When I was in high school, I played a game in a character building workshop that required my classmates and me to assign a monetary value to our future dreams and priorities. We were given $100 and told to assign amounts of money to about 50 different categories like "Have a happy marriage" and "Travel the world" and "Own a business."
The person who assigned the most money to any given category 'won" that category. My classmates spent more than an hour strategically dividing their money down to the penny, spreading it out amongst as many categories as possible without diluting their buying power.
I placed all my money on 'Become President of the United States" and won the category. My decision appalled the teacher, who pointed out that the next highest bid for President was $15.
I didn't want to take any chances. I told her I'd find a happy marriage and start a business on my own. And I was right.
As appealing as many of the categories were, I knew two things:
- The most difficult goal to achieve on that list was becoming President of the United States.
- I wanted to be President of the United States.
I still do. I am unwilling to make the sacrifices and compromises required to become President, and I know that I would be a terrible fundraiser, but if someone wanted to install me as President, I would immediately accept the post.
Slate's John Dickerson recently published a piece entitled:
Over the course of the next seven days, I plan on completing Dickerson's application by answering each of the questions. Maybe my answers will be so impressive that a grassroots campaign supporting my candidacy will launch. Perhaps I can be President after all.
1. What’s the biggest crisis you’ve faced in your professional life and how did you handle it?
Back in 2007, an anonymous person or persons, claiming to be parents but probably not, excerpted sections of a blog that I had been writing for more than three years and created a 37 page packet designed to coerce my school district into firing me and my wife (who was working with me at the time) from our positions as teachers. The packet was sent to the Town Council, the Board of Education, my superintendent, and the Human Resources department in my school.
The first three pages of the packet consisted of a letter that compared me to the Virginia Tech killer and argued that I was a danger to children and a disgrace to teaching. It threatened a series of actions that would take place if I was not immediately terminated, including distribution of the packet to the entire community and the press, plus legal action against me.
It was a lengthy packet that excerpted my blog in clever and awful ways. Two examples:
I wrote a post expressing my opposition to young girls wearing sweatpants with the word "Juicy" on the butt, questioning a parent's decision to allow a daughter to don an item of clothing like this. I argued that the human eye is automatically drawn to text, so allowing the placement of words on the backside of your daughter invites the oftentimes inadvertent gaze of strangers. Also, the word "juicy" was hardly something that belongs on a girl's posterior.
In the packet, the only sentence quoted from that 700 word post was part of a sentence that read, "I can't stop staring at ten-year old girl's butts."
In another post, I wrote about the death of my mother, which I learned about at school. I wrote about how my principal told me that take as much time off as I needed, assuring me that my colleagues would take care of my students in my absence.
In the packet, under the category of Favoritism, the only sentence quoted from that post was "My principal said that I can do anything I want."
There were hundreds of examples like this. Admittedly, my writing pushed boundaries and challenged sacred institutions like politics, religion, and culture. It was meant to be provocative and surprising and thought provoking, and as a result, it had garnered a readership in the tens of thousands.
But I never promoted my blog to my students, took measures to ensure that the blog would not appear in a Google search of my name (so my students wouldn't stumble upon it), and never used a single word of profanity or a single obscene image on its pages. I expressed strong, oftentimes contrary opinions. That was all.
I was suspended with pay for three days in order for the school district to investigate. In the end, I was found to have done nothing wrong. I never wrote during work hours, and I was merely exercising my First Amendment rights in writing this blog. I was asked to consider taking the blog down, and after some thought, I agreed, first saving the content to my hard drive for posterity.
The district thought that was the end of the incident. We never identified the coward or cowards who had sent the anonymous mailing, and I never thought we would.
One month later, in the midst of my summer vacation, the packet was sent to more than 300 families in my school district. It was mailed, placed under the windshield wipers of cars, and handed to people in their driveways. A new letter had been added, explaining that the school district had done nothing in the spring to terminate my employment and that this was step two in the process of getting me fired from my position.
It was a summer of unbelievable turmoil and terror for me and Elysha. We spent hours with school officials, union officials, and attorneys, strategizing our response. I spoke to lawyers of national renown who offered to help, and in every case, I was told that my situation was unprecedented. "Anonymous letter writers always threaten to send their trash to the public, but no one is ever crazy enough to do it."
We went to Princeton to speak to the attorney representing Miss America in a recent scandal involving photos that had been released onto the Internet. We discussed legal actions as well as public relations decisions that would need to be made.
I met privately with Board of Education members who supported me and offered me counsel.
The police became involved, collecting a unopened packet and storing it away in case fingerprint analysis was ever needed.
Elysha and I were placed under enormous stress. There was an anonymous person or persons somewhere in the world, attempting to destroy our lives by ruining our hard-earned reputations and stripping us of our livelihoods. We spent time in the summer homes of the parents of former students, trying to escape the constant concern over our futures. Rather than pulling us apart, this incident galvanized us as a couple.
The school district offered the parents of my incoming students the option of opting out of my class for the coming year as a result of the firestorm. They began making contingency plans, expecting most parents to take them up on the offer. There was talk that I might be forced to take a clerical position in town since it was likely that no parents would want their child in my classroom.
Two weeks before the school year began, a meeting was held with the parents of students assigned to my classroom. The offer to switch teachers was made. In the end, of the 23 students assigned to my classroom that year, all 23 remained with me. Another two dozen parents contacted the district, offering to move their students into my classroom if spots opened up.
The anonymous author or authors of the packet threatened to send the packet to the press and take legal action if nothing happened. The press saw the packet and rejected it immediately. Anonymous letters are not taken seriously by serious-minded people.
It's been more than eight years, and to date, no legal action has been taken against me.
How did I handle this professional crisis?
I remained calm. Despite the despicable and unthinkable things written about me, I did not express any anger publicly. I took the high road. I made it clear to the community that I was willing to review the packet - line by line - and answer any questions if anyone wanted to meet with me. I offered to show people the blog in its entirety in order to provide context to those out-of-context cruelties.
I sought out the advice of many experts. I listened. I made my decisions thoughtfully and carefully, absent of emotion or the desire for revenge.
I attempted to protect my wife. While this was hardly the worst thing to ever happen to me, it was by far my wife's greatest challenge thus far. It was not easy for either one of us, but for me, the worst part was knowing how Elysha has been dragged into it as well.
And I won. I kept my job. I earned back my reputation as a former Teacher of the Year and finalist for Connecticut Teacher of the Year. That said, the stigma still lingers in certain circles. People who chose to believe the authors of that packet never fully returned to my side. There is not a single day of my life that I do not think about that year and all that was done to us.
I've also sought out the identity of the authors of that packet. In the years since this incident, I have likely identified all involved. People talk. Time causes people to lower their guard.
I have yet to take any action against them, though I have been assured that legal action remains an option.
Living well is always the best revenge.