by | Jun 5, 1994 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

This is a great country, founded on great principles. But sometimes you wonder who’s steering the ship.

Take the case of Don Bondi, a 61-year-old teacher at Los Angeles’ High School for the Arts. Bondi was passionate about his job, was chairman of the dance department, and was one of the working founders of the school.

Until six weeks ago.

At a student play, celebrating Mexican heritage, a young actor portrayed the governor of California, Pete Wilson, as a bumbling racist.

“I love Mexicans,” the student playing the governor said, “Everyone should have one. . . . I even shop at K- Martinez, I mean Kmart. And I love Pick-N-Spick.”

Bondi was in the audience, and he objected. He had this odd notion that high school students shouldn’t use a play to defame the governor of the state. Call him crazy.

He booed when it was over.

He wasn’t the only one. But he caught the eye of Maria Elena Gaitan, a Latino school board member whose son happened to be in the play. She got out of her seat and stormed over to Bondi.

“Control your racism!” she ordered.

Control your racism. Never mind that the show played the governor as a typically ignorant white buffoon. Gaitan’s message was clear. You’re in deep trouble, Bondi. You booed. You stepped over the line.

“If we’ve offended anyone . . .” a student on stage, sensing trouble, began to say.

“You have!” Bondi yelled.

“Then you needed it!” Gaitan shouted.

When the play ended, Gaitan escorted Bondi to the principal’s office. Her son reportedly followed, and threatened to physically harm Bondi, a student threatening to beat up a teacher.

Nonetheless, within hours, Bondi, the teacher, was given his papers and ordered off campus. He was reassigned to a desk job.

This is America in 1994. Theater of the absurd

Political correctness has received enormous attention lately. There is a growing sense that tyranny of the majority has turned to tyranny of the minority. The slightest slip of the tongue can cost a person job, lifestyle, and reputation. People complain they can’t communicate anymore, that every word seems off limits, and every group, from race to age to sexual preference, seems quick to scream prejudice for anything that doesn’t go its way.

What gives, they ask? You can no longer call teams “Indians.” The phrase
“dutch treat” is culturally biased. In London, a school principal recently turned down tickets for her students to see “Romeo and Juliet” because she considered it — and we’re not making this up — a “blatantly heterosexual love story.”

Blatantly heterosexual?

Now, in general, I say grin and bear this stuff. It’s the price we pay for being insensitive for so long, kind of like enduring a long tilt of an airplane that flew off course and needs to correct itself.

But in Bondi’s case, I object, strongly, because one important principle is being used to squash another. And it’s especially significant because it takes place at a school, a place of learning, where, supposedly, our young generation is being formed.

What are we teaching them here? School boots teacher

Bondi was probably right to boo. The play sounds awful, not to mention insulting. But more important, he had the right to boo. He didn’t demand the play be stopped. He expressed opinion after it was over. “I booed,” he told a Los Angeles Times reporter, “because I wanted to make a point. . . . We are not here to defame people. . . . Besides, booing is part of the theater.”

Nonetheless, his principal, Bo Vitolo, reassigned Bondi to another school, saying: “Freedom of expression has limitations. Otherwise we would have anarchy.”

Huh? This is a school whose students just portrayed the governor as a stumbling racist? She thinks a teacher booing will lead to anarchy?

And you wonder why people home-school their kids.

Listen. Freedom of expression is as integral to the fabric of this nation as equality of its citizens. In truth, they go hand in hand. Gaitan rushing up to Bondi and yelling “Control your racism!” is merely an example of the very thing she’s objecting to. His answer, quite rightly, could have been
“Control your control!”

Instead, he is banished to a desk job while officials review the case. And Gaitan still sits on the school board.

What a strange world we have created. The funny thing is, the students should be thanking Bondi for some valuable lessons. Not only did he make a point about freedom of speech, he prepared them for their futures.

If that’s the best play they can come up with, they’d better get used to boos.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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