WBEN Blues: A Dispatch from Eden

by / Mar. 28, 2017 8pm EST

It felt like a stall tactic. The high school cafeteria was crammed for the Board of Ed meeting. The room was getting warmer. An electricity usually reserved for big games crackled in the air. A lot of kids in the crowd and a lot of teachers too. Something was up you couldn’t help but feel it. So when the Board of Education opened the meeting by voting to go into executive session with their lawyer, a muffled groan went round the room. When they returned, it didn’t get much better: The tedium of budget calculations, projections of student population numbers, explanations of how the state predicts the amount of money it will allow the district, ad nauseam. But in all of the budgetary gobbledygook I found a thread that seems to weave its way through practically every other fiber of this town.

In a word, it’s the numbers. We’re always battling the numbers. Whether it’s the football coach canceling the rest of the JV season and moving all the boys up to varsity in order to put enough bodies on the field, or the current situation where an Eden mom working as a substitute teacher sits in the nurse’s office praying to God no kid who needs an actual nurse comes through her door. I don’t want to imply that it’s only Eden dealing with these kinds of things, but I will say it sure feels like Eden is always dealing with these kinds of things. We’re not quite a day late and a dollar short but we’re late enough to be docked half a day and we’re digging in the ashtray for that fourth quarter on a daily basis. Tough times don’t last they say but they seem to be doing pretty well in this small town.

For the sake of anyone beyond the 14057 I can tell you a school trip to a Washington, DC was planned back in the fall. The purpose of the trip was for the kids to attend the inauguration of our 45th President. It was a school-sanctioned outing with teachers accompanying the Senior year students from an AP Government class. Some of the trip was approved by the board when it was presented and then some of the details changed over time due to a number of factors. The chief reason for changes to the itinerary was reducing the cost for students to attend. Somewhere along the line someone whose child did not attend the trip decided to voice objections after the trip. They raised inaccurate claims about the motives of adults on the trip. They suggested a half-baked devil-may-care attitude on the part of the adults in placing unsupervised students with unvetted strangers hundreds of miles from home, and since the adults gave the students the option of attending the women’s march the next day, they claimed personal political motivation as the teacher’s chief reason for the trip. And they used the afternoon air waves of WBEN to spread their accusations and implied that much of the trip was freelanced on the fly with no parental approval by one left-leaning rogue teacher hellbent on converting any and all of her charges to a radical leftist ideology. Then came the Board of Education meeting where, as they say, things got real in a hurry.

In the hallway before the meeting started I was approached by a young guy who asked me if I could tell him why I was there at the meeting. I smiled and must have given him a look when he said I’m a reporter and I’m just trying to get a feel for why there’s such a turnout tonight—this is totally off the record. I am here to stand up for the teacher who is being accused of all kinds of nonsense, I said. I then asked who are you reporting for? WBEN, he said. I smiled and said Oh, you guys are gonna get it. Are we? he asked half seriously. Why? No you’re not I’m kidding I said. My name is Sean I said extending my hand. He told me his name was Mike, shook my hand and I recognized him as the producer of the afternoon show. I listed my assorted grievances with the way his radio show had run with a “story” before they had it right. Even after they’d been corrected the station repeated the same inaccuracies the following morning on their drive-time news segment.

I asked him if he’d ever taken other people’s kids on an overnight trip. He laughed and said I’m single and 26. OK, fair enough, I said. I’m 56 and I have taken kids on overnight trips as a Buffalo teacher. OK, he nodded. Well you’re kind of like an offensive lineman on a football team in that your only acknowledgement is when you false start or get caught holding. You’re not going to get a plaque or a written commendation for taking these kids overnight and out of town. You’re going to catch hell for a kid not getting his inhaler when he needed it. You’re going to hear that you made a kid eat hot dogs who doesn’t like hot dogs. Someone is going to pee their sleeping bag and it will be your fault the kid drank an entire two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew then went to bed without stopping at the toilet. He smiled and nodded. I get it, he said. Yeah, there are many teachers who simply don’t see the risk/reward ratio as being worth the trouble. Then you get a rare few who are willing to take the chance to give a kid something beyond the classroom. That’s the teacher your guys are trying to get fired. That’s who I’m here for, I said.

He repeated the equation his talkers had been pounding away on earlier in the week where the number of kids divided by the number of houses and adults didn’t come out evenly. He asked how this could be OK and I could only say that I wasn’t as comfortable with the accuracy of this equation as his radio station seemed to be. The third speaker of the night—an Eden Senior—put this question to rest when he explained there were only 15 kids on the trip not 20 or 19 as had been claimed. He also noted that he and some friends stayed with his Aunt who is also an Eden graduate. Turns out I did club-level bicycle racing with his dad before either of us were married or attending Board of Ed meetings. Small town.

