To Snitch Is Noble, To Cower Is A Crime

A class on Shakespeare prompts a San Leandro English teacher's tirade about the need to hold troublemakers accountable.


(Editor's note: Patch columnist Jerry Heverly is an English teacher at San Leandro High.)

Who said Shakespeare was irrelevant?

We were reading Romeo and Juliet. You may remember the story. At one point Romeo’s friend, Mercutio, gets in a dustup with Juliet’s cousin (and Romeo’s unacknowledged kinsman) Tybalt. Romeo wants to stop the fight but instead, like many do-gooders, he ends up making things worse and Mercutio is killed. In a spate of anger he revenges Mercutio by killing Tybalt.

The law (The Prince of Verona) arrives. He wants to know what happened.

“Where are the vile beginners of this fray,” he asks.

 Romeo’s cousin, Benvolio, reports, accurately, all the sad events.

Over the usual classroom noise, I hear the comment, “Benvolio is a snitch!” but I try to ignore it.

We continue to read the play.

But someone else picks up on the Benvolio-as-snitch mantra. I hear a handful of remarks all to the effect that Benvolio should have kept quiet.

More than anything this year I have been trying to contain my anger, to deal with students calmly. I know that my tendency to get emotional only undermines my efforts to teach.

But I can literally feel the blood rushing to my face and my body writhing in fury. I’m in the throes of the ‘flight or fight’ response. I must say something.

A high school classroom is a dangerous place, especially for kids in the lower track groupings. The teacher exercises a considerable degree of control over the official business of the day. And that can be scary to many kids.

There are a thousand ways students can be embarrassed or held up to ridicule (generally by accident) by that adult at the front of the room. Very few kids have the confidence or bravado to risk the loss of face that can result from a ‘wrong’ answer or any public admission of imperfection.

But there is a more sinister enforcement that goes on in just about every classroom.

Every day bad things go on in my classroom when my back is turned or I’m bent over a desk trying to help a student. Big kids prey on smaller ones. School property is damaged or destroyed. ‘Different’ kids are mocked or intimidated.

But the troublemakers have very little fear of being caught. Every kid understands that you do not report crimes in a classroom. To do so would be to risk social ostracism or, in extreme cases, a bloodied lip.

Nothing about being a teacher frustrates me more than the knowledge that I don’t have the skills to provide a truly safe space for the kids who want to play by the rules.  It breaks my heart that I can’t render justice to the bad kids, nor reassure the good kids that I can protect them.

Which is why I (foolishly) spent twenty minutes raging against the “Don’t Snitch “ ethos that day. My face reddened. I gave every ounce of my being to try to deflate the anti-Benvolio crowd. I wanted, more than anything, to reach the Silent Majority that I know exists but can’t afford to self-identify.

It didn’t avail me anything, of course. The enforcers laughed and taunted me, murmuring, “Snitch” whenever I paused in my diatribe. The majority sided, prudently, with the enforcers, incredulous that someone would actually defend snitching.

Kudos to Benvolio. We need more like him. 

(This column is written by San Leandro High School English teacher Jerry Heverly. Its tag line is inspired by education blogger Joe Bower who says that when his students do an experiment, learning is the priority. Getting the correct answer is entirely secondary. You can read more essays like this in the archives of Entirely Secondary.)

