An Open Thank You Note to Chloe Telle
A Webster Groves teacher used me to bludgeon Rockwood School Board candidate Izzy Imig, and her slanderous attack turned into a valuable learning opportunity
Dear Ms. Telle,
When I first felt compelled to send you a note of thanks, I intended to do so privately. I planned to look up your home or work address, print this letter, and mail it. Two factors, though, led me to choose the open-letter approach instead. The first factor was that the matter is already public. Second, some people these days consider mailed letters a form of harassment—or a threat. So, I settled for this post.
I know you read this blog (thank you for that) because you wrote about it on Facebook recently. Two friends alerted me to your post calling me a “white nationalist.” I think they expected me to respond in self-defense, but I didn’t for a very simple reason: there’s no point. I try to live by John Wooden’s maxim: care more about your character than your reputation—reputation is just what other people think of you, while character is who you are.
This maxim becomes more available as we approach Palm Sunday and are reminded of Jesus’ interrogation by Pontius Pilate—history’s greatest lesson in refusing to take the bait—and refusing to put reputation before character.
You might be waiting for me, a reputed “white nationalist,” to go on the offensive, but, as the title implies, this is a thank you note with a bit of explanation, not a rebuttal.
My son was the first to alert me to your Facebook post. He looks out for me. An hour later, I received another text message from a local parent and acquaintance. So, I read your post from the screen shots they texted. (People who know me know I gave up Facebook almost a decade ago when it devolved into little more than mindless amusement and vicious arguments, usually among friends and family.)
I was neither surprised nor offended by your accusations. Neither did I feel compelled to immediately respond. I’ve been writing about politics and society since 1992, and I’ve learned that going tit-for-tat with critics is like trying to drink yourself sober—it only seems like a good idea when you’re in the throes of the binge.
The context of our disagreement was the recently concluded Rockwood School Board election. I remained silent until that race was over to avoid diverting attention from the two candidates I supported—Izzy Imig and Jessica Clark. But, as the election approached, my curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to know who this Chloe Telle is. So I did little research into your background and activity, the fruits of which have fermented into this thank you note.
Two things I learned about you seem pertinent.
One is that you seem to care deeply about children and education, especially reading. God bless you for that. Our society and technology have put before children barriers to reading that rival the diabolical prohibitions against teaching slaves to read. But for the grace of my love of books, I am sure I would have been dead or in jail long ago. I hope your students appreciate the fact that even a nasty, old “white nationalist” knows the collected wisdom of all social media cannot hold a candle to the first chapter of Crime and Punishment.
Second, and far more important: it is clear that you love Jesus Christ. Sadly, and in contrast to your evangelization of reading, you cannot instill that love in your students. What a shame. What a scar on our nation, that a woman gifted with the ability to inspire children is legally constrained from inspiring her students with the only love that matters, love itself, the one Word of God that encompasses all truth and all life. How it must pain you to know that your government prohibits you from obeying Christ’s last commandment, the Great Commission. Today I will pray that God removes this heavy and burdensome yoke from your able shoulders soon.
I learned these things about you, in part, from reading your published essays and articles, one of which stood out above all others.
In your essay, Reading Is Liberation, you begin with a quote from Frederick Douglass:
“I am a Republican, a black, dyed-in-the wool Republican, and I never intend to belong to any other party than the party of freedom and progress.”
And you lay down the challenge:
I have trouble as an educator making a connection between the party of Douglass and the party that is leading the charge with this draconian legislation that bans CRT, the 1619 Project, and “other projects like it.” I have to ask Republicans and other Americans who support these endeavors, what happened to your love of freedom?
Providence was in motion.
About two weeks ago on a quiet Saturday evening, I spent a few hours studying up on Frederick Douglass.
I don’t remember what inspired that research. I had, of course, studied Douglass in school and after, but it had been a while. I decided to read an article about him—on History.org, I believe—to fill in some of the gaps in my memory and maybe to learn something new. As happens when I take a cursory look into the life of a fascinating human being, I found myself swimming in a sea of all things Douglass for hours.
What I did not do that Saturday or subsequently was to read Douglass himself. I read about him, not of him. It was your essay, Ms. Telle, that drove me to grab a collection of his three autobiographies and delve into the man’s own words.
(Only the best teachers can inspire a student to read a book without telling the student to “read a book.” I hope you take great satisfaction from that.)
I read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in a single sitting. Then, I went back to the beginning and read it again—taking notes and highlighting key parts. The book reads like a novel, or a long letter within a novel, leading the reader to turn pages rather than mark them.
