A substitute teacher in a public school in what is, by today’s standards, still a relatively socially conservative part of the country uses “an anatomical word during a teaching lesson.” She is fired, and the story goes viral.
Just another battle in the never-ending culture war, right? Yes—but not in the way you might think.
First, the facts: Allison Wint was a longtime substitute art teacher at Harper Creek Middle School in Battle Creek, Michigan. As local TV station WWMT reports, she was discussing the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe in an eighth-grade art-history class. Referring to certain of O’Keeffe’s paintings of flowers, Wint used the word vagina. The school’s handbook says that teachers “are required to get advanced [sic] approval when discussing any form of reproductive health.” When school officials were notified of Wint’s use of the word, they told her that her services were no longer required, now or in the future.
So, yes—on the surface, this seems like the story of regressive (or courageous) school administrators punishing a progressive (or troublemaking) teacher over the use of a word that every eighth-grader—even in Battle Creek, that historic bastion of breakfast cereal and Seventh-Day Adventism—not only knows but understands. Which set of adjectives you choose to use to describe the authorities and the teacher likely depends on whether you identify as a conservative Republican or a liberal Democrat.
But there’s more to the story than WWMT reported. For decades, various critics have claimed that O’Keeffe crafted many of her paintings of flowers to look like, well, vaginas. Thus Allison Wint admits that, “Yes, I did say that word[;] however I was saying it in the context of art history; I wasn’t being vulgar.” She therefore found herself in shock at her firing, “because I’ve always been an advocate of not censoring art and music and writing.”
So, this is a case of academic freedom, right? There’s still a culture-war angle, but perhaps the battle lines aren’t so clear?
Wrong. You see, Georgia O’Keeffe began painting pictures of flowers in 1924. She died in 1986, at the rather impressive age of 98. And for 62 years, she consistently denied that she intended her flowers as symbolic vaginas. (The irises, especially, were subject to critical misinterpretation.) In the 20’s, the Freudians wanted to claim her; she told them they could not. In the 70’s, the feminists held her up as a forerunner of their movement; she wanted no part of what they were selling.
In other words, O’Keeffe’s flowers were flowers, always and forever, because she told us so. When a critic of any sort tells an artist of any sort what the artist’s work means, and the artist in question denies the critic’s claim, it is not a legitimate “interpretation” for the critic to continue to insist that he, rather than the artist, is correct. It is a lie, plain and simple.
Which brings us back to Allison Wint. She told WWMT that “I was not aware of this policy beforehand; if I had known about this policy, I would have never done it without approval.” Yet, assuming she was competent to teach the class, Wint must have known that O’Keeffe had consistently denied that her flowers had anything to do with vaginas. She did not have O’Keeffe’s posthumous approval to misrepresent O’Keeffe’s art, but for whatever reason—Freudian psychology, feminism, the secret thrill of saying a forbidden word in front of a classroom full of 13-year-olds—she chose to do so.
That distortion of the truth for her own purposes, more than the mere utterance of three little syllables (no matter what they signify), is not why Allison Wint was fired, but it is why she deserved to be fired. Defending the truth—what a quaint notion, even for the “conservative” side in our culture war.