Reading & Literacy

N.M. Classroom Bard Waits For Word on Job

By John Gehring — April 30, 2003 4 min read
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A teacher in New Mexico remained suspended last week after one of his students read a poem at school that included sweeping criticism of the war in Iraq, the Bush administration, and treatment of immigrants.

The senior at Rio Rancho High School in Rio Rancho, N.M., faced no disciplinary action after reading her poem, “Revolution X,” over the school’s closed-circuit TV station in February.

But less than a month after that reading, Bill Nevins, a humanities teacher at Rio Rancho High and the faculty sponsor of its poetry team, was told he would be placed on paid leave. School officials maintain that Mr. Nevins failed to follow district policy when he allegedly allowed students to perform at public poetry readings outside of school without field-trip permission forms.

He was also suspended as the sponsor of the poetry team, which had been preparing for New Mexico’s first statewide poetry competition for students earlier this month. The poetry team broke up after his suspension, and team members did not take part in that event.

Mr. Nevins disputes the claim that he did not follow school policies, and he suggests that the school’s principal, Gary Tripp, is targeting him for his work with the poetry team and the type of work—like the “Revolution X” poem—that came out of the poetry group.

A poet, political activist, and freelance journalist, Mr. Nevins is well known in New Mexico poetry circles, where criticism of American foreign policy and the war in Iraq are common and often grist for artistic expression.

Opposing Views

The 55-year-old, whose son is a U.S. Army paratrooper currently serving in Afghanistan, acknowledged inviting guest speakers with anti-war views to address the poetry team students, but said he also invited those with opposing views, including a military veteran.

“I was not protesting the war in my classroom,” said Mr. Nevins. “I presented a very balanced position. I don’t believe in putting forward my own political prejudices in front of students. I do that in my private time. ...

“I can only suspect the school authorities were in some way discomforted by students freely and with decorum speaking their minds.”

Mr. Tripp, the principal, did not respond to a request for an interview. A district spokeswoman said she could not comment about Mr. Nevins’ case because it was a personnel issue. But the spokeswoman for the 11,275-student Rio Rancho schools did say the reasons for his suspension were not related to freedom-of-speech issues.

Mr. Nevins, who has been on paid leave since March 19, said he hopes to avoid legal action, but said he would consider that as an option. He is most concerned, he said, about the long-term effect his suspension and the breakup of the poetry club will have on his students’ commitment to speaking out on controversial topics.

“What bothers me the most is the discouraging message this sends to youth,” he said. “I hope they reject that message. As a father of a brave son in his early 20s fighting for freedom in Afghanistan, I’m appalled that freedom is being truncated and disrespected right here in New Mexico.”

‘Deep and Thoughtful’

Mr. Nevins’ case has become something of a cause célèbre among some teachers and poets.

Billy Collins, the poet laureate of the United States, sent Mr. Nevins an e-mail to express dismay over his treatment. Mr. Collins declined to be interviewed for this article because he said he was traveling and wanted to learn more details of the case before commenting publicly.

Sal Treppiedi, a teacher at Harrison Middle School in Albuquerque, N.M., who started the Albuquerque Youth Poetry Council with Mr. Nevins to promote youth poetry events, worries about the impact the teacher’s suspension will have on his students.

“The real tragedy is not what happened to Bill. He will teach again,” Mr. Treppiedi said. “The real tragedy is what happened to the kids, because when a form of expression is being scrutinized by the administration, that is just abominable as far as I’m concerned.”

In recent months, several New Mexico teachers have faced suspensions over anti- war sentiments that they or their students have posted in classrooms.

On April 18, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico filed a lawsuit against the Albuquerque school district on behalf of four educators suspended in March for posting anti-war messages in their classrooms or offices.

Curriculum experts, administrators, and others have generally advised that teachers be careful to keep their views on divisive issues as such the war separate from their roles in the classroom. (“War Lessons Call for Delicate Balance,” March 26, 2003.)

Back at Rio Rancho High, at least one other teacher hopes students will keep speaking out through poetry. Sam Butler, a humanities teacher whose daughter Courtney wrote the “Revolution X” poem, says poetry has given her a forum for expression.

“Her poems are very deep and thoughtful,” Mr. Butler said. “She is eloquent, and we are very proud of her. The poetry club really provided her with an outlet.”

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