[This article is part of my new project #WeTheTeachers in which I am amplifying the voices of my fellow K-12 teachers around the United States. Below is the text transcription of my interview with 4th Grade Art Teacher Lillian White.]
After Lillian White began posting publicly on Facebook about her school’s response to her “black lives matter” mask, various media outlets have published her story, and that’s how I heard about her case. I was intrigued and wanted to learn more about her experience, so I reached out to her via e-mail to schedule this interview. The audio recording of the interview is available here (with permission):
🔊 SoundCloud Link 🔊
…when I started making masks for myself… I just made them “black lives matter masks.”
Author’s Note: I recommend playing the audio on SoundCloud in the background while you read the text, so that you can fully connect with the interviewer and interviewee and get a true sense of the nature of the conversation and the specific details discussed.
(C = Chicago)
(L = Lillian)
[C asks to confirm name and requests permission to record. L confirms name and gives consent to being recorded and having the recording used in a published article]
C: Wonderful, ok. Very interested in your story. I got wind of it just a few days ago. I see that it has been going on really since um I guess July, forgive me if I don’t have all the dates…you might have to rehash some of them for me. But I am very much interested in advocating for K-12 teachers during [COVID-19 / SARS-CoV-2 pandemic]. And that’s what I’d been researching and then came across the New York Post and Heavy.com article about you and just wanted to follow up and continue to raise awareness for what seems to be a completely just…injust response from the school where you worked. So that’s kinda why I was following the K-12 space for writing for D Magazine and also for my personal blog. Um…And yeah if you’re curious about my own [story] I am also a music teacher and had a similar situation earlier this summer. But…yeah maybe with that if you want to um tell me a little bit about…what’s going on for you right now? What’s the current situation?
L: Well I’m currently unemployed. Unemployed for a couple weeks now. And I’m still just kind of working on continuing that campaign. Still trying to communicate with Great Hearts Academy. It’s a very one sided conversation. They are definitely not returning any of my e-mails or phone calls [chuckles].
C: Ah yes, I’ve been there to some degree…
L: Yes but I’m still trying to push it as much as possible you know…doing as much research as I can to help draft points that they could use in an anti-racism action plan, and educating myself as much as possible.
C: Awesome. Um…so…Ok. Wow. yeah I really feel just personally aligned with what you are doing and happy to support it. I signed the petition. Tell me about the petition. If you get the seventy-five hundred signatures I think, what do you hope to … presumably that will send a certain message to the school. What do you see coming out of the Change.org petition?
L: So um, I’m not actually going for, I guess, a set numerical goal. I’m just trying to get as many as possible to try to get attention for it. So you know, the more signatures I get hopefully the more attention they will pay. I send them updates every week about it. I’ve made [Dr. Daniel Scoggin] the President [and Co-Founder] of Great Hearts the contact for it so he should be getting updates from change.org.
L: He is still not responding to anything that I sent regarding it. So…
C: That’s smart to point it to his name. Ok I think when I signed it maybe said the next benchmark is 7,500…
L: Yeah yeah I’m hoping to get as many as possible you know! Before….Last week or two weeks ago…before the CNN story came out it was like just under a thousand. Over the weekend when that came out it quadrupled the number of signatures. Then it kind of like then hit another kind of slow plateau.
C: Gotcha. The initial press coverage that came out for your case. How did that um… wind up I guess…happening? Did you reach out to local news? Or…
L: No. They actually started reaching out to me. I made…I started making my Facebook posts about this public to people could see information about it and get involved with it…to hopefully encourage some civil discourse on the subject.
L: Um…and then a bunch of news stations started reaching out to me, and they reached out to me before I’d even been fired. When I first posted about being suspended for a day. I didn’t want to speak to anyone before there was like conclusive results. I still wanted to give Great Hearts the chance you know.. to respond like decent human beings.
C: Yeah to make it right even after they screwed your job in the situation and also just like…
C: Made it clear that they’re um…-
L: That they are supporting an education rooted in white supremacy with absolutely zero representation.
C: Yep…Um…so..I want to get into the mask itself. Before that, do you want to talk about your experience as a teacher during the pandemic. Were you actually in…um…Did you have classes in session I guess between March and July.
L: So we were teaching remotely, then went on Spring break, and then the pandemic kinda hit. “Oh hey we get an extra week of Spring Break”…and then they’re like [paraphrasing] “oh it’s gonna be a little longer than that.”
C: The Spring Break that never ended…
C: So I guess that naturally bleeds into yeah…we are wearing masks now. Texas re-opened in July.
