Earlier this morning, Dawn Burch, drama director at South Williamsport Area Junior/Senior High School in Pennsylvania, was fired from her position. By e-mail. The reason given? “Job performance.”
It doesn’t take a detective to figure out what’s really going on. At the beginning of July, Burch asserted that her musical choice for this school year, Spamalot, had been nixed by the school due to its gay content. School officials vehemently denied that was the case.
In late August, Keystone Progress and I received copies of school e-mails between Burch, principal Jesse Smith and superintendent Mark Stamm regarding the decision. An e-mail from Smith from the end of June cited “homosexual themes” as the reason for canceling the show.
So now, less than a month after the administration’s efforts to hide their own actions were revealed, Burch suddenly loses her job. Save for holding auditions and beginning rehearsals for the school’s fall play, Alice in Wonderland, she has barely undertaken her job for this year, as prior to that it was summer break. When exactly did these job performance issues come to light? Awfully coincidental, no?
I believe Burch has been fired for telling the truth. Burch has been fired for not being willing to accept that gay life was not something to be hidden away, not something to be ashamed of, not something to be afraid of. It hardly takes another Right-to-Know request to put together the pieces.
I wanted to interview Burch about what has transpired, but she was too emotional to say much more than the bare facts of the firing as cited above, except to express concern about what would happen to the fall play and to the students already cast, who were looking forward to being in the show. Will it still happen? Who knows. But even on a difficult day, Burch’s main concern was for the students. She may not be a teacher (and therefore has no tenure), but putting the needs of students first is a sign of an excellent teacher, accredited or not. There are many ways to teach.
It’s worth noting that at a Board of Education meeting a week and a half ago, conversation regarding the Spamalot issue was expressly deferred until this coming Monday, September 22. So it’s quite remarkable that this decisive action took place even before the South Williamsport community could discuss the issue publicly; that they were denied any opportunity to speak before the issue was resolved and that it became a referendum on Burch’s performance, rather than about condoning homophobia and then hiding that fact. Will the topic still be discussed Monday night? Perhaps. But there’s going to be a lot of discussion in the past tense when it comes to Burch.
Perhaps we’ll all be surprised. Perhaps overwhelming support for Burch will be in evidence on Monday night. Perhaps the Board of Ed members will discover that this is an issue that will be a factor when they run for reelection. Perhaps parents will make clear that they can’t trust the word of the board chair, the superintendent and the principal, given their efforts to obscure the truth in this situation. Perhaps the press will cover the fallout of this firing with rigor and depth, and a truer picture will emerge.
I don’t know how the students will feel, or what they’ll be told about the loss of their drama director. I don’t know how they’ll react, or if they will at all. But just as kids are smart enough to intuit a great many things from a very early age, I suspect many of them are going to realize that they’ve just been given a lesson in right and wrong, in honor and duplicity, in the politics of fear and silence. They’ve seen just how badly their elders can behave in the name of protecting them. I hope they’ll see through it as well.
And I hope they’ll realize that Dawn Burch is a hero. I think plenty of people already do.