Robert Escamilla is a 21st Century version of ‘Mr. Peepers.’ A bit shy. Awkward. Eccentric. And for eighteen years a diligent social studies teacher who received glowing reports from his superiors at Enloe High School.
Until a few months ago, he had only one ripple on his resume with the potential to rock the waters of High School academia: He attended a small Christian Church where they think the Bible is literally the Word of God. Earlier this year, that ripple turned into a wave that landed ‘Mr. Peepers’ in the soup.
Here’s what happened: Robert Escamilla invited an Egyptian Christian evangelist – who after being tortured by Muslims in Egypt for his religious views is decidedly anti-Islamic – to speak to his High School class on World Religions and Bible in History. Escamilla knew the evangelist was going to criticize Islam. But since he encourages debate and criticism in his class that didn’t trouble him. After all he’d had atheists and agnostics and all sorts of people critical of religions speak in his class. And he didn’t require his students to agree with them, just to think.
So the evangelist came and spoke and the ACLU and the Muslin Defense League descended on Mr. Escamilla hammer and tongs. Worse, so did school Czar and Superintendent Del Burns.
According to Superintendent Burns the minute the Egyptian evangelist told Robert Escamilla’s class that ‘jihad is Muslim Evangelism,’ Mr. Escamilla should have told him to sit down and shut up – right then and there.
It doesn’t seem to trouble Superintendent Burns that, in fact, Muslims have been launching jihads since the 7th Century to spread Islam – but it does trouble him that the Muslim Defamation League and the ACLU have launched a jihad against him and the School Board. So before you could say abracadabra he launched a jihad of his own – against Mr. Escamilla. He demoted him. Suspended him. Then set out to justify his decision by debunking eighteen years of teaching in public schools with a twelve page reprimand that means no public school – should Mr. Escamilla decide it’s time to seek another job – will touch him with a ten-foot pole.
Superintendent Burns started his reprimand this way, writing: “I have serious doubt about your fitness to teach in Wake County Schools.” (According to the News and Observer, for years, Mr. Escamilla’s Advanced Placement students have received the highest test scores in their school district.)
Next Superintendent Burns accused Escamilla of giving too little homework and showing too many films in his class. That message was simple: Mr. Escamilla is lazy slipshod teacher.
Now, I prefer to read my history in a book but, today, most people prefer it watch it on video. Just look at the popularity of Ken Burns' documentaries on The Civil War and World War Two on public television. More people watched them than read any book about either war. If Mr. Escamilla used films to get the attention of our Internet saturated young people their test scores seem to say he had a point.
Next Burns pulled out the long-knives – of bigotry – accusing Mr. Escamilla of “joking about whether a Hispanic student had been deported.” That message was not subtle: Mr. Escamilla was not only lazy he was anti-Hispanic. Fortunately for Mr. Escamilla, Superintendent Burns overlooked one point: Robert Escamilla is part-Hispanic.
Once Superintendent Burns finished with Hispanics he moved on to gays, saying, Mr. Escamilla once criticized gays to an openly gay student. That message wasn’t subtle either: ‘Mr. Peepers’ is lazy, anti-Muslim, anti-Hispanic and anti-gay.
What exactly did Robert Escamilla say? Here it is. Word for word. He said: “Some people think being gay is disgusting, but you don’t hear them talking about it.” That’s it. Any gold-plated hyper-enlightened multi-cultural professor at any Ivy League university could have said the same thing and no one would have batted an eye. But Mr. Escamilla has one problem they don’t. He attends that small Christian Church. So his motives are suspect. It’s an odd pre-requisite for bigotry. But there it is.
Finally, Mr. Burns let Escamilla have it with both barrels on a charge no teacher could survive. He wrote that during one class period Mr. Escamilla repeatedly called a student “Miss Jew.” The message: Escamilla is lazy, anti-Muslim, anti-Hispanic, anti-gay and, worst of all, anti-Semetic.
Now, calling a student “Miss Jew” sounds terrible. It echoes with overtures of 1930’s anti-Semitism. And Robert Escamilla doesn’t deny it. In fact, he says, sheepishly, he knows it sounds terrible. Then in his own fumbling way he tries to explain.
Here’s how it happened: In the same class – where they were apparently debating religious values – Mr. Escamilla dubbed students representing different points of view “Mr. Christian” and “Mr. Agnostic” and “Miss Jew.”
As he says awkwardly, “Out of context they look bad, but when you look at it closely, it’s not –” which proves, if he’s not a bigot, Robert Escamilla is guilty of one foible: Naivety. A flaw no one will accuse Superintendent Burns of.
Just a few days ago they had School Board elections in Wake County. Not risking controversy – in case voters might have an opinion they might wanted to share with the Board about demoting ‘Mr. Peepers’ – Superintendent Burns carefully waited until after the election to issue his reprimand.
So what happens next? First, it’s going to be a long time before anyone in Wake County Schools says an unkind word again about jihads. And what about Robert Escamilla? He’s run out of choices. Getting a job to teach in another school system is a pipe-dream. If he wants to stand in a classroom this year it’ll be where Superintendent Burns stuck him – in what the Wake County School Board euphemistically calls an ‘alternative school’ for students the Board describes as “socially dysfunctional youth” who have been suspended from other schools.
Mr. Peepers did his best but lost.
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