There’s nothing wrong with the fact Debra Blessman kept secret from her students the name of the film she would require them to watch and analyze during finals week at Francis Howell High School. Today, however, the teacher might be wishing she had not kept her superiors in the St. Charles, Mo., school district in the dark about it. She planned to base final exams on the Michael Moore film, “Sicko“.
Judging by the unedited plot summary below which Blessman distributed to students in her Senior Literature and Composition class, one might assume Blessman kept school district administrators in the dark about the controversial 2007 documentary on health care because she knew they might find the film objectionable:
In this documentary, the director/writer Michael Moore exposes the dysfunctional North American health care system, oriented to huge profits and not for their mission of saving lives. Further, he shows the corruption in the political system, with members of government and congress “bought” by the corporations and the situation of the average American citizens, including those that volunteered to work in the rescue mission of the September 11th. Then he travels to Canada, Great Britain and France to compare their systems showing their hospital, doctors, staffs and patients. Last but not least, he shows that the prisoners in Guantanamo have better medical treatment than the common people in USA, and he ends getting free treatment to the Americans that participate along the documentary in Cuba.
Apparently, however, Blessman did not expect any of her students to raise objections about the film. But one did.
On the morning of May 11, soon after learning about the film’s selection as the basis for the final exam in Blessman’s class, 18-year-old senior Celeste Finkenbine went straight to one of the school’s principals to raise her objections. Why? Because, based on her experiences with Blessman this semester and during a class three years earlier, Finkenbine didn’t think she would get very far pleading her case with the teacher she describes as a liberal. More on that later.
Unlike the vast majority of her classmates, Finkenbine is a politically-active conservative who spends many Saturday afternoons attending anti-socialism rallies at the intersection of Highways K and N in nearby O’Fallon, Mo. When she’s not in school or holding a sign on a street corner, you’re likely to find her working at a local nursing home in preparation for what she hopes will be a career as a geriatric physician.
Through a contact at the K and N Patriots, the group that holds the weekly rallies, I learned about Finkenbine’s objections to the film and, specifically, to being required to watch and analyze it as part of an assignment worth 50 percent of her total semester grade for the class. This video is based on two recent interviews, one of which took place in the dining room of their St. Charles home, the other at a rally Saturday.
Finkenbine cited one primary reason behind her unwillingness to bring up points that back up Moore’s contentions.
“My biggest issue with it is my principal said I can argue the conservative viewpoint, but that’s something that I have background with, that I’ve researched myself.
“Every other student in that class was only given the liberal viewpoint of it, and that’s exactly what teachers aren’t supposed to do, is lean toward one side or the other.”
When I contacted Dr. Renee Shuster, superintendent of the Francis Howell School District, she admitted the movie is not part of any district curriculum and that the teacher did not follow the process for having the film approved in advance. She also said that Finkenbine had been offered an alternative assignment that involves reading and analyzing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 7,000-word essay, “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
Does Finkenbine fear any repercussions for standing up for her conservative ideals?
“I’m hoping that, no matter what assignment I do, I can still get an ‘A’ on it. If I did feel like I was graded unfairly, it wouldn’t stop there.”
It’s somewhat ironic that Finkenbine’s alternative assignment relates to Dr. King, because it was during a recent class discussion that King’s name came up and, according to Finkenbine, her teacher laid her liberal cards out on the table.
Finkenbine said that, after she compared her participation in Tea Party rallies with the civil disobedience in which Dr. King participated, Blessman responded to her by saying, “Well, we all know you’re a ‘teabagger.'”
Afterward, Finkenbine recalled, the teacher started laughing and everyone in the class started laughing about Blessman’s use of the derogatory term, prompting the student to think, “Wow! Did she really just say that?”
Having heard this account of life in Blessman’s classroom, I contacted Dr. Shuster again.
In addition to wanting to find out how district officials would deal with the teacher for using a film that was not approved in advance, I wanted to know how they would address Finkenbine’s allegation that the teacher called her a “teabagger” in front of the class.
Schuster responded by e-mail, saying, “We would address this through the teacher evaluation process which hopefully leads to improvement but can lead to termination.”
Unfortunately, it appears all of the other students in Blessman’s class ended up having to watch and analyze “Sicko”.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Multiple attempts to reach Blessman since Friday afternoon have, thusfar, been unsuccessful, and her home phone number is unlisted. If, after publishing this post, she contacts me and consents to an interview, I will publish an update.