Having just read about Douglass, I was disappointed to discover that he treated his escape from bondage only in passing to protect the identify of those who might have helped him, and to keep hidden from slaveholders and slave hunters the methods by which slaves might have evaded capture. I found myself saying aloud, “Damn straight!” when Douglass excoriated Underground Railroad workers who felt compelled (perhaps by pride) to trumpet the sources and methods they used. As Douglass writes in his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom:
The practice of publishing every new invention by which a slave is known to have escaped from slavery, has neither wisdom nor necessity to sustain it. Had not Henry Box Brown and his friends attracted slaveholding attention to the manner of his escape, we might have had a thousand Box Browns per annum. The singularly original plan adopted by William and Ellen Crafts, perished with the first using, because every slaveholder in the land was apprised of it. The salt water slave who hung in the guards of a steamer, being washed three days and three nights — like another Jonah — by the waves of the sea, has, by the publicity given to the circumstance, set a spy on the guards of every steamer departing from southern ports.1
Douglass wrote his Narrative before the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. Had he published the names of those who assisted him, they would have become pariahs in the South which was still engaged in the Civil War. They would likely have been hunted and killed. Out of deference to their plight—and to keep secret his own methods—Douglass waited to detail his own escape.
During my second reading of Narrative, I began to reflect on the question you posed in your essay, and, frankly, I realized something. The answer to your question for Republicans was given by Douglass himself. I was surprised you didn’t catch it. Perhaps with a little distance from the vitriol of politics, you might.
In the school board race just completed, a central issue pushed by those supporting the candidates with teachers’ union backing was something like this: teachers must be free to address the particular needs of each student. Students come to school with a variety of baggage and trauma. All have particular baggage; some actual trauma. Unless those traumas are addressed and that baggage accounted for, learning doesn’t happen. The child whose mother does not provide enough nutritious food will be thinking about lunch, not math.
That is a wholly reasonable position supported by research, and if the teachers’ unions would leave it there, we would all be violent agreement. But that’s not where the matter ends. Instead, a small number of teachers and administrators, in concert with the teachers’ unions, subvert the will and conscience of the community to surreptitiously introduce material of dubious value to anyone except its publisher. By sneaking these materials into the classrooms—by advising teachers to lie to parents about their curricula—this cadre of folks eliminates the possibility of enlightenment and reason.
Conservatives are not opposed to exploring new ideas, but we are opposed to potentially damaging material being fed our children without our consent.
When we object to such material, we expect a debate on the merits and quality of the material rather than assertion of non-existent rights on the part of the education industry to do and teach whatever it pleases.
And, when a parent asks that his children be protected from material too obscene to be read during a public school board meeting, we expect the board, the administrators, and the teachers to honor that request without objection.
People in Rockwood tend to have made something of themselves in spite of the baggage we all carry into the classroom. Their experience tells them that people with an internal locus of control lead happier lives than those with an external locus of control.
Yet, for 30 years, we have seen the elevation and promotion of victimhood and indoctrination of external locus of control. The result is loss of agency within parts of three generations. My library contains books on the subject dating back to the 1980s. Large swaths of these generations have been raised to believe there are only two kinds of people in this world: victims and perpetrators. We know too well that an external locus of control leads to helplessness and social frailty. And we don’t want our kids growing up to believe they’re helpless victims. Nor do we want them to see anyone who disagrees with them as perpetrators.
Matt Taibbi recently pointed out, this victim-perp paradigm even extends to sex.
We’re a nation that’s not just cramming desire back into closets, but becoming obsessed with prohibition and punishment generally. In the same way we seem determined to define sex as inherently predatory — “extractive” as Kipnis puts it, with sexual participants divided into takers and survivors — we’re defining political reality as violent by nature, a world of repressors and victims, where the line between political and sexual perversion is fading.
We also know that children are particularly vulnerable to persuasion, especially when practiced by a teacher as skilled as you. (You got me to read three autobiographies with a single essay that didn’t even ask me to read them.) Parents tell their children to trust their teachers, believing teachers will teach, not only the truth to the exclusion of falsehood, but good things that prepare children for adulthood. When we learn, instead, that some teachers prepare our children for perpetual victimhood, eternal helplessness, and constant suspicion of anyone who fails to affirm their every notion, we properly assert our rights and duties by asking, “what the hell is going on here?”
Our suspicions are bolstered by the cold, empirical facts about the results of education in America since the inception of the Department of Education and the rise in the power of teachers’ unions. In every measurable area, students in 2022 are behind their ancestors of 1972 despite massive increases in spending on education.
And when it comes actual victimhood, trauma, and baggage, children today are far worse off than they were two generations ago. Take fatherless children, who are 70 percent more likely to drop out of school than their peers from intact families. Yet, half of all new births are to unwed mothers. Fatherlessness itself is baggage, and fatherless children are far more likely to encounter trauma. Is it too much to ask that we address this disease instead of just bandaging the wounds?
Overall, children from single-parent families are twice as likely to suffer from mental health problems as those living with married parents (Batty, 2006). Research also suggests that high-risk children in single-parent homes have nearly five times greater a chance of developing mood disorders than those in dual-parent households, even when controlling for household income, age, and depression status of parents (Teel, 2016). This research suggests that fatherlessness is a significant contributor to mental health issues in children. (Source)
That increase in out-of-wedlock births and fatherless homes occurred with increases in sex education, distribution of condemns, and laws that allow for children to obtain abortions without their parents consent. (Many of those laws have since been rescinded.) Why do you suppose that is?
