LETTER: Former Watertown Middle School Teacher Looks to Heal, Rebuild Relationships in Spirit of MLK Jr.

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The following letter was written to you, my Watertown community, almost a year ago. It was written upon Watertown News’ request for a statement from me on March 5th, 2021.

As an employee of the Watertown Public Schools, I was not permitted to make such a statement at any time over the past year. Having now resigned from WPS, I would love the opportunity to share my thoughts with you and hopefully work towards some healing and rebuilding of the fractured relationships that last year’s incidents engendered. I can’t think of a better time to do this than Martin Luther King Day 2022.

Below is my original statement, written in March of 2021. I have only altered previous references to working together through the schools to invite dialogue. As this was not possible, I will now be inviting this dialogue as an independent community member. I will also continue to work with others in strengthening Watertown as a Kingian community. Our next certified course in Kingian Nonviolence Conflict Reconciliation will be held on February 5th and 12th at the Watertown Free Public Library. Registration opens today at bit.ly/kingian_watertown. All are welcome.

Dear Watertown,

Today I find myself at a crossroads, so I must turn to my community to help me find my next steps forward. Let me explain.

For the past five years, I have worked collaboratively across our local school department, police department and community organizations to build Watertown as a Kingian community, a city-town whose institutions and individuals are trained and train others to embrace conflict as an opportunity for growth that helps us build together towards Dr. King’s vision of a beloved community. Our city-town has received national recognition for its model of collaboration in which police officers, teachers and students, each certified in Kingian Nonviolence Conflict Reconciliation, together teach all fifth graders in our district about Dr. King’s six principles of nonviolence. They teach about how conflict has history, both shared stories and separate, hidden stories that tug at a conflict’s edges and make it escalate in ways we can better understand when we learn to listen to these hidden parts. Together, police officers, teachers, students, parents and community members created a mural about these principles on our local Boys and Girls Club wall.

This year, however, the sense of trust and collaboration that we have worked so carefully to build became fractured. On February 11th, 2021, I was debriefing a Martin Luther King assembly with a cohort of eighth grade students in an advisory session called Community Meeting. As part of this debriefing, I showed the students a video for discussion which addressed the history of racism in policing. Many families in our city-town felt immediately and directly harmed by this choice and announced very publicly that I should be fired. Some retaliated with harm against me and my family. Many others rushed to defend me and my ongoing commitment to antiracism. Still others were confused about what happened, confused about my choice, or simply unaware of the conflict. 

Since that day, I have worked hard to carefully address the issue internally with our school district, and have remained publicly silent as part of that process. As I have now resigned from Watertown Public Schools, I am finally able to address the issue publicly with you, my community. 

I would like to begin by addressing the officers and families of our local Watertown Police Department, which includes longtime friends of mine, students I have taught and continue to care about with my full soul, and so many other intertwined connections that come from having grown up in this small city-town, taught in its middle school for the past seven years, and built relationships through my own children’s sports and friends.

So, to our officers and their families: I am sorry for any hurt this decision has caused you and/or those you love. It was not my intention with this video to cause harm or to make you or your loved ones feel bad, accused or judged. One thing I spoke with my students about before showing the video was how important and connected a part of our community our police officers are, and how hard that makes it for us to have conversations about this history. 

We also talked about how structural racism is part of the history of all of our systems, not just our criminal justice system. We talked about how our task, when we work in any system and want to fight racism, is to look at where leftover racism from our system’s history is still creating unequal conditions for different races today, and then adjust our policies to change that. We spoke about the learning we had done earlier in the year during an anti-racism assembly to understand what structural racism meant, how it shows up in our educational system and our schools, and how many students and teachers are working to interrupt it. 

We looked at the words of this year’s MLK Unity Breakfast keynote speaker, Reverend Mariama White-Hammond, who spoke about the importance of the police officers that also work alongside their communities to eliminate racism in all its systems, as so many of our own Watertown officers do. We talked about how we can’t assume that all teachers are bad or racist just because there is structural racism in our educational system left over from the centuries of even deeper racism that we all now condemn. Then we talked about how, in a similar way, we can’t assume that all police officers are bad or racist just because there is structural racism left over in our criminal justice system too.

I tried to do this with care, yet clearly I did not succeed in being careful enough. One reason I did not succeed is because I did not communicate with other educators in setting up this debrief, educators who could have helped me think about a better source or approach to use. Another reason is because I and others in our schools are still learning how to do this work of antiracism, and part of that has meant learning how to better include parents and families along the way. I hope, however, that we can make true the words of Assistant Superintendent Dr. Theresa McGuinness as she addressed our faculty orientation earlier this year, calling on us not to be afraid of failing in this difficult but important work of antiracism, but rather to be willing to “fail forward.”

