They say that, in life, timing is everything. Never has that phrase been truer than for Jaretta Hamilton, a teacher at Southland Christian School in Saint Cloud, Florida, who was fired from her position because she became pregnant three weeks before her wedding. If Ms. Hamilton had waited 21 days before conceiving, or had been less than completely honest and lied about the date of conception, the school, presumably, would have showered her with congratulations and began to plan her maternity leave with her. Instead, they fired her for “fornication.” No one has asserted that there were any problems with Ms. Hamilton’s teaching or behavior. The issue was simply that she had conceived a child, with the man she was planning to marry, a little bit too early for the administrators of Southland Christian to tolerate. All of this has made me start to wonder: what, exactly, is Southland Christian trying to teach their students?
It certainly does not seem that they are trying to teach compassion or empathy. Good teachers and school administrators know that learning happens both in the classroom and outside of it – that the example they set for young people is as important as information from a textbook. And yet, when presented with a teachable moment, the school failed. Southland Christian would argue that it was Jaretta Hamilton who was sending the wrong message to students, setting a bad example through her “immoral action.” But only the most puritanical extremists could ever claim that Ms. Hamilton was the one who was truly leading young minds astray.
Instead, it is quite clear that the administration of Southland Christian sent the message to its students that there is no forgiveness. There is no compassion. The day that Jaretta Hamilton was fired, the message the students received at Southland Christian reverberates as a clarion trumpet call from heaven: if you break an arbitrary rule, even if only technically, we are done with you. Southland Christian was willing to throw away a teacher, a colleague, a friend without a moment of hesitation, leaving the students to think that this is how they should behave, and knowing that it could happen to them at any time.
In fact, what Southland seems to be teaching is that you should never give latitude or show understanding. While the Christian Right in this country has been ramming abstinence-only-until-marriage programs down the throats of students, there have always been the subtle, unspoken understandings that if, heaven forbid, a woman did become pregnant outside of wedlock she would have two options. First, would be to give her baby up for adoption (Right Wingers apparently live in a world where every baby given up by its mother immediately finds a loving home with equally caring parents). Second, to get married to the father. We all remember how the outcry that Bristol Palin was pregnant was immediately quashed, and the Right Wing was instantly placated, once she announced she was going to marry the father. Since the adoption route is usually reserved for young teens, you would think that even a zealot would still be satisfied with the fact that Ms. Harrison was not only going to marry the father of her child, but the wedding was already planned. But once again, the extreme right has shown that they believe that what is right for some is not always right for others. Jaretta Hamilton is simply the latest victim of this thinking.
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I cannot help when I think about this story but to recall an all-girls abstinence-only-until-marriage program that SIECUS reviewed a few years ago. The program was claiming a 100 percent success rate in keeping its students abstinent. Since this clearly seemed impossible, we dug deeper into their data collection. Sure enough, the program’s claim was validated. You see, the program encouraged students to report their classmates who had been having sex, and those students were immediately expelled from the group. Rather than deal with the complications of life and the reality of teen sex, the program simply swept young people out the door without learning anything, and went about trying to live up to its preconceived narrative. In the same way, Southland Christian is simply trying to uphold its veneer of piety and morality, while the true work of educating young people about how to live healthy, responsible lives goes undone.
Finally, because Southland Christian is a K-12 school, there is no doubt in my mind that it has students who are sexually active. These students now know, in no uncertain terms, that they are on their own and have nowhere to turn if they have sex-related questions or concerns or even if they are victims of sexual assault. Would you feel comfortable going to a teacher at Southland Christian if you were a victim of date rape? What if you were facing an unplanned teen pregnancy? I know I would not. I know I would not want my daughters in that environment. It is at moments of decision and crisis that young people most need our unwavering support and understanding, not judgment and shunning.
Of course, we fully support Ms. Hamilton’s efforts to get justice for what is clearly an unethical firing. She is not only a victim of timing and circumstance, but also of a cultural and school environment so obsessed with purity and morality that it has strayed from the true mission of education. That’s not teaching young people how to live better lives.