The Schoolteacher and the Government’s Watch List

By Mickey Pearlman

Published April 07, 2006, issue of April 07, 2006.

ere’s a little story about a close friend of 32 years.

A 61-year-old grandmother with an Ivy League masters degree, she teaches fifth grade at a fancy private school in Englewood, N.J. She also does after-school tutoring and has been caught, on more than one occasion, venturing out in a snowstorm to help yet another over-indulged, panicking pre-teen.

She and her husband, the retired owner of a New York City printing business who spends most of his time playing gin rummy at a golf club, decided to go to Palm Beach, Fla., for four days. Modernists that they are, they decided to print out their boarding passes on their home computer.

The computer demurred, and instructed them to try again at the airport kiosk. That computer instructed them to see an agent.

Now here comes the good part.

After 20 minutes of scanning, tut-tutting and frowning, the agent informed said male passenger — who, God help us, voted for George Bush — that “one of you, I can’t say which one, is on the watch list. But I am going to let you on the plane and I’ll clear you for the return trip from Florida.”

Tut-tutting, indeed. These people are so squeaky clean that they have a standing appointment to get their cars washed. In her case, we’re talking about someone who struggled through Hebrew lessons and Torah study in order to become a bat mitzvah in her 50s. In his case, we’re talking about multiple strokes and carotid artery surgery — not exactly the usual profile for a bomb thrower, figuratively or otherwise.

To put it bluntly, if these two are a threat to America, the rest of us can throw the towel in.

How did this all come to pass?

My friend the schoolteacher, you may remember, also engages in the highly suspect activity of after-school tutoring. In the case at hand, her pupil was a 14 year old assigned to write a paper about the separation wall being built in Israel.

This danger to society — the one with the temple membership who feeds everyone in sight at Passover — informed the kid that his paper would be acceptable only if he told both sides of the story. Even though he knew the Israeli position, she insisted, he should access Arab and Arab-American Web sites, many of them based at American universities, and quote their positions as completely and truthfully as possible.

So together after-school tutor and pupil sat down to search the Internet. She used her password to log on to the computer — and therein lies the story of how one fifth-grade schoolteacher landed on the government’s watch list. And, one hopes, therein also lies a wake-up call for those of you who still believe that the National Security Agency’s no-warrant surveillance program — supposedly created solely to track and catch enemies of America — has nothing to do with you.

If you think that this can’t really be how she got on the watch list, take a clue from her congressman. Having been apprized of the details, his office offered no solutions but “suggested” that when she goes on vacation this summer, she should take her passport, a driver’s license with her picture and her original birth certificate.

The congressman himself told my friend that there’s no way to get her off the watch list, even though she’s less threatening to the security of the United States than Daffy Duck. His office did, however, send a four-page form for my friend and her husband to fill out.

Mickey Pearlman is author of “What To Read: The Essential Guide For Reading Group Members and Other Book Lovers” (HarperCollins, 1999) and the forthcoming “Where Is Everybody?” (W.W. Norton).

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