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When Andrew McDonald started as a freshman at South High School, he thought politics were dumb, boring and totally irrelevant to his teenage life. Four years later, he spends weekends volunteering for the John Kerry presidential campaign and writes and performs politically charged poetry in local slam events.
"I didn't know anything about politics when I started at South, and I was really quiet," McDonald says, shouldering a backpack stuck with anti-Bush buttons. "Now I'm not afraid to speak out, and I know what doing work is. I know how to get stuff done."
McDonald credits much of his interest in politics to Mike Corey, a social studies teacher who's been at South since 1999. McDonald's taken each of Corey's classes -- in ancient and medieval history and government -- and has worked as an aide in his classroom as a senior. But he hasn't seen his teacher in more than two months. No one at South has.
"I miss him," says McDonald, who registered to vote the day he turned eighteen. "Mr. Corey is a big part of who I am, and it's just weird not having him here."
In late February, Corey stood before his AP Government class and held up a copy of the Rocky Mountain News, which featured a story about the Federal Marriage Amendment sponsored by Colorado's very own U.S. House of Representatives member, Marilyn Musgrave, and endorsed by the Bush White House. Corey often used the newspaper in class as a kind of dynamic daily textbook. He liked to get kids riled up about current events, often pushing their buttons to engage them. On this day, when a Christian student said she objected to gay marriage for religious reasons, Corey thought for a moment, then asked her: "What if Jesus were gay?"
Rhetorical though it was, the question didn't play well with the girl -- or her parents, who complained to South's principal, Bill Kohut. Others shared the feeling that this time, Corey had gone too far. On March 3 he was placed on paid leave, and South administrators are currently deciding whether to retain him or recommend that he be fired by Denver Public Schools; if they choose the latter, Corey will have the option of a hearing with the school board. (Because his case is still pending, Corey declined to comment; South administrators did not return calls.) In the meantime, he cannot have any contact with students or colleagues, which means he probably won't be allowed to attend McDonald's graduation ceremony on May 21.
McDonald and his friend, Joey Miller, think Corey got a raw deal, so they organized a small but visible protest of their teacher's suspension. On Thursday, May 13, the last day of school for seniors, they passed out 250 buttons reading "I Support Mr. Corey/Let Teachers Teach!!!" McDonald and Miller paid for the buttons themselves and gave them out to anyone who would take them, including teachers and janitors. As students clamored through South's auditorium, picking up caps and gowns for graduation and signing yearbooks, some were covered in the yellow pins; one teacher commented that the school looked "like a political convention."
"I love our school, and I love our principal, but I just felt like we really need to stand up for Mr. Corey," McDonald says. "He really set the pace for my high school career. He's been there every step of the way. And now I won't even be able to say goodbye. It just doesn't seem right."
"It just seems like they went about it the wrong way," adds eighteen-year old Miller. "Nobody really saw it coming. It was like he was just put on administrative leave before they even investigated him. It seemed like they should have done it the other way around and maybe tried to help him."
Besides, McDonald and Miller add, staging a non-violent protest -- even one limited to the distribution of low-cost buttons -- is just the kind of thing Corey would have encouraged them to do.
"Corey taught us that you can't just complain about things if you're not going to do anything to change them," McDonald says. "I like to complain, but now I think about different ways that I can do it productively and make a point."
Corey's own life is proof of that to his students. A graduate of Georgetown University, he was working as a stockbroker in New York when he saw a pro-education speech by Bill Clinton that encouraged him to get in a classroom; in 1999, he moved to Colorado and started subbing before landing a job at South. Since then, he's earned a reputation as an exemplary and involved teacher. He launched the school's AP Government course, won a Fulbright Scholarship to study in China and won a Colorado Excellence in Teaching award; last year, his ninth-grade government students won a $9,000 grant from the National Civic League after winning the statewide Student Voices competition. "He is a permanent student of the subject matters taught in Social Studies," wrote Jon Scott Torgenson, the chair of South's social studies department, in a letter about Corey. "He illustrates the need for us all to never close the door on learning."