Did a Los Angeles Teacher Lose His Job over a Jokey Poem About Underwear?
Daniel Yoo, a popular teacher at Ánimo Venice Charter High School, was suspended last month, and nearly 600 students walked out in protest of what they think is a poetry-related incident.
Photos courtesy of Daniel Yoo
Until just before Christmas break, Daniel Yoo taught at Ánimo Venice Charter High School, run by the LA-based Green Dot Public Schools. But after a December meeting with school administrators, he got suspended indefinitely with a "recommendation of termination," an odd sort of limbo in which he's not allowed to work, but he's also not allowed to leave. "They're going to fire me, but this process is a formality," he told me.
What elevated this suspension to news was that earlier this month, Yoo's students staged a walkout in response, gathering outside the school to wave signs and shout slogans. "He taught in this way that would make us understand, and would connect to us... I want to be a teacher like him," one student told a local news station.
The 598 students who participated believe that his firing was related to his use of a poem by former US poet laureate Billy Collins as a teaching tool. "He got in trouble for a poem, and it was considered offensive by some of the parents," one student said.
School officials would not comment for this story—representatives told me their lawyers had advised them not to comment on personnel matters—so it's unclear why Yoo (who, full disclosure, is a friend and former colleague of mine) was placed in this position. But it would certainly be odd if he were disciplined over the Collins poem. Titled "Victoria's Secret," it isn't obscene or even particularly sexy. It's a comedic piece about advertising.
Here's an excerpt:
The one in the upper-left-hand corner
is giving me a look
that says I know you are here
and I have nothing better to do
for the remainder of human time
than return your persistent but engaging stare.
She is wearing a deeply scalloped
flame-stitch halter top
with padded push-up styling
In an interview, Collins told me his intention in the work was to "make fun of the overblown language of advertising." The winner of the Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry told me that his poem is a satire, and that it is "in no way erotic." He added, "It's too comic to do that. If you're offended by this poem, I think you're simply offended by lingerie itself."
The school administrators' report, which Yoo provided to me, says that "the 'Victoria's Secret' poem, standing alone, does not appear to be entirely inappropriate for tenth graders," but added that "the theme of sex in Mr. Yoo's curriculum cannot be ignored and is concerning."
The other thing that had Yoo's bosses worried was a mock trial he did that centered around a rape case—but according to Yoo, the content of that lesson had been reviewed by administrators and approved. "The appropriateness of the mock trial is consistent with all of the other texts that ninth graders are using," he said. He added, "Parents knew about it, and the assistant principal knew I was using it the previous academic year." Administrators eventually asked him to remove the rape-related content for the 2015–2016 academic year, which he agreed to do before it came up as a reason for his "recommendation of termination."
The report also includes an eyebrow-raising claim that "a ninth grade female student had given Mr. Yoo a letter that expressed friendly and romantic feelings toward Mr. Yoo." Yoo disputes that account, however. "I did get a note written on the back of a homework assignment," he told me, "and it said 'I think of you like a big brother.'" He added that he discussed the note with school staff, told them that he would watch out for students behaving inappropriately, and that had been the end of it.
Yoo was extremely popular, and the complaints in the report reflect that. The report ends by saying he "cannot distinguish the line between being a professional teacher and a mentor; and cannot separate being a teacher from the close bond that's built with students."
Yoo denies any impropriety. From the beginning, he told me, he never knew what the organization expected of him in terms of "controversial" material, and that at no point did he ever violate common-sense guidelines—such as the "keep the door open" rule of thumb—about interactions between teachers as students.
He does admit to using a non-work email address to communicate with his students, which the school told him to stop doing in 2012. He later set up an email account solely to help seniors with college applications—it was work he did in his spare time, and accessing his school email from home was difficult. He was aware the administrators would frown on that, but, he told me, "I wasn't consciously aware of the fact that one violation of using my personal email could get me fired."
Yoo says that he allowed students to ask him for normal kinds of advice and emotional support, but that this was categorized by Green Dot as somehow inappropriate. "I think that [their] definitions of legitimate closeness that students and teachers create and develop and maintain over time are ill-defined, and taken with a perspective of paranoia and conservatism," he said. "That anything I do, they can interpret as inappropriate."
Yoo is bracing himself for his official firing. "I tried to resign, but they said the recommendation of termination would stand. I am technically still employed there."
Many people in his position would be looking elsewhere for work, but having worked with some of his students for all four of their high school years, he would, if nothing else, like to see them through to graduation. "I made a promise to them," he said.
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