Matthew LaClair received a $1,000 cash scholarship for his student activism from FFRF at the 30th annual FFRF convention in Madison, Wis. The annual scholarship is endowed by a California couple. Matthew delivered this speech on Oct. 13, 2007. Listen to the audio version.
By Matthew LaClair
Approximately ten miles west of Manhattan is my hometown of Kearny, N.J. A year ago when I received my schedule for junior year, my sister, who was in her freshman year in college, was with some of her friends, who asked me who my teachers were. When I named Mr. Paszkiewicz, Katie's friends told me that this was a teacher who frequently discussed his politics and his religion in the classroom.
I decided not to pass judgment, so on September 11, 2006, I walked into Mr. Paszkiewicz's history class with an open mind. The first thing he did was take a roll of tape and start tossing it to each student, and had us toss it back. I thought this was a pretty good way to start a class, and I began to feel a little more comfortable.
Everything changed when he began talking. He was doing exactly what my sister's friends told me about. He began talking about his personal political and religious opinions. Many of the comments were offensive and I felt very uncomfortable.
After two days of that, I decided that this teacher was out of line and out of control, but I was not sure if anybody would do anything about it.
I did not think that it would be a good idea to tell the administration without concrete proof. Mr. Paszkiewicz had been teaching at Kearny High for many years (14 as it turned out) and had also been a student there, and was a friend of the principal, who had taught him and coached him as a student athlete. Mr. Paszkiewicz made it clear that he was on an evangelical mission to spread the word of God.
Fortunately, I had a device which allowed for audio recording for a long period of time. So starting on Sept. 13, I began recording the classes.
From Sept. 13-15, the class was told that all the biblical prophecies have come true, dinosaurs were on Noah's ark and all nonChristians belong in hell. He also dismissed evolution and the big bang as nonscientific in favor of biblical creationism, while mocking teachers and scientists who develop and teach these scientific ideas. He said, "I don't need to go out and slaughter Muslims, I just need to debate them and they're done." He said that if his son told him that he did not want to go to church, he would "break his backside, and have a little attitude adjustment." Meanwhile, when a student told Mr. Paszkiewicz about his own religious beliefs that he got from his mother and his pastor, Mr. Paszkiewicz's response was "don't buy it." Not only was he often hypocritical, but what I have told you is the tip of a very large iceberg.
Each evening as I brought the recordings home, my father's reaction can best be described as a mix of Jack Nicholson's and Jim Carrey's wildest film roles. To paraphrase a few of my dad's comments, this teacher was out of his. . . well, you can fill in your own words here.
The second week of class I was out sick. I can only imagine what was said during the week I was out. When I returned on Sept. 25, I had written and signed a letter complaining about Mr. Paszkiewicz's remarks. After I gave the letter to our principal, Mr. Somma, the first thing he did was show it to Mr. Paszkiewicz, along with my signature-- not exactly what I had in mind, but I was prepared to do what had to be done.
When class started that day, there was no doubt that Mr. Paszkiewicz had been spoken to. The class, which had grown accustomed to, let's call them free-flowing discussions, suddenly found that Mr. Paszkiewicz wasn't willing to speak about those things any more. When one student complained about it, Mr. Paszkiewicz commented that he would like to keep talking about those things, but that if he did, someone might change his words. I had my recorder on that day as well.
I knew I had not changed anybody's words. In fact, the letter Mr. Somma had shown to Mr. Paszkiewicz included very little of what he had said. Mr. Somma told me that Mr. Paszkiewicz claimed he never said any of the things I wrote in the letter. It appeared as if Mr. Somma was going to take his word, so I requested a meeting with Mr. Somma and Mr. Paszkiewicz. I also requested that my parents be at the meeting, but Mr. Somma refused to allow that, so I had to handle it on my own.
After two weeks, on Oct. 10, the meeting finally took place. Over the course of nearly an hour, Mr. Paszkiewicz would interrupt, harass, bully and intimidate me while Mr. Somma and Ms. Wood, the department head, sat quietly and watched, saying virtually nothing.
