Teach Me to Right
She'll let you chew gum in class, but if she catches you saying "fuck," reading teacher Elizabeth Anne Moore might very well drag your ass into court. The Trevor Browne High School instructor made national news last month when she filed harassment charges against one of her surliest students, and lately she's been spending more time on the talk-show circuit than on lesson plans. At a west-side Starbucks, Moore talked candidly about her life as an orphan, the evil influence of hip-hop, and the dark danger of flying mouse balls.
New Times: You took a kid to court. What's up?
Elizabeth Anne Moore: He has a real problem. This incident took me to court out of frustration. If I had it to do over again, I'd have gone earlier. I'd have gone when a child threw a dense-as-a-rock mouse ball at the back of my head. He could've left me crippled or dead. I would've gone when a child threatened to break my arm. I might've gone when this same class inflated a prophylactic rubber and inserted two [computer] mouse balls and rolled it into the middle of the classroom. As it happens, [one day] when this class was using vulgarity, [the teacher I share my classroom with] walked in, and she was incensed. "I'll press charges for sexual harassment," she said. "You will not talk that way around me." And I realized, "I don't have to take this. I might have some rights."
NT: So you finked on the kid.
Moore: I simply called the police, and I said, "What can I do? I keep turning in discipline referrals. What are my rights?" The officer said, "Why don't you take it to court?" That's why I did this. Everyone had been afraid of the child -- a big boy; vicious, intimidating. I didn't get killed, but what about the next teacher? What about the next student he brutalizes?
NT: But taking a kid to court seems extreme. Why not just wash his mouth out with soap?
Moore: Because we're responsible when we don't do something about children's violence. We're responsible when they grow up and commit worse crimes.
NT: You were talking before about sexual harassment. How is throwing a mouse ball sexual harassment?
Moore: Oh, that was a different student. Here, I have a journal that I'll read to you from, where I write down the things that different students did: "Ozzie (not his real name) was showing his classmates a drawing of a nude woman. She was kneeling, knees apart, with exposed genitalia. Her arms were bound behind her. I confiscated the drawing and wrote a referral. I showed it to my department head, the dean, and another teacher who happened to be passing by." This was the same boy who told me to go "blank" myself. Here's another one: "A student was doing math homework in my reading class. I confiscated the paper, and he threw a book at my face." We want children to be interested in books, but not to throw them at teachers' faces.
NT: This is like Story Hour! Tell me the one about the kid you took to court!
Moore: He said to me, "F-U-C-K you!" One day I was explaining a reading game to the class, and he said, "Oh, yeah? How do you pay the winners -- with pussy?" (Laughing.) If I couldn't laugh, I'd go crazy.
NT: It's all so To Sir, With Love. How come kids are so scary today?
Moore: Language is so powerful. If we fill our heads with hip-hop music, with the vulgarity and the abuse, that's going to color the way we see others. Our society values material things and money so much, children learn who's valuable by how much money they make. "You should value the rock star, because he makes lots of money. Teachers don't make as much, so they're less valuable."
NT: So, have the parents been supportive?
Moore: Well, a couple of them have asked that their child be switched to another reading teacher. I never set out to be a martyr. Professional suicide is what I've committed.
NT: And your colleagues have all rallied around you?
Moore: Yes, although our dean quit. Chicken! By the way, most of the children I've told you about have been in and out of jail.
NT: You had a pretty rough childhood, yourself.
Moore: I grew up in the last of the children's homes. My parents moved every time the rent was due. It gave me a perspective: living in many different homes, being white and attractive and intelligent and obedient and clean -- things that foster parents look for. So I was able to solicit many foster homes for myself. I lived in the children's home in between. I was that rare thing -- a battered child who chooses not to be battered. I escaped at 11 years old. I ran away and went to the courthouse. I told the judge, "If you send me back, I'll kill myself." He told me I didn't have to go back. I lived in constant fear of having to go back with my parents, because I knew they would have no choice but to kill me because I'd blown the whistle on them.
NT: That's an amazing story.
Moore: It is amazing! But you see, I've always fought for my rights. I was a child who said, "I will not go back to my parents. I will take anonymity first, I'll jump into the abyss, I will gnaw off my leg in a bear trap. I may spend the rest of my life seeking the phantom leg, but I won't go back." I said, "My parents are awful, and I hate them!"
NT: And I understand that you've written a book about this experience, and now the press is all over you because you keep mentioning the book every time you're interviewed.
Moore: I think I came off as only caring about the book. But why would I teach special education all these years if I only cared about my book? Who would take a mouse ball to the back of the head just to sell a book? No! I was very hurt when the [media] showed me that way.
NT: But when you were interviewed on the six o'clock news, you turned to the camera and announced that you're looking for a literary agent!
Moore: It's true. I was naive; I didn't know how to promote my book. I can understand that I would be criticized for that. But I don't want to be remembered as the Ev Mecham of schoolteachers.
NT: So, you e-mailed me a letter to the editor that you plan to send to the Arizona Republic, complaining about a story they published about you. You asked me to copy-edit it.
Moore: Oh, yes!
NT: Here it is. I've marked the grammar errors in red. You have a dangling participle here; the comma goes inside the quotes; you need a preposition over here. And don't use the phrase "hone out an identity." It sounds funny.
Moore: Thank you! Thank you!
NT: I've never had a teacher ask me to proof her writing before. I mean, you're an English teacher.
Moore: I am an English teacher! If I can't find a teaching job after all this mess, well, I'll find something to do.
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