I also hope that we can call on our shared values to help us see beyond this conflict to the stronger, more united community that I know in my heart we will become once we find our way through it. I hope we can remember our basic love and respect for each other, can figure out how to listen to each other a little more, learn from each other a little more, and grow from this conflict. I hope we can all act to repair the harm too many of us have both caused and received as our stories and experiences knock up against each other and the complicated ways we make sense of our world and its own divisions. 

Your voices and ideas can strengthen this process and allow us to meet our shared goal of a community where all feel included, protected, and cared for. For all of us, may we grow stronger together. I am here to listen.  

Ruth Henry

Former Watertown Middle School Teacher, Watertown Resident

28 thoughts on “LETTER: Former Watertown Middle School Teacher Looks to Heal, Rebuild Relationships in Spirit of MLK Jr.

  1. Thank you, Ruth, for modeling the courage to try to teach the truth, so we can all face our shared history. I hope Watertown will try again and someday soon make real what you and your fellow teachers were promised: If you teach with courage and honesty but sometimes make a mistake, you will be met with good faith, so when it doesn’t go as hoped, we can “fail forward” together.

  2. Dear Ruth. Thank you deeply for this letter, for your integrity and for your courage. You are an inspiration to me. Thank you for all you bring to this community and this world.

  3. The issue is that people push “antiracism” which alienates everyone who is not to the farthest left of the progressive left ideology. The presupposition is that anyone who does not in full and completely agree with everything you are doing is by default not anti racist or more pointedly they are racist. This is gross and it’s why the method you and others push needs to be eradicated from schools. People in our town are not by default racist and we do not need to cow tow to your idea that without acknowledging X first then we can’t just move forward with the understanding of Y. You and people like you have completely lost the plot and got far to wrapped up in the nuance of your educational background and how you want to parse words. the attempt to monetize it through pursuits in our school system is sad. Our town in its entirety starts at the baseline that racism is wrong and we need to uplift all members of our school system and by extension our community. Anyone who is on the other side of that does not belong. Pretty simple.

    • Your comment is helpful towards continuing a productive conversation and I think we can all agree that your points are well made and reflect a lot of thought and genuine feelings.
      I happen to disagree with you. I feel like most often, the prevailing voices and the status quo of our any society are going to have blind spots -just as any individual does about themselves. I’m one of them and it’s sometimes very hard to admit (ask my wife!). But back to the point. Ask a person of color if they feel racism in their lives on any given day and 9 times out of 10, they’ll laugh and say “OF COURSE!”. The notion of anti-racism isn’t a big shame game but even if it were, we should be strong enough to take a look in the mirror and acknowledge some painful truths and grow from them. It’s really easy to behave racistly (a word?) and let’s admit it and work on it because people who love us are trying to let us know how it hurts them because they value our friendship. Ruth’s not talking about antifa or looting riots or violence. She’s saying that we need to continue to listen, to look at the data and to just hear each other out and discuss the differences. I think she’s admitted to a lot of big mistakes in this letter so let’s try to move ahead from these admissions and see the pieces of truth and bravery that unquestionably reside in this whole lesson. Read the words she so carefully composed for what they say and try to understand the point without assuming some ulterior motive. Again, your comment brings good and organized arguments and you speak from the heart so I respect that but no amount of criticism from one of our own should deserve the “accept things the way they are, shut up or get out” response.

    • Sarah Thomas: Well stated! I especially like your last two sentences. The community needs to hear from you more often. There is nowhere near enough balance in this ongoing debate.

    • Sarah, if you start with the baseline that racism is wrong as you say that you do, then it seems obvious to me that you would want to take all possible steps to eradicate it; you yourself say that you want to uplift the members of the school system and community. It’s odd to me that your response to the assertion that individuals in Watertown may still bear scars from racism that they or their forebears experienced (and their suggestions for how to ameliorate such experiences in the future) would be to lash out and reject the assertion; such defensiveness belies to me an insecurity that the claim may hold more truth than you’re willing to accept. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re a good person then it makes sense that you might be shocked to hear that your home community may not be as welcoming to others as it is to you, but rather than being reactive to that defensiveness I would suggest that a more productive use of that energy would be to investigate the veracity of such a suggestion rather than to reject it out of hand; if there’s truth to it then you can make changes to make sure that nobody else feels unwelcome, and if there is none then you can address those hurts and come to a common consensus in a more personalized manner.

      It’s fairly self-evident from my perspective that Ms. Henry developed a curriculum and contextualized that curriculum and its subject matter to her students, only to be vigorously opposed by people who lack that context. If you feel alienated by that curriculum and conversation, that’s a problem that can be addressed if you’d like to be brought into the process, but I don’t think that outright rejection of that process is a healthy response because it forestalls any opportunity for further opportunities for learning for Watertown’s children, their parents, their teachers, and city leadership.

