(Note: The following is adapted from a letter I sent to the Long Beach Board of Education on Wednesday, February 26, 2020. This post is substantively the same as the letter, but I have added citations and extra information for context so that those unfamiliar with Myriam Gurba’s situation can follow more easily. I have also tweaked the wording in certain places to transform the letter into something more like an op-ed.)
Pens: Mightier than Dirt?
I first became aware of Myriam Gurba in December 2019, when she published a lacerating review of the novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, a white author writing about the experiences of Mexican immigrants. Among other things, Gurba took Cummins to task for co-opting and exploiting an immigrant narrative to further her own career … and for adding insult to injury by frequently misrepresenting the experience of Mexican-Americans in her novel. Gurba’s review ignited a fierce debate in the publishing world about the ethics of representation, and although the Oprah-backed American Dirt has enjoyed bestseller status since its publication, the backlash against the novel hasn’t died down either (this Slate article summarizes the controversy nicely).
Between the power of Gurba’s writing and her sterling reputation as an activist and social critic, it would seem absurd, even presumptuous, for me to feel the need to advocate for her. From what I’ve seen, she’s smarter than I am, not to mention a better writer. She outclasses me in the cultural competency department. And she’s certainly a hell of a lot tougher, partly by virtue of what she’s endured in her life.
But the more I learn about that last part–what Gurba has been made to endure, both in her personal life and as a professional educator–the more I’m convinced it would be a crime not to scream truth to power on her behalf.
Violence and Violation
Until last Friday, Gurba’s day job was teaching AP Psychology at Long Beach Polytechnic High School (“Poly” for short). Unlike many teachers, she was, and still is, unafraid to make waves and challenge authority when the situation warrants it. But because she works in a country and a system where women and non-whites are treated like–well, dirt–Gurba’s efforts to hold powerful, privileged colleagues accountable for their misdeeds have fallen largely on deaf ears until now.
Gurba’s experience as a whistleblower dates back at least to 2018, when she reported Cabrillo High School drama teacher Jeff Jacobs for raping and beating her while they were dating. (Gurba published a harrowing account of the abuse last year in The Paris Review. At the time she did not name Jacobs, but she has since identified him as the perpetrator on Twitter.) The judge who heard Gurba’s complaint determined that her allegations against Jacobs were sufficiently serious and credible to warrant issuing a restraining order against him.
Since that time, Gurba has been approached by several of Jacobs’s students who report a range of alarming behaviors on his part, including leering at students and making bigoted, menacing remarks. Gurba has voiced her concerns about Jacobs’s conduct toward her and his pupils several times, and she has also shared text messages in which Jacobs describes fantasies of raping and killing students.
Despite all this, Jacobs continues to teach drama at Cabrillo High, free to act upon any number of depraved impulses. Meanwhile, Gurba’s restraining order against Jacobs recently expired, leaving her vulnerable to future harassment, stalking, and physical violence at the hands of a demonstrably dangerous colleague. I hope I don’t need to point out that this situation, left unaddressed, is guaranteed to end with more victims, stomach-churning headlines, and at least one lawsuit against the district.
And while we’re on the subject of liability …
Left in a Huff
Closer to home, Gurba recently caught flak from colleagues and administrators when she publicly spoke out against a fellow Long Beach Poly instructor: business teacher Libby Huff. On January 13, 2020, Huff was placed on paid administrative leave following complaints that she was terrorizing and physically abusing her students. She returned to work on February 12, only to be placed on leave a second time two days later. The latter suspension was apparently in response to the publication of a blog post titled “Enough of Huff,” which featured testimony from thirty-one of Huff’s former and current pupils. These students reported that Huff had at various times pinched them, insulted and mocked them, duct-taped them to desks, and even resorted to racial epithets to compound their humiliation.
Although the district’s suspension of Huff was an appropriate first step, some of the students she targeted wanted more: Poly junior Kade Shandrow, who collected student testimony for the “Enough of Huff” blog, told the Long Beach Post that “the students’ ultimate goal is to have Libby Huff terminated from her teaching position at Long Beach Poly High School and never return to teaching our class.”