When the public comment section finally opened, the first speaker was a mother whose son attended the trip. She questioned the accusations made by WBEN personalities and admonished whoever contacted them and invited them into the discussion. You got the sense that someone had held the back door open during Sunday dinner and two strangers came in sat down and said pass the corn and zip your lip Uncle Bob, nobody wants to hear your commie crap during dinner. Furthermore she assured the Board and the people in the room that parents had all signed off and agreed to allow their kids to stay in private homes as a way to save money on hotels. She reiterated an earlier statement I’d heard elsewhere that the reason for the extra day was again to save money. Turns out a Sunday bus ride home was considerably less expensive than a Saturday bus ride home. So much for the belief that the teacher in charge had delayed the trip to promote her radical leftist views to the doe-eyed babes of the Eden Valley.

The speaker also mentioned that her son is a Trump supporter and has never been treated with anything but courtesy and respect for his views both by his teacher and his classmates. So much for the meme of the bullying and browbeating commie teacher holding conservative kids up for ridicule. In closing, she reminded the board that she’d been to other meetings where she’d heard them approve trips that had already taken place. With that in mind she encouraged them to do the same and put this behind us. She then suggested if the people who dragged our community into this circus had kids on the trip, they were free to say no at any time to any of the conditions of the trip. And if they didn’t have kids on the trip, she encouraged them to mind their own business. Raucous applause and whoops from a large part of the audience.

As a side note, on the day all of this was taking center stage on WBEN I stopped at a farm store that mainly employs Eden teen agers to cash out, stock bins, and sweep up. As the young woman rang up my garlic and tomatoes, I asked if she went to Eden. I did she answered, but I graduated. I asked if she knew the teacher. Her face lit up, oh god she’s my favorite teacher at Eden, the kid gushed. Well there are two guys on the radio saying they want her fired for taking kids to the Women’s March in January, I told her. That’s ridiculous, she snarled. They don’t even know her. She’s a great teacher. I agree, I said on my way out the door. Small town.

We needed to get home so we only stayed for a few more speakers, most of whom were graduates returning to defend a teacher whose position appears ripe for cutting in all of the budget gibberish. Numbers again. I noticed a young guy who graduated with my younger daughter waiting his turn to speak. The teacher he was here for had awarded him a pork shoulder at graduation a few years back. Long story, but there it was wrapped in foil and still warm onstage. My daughter’s class picked camo as their class color. True to form, the grad was decked out in a cool white camo jacket with his college guy beard. That crazy connectedness again.

Long after my wife and I had left, a parent speaker filled in any missing piece of the puzzle that remained when she insisted that no slap on the wrist or paper in the file was sufficient punishment for the teacher who took kids to the inauguration. Like the guys on WBEN, she seemed to think nothing short of terminating the teacher would be appropriate. I am told students stood and turned their backs on her as she spoke. I heard most of her remarks the following day—where else but on WBEN—where she insisted the teacher is not above the law, and closed by saying she is NOT Hillary Clinton! And if you had any guess anywhere in your head what this entire teapot tempest was all about I think the Hillary Clinton line should sufficiently put that to rest. A Trump-supporting parent whose own kid didn’t even go on the trip took a burn to the idea of students being exposed to hundreds of thousands of women gathering to resist the guy she voted for. When nobody signed up to storm the faculty lounge with pitchforks and torches. she contacted the radio station that would do her bidding. The rest, like the Women’s March and the Inauguration, are history.

On my way out the door, I stopped for another look at my oldest boy’s framed pic, a poster-sized thing on the wall just inside the door. He’s lined up on defense in a three-point stance with the guys he also played O-line with on practically every play of every game. The numbers thing again. Small town linemen don’t get many downs off. In the doorway I spotted Mike the reporter staring at his phone in disbelief. You got AT&T? I asked. Yeah I do, he said smiling and shaking his head. You’re in the Eden Triangle, you’ll need to go right up to the door and open it I said. We laughed and my wife caught up to us to ask him if he gets sick of being hammered by people for the sins of his employer. It’s part of the job he shrugged.

It bears mentioning too that the student speaker who spoke so eloquently early on in the meeting tapped the WBEN mic on the podium, slowly pronouncing each letter with ironic disdain. Well welcome to Eden anyway, Mike, I said. Thanks Sean, he responded and we wished each other a good night.

We even have to finagle our internet around here. But in the end, we remain connected come hell or budget cuts or outside agitators. And in that connection we persevere and we handle our own affairs. It’d be nice if everybody did.