The evening the Trib newsroom learned Waco Independent School District Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson had been arrested and briefly incarcerated on a misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession during an unrelated traffic stop in rural Robertson County, a colleague asked if I thought this inspiring, charismatic educator and leader should keep his job or depart.
Acknowledging I didn’t know all the facts, I said I wasn’t sure. But more than lack of knowledge played into my hesitation. Living in the disorienting Age of Trump can leave one’s moral compass pretty screwed up. North is south, east is west, truth isn’t truth. For two years now, some friends have asked me to look past the president’s incendiary tweets and rhetoric, past allegations others insist border on treason, past obvious obstruction of justice, past evidence of racism, and instead focus on the economic good Trump has done.
OK. Given that, what’s less than two ounces of reportedly unsmoked marijuana against the gradual turnaround of inner-city schools struggling amidst significant poverty and societal neglect in a county full of schools spurred by white flight?
Maybe it depends on your perspective. In a March 17 letter to the editor, retired Trib editor and friend Bob Lott laid out with his characteristic clarity and brevity the pros and cons of the Nelson case, then looked at the hurdle of applying simple reason to this situation in these times: “Our youngsters see a role model-in-chief occupying the Oval Office whose well-documented and widely accepted flaws far outstrip the mere possession of a vegetable substance slowly becoming acceptable across the land. We all have our flaws. Is it not all relative?”
Fair point, at least when a president and his lawyers argue he is above the law and when many states are decriminalizing marijuana or conceding its potential in pain relief, which aligns with Nelson’s stated explanation for possession when pulled over for being in a passing lane on March 6.
Then there are those such as my friend Dan Dayton of West. He’s a former police officer and understandably sees matters in black and white. In his March 19 letter, he dismissed the need for much deliberation. In his own straightforward way he played the “Make America Great Again” theme: “Twenty years ago, there would have been no controversy. Dr. Nelson would have been on the outside looking in after a hastily convened school board meeting.”
Dan’s right. But it’s not 20 years ago. More than ever, we are pressed to decide how much we’ll tolerate to reach certain goals, whether the goal is President Trump’s improving the U.S. economy (ironically to the point where we now need immigrant labor) or Superintendent Nelson’s ensuring that four of five academically struggling campuses at long last passed state testing under the traditional public school model (before an in-district charter school system set up to address these campuses got down to work).
Ah, the inconsistencies. Last month, during a People’s Law School class on the Mueller investigation at Baylor Law School, those in the audience were surveyed on what proven fact would justify Trump’s expulsion from office. The list included everything from violating campaign finance law (i.e., covert payments to porn stars) to conspiring with Russians to throw the election. Afterward, I asked a prominent Republican what for her would justify Trump’s being booted out. She paused, then said solemnly: “Murder.”
In the final analysis, the Marcus Nelson debacle refused to devolve into anything approaching the freak show of colossal egos and malignant corruption now on parade in Washington, D.C. Dr. Nelson, a bilingual African American and an inspiration in our minority neighborhoods, declined to play the race card, even as some aging, resolutely conservative white friends of mine only Saturday sympathetically wondered if he had been pulled over in Robertson County for “driving while black.”
Maybe the children made the difference. However reluctantly Superintendent Nelson may have accepted the inevitable, he ultimately indicated in his final message to school trustees and the public that his departure after so much shock, grief and division over the past two weeks would return the focus to where it belongs — the students. And while one marvels at his decision to risk his reputation and that of Waco ISD to the degree he did on March 6 — nearly two years into his tenure — he at least saved the district from further turmoil by expressing remorse and agreeing to resign. Therein lies a powerful lesson for children and adults.