  4. Thank you for this wonderful letter about Kingian Nonviolence.

    I wonder what Dr. King, if he were alive today, would think of the hundreds of Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and leftist riots, arson, and looting which took place in 2020 and which went largely uncriticized by many people.

    I think it’s appropriate to ask this since today is MLK Day.

    • If he had not been killed by agents of the federal government, he may today have said something similar to what he said in 1967: “Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. … But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.” (https://www.crmvet.org/docs/otheram.htm)

      As a side note, I don’t think there was as much looting and rioting as you think there was, not much was destroyed or taken that wasn’t insured. If you didn’t hear the criticisms that many people across the ideological spectrum voiced against looting, I think that speaks more on your sources of information than it does about the people who were condemning those actions at the time. I’d only ask in return for the representatives of those who marched on the Capitol building just over a year ago to be as contrite.

      • Gee, I must have missed it when James Earl Ray became an agent of the Federal government. Just what conspiracy book did you get this from, and then fall for it? Not for anything, but in days past, and probably still true today, if someone wants to kill someone, they can do it regardless of who they are.

  5. Dear Ruth, I am new to this conversation. You mentioned a video….is it possible to upload it so those of us who haven’t seen it can put your lovely words into context? Without it, I’m not sure how to interpret your most recent letter. Thank you.

  6. Ruth— your resignation from WPS which I didn’t know had happened is huge loss for the Watertown schools. That’s all I can say. It is so sad that this happened. I hope you weren’t forced to leave. But shows on your own sense of what you might be able to accomplish within the current environment.When I listen to the Honduran eighth grade student read the winning essay this morning at the MLK breakfast, I immediately thought about you and your work with this group.

  7. Watertown is a fine community as it is. We do not need your theories to bring about purported “structural racism” or, I suppose, implicit bias. I am proud of our Police Department and its members. You had no reason to go there to imply what you did, but did it anyways.

    I did not know about you until I read your statement above. I am glad you are gone. Or, estoy contento que usted no esta mas aqui.

  8. Dear Ruth,
    Your impact on Watertown has been extraordinary. I first became acquainted with the Kingian work at a community meeting where Watertown Public School students beautifully facilitated restorative conversations on race and identity. Your courage during the Kingian Response Team meetings in the summer of 2020 inspired me to commit to community-building in Watertown. As a result, I have worked with a team of fellow local life science professionals and WHS teachers to bring career exploration sessions to dozens of biology, chemistry, and math classes at WHS. We are building more opportunities for students from under-resourced families to access the resources they need to build satisfying careers in the innovation economy. None of this would have happened without your inspiration.

    Charlie Breitrose, I would ask that you request commenters to provide their full names in response to this article, in the same spirit as the election campaign. The quality of these critical conversations can’t devolve into anonymous advocacy for one side or the other. There has been too much of that in Watertown already. Let’s move on in the spirit of Ruth’s letter to speak our ideas in our own voices.

    Thank you,
    Merle Kummer

  9. The town rightly reacted to Ruth’s showing of this basically anti-police video to students in a middle school setting. By having a rally on Main St. to show our support for the police, hopefully, more people were awakened to what had been presented in a school setting to students in their formative years without their parents’ knowledge. The division formulated by saying that everything that happens in society is due to racism has been so over exaggerated that it now has no meaning. That a teacher would take it upon herself to think that her beliefs should be forced on impressionable youth and that her teachings were the only acceptable ones is one of the biggest problems we have today. There are always two sides of a story and the mainstream media won’t cover it and our political leaders are hellbent on further dividing the country by pushing Critical Race Theory teachings. Many cultures and races were treated unfairly in the past. As a country we have made some serious mistakes, but we have done some tremendous good also. Instead of focusing on the negative all the time, I wish all of the woke teachers and professors, Hollywood celebs, Big Tech and others would present some positive messages to give hope to everyone, especially the children. We all have enough to go through with Covid and don’t need to add more stress into our lives with hatred and one-sided views. Gov. Baker just put into place that the Holocaust and what happened in Auschwitz must be taught in our schools. Almost 2/3 of the millennials don’t know what happened there because they weren’t taught about it in their history classes. If people are aware of these disasters in world history, they may have more empathy and not hate or attack others. We don’t need to let evil doers get into our heads to bring down our country. We need to communicate with each other, listen and accept other points of view as being valid. Without that approach we will destroy ourselves, and there are some leaders in our country who would be happy with this so they could gain more control of our lives. MLK had a positive message for whites and blacks. Let’s follow his lead.

