Teachers—especially elementary ones—see a lot of weird, gross, and sad stuff. Whether it’s eating boogers, pooping in urinals, or repeated cases of lice, teachers spend their days with lots of children. Enough said? Some students are simply in the throes of normal development where farting contests and melted candy canes on radiators are reasons to fall over laughing and drive their teacher a little batty. Others may have disabilities or home situations that better explain their behaviors, eccentricities, and even outward signs of neglect. Teachers have forever been known for their ability to be discreet in helping and even protecting students from the cruelty that often comes along with being weird, different, and even unbathed. Sure, they may talk about it with their spouses or colleagues but public humiliation? Never.
Well, unless you are a public figure in the Trump administration. I am no fan of Trump nor do I find Stephen Miller even remotely appealing. But when his third grade teacher from decades ago dug up a class photo and essentially mocked his third grade self, I was left thinking, God help us if the elementary school teachers of public figures start coming out of the woodwork to humiliate their former students.
Here’s what Nikki Fiske, Miller’s third grade teacher twenty-five years ago at Franklin Elementary in Santa Monica, California had to say to the Hollywood Reporter about the now senior advisor to the President:
Do you remember that character in Peanuts, the one called Pig Pen, with the dust cloud and crumbs flying all around him? That was Stephen Miller at eight. I was always trying to get him to clean up his desk—he always had stuff mashed up in there. He was a strange dude.
I remember he would take a bottle of glue—we didn’t have glue sticks in those days—and he would pour the glue on his arm, let it dry, peel it off and then eat it.
She also asserts that when she wrote down all of her concerns in his school record, the principal used White-Out to erase them after his parents complained.
For the love of God, this is none of our business!
By contrast, it is certainly newsworthy that members of Millers’ family and even his former rabbi have come out publicly to repudiate the immigration policies he has helped to craft in his role at the White House. His uncle has expressed dismay that his nephew “has become the architect of immigration policies that repudiate the very foundation of our family’s life in this country.”
But these critiques, while also personal, are about Miller’s comments and actions as an adult in a very public role. They are totally fair game and I happen to agree with them. Miller has a very nativist and anti-immigrant view of the world but, ahem, there is no evidence that the held those views in third grade. In fact, Ms. Fiske says, on the record, “of course, Stephen wasn’t political then—it wasn’t until later that he started to make waves.” But for some reason, she deliberately mocks and publicly shames him for eating glue and being a loner. That describes a lot of kids and I highly doubt they’d ever expect their teacher to tell it to a reporter.
Will this be the beginning of teachers outing their students who grow up to live in the public eye? Regardless of how repugnant one may find the views of a former student, it seems way out of bounds for them to be sharing information—especially about eight year olds—from twenty-five years ago. There are reasons why teacher observations are important and can be made public—school shootings and student suicides come to mind. And even in those tragic cases, privacy is a top consideration, not only because of privacy laws but also because of basic human decency.
I have to wonder if this teacher could be on the hook for some sort of ethics violation; certainly she is on the hook for unfairly casting a cloud over the countless teachers who do everything in their power to protect the privacy—and dignity—of their students. Was she paid to tell this story to the Hollywood Reporter? And is it the first in what will now be a cascade of inappropriate tabloid fodder about former presidents, first ladies, and current senators who peed their pants, ate pencils, and sniffed glue in third grade?
God, I hope not.
Update: As of today, October 11, the teacher has been suspended. The Los Angeles times has the story here.
This article was originally published in a slightly different form on Good School Hunting.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.