The interventions proposed and promoted by the education hierarchy since Nixon’s first term have only worsened the problems they purported to solve. Children are less happy today than they were at the hight of the Vietnam War. They perform worse in reading, math, science, and, even, music. The emphasis on esteem and “equity,” as nice-sounding cover for victimhood and division, has made two generations depressed and divided, while encouraging early sexual adventurism that leads to proliferation of fatherless children.
Ms. Telle, though I’m not really a Republican, I can tell you that freedom and license are two different things. Nowhere in Frederick Douglass’s writings do I find arguments for undermining the moral authority of parents. Nor did I find any school board candidate who advocated, as you seemed to suggest, that we bar children from reading. I think you’ll find that students enter Rockwood schools well prepared to learn to read, if they’re not reading already.
Of all demographic groups, conservatives in the Rockwood area tend to be readers. I hope this open letter inspires everyone I know to scramble to the library or bookstore for copies of Douglass’s Narrative, My Bondage and My Freedom, and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. I am embarrassed that I reached my sixth decade before reading them myself.
But I utterly reject the notion that interventions like CRT, 1619, and wokeness in general will do anything but make America more like its despicable antebellum past. The more we look for differences, the more differences we find. The more we’re told we’re victims, the more helpless we feel. And the more we stigmatize people because of their race, the more race becomes a motivation for behavior.
Behavioral science tells us that the brain looks for similarities in different things and subtle differences in similar things. If choosing between two cars of the same make model, we will have have a lower opinion of the vehicle we reject than if the choice were between a sedan and an SUV from different manufacturers. As Nassim Taleb wrote in Antifragile,
when Lebanese run into Syrians, they focus on the tiny variations in their respective Levantine dialects, but when Lebanese run into Italians, they focus on similarities.2
This means something wonderful. The fact that you and I are having this conversation means we must be very similar, does it not? If you, Ms. Telle, and I were extremely different—as different as a Lebanese from an Italian, let’s say—we would be writing about our commonalities. That we are, instead, discussing differences must mean we have so much in common that mentioning it would be boringly obvious. Let’s thank God for that.
But let’s not forget the purpose of schools is to educate. Our K-12 schools exist because parents and communities voluntarily offered a portion of their wealth to hire educators to teach the knowledge and skill those parents and communities deemed important for their children to learn. Agrarian communities emphasize agriculture over urban planning for the same reason American schools teach English before German. We expect our children will carry on and improve the society and culture that managed to generate enough excess wealth to afford luxuries like school buildings and professional teachers.
This decision by the community to build schools and hire teachers does not relieve parents and taxpayers of their duty to decide what will be taught and when. Neither the children nor the school nor the society belong to teachers. Smart people will listen carefully to what the professionals tell us, but we are not bound to those recommendations. And we know from experience that experts are often wrong. Experts gave us Pruitt-Igoe, remember.
When communities build schools, hire teachers, and entrust their children’s futures to those institutions, we do so with the intention of perpetuating and improving our families, our community, and our society. And, yes, our faith. Of late, we have strong reasons to believe some professional educators want, instead, to destroy what we have built.
Half a century after the Supreme Court erroneously banned Christianity from the classroom, we share the sentiment Frederick Douglass expressed:
It was necessary to keep our religious masters at St. Michael’s unacquainted with the fact, that, instead of spending the Sabbath in wrestling, boxing, and drinking whisky, we were trying to learn how to read the will of God; for they had much rather see us engaged in those degrading sports, than to see us behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings.3
Finally, we see the filth that fills school libraries and classrooms and we ask that it be removed. This is a simple and wholly reasonable request—from the parents charged with primary responsibility for our children and from taxpayers who build, maintain, and staff the schools—is treated like a physical threat of violence. We are told to go home, shut up, and scroll cat videos on social media. We are given amusements to distract us while a tiny cadre of activists determine what our children are allowed to believe, think, say, and do. Yet, we know that children are impressionable and that which is once seen cannot be unseen.
I don’t know what grades you teach, but I know that teachers bear some responsibility for their students for, at most, four years. Parents take that responsibility to the grave. As such, parents have a right to make the final decision on what teachers present to our children. As taxpayers, we have the right direct our tax dollars toward educational systems that advance our norms and mores—or to withhold funding for schools altogether.
Despite our differences, Ms. Telle, I am truly grateful to you and to the Christ whose love we share for inspiring me to read those autobiographies. Your love and respect for reading touched my own, and I am all the wiser for it. Had you not decided to write about me, I might never have gotten around to reading Frederick Douglass’s masterful works. I am pleased to let you know that you have influenced another learner—one you’ve never even met.
May God bless you and your family.
Douglass, Frederick. The Complete Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass (Kindle Locations 4937-4942). Start Publishing LLC. Kindle Edition.
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Incerto) (p. 324). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Douglass, Frederick. The Complete Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass (Kindle Locations 1077-1080). Start Publishing LLC. Kindle Edition.