  10. I would like to begin by expressing my gratitude to all of you who have taken the time to read this letter, and for the thoughtful commentary and discussion you have responded with. I am also grateful to now have the freedom to participate in this dialogue with you. One line in particular from the comments stands out to me: “Our town in its entirety starts at the baseline that racism is wrong and we need to uplift all members of our school system and by extension our community.” It is heartening to hear that even though we may have very different ideas about how to reach this goal, we can at least unite around its shared importance. I am sure each of us has our own stories and reasons about why this common goal is important to us. For me one very big reason is the many racial slurs, stereotypes and even hate speech that gets tossed around as “jokes” by students in our schools. The young recipients of these “jokes” have come to me often in tears over these past seven years, tears they are afraid to show to their peers for fear of being labeled ‘too sensitive’ or of getting bullied for speaking up about the racism they are receiving. My own multiracial family- both the one I was raised in here and the one I now raise here- has also experienced its fair share of racism in town over the years. Interrupting this harm for my students and my family is my “why”, whether or not we agree about the “how”. I do not know about other people’s understanding of the term “antiracism”, but I can assure you that I myself do not believe that anyone who disagrees with me or my methods is automatically racist. In fact, I don’t believe anyone is automatically racist- I believe we all make racist decisions sometimes and antiracist decisions sometimes, depending on any given moment or situation, and that is why reflection and conversation can be so worthwhile in working to end racism together. I also believe that it takes all of us- left, right, middle, black, white, brown- being willing to look at and talk about the ways and times that racism shows up in both ourselves and our communities to figure out a “how” together that can help us to reach our shared goal of eliminating it. Some favorite quotes from Dr. King’s last book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community” may be useful to think about as we work to find a path forward: 1) “The value in pulling racism out of its obscurity and stripping it of its rationalizations lies in the confidence that it can be changed.” 2) “To live with the pretense that racism is a doctrine of the very few is to disarm us in fighting it frontally as scientifically sound, morally repugnant and socially destructive. The prescription for the cure lies with the accurate diagnosis of the disease.” I hope we can keep this conversation going; all of our kids deserve for us to be able to bridge our divisions and figure it out together. It is possible, and we can all grow stronger through it.

  11. Thank you for your letter Ruth. Sometimes there is only one side – the correct side of history.
    Your attempt to bring this to light was, is and always will be the moral thing to do. It is the immoral act of obscuring, in the name of adulterated balance and fairness, that causes all of us to forget to all of our detriment.

    “Equal rights for others does not mean fewer rights for you. It’s not pie.”

  12. Thank you Ruth for giving me a better context to the video. You represent the best we have in Watertown and most of the students at WPS would agree. You are the reason why I even considered the WPS for my son. After witnessing the way you, Swatti and Lailah were treated by this town, I decided that my kids would get a much better education somewhere else. The sad part is that so many people in this town and around the country would rather choose willful ignorance than teaching the children our true history. This is a disservice to our children and communities. Remember the opposite of love is not hate by fear.

  13. Ruth … thank you for these comments, and for your honesty and compassion. You have made extraordinary contributions over the years for learning, dialogue, and understanding here in Watertown — as a WMS teacher, Kingian nonviolence trainer, community organizer, Unity Breakfast planner and participant, and public artist. And now, through these postings, you have reached out to everyone with courage, humanity, and openness — living your commitment to the principles of non-violent conflict resolution. Thank you.

  14. As a parent who has children growing up in the WPS I am heart broken that they will not have the opportunity to have someone like Ruth in their school, especially middle school which is such a transformative and tough age. Moreover, as someone who was raised in the Midwest and had their education absolutely whitewashed we MUST teach history in our schools, even if the history is hard to hear because when it’s hard to hear we understand we can do better. Even my 7-year old understands this. There is more to do, we can do better. Those disagreeing likely don’t have any direct experience with the racism that still exists. Watertown is not perfect, why not work to do better? And what I love about Ruth’s teaching is that she collaborated with the police. Yes, maybe the incident could have been handled better but that video is our history and I will show it to my kids while also explaining the truth, it does not mean all police are bad or all people are bad but there is always more work to do. Thank you Ruth and I’m grateful you are still committed to Watertown despite your resignation.

  15. Ruth you are awesome!! Thanks so much for the work you have done and will continue to do in Watertown. WPS is missing a gem with your absence.

    Kelly you wrote “…that video is our history and I will show it to my kids while also explaining the truth, it does not mean all police are bad or all people are bad but there is always more work to do”

    Thank you so so much for saying that. Unfortunately, folks that don’t get that, at this point, will probably never get it.

    Your decision to teach your children the truth about the history of policing in America gives me hope that some parents get how important the work Ruth does is, and are raising a generation of young people who will also hopefully get it!

    Téo

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