I had prepared a list of questions, three pages long, which contained most of the offensive comments Mr. Paszkiewicz had made in class. It didn't occur to them, I guess, that it was a little unusual for a student to have this detailed and this specific a list of questions. I don't think I got much past the first page with all the interruptions. As to most of the comments, Mr. Paszkiewicz either denied making them or claimed that I had taken them out of context. He portrayed me as an intolerant and ungrateful student who just didn't like the issues he was raising, wasn't open-minded to new information and was trying to ruin his career. He even tried to intimidate me by talking about how he has children and he might lose his job because of me. He also accused me of trying to hurt him on purpose.
So after he denied saying "you belong in hell" for at least the third time, I unzipped my backpack and produced three copies each of two compact discs containing the classroom recordings.
Saying that the tone in that meeting changed at that moment would understate the matter considerably. Now, you would think that if Mr. Paszkiewicz was upset that his comments had been taken out of context, he would be delighted to see that there were recordings of the class that would vindicate him and prove that I was not telling the truth.
That certainly was not his reaction. Mr. Paskiewicz and Mr. Somma immediately started discussing whether the recordings were legal and admissible (I guess they meant in court, although I hadn't said anything about court), and Mr. Paszkiewicz decided that he should say no more without his union representative. That was excellent self-counsel, which he promptly ignored. The last thing he said in that meeting was, "To be honest with you, Matt, I'm disappointed because I think that you got the big fish. You're trying to hurt somebody, maybe you are an atheist, you got the big Christian guy that's a teacher, known and loved for 15 years and I brought him down, that's my gut feeling."
After this meeting, I felt terrible. I knew I had to do it, but I still felt bad in some way for Mr. Paszkiewicz. My parents took the matter in hand at that point, with my father writing four letters up the chain of command through the school's administration and finally to the school board. Our requests were for Mr. Paszkiewicz's remarks to be corrected, and for teacher training, so something like this would not happen again.
Unfortunately, instead of acting to correct the matter, they all tried to make it go away. For a little over a month, we were basically ignored. What sent us finally over the edge was a telephone conversation, in which the board's attorney told my father that what went on in my classroom was none of his business.
We had a viable case for violation of my civil rights. In addition to telling me indirectly that I belong in hell, Mr. Paszkiewicz said to me personally and in open class that if I was sincerely seeking, I would give up my religious beliefs and "put my finger in Jesus' side," in reference to the apostle Thomas. Not only was he telling me that my religious beliefs were wrong, he was saying that I was insincere and so were my parents. We hoped that the board might do something now.
One of our letters to the administration predicted that if this went public, the headline would be "you belong in hell." A few days later, on Nov. 15, the Jersey Journal carried a front-page story, with Mr. Paszkiewicz's photograph and a four-inch headline saying "Hell Bent." When we saw the page that the story was on, the headline was, "You Belong in Hell."
The media attention did produce results, but not the results I was looking for. As soon as the story hit the local papers, my classmates started bullying and harassing me and defending the teacher. I would see some of the most intelligent students in the class, students who had acknowledged to me privately that they knew Paszkiewicz was out of line, saying on TV interviews that he had done nothing wrong and that I was to blame for whatever he might have said or done.
The administration knew that I was being harassed verbally and that I was getting threats. To make things worse, Mr. Mooney, the superintendent of schools, was quoted in the Jersey Journal saying that Mr. Paszkiewicz was a wonderful teacher who had done nothing wrong and was only conducting a high level discussion in the context of American history. I'm still not aware of dinosaurs existing during American history, or what is high level about telling high school juniors that they belong in hell, but that is what Mr. Mooney said. While defending the teacher, he said not one word to defend me, even though he knew I was being attacked.
This situation continued for about a month, with local coverage and local outrage but nothing more, and still no action by the Board of Education or school administrators. Obviously their intention was to weather the storm, ride it out and circle the wagons around their teacher and to hell with me, as though I hadn't already heard that.
