The Corner

Reading Frederick Douglass in Rochester

Here is a sincere question: Why have the good people of Rochester, N.Y., failed to tar and feather school superintendent Bolgen Vargas as a prelude to running him out of town on a rail?

Mr. Vargas is fortunate enough to have in his charge one Jada Williams, a 13-year-old eighth grader who voluntarily took on some difficult extra work: reading Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life and writing an essay on the subject. Frederick Douglass is dangerous reading, truly radical stuff. Miss Williams, like most of the students in her dysfunctional school, is black. Most of the people being paid to go through the motions of teaching them are white. Coming across the famous passage in which Douglass quotes the slavemaster Auld, Miss Williams was startled by the words: “If you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there will be no keeping him. It will forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.” The situation seemed to her familiar, and her essay was a blistering indictment of the failures of the largely white faculty of her school: “When I find myself sitting in a crowded classroom where no real instruction is taking place I can say history does repeat itself.”

Her teacher was so offended by the essay that she circulated copies of it to the rest of the faculty and to the principal. Miss Williams, an A student, suddenly began to receive Ds. According to accounts, her mother received harassing telephone calls from teachers who suggested that she was in some way disturbed rather than merely observant. She was forced eventually to withdraw from the school and enroll in an even worse one. (The Blaze has more.)

The best Mr. Vargas could say was this: “We could have responded better. This is a situation that was definitely not handled the best way.” To say the least: Teachers refused to show Miss Williams’s mother the schoolwork she had allegedly performed poorly on, and they refused to answer many of her questions about her daughter’s performance and alleged behavioral problems.

The teachers also failed to enter Miss Williams’s essay in the contest for which it was written — intentionally sabotaging her chances at an academic honor.

Miss Williams received an award from the Frederick Douglass Society Foundation of New York and had the chance to tell her story on Glenn Beck’s television show. But most students in her situation will never have such an opportunity.

As Douglass observed: “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.” How about it, Rochester? How much of this are you willing to quietly submit to?

NOTE: Corrected since first posting.

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