Up In Smoke
|Ordered to take a drug test, veteran teacher and constitutional crusader Sherry Hearn took a stand and lost her job.|
The police who swooped down on Windsor Forest High School one day last spring stirred little panic. In the 15 middle and high schools in Savannah, Georgia, drug and weapon sweeps are about as routine as field trips. At Windsor, it's the same drill every time. First the intercom squawks with the announcement of a "code 22," a signal to teachers that police are on the way. Next comes what is known as "lockdown." To make sure no one dodges the search, all 1,350 students are held in their classes for two or three hours as teams of county and campus police, each with a drug-sniffing German shepherd, comb the school room by room.
The search on April 4 came on the last day of classes before spring break, and the interruption was a welcome prelude to vacation for some. But not for Sherry Hearn. By the time officers reached her classroom, the social studies teacher was doing a slow burn. Hearn thought the searches a huge waste of time. Her principal, her colleagues, district officials—they had all heard Hearn blast the district's get-tough approach as overkill. Police treated the kids like criminals and stomped on their constitutional rights, she argued. Worse, as an employee in the Savannah-Chatham County school system, she felt complicit in the crime.
Tall and thin, Hearn, 48, now stood silently, her arms folded, as police instructed her students to file out of room F-9 and line up against a wall. She watched closely as an officer ran a hand-held metal detector up and down each student. Occasionally the device buzzed, and, amid nervous giggles, students emptied the keys from their pockets or pulled up their shirts to uncover metal belt buckles. Inside the classroom, meanwhile, an officer with the Chatham County police led a drug dog up and down the rows of desks.
Roughly two hours after the lockdown was announced, police left the building to search the parking lot. Tensions eased, and laughter rolled down the hallways as classes changed. But within minutes, the intercom squawked again: Someone had phoned in a bomb threat to the school, and the building had to be evacuated. Hearn groaned at yet another interruption, but she shepherded her charges out of her classroom, locked the door behind her, and left the building.
Sherry Hearn didn't know it then, but her 27-year teaching career in the Savannah schools was about to end. As she stepped outside the school, police buzzed around her old gray Oldsmobile: One of the drug dogs had found a half-smoked marijuana cigarette in the ashtray. She denied the dope was hers, but district policy mandated that she now take a drug test. She was ordered to report to a lab for a urinalysis within two hours.
In those two hours, Hearn would wrestle with a decision that should have been quite easy to make. Take the drug test and she saved a sterling teaching career highlighted by her 1994 award as Savannah's Teacher of the Year. Follow policy and she returned to her life's work, the classroom she loved, and the security of a full retirement pension in three years.
But the choice was not that simple. She thought the order to pee in a cup humiliating and degrading. After her sermons about the unconstitutionality of drug searches and testing, her colleagues would think her a phony. And nearly a generation of Windsor students would think back to her lectures about George Washington, Martin Luther King, and other men of principle. They would remember her saying over and over that sometimes you have to fight for what you believe in. And now, with the clock ticking and her job on the line, Hearn decided to do exactly that.
"I'm probably the only person I know of who went all through
high school and all through college and never touched or even saw
marijuana, and that is the truth. "
A lthough Sherry Hearn as a teen-ager grew up amid the tumult of the 1960s, she says the counterculture, protests, and drugs of that era largely passed her by. She didn't have time for any of that. She and Dick Hearn started dating when she was 14 and he was 15. They married before their senior year. An A student at Savannah High School—she graduated 13th in a class of 666—Sherry whipped through Georgia Southern College (now University) and earned her education degree in under three years, all the while working part time so Dick could go to college, too. "I'm probably the only person I know of who went all through high school and all through college and never touched or even saw marijuana," Hearn says. "And that is the truth. It's interesting almost to the point of being insane, isn't it?"
Hearn's first job in the Savannah-Chatham County school system was teaching 7th grade. She thought she was doing a bang-up job until one day the president of the board of education asked to meet with her. "I thought, Dear God, I've either done something very, very good or very, very bad," Hearn remembers. "I was a first-year teacher, so man, I was punching all the cards and doing all the things I was told to do. I joined this. I joined that." But it was not Hearn's performance that the president wanted to discuss; he sold insurance for a living and wanted to make a client out of his rookie teacher. Hearn was insulted that a high-ranking district official would throw his weight around this way, but it was the first of several early incidents that she says taught her a lesson about the administrators bunkered in the downtown offices of the Savannah-Chatham County schools. "I pretty quickly learned that downtown was the enemy," Hearn explains. "They had nothing to do with my classroom or what I did, and I just really was interested in staying as far away from that as I could."
And she did. Hearn got her job at Windsor Forest High teaching social studies in 1972. For the next quarter century, she would throw herself into making 11th and 12th graders understand the guiding principles of their country. Her charges would soon be voting, she figured, and, because many would not go on to college, this was probably the last time they would weigh carefully their rights and responsibilities as citizens.
Hooking kids on history was no easy feat. Her career spanned an age in which cynicism toppled patriotism and a generation of kids came to be known as "slackers." But Hearn bowled over her students with her love of history. "Her passion for what she was teaching came out in everything she said," explains Kim Stover, a former student of Hearn's and now a Windsor senior. "She wanted you to love it as much as she did."
More than one student remembers Hearn's eyes filling with tears as she read the Declaration of Independence. "I really believe that I'm a superpatriot," Hearn says. "I don't wave flags. I don't salute. And I'm not inclined to goose step. But I really believe that the ideas and the conceptions of government and human freedom that we have in this country are the only workable solution for people to live decently together."