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From Cheerleader to Enemy of the State: An Interview with Judy Davis

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The long, flouncy curls from Judy Davis's cheerleader days are gone. Her straight blonde hair is now cut short. Her large blue eyes stand out in a face pale from no makeup. Her soft Southern drawl has an undertone of determination. "It's taken me awhile, but now I'm glad to be considered an 'unsuitable influence.' That was how the school board justified my firing. That and 'deviating from the curriculum.' It's like they were implying I was a deviant. And according to their norms I am.

"I taught my tenth grade American history students about what the US has done for decades in the countries in which we now have terrorism. We've overthrown their governments, installed dictators, undermined their economies -- all to strengthen our business interests. Seen in that light, the terror attacks are revenge for what we've done to them.

"This was a history lesson, but it was also a lesson in cause and effect, explaining what has provoked so many people to such anger at the US. But the effect on me was that I got fired and now apparently blacklisted.

"One of the students had an uncle stationed in Iraq, and she reacted as if I had insulted him. She took it as a personal attack on her family.

"I reminded her that I wasn't talking about our soldiers, just about the reasons they were there. I wanted very much for her uncle to return safely home. But she insisted I had no business saying any of that.

"That led to a mini-lesson on freedom of speech in which the whole class took part. It was one of the liveliest but also most emotionally charged discussions we'd had. Several students were convinced what I had said were lies, and freedom of speech doesn't include the right to lie. They denied the US had abused these countries. They insisted the terrorists are maniacs who hate us for our freedom, hate us because we're Christian. We have to stop them before they kill us.

"While we were talking I looked in the corner at the American flag with its red for the blood of our brave soldiers. Every morning the students put their hands over their hearts and pledge allegiance to that flag in a ritual designed to evoke tender feelings of identification with our country. I saw the portraits of the Founding Fathers on the walls, all looking so wise and kind, just the father every child would like to have. I thought about all the patriotic civics classes that teach us how great America is but leave out much of our history, particularly foreign policy.

"I realized these kids -- all of us -- are being indoctrinated. We're brought up to view the country as an extension of our family and to react to criticism of it as a personal attack. We tune out the negative because it's too threatening to us. Rather than thinking critically, we're encouraged to react emotionally. One of the media's purposes is to keep our emotions stirred up so we won't objectively analyze the system we live under.

"Several students took my side, but for some of them that was because I was the teacher, the authority figure. But others had really thought about the issue and added ideas of their own that had never occurred to me. One African-American girl made brilliant connections between the kind of invisible colonialism the US tries to enforce on other countries and its domestic colonization of poor minority groups here.

"The discussion was an intense learning experience for us all. Its goal wasn't to try to change opinions but to clarify what we really believe and help us articulate that. We all benefited from it.

"Next day the principal called me in because of student complaints. My explanations didn't convince her, but she said if I apologized to the class and never did anything like this again, she could let the incident slide.

"When I refused, she said she'd have to bring the matter before the school board. The board -- made up of business leaders, a minister, and two retired educators -- interviewed me and issued a report saying my 'inappropriate behavior and recalcitrant defense of it' left them no choice but to dismiss me.

"Previous to this, my professional evaluations had always been excellent. Since the firing, I've applied for other jobs in the state and haven't got one interview. And there's a shortage of teachers in the state.

"This experience really changed me. I hadn't been radical before. I'd been a cheerleader in high school and college, was a member of a sorority. My parents voted Republican, and I had followed their lead. But those days are over.

"The incident made it clear to me how much thought control goes on in our society, how mentally manipulating the media and the educational institutions are.

"After being fired I had lots of free time, so I read books by Noam Chomsky, William Blum, and Howard Zinn. I learned more about how the power holders convince the people to identify with the country they live in and make them afraid of outside enemies. I learned how the global rich act in their own interests regardless of nationality, and how this keeps the majority of the world in poverty.

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William T. Hathaway is an award-winning novelist and an emeritus Fulbright professor of creative writing. His peace novel, Summer Snow, is the story of an American warrior falling in love with a Sufi Muslim and learning from her that higher (more...)

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