L: Yeah and you know it was at the same time as the George Floyd protests started around the same time as the pandemic hit. So when I started making masks for myself because I sew anyway I just made them black lives matter masks. It seemed you know…like the thing to do. It combines two of my efforts. I made them for family members that were um like immunocompromised and couldn’t attend any of the protests but they still wanted to show support. So I was like “Here! like you can protest at the grocery store or like walking out to get the mail.”
C: Yeah the creativity explosion around masks has been really inspiring.
L: I love it. Around like everything. Haha. Yeah.
C: Yeah. So okay, so walk me through like this…this day. You go into school with the mask on and…
L: Yeah so um early July is when we have to start going back as teachers. They had us come back a little earlier to you know… It’s a whole new school year we have to prep for because of the [COVID-19] pandemic. So um early July is when we start going back. Um…We do have to be on campus. We do have to wear our masks the whole time, but there aren’t any kids in yet. This is all just professional development time and teacher training.
C: And it’s just some maybe some social distancing. But it’s like alright [paraphrasing] “teachers you gotta be in here. We gotta figure out…”
L: Yeah. All my masks I have are “black lives matter” so I wore them. And no, no one said anything. A couple teachers complimented them…some even asked for some, so I brought some for them. They didn’t wear them at school, but you know, they asked for them.
L: And then after about a week and a half I got a text message as I was leaving campus saying, you know [paraphrasing] “hey we need you to stop wearing those masks. Parents are gonna be coming around soon.”
C: Ok…Even when it was just still teachers though? In anticipation they were like…
L: Oh yeah. I still hadn’t seen any of my kids. Yeah.
L: And it was like the line where they said “Parents will start coming around.” Like they were worried because they knew parents wouldn’t like this. And they knew that’s the kind of parents they prefer to cater to. They prefer to cater to the parents who don’t support equal rights.
L: And then actively silence anyone who does [support equal rights].
C: Yep, so you get that text message on the way home?
L: Mmhm. I was actually on my way to a protest [chuckles] that coincidentally was started at a Whole Foods where an employee had been fired for wearing a black lives matter mask and ended at a school where students had spoken out against racial prejudice. So I was like [thinking to herself] “Oh this kind of goes hand in hand.” I already sent my response that I’m not gonna change. They said [paraphrasing] “Okay, we’ll talk about it more on Monday.” And so I was like [thinking to herself] “This is a good sign that what I’m doing is important.” Kids are speaking out that they need help from teachers who are supporting them. Like, who would I be if I was going to back down
C: Absolutely. Yeah, I totally feel you there. I think that’s so…It shouldn’t even be called brave. But its brave what you did. I feel like it should go without saying what you’re doing…to wear the mask and support equal rights. But in…in that community you’re facing a lot of yeah…either backwards thinking or just weird resistance from that school. Um…Did it ever come to um…you being with the mask in the classroom with your students?
L: So they actually fired me the Saturday before students were supposed to start coming back to school.
C: Oh man…If it were me that would break my heart on the basis of not being able to see my students then.
C: Have you had any I guess contact with your students? Or without naming names, can you say any of how your students have responded to the situation?
L: So I haven’t been able to contact any of my students directly. Just one who is a family friend family. Um…But in general, I’ve have had a few parents contact me and say …you know several parents contacted me like, in support. And also an equal number of them calling me a marxist terrorist.
C: Oh fun. Wow.
C: So it’s like half and half?
L: Yeah. So…The sad thing is though like the ones that are willing to attack you in public or voice anything in public are the ones who are comfortable in their violent nature and disbelief in equal rights. The ones who support you are the ones who are too scared to make it public and have to private message you because they’re worried about how other people will retaliate against their children.
C: Yeah. Wow. So-
L: I just thought that was super sad.
C: Yeah. That is super sad.
L: And it just shows like they are that comfortable a) because in the current political state like how everyone else is. And they are comfortable that knowing that Great Hearts will support them.
C: Mhm. And you’ve been at that school for how long?
L: This would’ve been my second year.
C: Second year there. And-
L: It would’ve been my ninth year teaching.
C: Ninth year teaching, wow. Thank you for doing what you do as a teacher for your whole career. That’s amazing. Um what did you teach before Great Hearts? Were you in K-12?
L: Yeah so I’ve been teaching art for 3rd through 6th grade at Great Hearts. Before that I taught 4th grade.
L: Which is the best grade.
C: 4th grade that’s great.
L: I love 4th grade.
C: I bet you do. And…Tell me about yeah like your passion for teaching art. What do you… whats kind of your vision for your students that you get to touch their lives… How does that motivate you… drive you as a teacher?