Then on Dec. 18, everything changed. The New York Times ran the story, and at that point, no pun intended, all hell broke loose. That evening I was interviewed on Anderson Cooper 360 and two nationally-syndicated radio programs. Within the next three days, I was interviewed on Brian Lehrer's show and had a full hour on Air America. Someone opened a topic on a local website called Kearny on the Web, and within two days I had more than three hundred messages of support from all over the world. On Jan. 1, the Village Voice ran a piece. Now the issue wasn't going away.
In mid-January, the Board of Education made things worse and added to the problem. They adopted a new policy prohibiting students from recording their classes without permission from the teacher and notification to all the students. The New York Times picked up that story in early February, because no one in Kearny seemed to realize that the policy had been adopted, including members of the Board and their attorney, who had adopted it.
What finally got the Board moving however, were two events that occurred in mid-February. On Presidents' Day, we held a well-attended press conference at the Newark offices of the ACLU. Besides the ACLU, our attorneys were there from the firm of Willkie Farr & Gallagher, a major New York City law firm with offices all over the world, and so was a representative from People for the American Way, which was lending assistance. The conference lasted more than an hour, and was covered on all the regional news channels.
The following evening, I spoke at the board of education meeting. Local press covered the meeting, which made the 10:00 and 11:00 news all over the metropolitan region. Mr. Paszkiewicz made his first public appearance and was promptly mobbed by cameras. Mr. Paszkiewicz, his family and his lawyer basically said that I set him up. Mr. Paszkiewicz had just written a letter, which our local newspaper published, denying that he did not tell the truth in that meeting. Since that implied that I was not telling the truth, I had little choice but to tell the Board that I had also recorded the meeting in the principal's office. To this day, I do not know if the Board has ever listened to the recordings.
In any case, shortly after I gave the Board of Education the recording in the principal's office, they began negotiating with us. Even though it took two months to do it, we finally settled with them. The terms of the settlement were exactly what we had asked for in October and consequently a little more, because more had happened since October 2006. We agreed that The Anti-Defamation League would come to Kearny High School Sept. 25 to provide in-service training for the teachers on these issues. That happened this past Tuesday. We also agreed that the ADL would come to the high school to educate the students on these issues. I know that it sounded like I was coming to a close here, but no. We found out something else. In July, we found out that the ADL could not do the student training. Now, this by itself is not terrible because we could find another way to accomplish what we wanted. However, the Board of Education did not tell us this. We found out through the ADL. Apparently, the Board attorney was told by the ADL back in February that it was highly unlikely that the ADL could do the student training.
I made phone calls to some people, and they helped me out. I was looking for a speaker or speakers that could do assemblies for the students on these subjects. I was amazed at the help I received and the time in which it was accomplished. Three speakers agreed to speak at my school. And these three people are very qualified in their fields.
Dr. Charles Liu is an associate at the Hayden Planetarium. He is also a professor of Astrophysics at City University of New York. He co-authored a book with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson is the director of the Hayden planetarium and he actually wrote to the New York Times about my story. I asked Tyson if he was available, but he said his schedule was busy, so he asked his friend, colleague and co-author Dr. Liu. Liu said yes, he would speak to the students in February.
Dr. Kenneth Miller is a professor of Biology at Brown University. He wrote the book Finding Darwin's God and he co-authored multiple high school and college biology textbooks, one of which is actually used in our school. He has given many lectures and has been on many programs; he has even been on Stephen Colbert's program. He also was the lead witness in the Dover trial two years ago, the intelligent design case in Pennsylvania. He came to speak Oct. 10.
The third person is Rev. Barry Lynn. He is executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He will be speaking in late November or early December.
Rev. Barry Lynn asked for a $2,000 speaking fee, which is very minimal for his status. Dr. Miller and Dr. Liu both agreed to speak for free. I felt that it was unfair for Dr. Miller and Dr. Liu to do this for free. They are both very important and well-known in science, and it is amazing that they are willing to do this at all.
We proposed these names to the Board of Education and the total price came to $4,000, which is extremely cheap. They refused to pay any speaker even one dollar. So I spoke with Rev. Lynn and he agreed to do it for free.
