I feel for Ashley Payne. By any measure, she did everything right. She is a 2007 honors graduate of the University of Georgia. She had worked for two years as a literature teacher at Appalachee High School in Barrow County. In the summer she traveled, broadening her horizons, walking in the steps of Shakespeare, Milton, Ovid and Dante.
Then, in August 2009, she was summoned to the principal's office.
The superintendent had received an anonymous e-mail. The writer, claiming to be an outraged parent, complained that her child had accessed Payne's Facebook page.
In the midst of 700 images of her summer trip to Europe were a few of her holding glasses of what appeared to be alcoholic beverages. Not dancing on tabletops or winning a wet T-shirt contest or cavorting naked on a beach. She was holding a glass of wine. In Italy. She was holding a pint of ale. At the Guinness brewery. Duh.
Oh, and she made a comment about a popular restaurant game called "Crazy Bitch Bingo."
In part, the e-mail read: "I am repulsed by Ms. Payne's profane use of language and how she conducts herself as an example to my teenage daughter. Her behavior is intolerable. I have a question to the Barrow County School System. Is it too hard for our educators to lack discipline online and offline?"
I don't quite get that last part.
In a twist that would have made George Orwell's head spin, administrators decided Payne was promoting alcohol use and using objectionable language. Granted, they didn't have time to give the situation much thought. From beginning to end, the whole mess took two hours.
They didn't bother to find out who actually sent the accusatory e-mail. If they had, they would have discovered that it contained a fake return address. If they had bothered to investigate, they would have discovered that Payne's Facebook page had the highest of privacy settings and could only be viewed by a list of individuals that she approved. No students or parents of students were on that list. Someone she considered a friend was anything but. She'd been set up by someone who was petty, jealous or just plain evil.
According to Payne, the principal gave her the choice of resigning or being suspended. She said he advised her to resign, claiming, incorrectly it turns out, that a suspension would make it more difficult to find another teaching job. So resign she did.
Before you could say "Shirley Sherrod," Ashley Payne was unemployed. She's now suing to get her job back. If I were a lawyer, I'd take the case pro bono.
Almost everyone I talk to seems to think there has to be more to the story, that maybe this was a last straw situation. Perhaps this was just two of many transgressions. Everyone except teachers. They're not surprised at all.
I told a friend, a longtime teacher in a county with demographics very similar to Barrow's, that I was writing a column about the incident and asked her opinion. I wasn't asking for a quote. I just wanted her reaction.
A look closely akin to panic crossed her face. She took a long time to respond, and when she did, it was a comment full of double-talk and obfuscation. I suddenly realized she was afraid. Apparently the First Amendment stops at the schoolhouse door.
I want my children to be taught by the Ashley Paynes of the world. I want them to be taught that the best way to learn about the world is to see it. I want them to be encouraged to look, to listen, to explore, to question, to dream.
Can this be done by drones who march in lock-step with administrators who think nothing of destroying a promising career based on the flimsiest of "evidence"?
Can this be done by teachers who must view every innocent, legal action of their adult lives though the funhouse mirror that is the standards used by higher-ups?
Should our schools be run by invertebrates who would choose to sacrifice a colleague rather than look long and hard at the realities of our increasingly technological society? At some point, shouldn't common sense kick in? Where's the outrage?
Well, I, for one, am outraged. I'm the mother of a teacher. I know how much she loves her students, her subject and her career. I've watched her work endlessly to polish her skills and expand her knowledge. I know how much she has to offer her school, the community and the world. To have all this destroyed over a glass of wine and a word that I heard four times last night on network television is unthinkable.
Unless, of course, you teach in Barrow County.
Teressa Glazer is a Gainesville businesswoman. Her column appears biweekly on Fridays and on gainesvilletimes.com.