C. Feeney, is a slime ball. If Mr. Haig pays a one dollar fine, is that some type of admission? You know what it would say to me? That he doesn’t want to deprive his students of his teaching. That he wants to get back to his classroom, where he belongs. The whole thing is insane, and if the teacher’s union still had Mr. David Israel at its helm, there’s no way this would’ve happened. It wouldn’t have ever made it to this point.

There are certain lessons you learn from teachers that stick with you, as if they’re mini epiphanies. Epiphanies, versus an a-ha moment, differ in that when you have one, you remember details from the exact moment it happened. When I had the epiphany that I wanted to be a writer, I was in fourth grade outside of Mrs. Kalb’s classroom, writing on a piece of storyboard paper, leaning my forearms on the cool green tile floor, thinking, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” Draw pictures and tell the story. I knew it, and I remember exactly where I was, where her classroom was, everything about the moment in vivid detail. It hangs on you.

I didn’t have an epiphany in Mr. Haig’s classroom. Yet my memories of time spent in his class have stuck with that same brilliant detail. I remember one day he wrote the word “Power” on the board, and we spent a good 45 minutes working to define it together. I remember exactly what we landed on: Power is the ability to have others conform to your wishes. Twenty-five years ago he taught me that, and down to the letter it’s hung on.

Mr. Haig is a powerful teacher with the demonstrated ability to influence the behavior of his students in the best possible way. A history, government, and economics teacher, Mr. Haig understood his influence over us which is why he never abused it. He wouldn’t, for example, reveal his political leanings. In the 1992 presidential election, he allowed only that he believed one of the candidates was “totally full of it.” He wouldn’t disclose if it was Incumbent Republican President George H.W. Bush, Democrat Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, or small but mighty Ross Perot. I voted for Perot. When I tell that to people, they always laugh. I can’t remember why I voted as I did, yet I can remember when Mr. Haig told us that “Education has a liberalizing effect.” Towns with colleges tend to lean more liberal. I found all of it fascinating. And the only reason I became impassioned about politics was because his fervency and animation were contagious. He was a vibrant red against a white backdrop; he breathed life into the thirteen stripes of our flag.

Back to power and the abuse of it. I’ve been told by parents of current students that the principal is an oppressor, that he commands a jump and young teachers and administrators ask how high. But with a collaborative leader, when someone is encouraged to jump, they want to prove that they can fly. They’re inspired to do their best, to be their best, most authentic, selves. A true leader shouldn’t evoke fear.

I’m not there living in the East Williston School District, even though it’s just a few miles from our current district, because I’ve been told by my former teachers that it’s not the same Wheatley where I grew up. It’s no longer collaborative, not with the current principal.

When I had a problem and went to the guidance department and my assigned guidance counselor wasn’t available, I was welcomed into the neighboring office of one of her peers. It takes a village. They were our village. They protected and nurtured us, connected with us, felt our joys and our heartbreak. They were, above all else, compassionate teachers. Teachers who cried with us, who opened their worlds to us, who invited us to call them by their first names. Of course they hugged us, patted us on the back, gave us high fives in the hallway. This feels like such an “O’ Captain, My Captain” moment. Break out some desks. I’m ready to take a stand.

We broke for lunch (though I didn’t eat because, well, all y’all know how I feel ‘bout lunch). I’m returning now for the Board of Education meeting. This isn’t the most moving or well-written post, but I feel like posting to this blog more often, to capture the moments of my life as they happen.

Facebook Update just announced: UPDATE!!!
“Both sides have come to an agreement in principle. The settlement has been drafted and signed by both parties, but it must be formally adopted by the Board of Education, which will not meet in full session until August 26. The terms of the agreement will not be discussed until the Board’s anticipated unanimous approval. Thank you all for your patience and outstanding commitment in this matter. Each person there today made a huge difference just by coming and supporting Mr. Haig.”