Few early school-year memories are more powerful for me than of that of Miss Wilson and her tearful exit decades ago from my fifth-grade music class – and the teaching profession altogether.
Our regular music teacher needed an unexpected amount of time off for a medical issue, and the school principal told our class a few days in advance that we would be getting a new substitute teacher.
This would be Miss Wilson’s first time subbing solo, and our principal relayed that while she was great at music instruction, she was still very green in dealing with in-class discipline. He admitted some things wouldn’t be enforced like they had under our normal teacher, and he expected us to be on our best behavior.
For some in the class, the message was well-received. For others, it was a green-light invitation to drastically test the classroom limits, take advantage of an obviously overwhelmed and underexperienced substitute and ultimately drive her to walking out of a room littered with spitballs, paper airplanes and bad attitude.
Our class received harsh reprimands from the principal – equal blame was placed on the students who took advantage of the situation and for those of us who sat there and did nothing to stop it. I wanted to ask our principal why he told us about Miss Wilson’s shortcomings before her first – and last – day of teaching, but figured it was already too late. The damage was done.
The memory – especially the visual of Miss Wilson sobbing while she walked out of the room – oddly popped back in my mind late last week while reading the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement that it will be “temporarily” suspending enforcement of environmental laws during the COVID-19 shutdowns.
"EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements," said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.
In its memo, the EPA suggested the action is necessary because many companies are suffering from worker shortages and may not have the capacity to process lab results, submit required paperwork or keep emissions in check as they normally would.
This is all understandable considering the critical state of the coronavirus situation – much like it was common knowledge to a group of surly fifth-graders that a substitute teacher usually means a change to the classroom norm.
However, the EPA went on to share in its memo last week that it “does not expect” to seek penalties for failure to complete monitoring, sampling, training and certain types of reporting. In a way, it was as if the EPA was suggesting people should follow the rules, but if they don’t, there wouldn’t likely be penalties.
Imagine if the state police suggested that due to coronavirus shortages and priority changes, they would no longer enforce speed limits … that if someone decided to speed, there would be no tickets, just a blind eye and, at worst, a slap on the wrist.
Are police spending less time enforcing speed limits and instead focusing on more pressing, dire coronavirus-based situations? Possibly – maybe even probably – but I am not interested in testing that theory, not just because I may or may not get away with it, but because it is morally wrong. The point here is that I highly doubt any police station would publicly announce it no longer would enforce roadway speed limits.
Ultimately, I am left thinking of that fifth-grade music classroom. I had no real authority to penalize – or even speak out – against my classmates who terrorized Miss Wilson. Yet, who knows what may have happened if I said something – anything – in her defense. I could have stayed behind to help clean up the mess, even though I didn’t directly cause it. The principal or other teachers weren’t there to regulate things, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t do my small part to help fix the problem.
A day after EPA’s announcement, I received a message to the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Facebook page from – ironically (or maybe not) – a fifth-grade teacher from Middleburg Elementary. She and her class had a discussion, prior to the coronavirus shutdown order, about the amount of trash that accumulates along country roads in the Valley and can ultimately wind up in our waterways.
On Friday, one of her students, Daniel Foreman, took some of his away-from-school quarantine time to pick up litter along a road near his grandfather’s home. With the EPA announcement and thoughts of Miss Wilson fresh in my mind, this young man’s gesture took on added significance.
During this turbulent time, we may be lacking EPA enforcement or oversight from many of our other environmentally focused agencies, but that doesn’t mean we have sit there silently and ignore anyone who is attempting to take advantage of the situation.
As one fifth-grader who didn’t take a stand when he should have, I encourage you to be like another fifth-grader who did.
"I picked up the litter because it was the right thing to do,” said Daniel. “It made our family walks less enjoyable because the litter was ugly."
Ask questions. Share thoughts online. Encourage others to make environmentally wise decisions – even if they won’t be penalized – because it is “the right thing to do,” as Daniel reminds us.
Let’s work together to protect and promote our river and its extended network of life-sustaining tributaries. Send me your comments, stories and suggestions by clicking here.
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.