Comments: April 14, 2008

At press time, had registered nearly 300 unusually heated comments on Gabriel Sherman’s cover story about the teacher-student dustup at an elite New York private school (Testing Horace Mann,” April 7), and that’s not counting hundreds more made on the many blogs that linked to it. At the center of Sherman’s story was teacher Danielle McGuire, about whom students had made derogatory comments on Facebook, and her efforts to collect the evidence and have the students involved disciplined. Her subsequent departure from the school, the story suggested, came at the urging of wealthy trustees, some of whom were trying to protect their children.

Among the commenters were 29 people who identified themselves as current Horace Mann students (the majority of whom harshly criticized the story), 25 who said they were Horace Mann alumni (who tended to be a good deal less critical), and 15 Horace Mann parents or staff members. With many outsiders also jumping into the fray, the central conflicts of the story were amplified, in harsh language that had all the moral fervor of class warfare. These were the major perspectives:

First were a large group of general readers who saw the story as an exposé of what money and privilege can do to a school. Their comments tended to be sarcastic and condescending, mostly toward the students. There were numerous references to “spoiled brats,” as well as “spoiled selfish jerks,” “pretentious jerks,” and “miscreant kids.” To those in this group, there is no more despicable creature than a “rich, white kid,” which was presumed to describe every student at Horace Mann.

Equally hostile were many of the comments by HM students, current and former, who felt the story misrepresented the conduct of them and their classmates and unfairly portrayed McGuire and her fellow teachers as martyrs. In anger, they trashed the magazine, alleging nonexistent factual errors and demanding the author “seriously recognize the err [sic] of her [sic] ways.” Responding to all the ridicule, one urged readers to “stop drinking so much Hatorade. I don’t know what you have against the upper class and the people who have made it … the whole article is just eight pages of trendy rich-people bashing.” Not every student was outraged. One merely asked, “Don’t judge all of us on a small group of (for lack of a better word) douchebags. For every one of those sexist, racist pigs, there are ten morally sound, charming people.” That same student praised McGuire “as one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.”

Then there were those who offered anecdotal support of the major players. Jeffrey Robbins, the pseudonym invented by the author for the student who had the original run-in with McGuire, was described by one classmate as “the most substantive student-body president in recent years … In a recent public opinion poll, it has been found that Jeffrey has a student approval rating of nearly 80 percent.” (A public-opinion poll of a class president?) McGuire, meanwhile, was described by one of three former colleagues who wrote in as “a person of sterling character and an example, especially to young people who are not handed the world on a platter.”

The issue of whether the students had a right to privacy on Facebook animated a fair amount of discussion. One of the main reasons that McGuire had to leave Horace Mann was the conclusion that she had “spied” on students, a point that was summarized by one commenter this way: “These teachers broke the terms of agreement of Facebook by using fake names and e-mail addresses in order to access the students’ profiles, therefore looking for trouble. Ms. McGuire got exactly what she deserved.” Several readers then challenged this assertion. “Facebook is a public forum and the students were being ignorant if they believed their groups would not be viewed as containing slanderous material.” Another put it this way: “There’s nothing unethical about using a pseudonym to access a public service. If someone walks up to you in Times Square and asks your name, you’re not obligated to tell them your actual name.” One reader wished that the teachers had approached the problem more tactically: “The students should have been given time to clear out the inane garbage that could only sprout from teenagers’ minds. That would have been a better lesson.”

A minority of commenters were able to step outside the fray and observe that the real story was about neither the students nor the teachers but the power of the school’s trustees. “I personally had no idea just how much control the board of trustees has over the school,” wrote one student. “It’s sickening, quite frankly, to know that my parents have sunk in so many thousands of dollars so that this group of money-driven elites can invest it in the goddamned Shakespeare Garden.” A nonstudent added, “A great institution of higher learning cannot be beholden to the social interests of the wealthy. Board members no longer have as a priority the optimization of education for young adults but rather the social status associated with the membership in an elite club.”

Finally, we got this from a commenter who logged in as TomStoppard: “I find this all very inspiring and I am working on a play about your school at this very moment. We have the Greek chorus selected already.” Nice one! Somebody must be reading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for school.

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Comments: April 14, 2008