L: The biggest thing that you can encourage through all…any subject you are teaching. Art was awesome, but like in any subject where you can give them projects and stuff. Creative problem solving. And giving kids these situations or assignments with very few boundaries. Very open ended assignments and say “Okay now figure it out.” “What are you gonna do?” “How do you want to show this?” or “How do you want to solve this problem?” And…the results you get…You can have 30 kids in a class and get 30 different results and… They all work. I love seeing stuff like that.
C: That’s awesome. That’s pretty inspiring. You have a pretty inspiring classroom…um the way that you run it, it sounds like.
L: Yeah. So it was a lot harder to do that at Great Hearts where they weren’t really into creative freedom. [pause] I actually got in trouble for making a video encouraging [my students] to create for creation sake, to just have fun making things. And they were like [paraphrasing] “We don’t do that at Great Hearts. You can not encourage people to create for no reason.”
C: Wow…They were opposing even that?
L: Yeah that was last year during the school year. Like when we were remote teaching and I was just making videos. They were like, [paraphrasing] “Um sorry you can’t show them that video encouraging them to be creative for no reason.”
L: So yeah there were little signs along the way I guess if I had been paying attention would show that that was the kind of atmosphere it was. But on paper it looked like a great place. Until you start digging deeper and deeper into it.
L: They had a lot of trouble with being sued by the ACLU for discriminatory practices.
L: Yes. They are a Charter [school] out of Arizona. You can look up ACLU lawsuits with Great Hearts.
C: Wow I might link to some of that too.
L: Yeah and you know, they’ve been accused of trans-phobic, which they definitely are, uh practices and rules and guidelines in their handbook. Um..One of the signs I saw of that was actually last year around this time where they very specifically sent out multiple copies of the same newsletter making the announcement that girls couldn’t dress in boy costumes and boys couldn’t dress in girl costumes when it came to the book character day. They were so adamant about it. That’s so limiting.
C: Yes, it’s limiting their identity…
L: If you look at their curriculum…All the books they’ve read so far…And they’re only allowed to dress as characters out of the books that they’ve read. And you’ve got all male characters.. Who are the girls supposed to be?? Some background medieval character because you only think the boys matter as Robin Hood.
C: That’s ridiculous. Makes me want to go protest in that school’s parking lot.
L: Yeah I thought about it.
C: For a lot of things…for all these issues going on there. What do you want to say to your students?
L: Um I just want them to see this as an example that… No matter how stressed you are about making a decision when you know that the outcome is the right one, stand up and fight for it. There are gonna be consequences. There are consequences to everything. You have to take [the] consequences. But some issues are worth the consequences.
C: Totally. That’s beautiful. I was gonna say my own comment on this…when I read that you are an art teacher and you made this mask on your own. I almost felt like this is like a lesson in maybe…’art-ivism.’ You know? Instead of “activism” like “art-ivism.”
C: And I thought that’s like a beautiful example of artivism how you created that mask in the first place. I’m sure like many other people have probably have made those masks. But you instinctually made that statement using the mask during this [COVID-19] pandemic and I think it was…yeah, beautifully done.
L: Thank you!
C: Cool. Any other things you want to add? Calls to action? Any ways people can get involved?
L: If you want to link the petition that would be amazing.
C: Yeah I’m definitely gonna link to the Change.org thing. Are you getting severance from the school now? Are they helping you out financially?
L: No, no. Not at all. They actually classified it as me quitting without just cause. Even though I definitely didn’t quit. I didn’t quit. I didn’t put in a letter of resignation. I would have kept showing up.
C: They are framing it as if you quit to sort of like…
L: Mhm. [The school administrators] are saying [paraphrasing] “We didn’t fire her, she quit.”
C: Sounds like they definitely fired you though because they were like…well how did they actually trigger the firing?
L: It was actually like. They say it was on Friday that’s when they officially did it. They didn’t tell me until Saturday. And they called me. I missed a phone call when I was out on my morning run, and listened to a voicemail and it was [paraphrasing] “We are calling to let you know you are no longer be teaching Art at Great Hearts Western Hills…We sent you an email to your personal e-mail account…” because they already had locked me out of the school e-mail and everything.
C: Okay, so then they definitely fired you at that point.
C: And gave you what…how much notice? You got it on a Saturday. Maybe like two days notice?
L: No… like that was it. Like it was…they said that they had fired me officially on Friday and called me on Saturday to let me know.
C: So you were expecting to go into work on that Monday following.
C: Yeah. So you had like..you had no time to…It seems like they are giving you no…uh support to find your next job.
L: No…and I’m sure they would not give a good recommendation [chuckles].
C: Yeah, that’s just…that’s terrible. Ok. That wraps up everything.
- Lillian’s Change.org Petition