Now, we will have a good assembly program for the students. The first assembly, ironically, took place on Oct. 10, exactly one year since the meeting in the principal's office.
Two weeks before the first assembly was to take place, I asked the principal if he had spoken to the person who would set up the projector and microphone for Dr. Miller. He had no idea what I was talking about. Nobody on the Board of Education told the principal who would speak, when they would be speaking, or what they would speak about. All he was told was that assemblies would occur throughout the week. This was another example of the Board putting up more roadblocks for us.
Even though there has been a lot of aggravation and struggle, I think we finally have accomplished what we wanted. We had said all along that we never wanted money from this, that our issues were preserving and defending the Constitution of the United States of America and defending the integrity of education, especially education in the sciences. It took far longer than it should have taken, but we accomplished what we set out to do.
There are many lessons to be learned from this situation. First, our civil liberties are in great danger. Many people in this country appear as if they do not care about them. They have been conditioned to think that civil liberties are liberal dreams and legal technicalities. Many people spoke out for us, but the vast majority of people, especially most of the citizens of Kearny, couldn't have cared less. If we do not stand up for our civil liberties, we will lose them.
Second, the religious right has no discernible shame or sense of decency. The arguments that were made defending this teacher were and are ridiculous. Some of his supporters would stop at nothing to attack me and defend him. They made up stories about me, based on nothing except their wish to attack me. They reinvented the law to suit their ends. They even denied that Mr. Paszkiewicz had said things that were recorded and were on the Internet for all to hear. Those of us who do not belong to one of the traditional religions must speak out more against the excesses of blind religious fundamentalism. I wish to respect the religious beliefs of others, but it is time that we insist that others also respect other beliefs, other ways of thinking, and the facts.
Third, it is imperative that our citizens develop a better understanding of and respect for the sciences. It is terrible for a community just ten miles west of Manhattan in the 21st century not to understand that evolution is a proven fact. There is no good reason to dismiss two widely accepted scientific theories to promote ancient stories about the creation of the universe in six days. There is no good reason for a tenured public school teacher to use his classroom to undermine the science curriculum. Science, and in particular evolution, are essential to the quality of our lives. Evolution is the foundation of modern biology and the basis for many of the medical treatments that have extended our lives by decades just in the past century or so. Our country is falling behind in the sciences, and we cannot afford to dismiss the integrity of the science curriculum. It is unacceptable for evolution not to be thoroughly taught just because some science teacher is uncomfortable with it, and it certainly is not acceptable for a history teacher to say that dinosaurs co-existed with human beings.
Fourth, my advice to anyone who faces an injustice is, do not be afraid. When you have the truth, you can prevail as long as you can take the heat. I took the heat, and it has made me a better person. It also won me a summer job at a major financial house whose CEO liked what I had done, an introduction to Anderson Cooper to whom I hope to apply for an internship next summer at his suggestion, extensive press coverage, multiple awards and a lot of respect. I skipped my junior prom because I didn't want to subject myself or anyone I would take there to the abuse I still receive on a daily basis; but after this school year I will attend college, and there are going to be intelligent people who get this, and we are going to have a great time. Be careful, be smart, but don't back down. Do what is right. If you have chosen wisely and maintain your integrity, the consequences will take care of themselves.
The worst part of this story is that I am here on this stage. Please do not misunderstand me. I am honored to be here, but I am here because what I did is considered extraordinary. I am grateful, but I did no more than what every citizen should do. Every person here can make a difference in their school, job, community and country. If what I did helps to make that happen, it will have all been worth it.
Matthew LaClair is a high school senior at Kearney High School, New Jersey. He appeared as the lead in "A Stoop on Orchard Street," an off-Broadway musical, and has been in many theatrical productions. He has trained for dance, acting improv and voice (he has a wide acting range and does animated voices). He plays advanced violin, is a goalie in hockey, plays tennis and soccer, and likes animals and cooking. He won the 2004 Optimist Club Oratorical Contest, New York/New Jersey area, and has received the Ethical Hero Award from the American Ethical Union.