Gurba, for her part, was vocal with her support for the students’ demands that Huff be held accountable. She publicly vouched for the veracity of their complaints in an interview with KPCC/LAist. She then took to Twitter to share her dismay at the continued employment of a mercurial, bigoted teacher whose tenured position at the school had effectively given her license to behave as hatefully as she wanted, and with virtual impunity. Gurba’s protests grew louder and more insistent when Long Beach police officers arrived at Poly and began pulling students out of class one at a time to interview them. This move alarmed Gurba because the officers appeared to be “interrogating” exclusively black and brown students without their parents present.
These accusations did not go over well with district officials.
On Friday, February 21, 2020, after Myriam Gurba finished teaching her last class of the day, school security guards and a police officer (!) showed up to her room and, in a display of what can only be described as petty theatrics, escorted Gurba off campus and verbally informed her she was being placed on leave because her social media activity was too “disruptive” to the school. According to Gurba, she was given no documents at this time, only the aforementioned verbal announcement and an admonition not to discuss the matter with anyone.
This last instruction would have been almost hilarious if it weren’t so sinister. Did school officials really think Gurba, of all people, would suddenly shut up just because they told her to? And yet, based on LBUSD’s actions in the days that followed, it appears they expected and felt entitled to precisely that. And they have gone to great lengths to avoid hearing from her, or from anyone who sympathizes with her.
LBUSD Superintendent Chris Steinhauser has been unresponsive to public demands for Gurba’s reinstatement and has gone so far as to block his most vocal critics on Twitter. Poly Principal Matt Brown, having watched Gurba’s humiliation from a distance on February 25, has remained virtually invisible since then. This Monday, when a group of Poly students, led primarily by girls of color, tried to protest on campus, the administration reportedly tried to drown out one student’s speech with loud music.
Even worse, when LBUSD spokesman Chris Eftychiou was asked about Gurba’s allegations against Jacobs, Eftychiou coldly replied that her complaints were “previously reported to law enforcement and found to be unsubstantiated.” Apart from being objectively false, this remark minimizes the severity of what Ms. Gurba endured and, indeed, basically amounts to calling her a liar.
If this sounds familiar, it should. It’s what Harvey Weinstein’s enablers tried to do to his accusers. It’s what Donald Trump and a sadistic, sycophantic crowd at a rally did to Christine Blasey Ford after the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. It’s what Brock Turner and his attorneys did to Chanel Miller. It’s what people in power do every single time a sexual assault happens: they deny. They obfuscate. They blame. They smear.
And they humiliate.
Theoretical vs. Actual Leadership
There is one and only one intellectually honest reading of this behavior by LBUSD officials: they would rather close ranks around sadistic rapists and bigots than confront the virulent racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, white supremacy, and cruelty that has evidently been allowed to fester in its schools for decades. That is not leadership. It is cowardice. It is a desperate, craven bid to cling to power while abdicating responsibility. It is the opposite of what we as American citizens are taught to expect from our institutions and our leaders. It is the opposite of what kids and their parents should expect from a school system.
Myriam Gurba, on the other hand, is a true leader. She sticks up for vulnerable people at great cost to herself. She literally risks her career and her life in the hope that the rest of us will endeavor to be better people and create a better, more just system. And if LBUSD officials stopped to give it moment’s thought, they would realize she’s not trying to tear their district apart; she’s trying to do them a favor by exposing the rot beneath the surface, so that they have a chance to do something about it.
Yes, she’s being “disruptive,” but here’s the thing: if a school district is willfully blind to its own institutional racism and misogyny, that itself is far more disruptive, to far more people, and in far more destructive ways. By attempting to squash the much-needed disruptions of a truth-teller like Gurba, district officials betray an authoritarian mindset that should alarm us all.
If Long Beach Unified wishes to combat this mindset, they can, and should, start by reinstating Gurba; by removing Jeff Jacobs and Libby Huff from their positions before they can harm anyone else; and by creating forums in which marginalized students are given a chance to tell their stories, air their grievances, and offer ideas for improving the culture of the Long Beach education system.
It is time we all showed that we support the mission of inclusivity, compassion, and honor that Myriam Gurba has modeled in such singular fashion. Do not turn away from her. Follow her lead. Disrupt what needs to be disrupted.
If you wish to contact LBUSD about this issue, you can call 562-997-8000 or write to district officials at 1515 Hughes Way, Long Beach, CA, 90810. More contact information is available at http://www.lbusd.k12.ca.us/.