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Thomas Clarke June 03, 2012 at 01:58 PM
Jerry, it sounds to me like you are too long of tooth any longer to be relevant to your classroom. Shakespeare certainly understood the law of snitching. If you cannot figure it out, perhaps it is time for you to move on to a world that you can relate to. Your students will gain from fresh perspective, they will learn something and you will be less stressed. Of course you likely do not want to give up the big salary and benefits. The students incidentally are right. It is time for snitches and their supporters to go.
David G Mendez June 03, 2012 at 02:28 PM
Don't go, Jerry and hang in there for the good fight. Just like the horrible unwritten rules of baseball, people are being pressured by a minority of peers in a group to continue stupid and dangerous practices. Whistleblowers and innocent vulnerable snitches, not petty criminals themselves need to be encouraged nourished and protected.
Thomas Clarke June 03, 2012 at 03:23 PM
David, an interesting analogy. So you would differentiate the tattletale and the snitch. They are both the same. The whistleblower and the snitch. Still the same. Lots of whistleblowers are disgruntled and speading untruths. That there are laws in place to protect them is good. Encouraging folks to snitch is wrong. The kids are right. There are other work arounds for the issue while Jerry lacks the background and skill to teach. If you have a family with multiple kids, I wonder how you deal with the issue of tattletales. Remember that doctors, attorneys and the clergy do not snitch. Snitches are the most vile of God's many wraiths.
anthony June 03, 2012 at 04:07 PM
Thomas... If I witness violent criminal conduct, and act as a witness in the prosecution of that conduct in a court of law, am I a "snitch" by your definition ?
Thomas Clarke June 03, 2012 at 05:45 PM
No, you are not a snitch. The snitch is the guy who called the cops and said that you were a witness. If you are compelled by law to testify you are not a snitch. Snitches are very closely related to cowards and liars and those who bear false witness. Snitches should be identified and driven out.
Bill Gannon June 03, 2012 at 07:03 PM
Mr. Clarke you have some serious problems. Please give us some "other word arounds" to serve as examples of how to deal with situations. You also seriously confuse the matter with regard to doctors, attorneys and the clergy. If I were to go to a priest and tell him I am planning to kill someone he would be obligated to report it to potentially save the person's life. Same thing with an attorney or a doctor. If I asked instead for forgiveness for a crime then that would stay confidential, with regard to the priest. You tell Anthony that someone who called the cops is a snitch. Really? Sounds to me as if the person is being a law-abiding, upstanding citizen. By your arguments it would be for everyone to deal with their own situations. So, if you cut me off in traffic or otherwise wronged me, then it would be perfectly okay for me to kick the shit out of you or just flat out kill you. That is the end product of your thought process. Or do you simply suppose that everyone has an inherent knowledge of what would be acceptable to do to other people when they are 'wronged'. You tell the author he is no longer relevant to his classroom and he should move on but then say he does not want to give up his big salary and benefits. Are you that petty that someone has a better job than you? I guess you should have worked harder then. Maybe you have been held back by your seeming lack of ethics. If might truly made right I think you would be crying for help.
Paul Vargas June 03, 2012 at 08:06 PM
Jerry your correct in your assessment. There are just such high amount of incorrigible youths at SL these days it's no wonder the test scores are through the floor. This "college prep for all" is nonsense. These punks who disrupt class should not be tolerated. They have not the background nor the capacity to sucessesfully complete college preparatory courses with a satisfactory outcome. These punks keep the smart kids from learning. Why are they in a class where Shakespeare is taught? These kids are no doubt in need of remedial courses and as such should be placed there. It's time we got some intelligent people on the School Board and implemented the correct measures to deal with the incorrigible.
Paul Vargas June 03, 2012 at 08:07 PM
oops I didn't proof read, should be "Jerry you are" and "There are just a high amount of"
Thomas Clarke June 03, 2012 at 10:57 PM
Officer Gannon, good choice of a name to hide behind. Who is your Joe Friday? You need to read and respond to what I wrote, not what your obsessive mind tells you I said. I wrote, "The snitch is the guy who called the cops and said that you were a witness." He is a snitch because he ratted out the actual witness. If the witness wanted to testify, very good. Let him do so. He is not a snitch. As to the lawyers, clergy and doctors: your examples are not very good. These leading citizens are not snitches and know when they can and cannot be compelled to release information. I suspect that you were a supporter to Jason Frederiksson, the dope dealer and vice squad member and recently a San Leandro cop. Another fine example of a honest cop. Previously Jerry had pointed out his nearly $90K annual salary which is nearly twice what new teachers get. I think two cheaper teachers would do a better job than Jerry. Jerry needs to retire.
David G Mendez June 03, 2012 at 11:18 PM
Clarke obviously has no regard for the value of such a passionate teacher as Jerry clearly is. It is that wacky sense of not prioritizing teachers pay over that of entertainers for example which needs to be corrected. Further, letting student peers who are still too immature police themselves as to the subject of so called snitches is one practice we cannot afford to allow.
Tom Abate (Editor) June 04, 2012 at 03:34 PM
Thanks for the commentary.
anthony June 04, 2012 at 06:16 PM
Thomas... In your witness scenario, what if the person reporting is also unsure if that "witness" could be a participant in the crime ? We can argue scenarios and degrees of separation, but I believe we fundamentally disagree about what defines a snitch. When I hear "snitch" my frame of reference goes to a situation involving a violation of code of conduct or code of law, and not withholding information detrimental to the violator. Not false information, information I believe to be true. If you look at "snitch" strictly from a criminal standpoint, the criminal benefits if you discourage the act. It's almost newspeak in nature by assigning a negative connotation to to a positive act. ( Love is hate, war is peace ) Outside of that definition I can see some leeway, but if you're going with " honor amongst thieves" I have to disagree. What definition or quality of a snitch do you find so repugnant ?
tony santos June 04, 2012 at 10:45 PM
I am soon to be a snitch! Good for the goose is good for the gander. Wednesday is the day I snitch. Sorry about that!
Thomas Clarke June 04, 2012 at 11:00 PM
Anthony, the snitch is the person reporting to the police that another person is a witness to the crime. The snitch has no direct knowledge of the crime and their testimony is nothing more than hearsay. The snitch rats out a witness who did not come forward or was not known as a person of interest until the snitch ratted him out. The snitch is never included by the police in the crime. Snitches and confiidential informants are the same type of vermin.
Thomas Clarke June 04, 2012 at 11:04 PM
David, Jerry is passionate but he is not reaching his students. They laugh at him. When you were in school you laughed at similar teachers who were passionate but did not relate at all to you as a kid. We can always choose to disagree. Jerry and his ilk are the ones that are ill equipped to work to students, since Jerry has not a clue was is really going on with the kids. The district could get two teachers for the cost of a Jerry. Poor bargain so far.
Robert Marrujo June 06, 2012 at 09:59 PM
Trying to reach out is all you can do, and I applaud you for it. Sometimes you feel alone when you do that sort of thing, but it doesn't make your actions any less important.
Phil Hargrave June 10, 2012 at 02:15 AM
Jerry when I hear anything about the no snitching motto in my classroom I share with my students my perspective. Anyone who follows the no snitching rule is either a criminal or a coward and I ask which they are? It usually stops the commentary.
Stephen Carbonaro June 10, 2012 at 09:49 AM
I think the students perspective reflects the world we live in today. The Authorities routine rely on informants; perhaps the students see the movement to a police state. The "snitches" are an asset to those in charge and are a protected resource. I think the student's attitude better prepares them for the real world, and sometimes teachers forget they can learn from students. Like the "Vow of Omerta" of "La Cosa Nostra", silence is golden. I gotta go with Thomas on this one. What goes on behind his back has been going on longer than he has been a teacher. And to Tony Santos, man, you are letting us know that the accusation against Marga Lacabe is a setup. Why wait to be a snitch? Unless someone else put the idea in your head.
Thomas Clarke June 10, 2012 at 03:54 PM
Phil, just because you said it in your classroom does not mean that there was agreement. That you stopped the commentary and the discussion means that you added one more mark to the side of irrelevancy of teachers and adults. Get real and realize that for adults to esposue a position of morality when they continue to tolerate the world outside is a joke to kids. Real life is not in school. If you and Jerry actually believe that those who do not snitch are either criminals or cowards, you should pack up and quit. You are lying about your own conduct. You do not snitch on your neighbors, because you have to live with them. You do not snitch on your fellow teachers, you know the ones that are not working hard, cut out early and the like. You have to work with them or you would be a pariah. You do not snitch everytime you think you see something wrong, because you have to live in the world.
Phil Hargrave June 10, 2012 at 04:16 PM
It is a matter or degree, running around telling on any rule infraction would become exhausting however if someone does something that offends my personal sense of morality you can believe that I will call him or her on it. This is what I expect of myself and it is also what I expect from my students. Courage is something that is not timely or dependent on current trends. It is something we all must constantly work towards adults and students alike.
Thomas Clarke June 10, 2012 at 06:47 PM
Phil, I suspect that you have nicely stated the issue. Your students and lots of others believe that snitching is a matter or degree. I believe that when they find something that offends their personal sense of morality they will act, either to eliminate the problem in the neighborhood or to go to the police who likely will do nothing. That you have reduced your snitching rule to your own personal sense of honor is the part that your students can understand. Of course this doctrine of personal honor runs amok in the world of law. That is the essential question. Laws do not work unless there is compliance. Personal honor works well when you pick and choose what is important and what is not. That is the rule of the street. I see that you have joined your students. They call it different things. But I see that you do not snitch either. Courage is something that is not timely or dependent on current trends. It is something we all must constantly work towards adults and students alike.
Phil Hargrave June 10, 2012 at 08:17 PM
Mr.. Clarke I neither have the time nor inclination to continue a back and forth with a chat room troll however I do encourage my students to evaluate situations and to make good decisions based on what they see as right. To question things whether that is a law, a religious tenet or the street law of don't snitch and to try to consider others and how our own actions or lack of action effects the people involved. Forgive me if I stop reading this thread but people that need to be right for the sake of pride exhaust me.
Thomas Clarke June 10, 2012 at 08:40 PM
Phil, it is good to see your dismissal of me as a troll. I suspect that you dismiss all those that tire you regardless of merit. You can choose the difference between cowardice, fear and indifference. These emotions and traits are clear to your students though I doubt any of them would dare to tell you or snitch you to the school board. Do not respond, it is OK. What you represent to youth is that to be tolerated or ignored. You are part of the teachers that we all chose to survive. Good luck.
Bill Gannon June 11, 2012 at 10:31 PM
So Clarke what is it? You ramble on pointlessly. According to all you have posted so far, no one should ever report anything to the authorities and to do so would make that person a 'snitch'. That sums up your position, even though you have flip-flopped somewhat. You have nothing constructive to post, you are dismissive of everyone, so how about you just go fuck yourself. I know you will dismiss that and I do not give a damn.
Thomas Clarke June 12, 2012 at 03:44 AM
Bill Gannon, you need to clean up your language. You may not like me but you need to speak in an appropriate manner. Tom please remove this disgraceful post by Joe Friday's partner.


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