[Updated August, 2017]
Westhill High School, just outside of Syracuse, NY, is one of the top schools in one of the top school districts in Upstate New York. And just this week (this post was initially published on April 4, 2013), one of its veteran teachers publicized his retirement letter, touching off a nearly viral outpouring of sympathy, empathy and, dare I hope it, outrage. No, not outrage that he was leaving, just two years shy of the full retirement benefits that a 30-year tenure would bring. Outrage at the direction public education is going.
Could this be the straw that finally breaks the camel's back? I sure hope so.
I've been complaining about the same stuff for 15 years (read my statement of philosophy). Behind closed doors, colleagues would listen, nod their heads, "Yeah, man, that sucks, someone should do something." I've never been one to keep my mouth shut about things like this, so I often would do something, or say something, and then, curiously, all of the sympathetic support, the righteous anger, the steely resolve, would vanish in a puff of fear-for-one's-job. I never knew when to shut up (if you know me, you're nodding your head), so I was occasionally, uh, "denied tenure," I think is the polite way to say it. I could never "play the game," as I was often told to do in hushed tones by my colleagues.
But Mr. Conti, he did it right. Read his letter here. Not in a huff or in a fury, like the Weasley twins quitting Hogwarts, but in quiet, resigned (no pun intended) sigh of disgust tinged with profound sorrow. His letter is not Twisted Sister's rageful "You're gonna burn in hell..."; rather, it's Metallica's matter-of-fact "I dub thee 'unforgiven.'" He simply decided it was time for him to go.
Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged in 1957. In it she described an alternate America in which people of integrity in education, art, letters, and especially industry, are becoming increasingly forced by the government to act against their own best interests, in the name of serving other masters - the collective, the State, the amorphous entity known as the "common good." Bit by bit, the great minds of America realize that the vocations, professions, lifestyles that they love and cherish are being ruined by oppressive and meddlesome rights-denying bureaucracy that, more often than not, doesn't really understand the nature of what it's meddling with. In the end, these great minds decide (are persuaded, actually, you'll have to read to learn more) to "go on strike," and one by one, over a period of time, they vanish from the world, their factories, industries, mines, foundries and establishments abandoned or destroyed by their own hand. The nation is sent into a panic, both at the trend, and at the fact that so many of the "prime movers" of what Rand called "the motor of the world" have simply vanished - ceased utterly to be productive, by choice - daring the country to try and survive without them.
They are right. It can't.
When I read Mr. Conti's letter, I felt that sense of righteous rebellion, mixed with a twinge of sadness. I sense the spirit of those in Rand's novel, who, realizing that their spirit is being taken away from them, decide to withhold all access to that spirit from the bureaucratic vampires, moochers and looters (some of Rand's favorite words), to give them nothing to feed on. Lacking sustenance, maybe they would starve.
I'm guessing it was not Mr. Conti's deliberate and specific purpose to send that particular message to the Board of Education at Westhill. Maybe Atlas Shrugged never crossed his mind. (Maybe he's never even read it.) Maybe, like The Prisoner, he just wanted to escape. Either way, his personal integrity shines like a beacon for all to see. But will anyone follow?
"After writing all of this," he writes in his conclusion to the two-page letter, "I realize that I am not leaving my profession, in truth, it has left me. It no longer exists. I feel as though I have played some game halfway through its fourth quarter, a timeout has been called, my teammates’ hands have all been tied, the goal posts moved, all previously scored points and honors expunged and all of the rules altered. For the last decade or so, I have had two signs hanging above the blackboard at the front of my classroom, they read, 'Words Matter' and 'Ideas Matter'. While I still believe these simple statements to be true, I don’t feel that those currently driving public education have any inkling of what they mean."
I've had so many colleagues tell me privately, "I really should switch careers," "This isn't what it used to be," "I don't know why I put up with this," "This isn't worth it!" and "This is just so damn depressing!" But they stay. Is there honor in suffering? Is there glory in that kind of woeful sacrifice? (Maybe it's a religious thing? Self-flagellation?) Or is it better to send this simple message? "No, not anymore."