Some called it a political convention. But in reality, it was where worlds collided.
Late Friday afternoon, as Maine’s Republican State Convention fanned out from the Portland Expo to county caucuses at nearby King Middle School, GOP loyalists from Knox County found themselves directed to Classroom 110 – the domain of eighth-grade social studies teacher Paul Clifford.
Now this, in case you haven’t heard by now, was no ordinary county delegation.
The insurgent Knox County conservatives, heavily steeped in the Tea Party Movement, would manage by the time the convention was over to replace a run-of-the-mill party platform with a new set of planks imported from, well, another political planet.
It’s a place where all of the borders are sealed, global warming is a myth (and a potentially illegal one at that), health care is by no means a right, Austrian economics rule and you will never, ever witness the creation of “a one world government.”
It’s also a place where, according to Section V, item k, “It is immoral to steal property rightfully earned by one person, and give it to another who has no claim or right to its benefits.”
Which brings us back to the worlds colliding – and a more-than-slightly irritated Paul Clifford.
When he went home for the weekend on Friday, one of Clifford’s most prized teaching tools – a collage-type poster depicting the history of the U.S. labor movement – was affixed to his classroom door. Clifford uses it each year to teach his students how to incorporate collages into their annual project on Norman Rockwell’s historic “Four Freedoms” illustrations.
The poster includes this quote from the labor organizer and one-time presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs: “Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization. Progress is born of agitation. It is agitation or stagnation.”
“It’s one of my favorite posters,” said Clifford. “I’ve had it sitting there for seven years.”
Enter the Knox County Republicans, whose weekend convention coup has attracted national attention as a harbinger of a movement that knows a thing or two about agitation.
Details are sketchy – as they often can be when political passion gives way to apparent criminal activity. But this much we know: When Clifford returned to school Monday morning, his cherished labor poster was gone.
In its place, taped to the same door, was a red-white-and-blue bumper sticker that read, “Working People Vote Republican.”
“So I start laughing at first, thinking, ‘All right, that’s funny,”‘ said Clifford. “But then I go inside my room thinking the poster will be on my desk – and it isn’t. And so now I’m like, ‘You know what? This is baloney!”‘
It gets worse.
While Clifford used his break time Monday to bang out a few pointed e-mails to GOP leaders asking for help in getting his poster back, King Middle School Principal Mike McCarthy started getting phone calls from rank-and-file Republicans who were upset by what they said they had seen in Clifford’s classroom.
They objected to other “freedom” posters produced by kids from past years – one depicts former President George W. Bush with no eyes over the caption “I feel like I can see evil.”
They objected to a sticker attached to a filing cabinet in the corner that reads, “People for the American Way – Fight the Right.” (Clifford says he didn’t put the sticker there – it was on the cabinet when he salvaged it from another classroom.)
They also objected to the contents of a closed cardboard box they found near Clifford’s desk. Upon opening it for a look-see, they found copies of the U.S. Constitution printed and donated to the school by (gasp) the American Civil Liberties Union.
McCarthy, who happens to be this year’s Maine Middle Level Principal of the Year (for the second time), tried to reason with the one of the anonymous callers.
“What you saw was a snapshot after school of what was up in the room on that day,” he noted. “You haven’t been privy to all of the different ideas that have been talked about in that classroom.”
The caller’s reaction?
“She just got more and more agitated,” McCarthy said.
That’s when McCarthy reminded the caller that a teacher’s poster actually had been stolen. Her response, he recalled, was, “Well, it should have been because it shouldn’t be in that classroom!”
“Well, that’s not how we do business around here,” replied McCarthy, by now somewhere between simmer and full boil. “We’re more than willing to discuss ideas, but we don’t steal.”
Contacted on Tuesday at his home in Rockport, Knox County Republican Chairman Bill Chapman said he has no idea who took Clifford’s poster.
As for the classroom’s decor, Chapman said, “We were wondering just what kind of picture he was painting to the students. (The posters) all, as I saw them, had the same theme behind them, which was very anti-American, anti-free enterprise, anti-religious.”
Christie-Lee McNally, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, struck a more apologetic note. While she has no idea who took Clifford’s poster, she said, she’ll do everything she can to have it returned or replaced.
“That’s not something we condone,” McNally said. “I apologize for the bad behavior of a few people. It’s unfortunate that it happened. It does give us a black eye.”
As for the critiques of Clifford’s classroom, McNally said, “If my child was in that particular classroom, it might be a different story. But other than that, I don’t think it’s my place” to call the principal and complain.
Speaking of the children, they got into the act Tuesday after a note from “a Republican” was found in Clifford’s classroom. “A Republican was here,” it read. “What gives you the right to propagandize impressionable kids?”
Responded eighth-grader Lilly O’Leary, one of several students who sent e-mails to this newspaper decrying the behavior of their weekend guests, “I am not being brainwashed in his class under any circumstances. I am being told that I have the right to my own opinion.”
She added, “These people were adults and they were acting very immaturely.”
Time will tell whether its dust-up with the Knox County Republicans will land King Middle School back on the national stage – only three years ago, the school’s policy on contraception for sexually active students was the buzz of the cable news circuit.
But should the fallout continue, Principal McCarthy just might supplement that Republican platform plank about how it’s “immoral to steal property” with a wall hanging of his own.
He’s thinking something authoritative. Something weighty. Something that will remind future visitors, in no uncertain terms, to keep their sticky fingers to themselves.
Mused McCarthy, “Maybe we should have the Ten Commandments up there.”
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: