Expletives Deleted

By Karen Diegmueller — September 01, 1995 26 min read

Until the night of Jan. 11, 1995, Cissy Lacks thought she knew how to teach high school English. After all, she’d been employed by the Ferguson-Florissant school district in the St. Louis area for 21 years, and in all that time, her superiors had characterized her classroom performance as “good” or “outstanding.” Only in a few categories, punctuality, for example, did her marks fall as low as “acceptable.” Written comments on her evaluations specifically praised her creative writing instruction.

But all that changed one night this past winter when, after seeing the movie Little Women, the veteran teacher returned home and listened to a message on her answering machine. “Hello, Cissy, this is Mr. Mitchell,” said the voice of her principal at Berkeley High School. “I would like to talk with you regarding the tape that was done about two or three weeks ago involving your class. . . It’s pretty shocking, and I would like for you to meet me at the administration building tomorrow morning at 8:30. There is no need for you to report to the school.”

Lacks, who routinely uses videotapes in her English classes, had no idea what Vernon Mitchell was referring to. Failing to get him at home, she tried calling the head of her department. Finally, she reached her union representative, who agreed to accompany her to the meeting the next morning. Terry Reger, who represents teachers for the Ferguson-Florissant affiliate of the National Education Association, kept asking Lacks over and over, “What have you been doing?” Lacks told her that she had recently shown her students the film Mississippi Burning but that nothing else unusual had happened. “I couldn’t even imagine what it had been,” Lacks says.

When the two arrived at the meeting the next morning, they found the principal along with the assistant superintendents for personnel and curriculum waiting for them. During the brief meeting, the administrators quizzed her about “the tapes.” Lacks didn’t answer most of their questions, in part because the union representative advised her not to but also because she couldn’t remember much about the videotapes in question, which, it turned out, she’d made three months earlier, in October.

The tapes showed her 11th graders—all of them African-American—acting out plays they had written for class. The plays dealt with such themes as sex, teenage pregnancy, gangs, drugs, violence, and imprisonment, as well as the quest for love. But they also contained a steady stream of profanity, street jargon, and “black dialect.” The teenagers spouted such words as “motherfucker,” “bitch,” and “nigger.”

At that Thursday morning meeting, district officials told Lacks she was suspended immediately. She left shaken, astonished, and confused about just what she had done to merit such punishment. Two months later, after a public hearing that took four nights, the school board fired her. By allowing students to use profanity in her creative writing class, Lacks, the board said, had violated the district’s student-discipline code. Lacks has since sued the district, and the matter is now in the hands of the federal courts.

For the past three decades, Cissy Lacks’ life has been defined largely by the classroom. And by most indications, it was time well spent. She and her students have won numerous honors over the years. The student newspaper she directed at McCleur High School, also in the Ferguson-Florissant school district, won a national award for excellence. She and the district were honored by the Missouri Council of Social Studies for an international culture center she ran. She has also been recognized by the Newspaper Fund as one of the top 15 high school journalism teachers in the United States.

Since her firing, however, Lacks has been forced to shift her focus from classroom teaching to self-preservation. Not only is her reputation at stake but also her financial future. Teachers in Missouri are ineligible for Social Security, and the 50-year-old Lacks had only three and a half years to go before she qualified for a full pension. Making matters worse, the district contested her claim for unemployment compensation. But in June, a state official found her eligible for unemployment on the grounds that she had not violated her employer’s rules or policies. Until that decision, Lacks was living entirely off her savings.

The two-story house Lacks shares with her cat, Catsela, is littered with manila folders stuffed with court papers, documents, and newspaper clippings that support her case. A collection of menorahs claims the paper-free spots on bookshelves, the mantle, and dining-room hutch. Then there are the piles of letters from her supporters—friends and strangers alike. One of them alerted her to a book called Storm in the Mountains, by educator James Moffett, about censorship in a West Virginia school district. In it, Moffett writes: “I predict . . . that the next surge of censorship will concern student writing, which has rarely been criticized before only because it was mostly neglected or limited to some sort of writing about the reading. Controlling reading material effectively constrains the subject matter of writing, thus killing two birds with one stone. Students who really [write] outgrow just being somebody’s children.”

So involved is Lacks in her suit that the law offices of Schuchat, Cook & Werner in downtown St. Louis have become a kind of home away from home. People call and fax her messages there as she helps lawyer Lisa Van Amburg prepare her case. Like a Talmudic scholar, Lacks teases apart the nuances of the lawsuit. How, she wonders, can someone who has devoted her professional life to doing what she thought best for her students be punished and humiliated in this manner?

National groups that monitor cases of censorship in the schools say they are more common than people realize. Districts and the teachers in question often negotiate quiet deals in which the teacher agrees to resign in return for a favorable recommendation. More often than not, it is not some “crazy fringe teacher” who gets in trouble, says Deanna Duby, director of education policy for People for the American Way, but someone who is trying to do innovative and creative things. “They should be getting awards,” Duby says. “Instead, they’re getting fired.”

Lacks’ students—going back as far as the 1970s—all agree that she is the kind of teacher who should be getting awards, not fired. “Before Miss Lacks, all my teachers was someone who stood at the front of the room,” says Irsheca Loving, who had Lacks in the late ‘80s. “After her, I thought of teachers as real people.” Loving is now in college studying to be a teacher herself.

Greg Falk took classes from Lacks a decade earlier. “Cissy has a certain genius about her approach,” he says. “I don’t think I was ever tested by any teacher other than Cissy Lacks.”

Short in stature, Lacks is affectionately called “Munchkin” or “Dr. Ruth” by her students (albeit not to her face). Although she never really intended to teach, Lacks took education courses in college because, like many women at the time, she saw teaching as something she could fall back on. But when she was sent out to do her student-teaching, something clicked. “I fell in love with it,” she says. “How could you get so much pleasure from something and not want to do it?”

After graduating with bachelor’s degrees in English and history from Washington University in St. Louis, where she grew up, Lacks taught in a private school for several years. She joined Ferguson-Florissant in 1972 and has been there, except for several short leaves, ever since. All the while, she continued her own education, earning a master’s degree in communications from Boston University, a specialist certificate in educational administration from Southern Illinois University, and a doctorate in American studies from St. Louis University. In addition to her high school teaching, she has taught journalism at St. Louis University and has helped organize community conferences on race relations, particularly relations between Jews and African Americans.

Lacks was assigned to Berkeley—one of three high schools in the district and its only predominantly black high school—three years ago. Although well-maintained, the school sits on an isolated street riddled with potholes. It shares a campus with a boarded-up junior high and an alternative school for students who couldn’t succeed in a traditional setting.

McCleur High School, on the other hand, is located on a beautifully sculpted, rolling landscape in Ferguson. And McCleur North High School, the most modern of the three schools, sits next to the district’s administration complex in Florissant, right across from the town’s civic center.

Given these contrasting facilities, it’s not surprising that some Berkeley students harbor the feeling that the district cares less about them than their peers at McCleur or McCleur North. District officials deny this. They point out that the St. Louis airport has been eyeing the Berkeley property for some time. The school board doesn’t want to sink lots of money into the physical plant if the airport is going to turn around and snatch it away. If that happens, the officials say, the district will transfer the Berkeley students to the other two schools.

When Lacks arrived in 1992, the Berkeley student newspaper was defunct. There was no Berkeley yearbook, no poetry classes, and no creative writing classes. “The students had no voice,” Lacks says. She quickly revived the newspaper and yearbook, encouraged the school librarian to offer poetry, and incorporated creative writing into her English classes.

While Lacks requires students to use appropriate language—no profanity—during classroom discussions, she has always had a different standard when it comes to creative writing. It is her belief that students should be free to write whatever they want to write and that she should stay out of the way. “If I censor that first work,” she explains, “then I don’t get to that last good one.”

Lacks’ efforts at Berkeley, both as a writing and a journalism teacher, have earned her kudos. In a letter dated Nov. 18, 1993, librarian Rina Krasney wrote, “You are an inspired teacher, and the results produced are outstanding.” In January 1994, principal Vernon Mitchell wrote a memo thanking her and the newspaper staff for an issue of the Berkeley Bulldog Express that “included good articles and writing [that] reflects a professional attitude and responsibility. Keep up the good work.”

Even the people who fired Lacks don’t doubt that she is a good teacher. But they insist that she used bad judgment and, worse, that she refused to mend her ways. “In this situation, we did what we thought was best for our kids,” says Cindy Reeds Ormsby, president of the Ferguson-Florissant school board.

As board members see it, Lacks’ poor judgment is most clearly documented on two videotapes. Running just over 26 minutes, the tapes show four sets of students performing their own plays. Three of the performances were scripted. The grades for these ranged from an A minus to a C minus. The fourth play was improvisational and rarely understandable. Lacks gave those students a D minus.

The production values of each play are patently amateurish; the students often speak too quickly or garble their words; as a result, much of the dialogue is unintelligible. At times, they appear serious about their work; at others, they laugh and giggle. What they all have in common, though, are heavy doses of profanity (including the vernacular for sexual intercourse), black dialect, and street jargon.

The playwriting was part of a broader classroom assignment. Students watched the films Cadence, about the cultural similarities and differences between a white soldier and fellow black soldiers confined to a brig, and Stand by Me, about a group of adolescents searching for a missing boy. They also read August Wilson’s play Fences, which examines racial injustice through the athletic aspirations and experiences of a father and son. The students wrote plot summaries of each and essays that incorporated their feelings and opinions.

Then Lacks gave them two weeks to write and produce a two- to five-character script on “something important to you.” On the assignment sheets, she reminded students that “drama is not everyday conversations. It is stronger, more dramatic, but, at the same time, sounds everyday, sounds believable.”

It was the students who decided they wanted the performances videotaped, with the proviso that the tapes would be seen only by the class. Lacks says she showed the tapes once and then stored them in a locked closet in her classroom. There the tapes stayed for three months until one student—and maybe others—complained about the plays to a guidance counselor, who then brought the tapes to principal Vernon Mitchell’s attention.

District administrators claim that several students told them they didn’t want to be in a class where students were required to make obscene tapes. According to district records, at least one student officially complained. That student, Lacks says, had taken her class for three years and had become disgruntled about not getting as much attention from the teacher as she wanted. She has since dropped out of school, Lacks says.

On Jan. 11, Lacks sent this student to the guidance office in hopes of getting her transferred to another class, something that goes against the grain of established school policy. Lacks doesn’t know what happened at this point, and principal Mitchell isn’t talking. All the parties agree, however, that sometime after Lacks left for the day, Mitchell went into her classroom and seized the videotapes from the closet and her grade book from her desk.

These tapes weren’t the only evidence used against Lacks. District officials also pointed to two poems, laced with obscenities, that the teacher herself brought to their attention to show how one student’s work evolved through rewriting. Lacks described for them how the troubled and angry youngster was able, in just a few weeks, to transform his coarse writing to such a degree that he won a districtwide poetry contest. In its case against the teacher, the district presented the youngster’s first poems, the ones filled with obscenities, but not the award-winning poems, those free of profanity.

Although Mitchell reported that he has had some run-ins with Lacks over the use of profanity in the student newspaper, there is nothing in writing about these disagreements nor anything to suggest he officially warned her. Glancing through back issues of the newspaper, little emerges that could be construed as obscene. In one story, the word “ass” is designated with an “A.” In another, four asterisks appear, but it isn’t entirely clear what swear word they’re filling in for.

The other charge critics have leveled against Lacks, albeit quietly, is that she is too “independent,” too hard to control. While those who know her well agree that she is independent, they deny that she is a renegade. What bothers administrators, they say, is that she at times sides with students. Some years ago, for example, a number of students wanted the school cafeteria to stop using plastic and paper products, and Lacks supported them. “She lets the kids lead,” says Reger, the union representative. “Sometimes, it takes her in the direction that doesn’t make her popular with the upper echelon.”

Lacks has also been accused of being arrogant and egotistical, charges to which she pleads guilty—at least as far as the classroom is concerned. “I had a very large teaching ego,” she says. “I think that’s great. I want students to have very large student egos. All the time, we’re thinking we’re going to be doing something wonderful together.”

Lacks concedes that her years at Berkeley have been the toughest of her career. During the first year especially, nothing seemed to go right. The students found their literature anthology bland. Even the films she showed didn’t click. So she started making changes, adding more African-American writers, shorter stories, and different movies. She sent copies of the syllabus home to parents to alert them to what she was doing. If students returned without a signed letter, they couldn’t read a certain piece or view a certain film.

The students talked her into showing Boyz ‘n the Hood, a violent, hard-driving film about black teenagers living in Los Angeles. She told them it was pure fiction, an exaggeration; her students told her it was for real. She got them interested in Mel Gibson’s Hamlet. They could relate to the concept of revenge, though they didn’t think much of Hamlet’s methods.

“When something isn’t working, it drives me crazy,” Lacks says. “That doesn’t mean I can always fix it, but I’ve always felt an obligation to try.”By the beginning of her second year, things started to click. “I did my best teaching at Berkeley High School,” she now says. “I faced challenges I hadn’t faced before.”

Robert Liddell graduated from Berkeley last year. During Lacks’ hearing, he told the school board that he’d encountered two types of teachers as a student—those who sent him to the principal’s office when he acted up and those like Lacks, who would talk to him and try to find out what was troubling him. But it was more than Lacks’ concern that turned him around academically, Liddell explained. In her classes, he said, “every day, every week, there was something new to be learned.”

Lacks hadn’t tried to prevent him from writing about his strong Christian beliefs as other teachers had, Liddell said, and she had talked with him about college and had helped him fill out his financial-aid forms when the guidance counselors didn’t have time for him. Lawyer Lisa Van Amburg asked Liddell to describe what Lacks was like as a teacher. “Like a mother,” he replied. “You know, there is a difference—skin color, race, and all—that’s obvious. But I believe when a person shows you love and concern, it sees through all that. It goes through all the color.”

In her classroom, Lacks takes what some might call a student-centered approach. When she’s teaching creative writing, she encourages students to write from their own experiences. “My particular philosophy in creative writing,” she says, “is if you don’t understand your own voices, you won’t appreciate or understand other people’s writing.”

The National Council of Teachers of English supports her kind of pedagogy. Charles Suhor, deputy executive director of the NCTE, said as much in a letter to the Ferguson-Florissant school board after Lacks was suspended. “Dr. Lacks’ instructional activities,” Suhor wrote, “appear to demonstrate approaches that the profession has long valued—providing literary models for students to read, enjoy, and emulate; encouraging students to write freely and creatively from the basis of their experience and imagination; acknowledging that some student depictions, like those of professional authors, properly involve realistic plot and dialogue; providing appropriate audiences for student works so that they don’t become mere English-class experiences.”

Other English teachers in the Ferguson-Florissant district also use this approach, although most, admittedly, don’t let their students go as far as Lacks did. “Some of us are less comfortable than others with the profanity,” says Susan Stoeberl, a Ferguson-Florissant teacher and president of the Greater St. Louis English Teachers’ Association. She acknowledges, however, that Lacks’ methods pay dividends. “She has the trust of her students that many of us aspire to,” Stoeberl says.

Patricia Brown, a parent who describes herself as a strict disciplinarian, raised this issue of trust when she spoke in Lacks’ defense at her public hearing. “What I have learned,” Brown told the school board, is “that when you censor children—teenagers—they turn you off.” She said her daughter, who had been a behavior problem in school, changed her ways after Lacks introduced her to creative writing.

But even some who agree with Lacks’ overall pedagogy question her judgment in this instance. Terry Proffitt, a principal who once supervised Lacks, is such a person. “I don’t think it’s a question of teaching style,” Proffitt says. “The Cissy Lacks I have observed would never have had the students at McCleur North participate in what I saw in the videotape.”

Proffitt says he knows many of the students on the tapes, knows their families, and rejects the notion that what they were saying and doing during the performances was simply an outgrowth of their lives. These particular students, he asserts, are not street kids who run with gangs, use drugs, and are otherwise exposed to violence. “They are on a higher plane,” Proffitt says. “They were capable of better writing.”

Adds school board president Cindy Reeds Ormsby: “I think she misread the community and the class.”

