Grandfield, Oklahoma, Small Town Teachers, and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”

photolaramiepjct1I feel sorry for Grandfield, Oklahoma, its people, and its school. I’ve never been there, but I feel like I know it. I doubt that it’s much different than many small towns dotted all over the Great Plains.

Bigger than many similar little prairie towns, Grandfield has a population of around a thousand people and sits out in what some would call “the sticks” between Wichita Falls, Texas and Lawton, Oklahoma. The high school itself is a small one (74 students in the 2006-2007 school year).

But now this small town and its school are getting national attention because of the dismissal of one of the high school’s teachers, whose students were working on a production of “The Laramie Project”, the story of Matthew Shephard, the Wyoming college student brutally murdered in an anti-gay attack a decade ago. (Read the story from the Lawton, OK newspaper here and here.)

If you look at the school district’s website, you realize that Grandfield probably has a good school. The fact that a school this size even has a website is evidence of this, but aside from the fact that some of its sports pages could do with some updating, the school’s site is well done.

From what I’ve read about the main players in this controversy (the superintendent–a Mr. Ed Turlington, and the dismissed teacher–Debra Taylor), it seems likely that there probably have been some “philosophical differences” between them. Added to that, by looking at the school’s schedule of classes, it’s not difficult to see that there could have been some varying points of view among the faculty members about what should be taught in classes in this school.

In most small schools, the teachers generally have an overlap of the subjects they teach; for example, a math teacher might have to teach some of the science courses too, or the physical education teacher might also teach history and driver’s education. Sometimes, because of class size or lack of funds, even the superintendent or the principal (who might also actually be the same person) has to teach a class or two.

On the other hand, because of the small size, teachers who have a special interest may be given the opportunity to teach more topic specific courses. By looking at the class schedule again, this looks as if what might have been the case in Grainfield. Ms. Taylor’s schedule includes an Ethics class and a Street Law class, not your run-of-the-mill courses generally taught in small rural schools. Likewise, there is a class listed as the Bible as Literature, taught by a C. Turlington, (whom we can assume has some relationship with the superintendent), also not a course that we’d find in most small public high schools, nor for that matter, even large public high schools.

Just looking at those course listings, at first one might think how lucky the students are to have such choices. But courses like those are not instituted without some push from somebody who wants them to be taught or who wants to teach them. When you see the outcome of the teacher’s being dismissed, it’s seems like there probably was some undercurrent of discord because of differences of opinion about what should be taught in this school and in these classes long before the “Laramie Project” situation.

Even so, this problem seems to be one that should stay a local one. The biggest story about this small school should be one about a sports team winning a championship or an FFA member taking a Grand Championship ribbon at the state fair.

PFLAG groups getting involved on the side of the teacher and the Phelps family coming to town to rail against “The Laramie Project” should not be what brings attention to this school and town. Issues in small towns are small town issues, no matter what they are. In the end, it is the locally-elected school board that decides what is best for the school.

Outsiders getting involved only exacerbates the conflict and will make it much harder for those in the town itself to come back together. Because come back together they will have to, one way or another. You just can’t avoid people in a small town like you can in a big city. People who do not grow up in a small town just have no understanding how close-knit the people who live there are. People from outside trying to favor one point or the other are going to be looked at as “meddlers”. That’s why I feel sorry for the people of this community. They don’t need all of that interference.

But even I am taking a side here. First of all, there is no reason for a class like “The Bible as Literature” to be taught in that school or any public school. If students need more literature than they are getting in their English classes, the school should offer AP (Advanced Placement) Literature to get them ready for college. I’m sure Grandfield has a number of churches that have Bible Study classes, Sunday School, and Summer Bible School, from which anyone interested could get all the Bible Lit. they wanted.

On a more personal note, years ago, I had a “Debra Taylor” as my English teacher. Her name, though, was Mrs. Anna Herman, and she was my English teacher for all my years at Dorrance (Kansas) High School. Not only was she the English teacher, but she started a speech and debate program in one of the smallest schools in the state at that time (about 40 students in grades 9-12). This gave us the opportunity to compete against schools much larger in size, something that sports usually doesn’t do.

virginia-woolfWhat makes this situation in Grandfield seem so similar is that when I was a senior, Mrs. Herman suggested that my classmate and I do a piece from Edward Albee’s play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. At that time, this controversial drama had just come out as a movie with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton cast as the leads. The cutting that our teacher wanted us to do was from some of the Taylor-Burton scenes. However, before we could work on the piece, she asked that we get our parents to go watch the movie at the theater.

Back in the 60s, the film’s subject matter was considered raw and the language strong, but when compared with today’s films, or even TV shows, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” would  seem fairly “tame”. But in 1966, it was a cutting-edge movie, and not an easy one for 17-year-olds to watch with their parents, let alone 17-year-olds with farm parents from a town of about 300 people .

The 15-mile drive home from the show was a very quiet one.

However, we got to do “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” as our speech competition piece because our parents trusted and believed in Mrs. Herman. To this day, after all these many years, I’m proud to say that we got a first place in every speech contest that we entered, including the state competition.

We also presented our piece in front of the school and parents a couple of times, and always got a positive reception; even though the people from my little town were both conservative and religious, they also were the type of people who recognized the importance of their kids’ getting an education that would prepare them for life beyond the farm and our little town.

And you know what? Mrs. Herman wasn’t some sort of liberal interloper from the outside. She was a farmer’s wife who had gone back to school later in life to get her degree and teaching credentials, but she was a teacher who gave her all so that her students would have more opportunities and realize that the world goes a lot further than just the county line.

I don’t know Debra Taylor, but I have an idea that she might be the same kind of teacher.

This may be the problem with some of the people in Grandfield, Oklahoma: that narrow-mindedness is interfering with giving kids an education to help them prepare for the world beyond their town.

(Just for the record: Anna Herman was the sister of Johnny Locke, who coached basketball for many years at Natoma High School in the 1950s and 60s and was one of the winningest coaches in Kansas high school history.)

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One Response

  1. Bravo! I am truly pleased to find someone who did research about the town and did not make rash judgments about the town or its people. It’s my hometown and it hurts when I see people talk bad about it. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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