In 1995, at the height of British actor Hugh Grant’s popularity, he got caught with a prostitute. At the time, he was dating Elizabeth Hurley, a British actress and model.
Jay Leno, the late-night talk show host, also at the top of his game, scored the first interview with Hugh. Jay looked over at him on the couch and deadpanned: “What were you thinking?”
That’s a pretty good question for Andrew Vandall, the history teacher at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School who painted over murals at the school — some of them having ties to the Martha’s Vineyard African American Heritage Trail. To make matters worse, he painted over them the night before his colleague, Elaine Weintraub, planned to return to school for the final few days of the school year after missing several weeks on medical leave. It was Ms. Weintraub who commissioned the artwork.
Ms. Weintraub also had a very public resignation just a few weeks earlier, where she talked about the divisive atmosphere at the high school. The resignation seemed to split allegiances of student and staff.
Mr. Vandall’s timing was awful. The appearance is even worse.
It looks like Mr. Vandall was trying to get back at a teacher who caused a furor earlier this month with that public resignation that packed a school committee meeting. Technically, she retired, but retirements usually include flowery sendoffs and gold watches, not name-calling and finger-pointing.
It’s hard to tell how much of what Ms. Weintraub said about the administration and the atmosphere at the school is justified, or the comments of a woman wounded at the end of her career, unwilling to be reined in by a principal in the difficult position of being the fifth boss in four years at MVRHS.
Ms. Weintraub finished her high school career feeling underappreciated and, in her words, “bullied.” No one should feel good about that.
In the days after the incident, the school administration acted swiftly and appropriately. Working around their end-of-the-year schedule, which included final exams, they held forums with teachers and students to let them talk about what happened. They’ve also had discussions with representatives of the NAACP to reassure them.
“The spirit of the groups and individuals honored in those murals needs to be, and will be, restored,” Superintendent Matthew D’Andrea said at Monday’s school committee meeting.
Mr. Vandall says he didn’t know the significance of some of the art. Well, shame on him.
But it raises a greater question: Why had communication broken down so much at the high school between teachers in the same department?
What’s clear from our interview with Mr. Vandall is that he didn’t have permission to paint over the walls, but he didn’t think he needed it.
That’s a problem Principal Sara Dingledy should address immediately. The school needs a clear policy for painting walls with murals, and when and how they will be painted over. Murals certainly add to the character and personality of a school. They give students and, yes, even some teachers an outlet for expression. But there should be a clearinghouse for that artwork to be approved, and a solid reason why the artwork is appropriate for the high school corridors — and, yes, relevance to the Island’s African American community would certainly count as a reason to paint a mural.
But it should also be clearly understood by the students, by the parents, and by the teachers that these are no permanent installations. The walls they are painting are public property. The artist holds no greater ownership over them than any other student, parent, or teacher. Someday, that art could be painted over. Someday, the school could be replaced.
The conversation Ms. Weintraub stirred in the community by resigning so publicly seemed to flare, then fade like a Menemsha sunset, until Mr. Vandall loaded up his roller with white paint and poured gasoline to reignite the firestorm.
With apologies to Jay Leno, we repeat: What were you thinking, Mr. Vandall?
To his credit, Mr. Vandall has told us what he was thinking, and took ownership publicly for what he did. He gave himself up to his principal when she appeared to be launching an investigation into the after-hours paint job. He apologized to his colleagues and Ms. Weintraub.
“My sole intention for painting a section of the walls in front of my own classroom, and in front of a classroom of a retiring teacher, was to prepare them for the future student-based mural projects,” he wrote. “My vision is to implement a rotating cycle of spaces throughout the building where students can celebrate beliefs and dreams, along with having a space to call their own.”
He said the timing was tied to the end of the year. His senior students were gone, and he wanted to get the hallway ready for September. He was leaving for an extended off-Island vacation, he said.
But clearly all of this could have waited until Ms. Weintraub was gone. Out of respect for her and the students and parents who came to appreciate her work and the work of her students, that would have been the right thing to do. And, perhaps, given an opportunity to reflect on the meaning behind the murals, Mr. Vandall and others at the school would have decided to keep them and use other walls in the school for future projects.
There’s no going back in time to fix what happened. The best possible outcome is to use it as a teachable moment and grow from it, which is what the administration appears to be doing.
The most important thing, however, is to get beyond the rhetoric and the name-calling. Mr. Vandall has pointed out that he is facing school discipline. We don’t know what that is and, frankly, that’s between the administration, the union, and Mr. Vandall.
No amount of whitewash can heal what happened, but there is something to be said for redemption and healing. We need to move forward with fewer moments where we wonder what someone was thinking, and replace those with the kind of thoughtfulness that produced the murals in the first place.