Soon after Lacks’ firing, race became an issue, or maybe it was there all along. A transcript of Berkeley principal Vernon Mitchell interrogating a student in Lacks’ class is telling. In the transcript, Mitchell, who is black, chastises the student for “acting a fool” in front of the white teachers and the audio-visual technician who attended the videotaping of the plays. “I was offended watching my students act like that,” he tells the student, “because it’s a very bad stereotype of black people.”

Helen Dunbar, a parent who was also offended by the tapes, voices the same opinion. “I don’t think you should encourage the use of profanity, racial slurs, sexual suggestion,” says Dunbar, whose son was in Lacks’ class last year. “That is giving children permission to act a complete fool as far as I’m concerned. I still don’t see an educational value.”

During the school board hearings, Proffitt says he saw two black parents in the audience weeping and saying, “Our children are better than that.”

And yet, a play written by Berkeley students back in 1991 that included many of the same themes and language was warmly received when it was performed at the time. In some ways, the play was more graphic than the ones Lacks’ students wrote. A videotape of the earlier production shows boys and girls intimately groping each other during a dance scene. And the killings are portrayed much more realistically. The same profanity is used, albeit more sparingly. At the end of the tape, Mitchell is shown applauding and repeatedly thanking the students, whose teacher was black.

Some of Lacks’ critics intimate that the students scammed her, that as a white teacher she too easily accepted a portrayal of African Americans that whites buy into. “She just ate that stuff up,” says school board lawyer Frank Susman, who, along with all seven board members, is white.

Shantia Burse, one of Lacks’ students, doesn’t see it that way. “Some African-American teenagers don’t cuss, but it’s very few,” the high school junior says. “I have white friends. They talk the same way. It’s no black-and-white issue to me. But they made it out that way.”

Burse thinks the school officials are wearing blinders. Local teenagers hang out on the streets and get involved in drugs and gangs, she says. “What’s wrong with Ferguson-Florissant is that they don’t want to see it.”

Initially, the district lodged a half-dozen charges against Lacks, including sexual harassment because she exposed students to sex-oriented profanity. But almost immediately, all but one of the charges were dropped. The student-discipline code prohibits the use of profanity. It is what is known as a Type II offense; more serious offenses are classified Type I. Possible punishments for Type II behavior include verbal reprimand, loss of class or school privileges, special work assignments, change of class schedule, and temporary separation from peers.

It was under this provision of the student-discipline code that the school board found grounds to fire Lacks. But Reger, the union rep, says, “The policy was never meant to be used against teachers.” Indeed, the code has not been used against a teacher in the nearly 25 years Reger has been in the district.

The audio-visual specialist who did the taping and another teacher who observed it received two-day paid suspensions and letters of reprimand in their personnel files. The students were not disciplined because, district officials say, they were under the influence of their teacher.

Had Lacks been charged with just about anything else, the state teacher-tenure law would have required that she be given written warning and 30 days’ notice of the district’s intentions, as well as other due-process protections, says Van Amburg. In May, Van Amburg filed a lawsuit in state court seeking Lacks’ reinstatement plus back pay and benefits. A state judge referred the case to the federal courts where it probably will be heard sometime this fall.

In the lawsuit, Lacks alleges that the district charged her with violating the student-discipline code only as an afterthought. If the district was really unhappy with the way she taught creative writing, Lacks argues, it should have charged her with incompetence or insubordination and dealt with her under the teacher-tenure law. She accuses the district of violating both the tenure law and the free-speech clauses of the U.S. and Missouri constitutions.

She also argues that the school board violated the district’s own academic-freedom policy, which prohibits arbitrary limitations on “the study, investigation, presentation, and interpretation of facts and ideas in the classroom,” provided that the work falls within the framework of district curriculum objectives and school board policy. The district, Stoeberl points out, has long had a reputation of not just tolerating innovative teaching but encouraging it. Indeed, the uninhibited climate and history of trust between school faculty and district officials has made what happened to Lacks all the more baffling—and alarming—to area teachers.

Yet to school officials, the issue is crystal clear: Lacks willfully and persistently violated the board’s student-discipline code: She exposed students to profanity, period. Because of the pending litigation, none of the administrators involved in the case, including Mitchell, Lacks’ immediate supervisor, is talking to reporters. But according to Susman and school board president Cindy Reeds Ormsby, one thing that really irked the administration was Lacks’ failure to show any remorse. “She would not agree to change anything,” Susman says. Adds Ormsby: “I think it would have made a difference if she had apologized and said she wouldn’t do it again.”To do so, Lacks says, would have been hypocritical. “Why would anyone put me in the classroom, with my experience, with my credentials, and tell me not to do something that I know works?” she asks.

The local news media have had a field day with the story. Editorial writers and columnists almost unanimously have sided with the English teacher. “Her way gets results far more lasting than timid, traditional approaches that ruffle no feathers,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch declared. “If Ferguson-Florissant believes in education, it will accept and value Ms. Lacks, not banish her from a profession she loves and does well.”

But school officials have hung tough, claiming that their views represent those of the community’s silent majority. Lacks’ advocates may be louder and seem more numerous, district officials say, but that’s only because she manipulated the media with a public-relations machine made up of a network of outsiders.

Lacks’ former students scoff at the notion. Regina Engelken, a student from the early 1970s and the mother of a 15-year-old, says that when some ex-pupils learned that the teacher had been suspended, they started a phone chain to gather support. Lacks’ sister thought up the idea of producing “I Support Cissy” buttons and postcards. “That was her well-orchestrated network,” Engelken says. “Her friends.”

Says Lee Walker Falk, who graduated in 1978: “This shows you what happens when you have a teacher who touches lives. You can’t not do for someone you owe so much to. That’s what life is all about.”

Falk, Engelken, and other former students describe Lacks as “phenomenal,” “the best.” They say she gave them the freedom to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes; allegations that her classes were unruly and her students disrespectful are unfounded.

Still, the district has its quiet defenders. School officials can point to a stack of letters that support what they’ve done. Some of the writers complain that the material on the tapes is demeaning to African Americans. Others can’t believe such language was being used in an English class, the place for learning proper grammar. “To give those young people a guideline for the content and language used to express themselves is not stifling their `creative flow,’ “ one parent wrote. “All young people need guidelines.”

Another said, “The children who were on camera were not being expressive; they were merely taking advantage of an opportunity to curse with a smile and not feel as though they were going to be disciplined for it.”

Lacks’ firing has had a chilling effect on teachers in the district and the surrounding region. McCleur English teacher Beverly Hopkins says she and her colleagues are worried that what happened to Lacks could inadvertently happen to them. “A teacher could possibly be in jeopardy for allowing students to read aloud from a text that contained profanities,” Hopkins points out. And what about the student who deliberately wants to get a teacher in trouble?

Roni Hildreth teaches in a neighboring district. After Lacks was fired, she says, teachers there scrambled to find out if their district had a policy that addressed the profanity issue. They found one that was “so vague,” Hildreth says, “that any school board can interpret it any way they want to.”

Ferguson-Florissant personnel director John Wright and curriculum director Barbara Davis heightened the anxiety when they testified at Lacks’ hearing. Wright told the school board that if profanity offended just one student, then teachers should not permit it in their classes—even if it comes from a literary character. Davis testified that if a student were to read aloud an obscenity, even one contained in a district-approved book, then the teacher could be found guilty of violating the student-discipline code.

District educators are taking such talk seriously. Shortly after Lacks was fired, a drama teacher at one of the high schools was told to excise the “damns” and “hells” from the student production of Oklahoma. School board president Ormsby calls the move a “knee-jerk reaction” that should not have happened. She concedes that the board needs to clarify its policies.

Even as she pursues her case against the Ferguson-Florissant school district, Lacks has been looking for other teaching positions. One district recently called her in for an interview. The administrator told her he would love to hire her, but he confided that his school board probably wouldn’t be willing to take the chance given all the attention and scrutiny that would surely follow.

Last March, teacher Beverly Hopkins, along with hundreds of other area residents, attended Lacks’ school board hearing. As she listened to her colleague describe her aspirations for students and how and what she teaches them, Hopkins suddenly felt a surge of pride. She recalled the words of King Alcinous in The Odyssey: “You have told it like a poet who understands his craft.”

What Cissy Lacks wants now is the chance, once again, to practice her craft.

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Expletives Deleted