Teachers, flag burning, BLM

It was big news 53 years ago when the Bloomfield, Indiana, school board fired a 22-year-old teacher at the local high school. Her offense: making a controversial remark in the classroom.

This was in 1967, and opposition to the Vietnam War was in its very early stages. An English instructor at Indiana State University had burned an American flag in the classroom. Although he claimed his point was to demonstrate the power of symbols, the public was outraged.

But at Bloomfield High School, first-year teacher Patricia Reilly, a recent ISU graduate, told her students that she didn’t see anything wrong with the act. The students, most likely, were stunned. One wrote a  letter to the local newspaper, which published it without using the student’s name.

Then the American Legion jumped into the fray. In a resolution, the local post demanded that the school district “take conclusive action by termination of the teacher’s contract immediately and prevent said teacher from teaching in Bloomfield schools again.” The school board voted to fire her.

I know about this because Johns Hopkins education professor Jonathan Plucker sent me a copy of the Bloomington Tribune newspaper from April 26, 1967. His friend had come across it while cleaning out some old files. Presumably, it had been saved because of the story about the teacher.

“Bloomfield Teacher Is Fired,” blares the giant headline across the top of the front page. (For non-locals, Bloomfield is about 30 miles from Bloomington. The paper wouldn’t normally carry Bloomfield news).

The newspaper itself is a real period piece. Journalistic conventions were a bit different in 1967: The Bloomfield teacher is referred to as Mrs. James E. Reilly. The paper is crammed with local news, ranging from stories on the upcoming primary elections to a list of admissions and dismissals at the hospital. On the wire pages, there’s a hodgepodge of national and world news, including a bizarre story from Los Angeles about a “tall, husky youth” who tried to poke his eyes out after taking LSD.

Another element that dates the paper is that it includes a lot of labor news. Workers at the local Westinghouse capacitor factory had reportedly been on strike for 147 days. In Marion, Indiana, striking RCA workers had barricaded entrances and knocked down a security guard.

Which leads back to the story of the Bloomfield teacher – because this is a Labor Day story, in a way. Would the tale have played out any differently if it had occurred a few years later, after the teachers’ union movement picked up steam in Indiana?

Teachers in Indiana didn’t get collective bargaining rights until 1973, when the legislature enacted Public Law 217. Would it have mattered if the teacher had a contract or a union to back her up?

Maybe not. Even today there’s news about school districts playing politics with what teachers can say and do – like the Texas teacher who was suspended for decorating her virtual classroom with a Black Lives Matter poster and another proclaiming it a “welcoming space for everyone.”

When I first read the 1967 newspaper story, I imagined it as a tragedy: a young, idealistic teacher driven from the classroom by mean-spirited politics. But then I came across an obituary for Patricia L. Reilly, who had a 33-year teaching career in Indianapolis, Decatur Township and, yes, Bloomfield public schools. She died in 2014 in Florida at age 69.

“Her interest in theater and children allowed her to combine both passions into writing and directing plays,” the obituary says. “As well she loved constructive sewing, music, reading and writing.”

I’m glad she didn’t let the American Legion drive her from a profession she clearly loved. I’ll bet many of her students, had they known the story, would have felt the same way.

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