BY THE TIME she was admitted to Children's Hospital on Feb. 7, 1994, Johanna Jenei's heart rate had dropped to 35 and her blood pressure was 80/50. For weeks she had been feeling unwell and coming down with headaches. She was tense to the point of sickness, her face was turning blue, and she kept crying herself to sleep at night.
Johanna's parents were alarmed. Ordinarily their 14-year-old daughter was bright and cheerful. Her teachers at Brookline High School, where she was earning almost straight A's, described her in radiant terms: "alert," "eager to learn," "joy to teach."
But things changed when Polly Attwood, Johanna's social studies teacher, singled her out for intimidation and embarrassment over her religious beliefs. When school officials refused Johanna's request to transfer out of Attwood's class and study with a more supportive teacher -- a solution endorsed by her guidance counselor -- she felt trapped. She began to grow ill. Now here she was at Children's, attached to a heart monitor, undergoing tests for everything from lupus to anorexia.
The tests confirmed what Johanna's parents suspected: Her bradycardia wasn't caused by anything physiological. Their lively daughter was collapsing, according to the medical report, from severe "stress and situational anxiety," brought on by the intolerance she was experiencing at Brookline High.
Johanna's problems with her social studies teacher had begun in the fall, according to notes she and her parents kept at the time. In her course on "Ancient Traditions," Attwood pressed the theme that women could thrive without men. In prehistoric societies, she taught, females lived apart -- Cavewoman was self-sufficient and independent, and let Caveman near her only when she wanted babies. Many in the class adopted Attwood's view; on one occasion, they shouted in derision when Johanna insisted that it is good for men and women to form families and live together. Attwood let the abuse continue for a while before reportedly saying, with clear emphasis, "Let's let her tell us what her opinion is." From then on, Johanna kept her opinions to herself.
But Attwood already knew a good deal about Johanna's opinions. In the first assignment of the semester, students were ordered to write their personal histories and describe the factors that are central to their identities. Johanna's essay focused on her love of family and God.
"I am a Protestant in the Christian church. I believe in the love of God and Jesus within myself. . . . God is the most important thing to me. . . . I read and study the Bible a lot, and by doing this I seem to find strength. . . . My great-grandfather was a Lutheran minister. I have all of his sermons in my room which I love to read and study. By reading these sermons I feel that I am gaining a lot of knowledge from a very well-educated man. I feel that he can teach me things about the Bible which I might have overlooked. . . . Besides being a veterinarian when I grow up, I want to be a minister. I want to be able to write sermons and teach people about God."
So there was no mistaking Attwood's meaning when she made a pointed announcement on Dec. 10:
"I know this will make someone here uncomfortable, but I am an out-of-the closet lesbian and would like to talk to you about being a lesbian and about your feelings." Attwood was right. It did indeed make Johanna uncomfortable to have to sit through a discussion of her teacher's sexuality -- especially since it was made fairly clear that anyone who disapproved of open homosexuality must be a bigot or a fool.
As it is, Brookline High is not what one might call an emotionally safe environment for students with traditional views on sexual morality. The sex education is hard-core; the gay-rights advocacy relentless. During "Homophobia Awareness Month," $50 prizes are offered to students "whose work best depicts some aspect of homophobia." Pink-triangle stickers with the word "ALLY" are distributed so students can show support for homosexual activism. There is an assembly to mark National Coming-Out Day; posted notices urge students: "TELL SOMEONE."
Not surprisingly, Johanna felt vulnerable and isolated in Attwood's class. When she asked to spend the spring semester of "Ancient Traditions" with a more sensitive teacher -- one who wouldn't let a child's religious beliefs be ridiculed -- school officials said no. For weeks, Johanna and her parents appealed to the Brookline bureaucracy. To no avail. Attwood had done nothing wrong, they were told. She was free to celebrate her lesbianism in class, and students who didn't like it could lump it. Johanna would either return to a class where she felt extremely ill at ease -- or she would get an F.
Some 14-year-olds might have withstood the pressure. Johanna couldn't, and wound up in the hospital. On March 1, the attending physician at Children's urged that she be transferred to a different school. Johanna withdrew from Brookline High on March 11, and enrolled in Lexington Christian Academy.
The Jeneis are seeking compensation for the harm Johanna suffered, a claim that has drawn vitriolic liberal scorn. The tolerance of the left, after all, goes only so far. Liberals will defend many things, but the beliefs of a 14-year-old traditional Christian girl aren't among them.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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