by Arden Pennell
After speaking with parents over the weekend, history teacher Mike McGovern issued a statement Monday expressing regret for earlier strong words in his clash with Palo Alto High School Principal Jacqueline McEvoy.
On Friday, McGovern said McEvoy told him to change the content of student plays he directs, citing religious undertones, and he accused her of lying when she denied expressing concern about content.
Such an allegation "is a form of retaliation, not [a] response," McGovern said Monday.
"In the wake of what happened, I repeatedly urged students to 'take the high road' and [not] descend to 'retaliation.' I am not above that admonition," he said.
Students rallied to support McGovern last week in a controversy over whether the future of his historical reenactment plays was threatened during a private meeting with McEvoy and another history teacher on Thursday.
At issue is whether McEvoy asked McGovern to change the end of the latest reenactment, "The Black Death," because of possible religious misinterpretation.
McEvoy said her concerns centered on safety issues, such as properly marked and adequate exits.
McGovern said he angrily left the meeting, returned to his classroom where some students were hanging out, slammed down his fist and kicked a podium, and declared that McEvoy was "trying to kill the program." He said students rushed out to protest at McEvoy's office before he could stop them.
Within 24 hours, using a Facebook social-networking site, students created an online group entitled, "The New Principal is Trying to Shut Down Mr. McGovern's Reenactments!" and circulated petitions to "Protect Mr. McGovern's reenactments." One student organized a "chant-in" Friday noon in Paly's Inner Quad.
McGovern said Monday he regrets his outburst and has tried to correct the perception that McEvoy is out to kill the plays.
McEvoy insisted she is not trying to end the reenactments and considers them powerful and a "great teaching tool." She said she reserves the right to review materials and scripts used at Paly but there has never been a disagreement between her and a writer that couldn't be resolved.
The third person at the Thursday meeting, history teacher Eric Bloom, declined Monday to discuss specifics but said he believes a "fundamental miscommunication" between McEvoy and McGovern could be cleared up.
"What I think needs to happen is we need to meet again," Bloom said, adding that all three shared blame for the miscommunication.
In a further apparent conciliation move, McGovern released a longer statement Monday toning down his earlier accusation but nonetheless maintaining that McEvoy discussed matters that went beyond safety. (The full statement is at www.PaloAltoOnline.com.)
McGovern has organized the historical reenactments four times a year for 17 years. They are a time-consuming but much-loved tradition at Paly, he said. He said he volunteers up to 800 hours of time annually while students direct and act during the six weeks of rehearsals, he said.
The reenactments cover Hannibal's invasion of ancient Rome, the Black Death, the French Revolution and the Diary of Anne Frank.
Students find the plays affecting and powerful, he said.
"I want to be a teacher and do an after-school-theater program for elementary students, and I wouldn't have known this otherwise," senior Ali Aram, who acted in the plays and co-directed "The Black Death" this year, said of her experience.
McEvoy said she attended last week's reenactment and left with safety concerns. She called the meeting on Thursday with McGovern and Bloom.
"I'm concerned that there is not proper egress. People have to be able to get out," McEvoy said Friday. The stage's entrance is through a dangerously low, narrow and dark tunnel and exit areas are not well-marked, she said.
McGovern said he explained that exits are marked and the tunnel lit, and that "the fire department went through years ago and said we were fine."
He was speechless when he heard McEvoy's other concern, he said.
"She suggested I might be imposing my own personal or religious views on the kids," he said.
He said McEvoy said she was disturbed by an emotionally gripping scene where the audience is transported to modern times and the Grim Reaper discusses his contemporary "plague" victims, referring to alcohol, drugs or AIDS. The Reaper points to students who have been drinking heavily at a party and speaks of his delight in killing them off through drunk driving, drugs or AIDS, McGovern said.
McEvoy said in the meeting that the ominous figure could be interpreted as Satan gleefully punishing teenagers who have sinned, he said. McGovern said McEvoy also disagreed with the comparison of the Medieval and modern epidemics. He then left the meeting.
He denied that the play has a religious message or that his own beliefs ever enter his classroom.
"I am a born-again Christian but I never say anything about that in my class," he said.
Some students do interpret the room as Hell and the Grim Reaper death figure as Satan, he said.
"I say, 'No, it was the Grim Reaper,'" he said.
On Friday morning McEvoy said in an announcement to students that her concerns relate entirely to safety. She later told reporters she could not discuss a private meeting but said she has not requested changes to the play's substance.
"I haven't dealt with content yet," she said.
McGovern then accused McEvoy of lying about her denial of a "religious" concern, words he now regrets, he said this week. He said he especially regrets his emotional outburst in the classroom.
On Friday, Aram led students in the pro-McGovern chant and helped circulate petitions.
She said some students made anti-McEvoy T-shirts and upset parents were writing letters. Shaken by rumors McGovern might end the reenactment program and quit the school, crying students and some teachers trickled in to see him on Friday at lunch, Paly Voice reporter Jason Park said.
But McGovern said he does not plan to quit.
And McEvoy does not want to cancel the reenactments, she said.
For now, there are no plans to change the plays, McGovern said.