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Events inspire teacher to activist role

Mavis Tjon was content with routine and anonymity. But the Fargo woman known to some as the "teacher who hits kids" lost all that in an instant. Now the former West Fargo music teacher hopes she can become known by a different title: lobbyist. "I...

Mavis Tjon was content with routine and anonymity. But the Fargo woman known to some as the "teacher who hits kids" lost all that in an instant.

Now the former West Fargo music teacher hopes she can become known by a different title: lobbyist.

"I'm not a political person by any means," Tjon says. "I'm nobody important."

But she's pressing legislators to draft a bill that would give teachers more legal recourse.

"I don't think anybody should have to go through what I did," Tjon says, her voice breaking up. "There's no protection for teachers."

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In her first extensive interview since her unexpected, unsought emergence into the public limelight, Tjon talks candidly about the split-second incident that prematurely ended her 25-year teaching career, tarnished her name and devastated her and the routine life she lived.

The 64-year-old would call her mom every morning at 7:30 when she left her north Fargo home and chat for 15 minutes until she arrived at one of the three West Fargo elementary schools she had taught music at since 2000.

Tjon was content with her routine and inconspicuous life - even if it meant being the unrecognizable one when she and her husband, Curt, attended their Concordia College class reunion.

"I am what I consider a nobody," she says. "I'm the one nobody remembers."

Then Tjon became an unwilling "somebody" thanks to an incident no one will forget.

"For all of this to happen has been really hard," she says. "I have never wanted to be a public person at all."

Tapped, slapped, hit, struck - people used a range of verbs to describe what Tjon did to a child two years ago.

On Oct. 5, 2006, she was teaching a music game to a third-grade class. They were sitting in a circle, passing stones in a pattern. One boy wasn't passing the stones to the rhythm, so Tjon showed him the pattern. When he still didn't pass the stone, she says, she "tapped" him on the head to get his attention, and he started to cry.

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"Should I have done that? No," she says. "Did I hurt him? No."

The boy played the rest of the game correctly, Tjon says, adding: "He went out of there with a smile."

That was Tjon's last day as a teacher.

She was stunned when she was called to the district office the next day to meet with the principal, Human Resources Director Robin Hill and Superintendent Dana Diesel Wallace.

"It just wasn't a big deal," she says. "It should never have gone as far as it did.

"I felt terrible that (the student) had cried. In 25 years, I had never done anything like that."

Tjon told the group what happened and vowed to go to grief counseling.

"It had just been a really hard year," she says. She was coping with the loss of her mother-in-law and a friend. "I don't think I ever really grieved as I should have."

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She dabs a Kleenex under her blue eyes.

"I can't say I snapped," she says. "I use the word flared. I reacted in a manner that I would have never normally reacted.

"They took that to mean I was out of control, and that I had totally lost it and hit (the student) out of rage. They didn't want to believe what I said."

Tjon was immediately suspended.

"I was so overwhelmingly distraught about it," she says. "I spent probably the first two weeks sitting in my chair, crying. If it weren't for a couple of my dearest friends, I don't know how long it would've taken to get out of the chair. But they wouldn't give up on me."

Tjon tried to hold onto her life and valued routine.

She continued to call her 87-year-old mom every morning at 7:30, sitting on her couch with a cup of coffee, only chatting for 15 minutes, as if life were normal. She followed the routine for two months until she was officially fired.

To cope, Tjon was put on blood pressure medicine and avoided leaving her home for fear of being recognized.

A trip to the theater reaffirmed that fear when a stranger approached her with the greeting, "You're the music teacher who got fired."

"That's what I was known as by almost everybody I ran into," Tjon says.

But to her surprise, the stranger hugged her.

"The public has truly been amazing," Tjon says, tearing up. "I'm sorry; I still have trouble talking about it."

The scrutinizing limelight continued to shine, though.

As proof, Tjon holds onto a manila folder filled with several newspaper articles. She talks of the unflattering TV images and how the news of the "teacher who hit kids" spread from local airwaves to the national wire.

"To me, I guess I don't think that it was that significant, except the way the School Board and superintendent presented it ... that I struck the child, (making) it sound like it was total child abuse," she says.

Tjon is anything but anonymous now, a reality she realized after she Googled her name and found 355 hits.

Her family, faith and fellow members at First Lutheran Church in Fargo sustained her through it all, she says.

"They hugged me, supported me, and believed in me."

That's why she has a second envelope - filled with dozens of cards from family, friends, her pastors and even people she hadn't seen in 20 years.

"This is what kept me going through all this," she says.

And life is getting easier.

Tjon went to grief counseling and took up knitting. She chopped off her 20-year-old long, brown hair and went to a graying permed bob. She keeps busy baby-sitting her four grandchildren, playing the organ at church, tending her colorful flower beds and volunteering as a pianist at Fargo's MeritCare.

"My self-image was pretty well gone, as far as who I was," she says, choking up. "And this helped to restore that."

That doesn't mean she doesn't relive the incident. The start of every school year is a reminder of a career cut short.

"All I ever wanted to do was teach," she says. "If there were ever a day in my life I could take back and do over, it would be that day."

Tjon sued the district in January 2007 for wrongful discharge, but East Central Judicial District Judge Frank Racek ruled in West Fargo's favor in April, and Tjon knew her case was over.

West Fargo School Board members wouldn't comment on the case, but Hill, the human resources director, says: "I believe the situation was handled appropriately."

The state Education Standards and Practices Board - an organization responsible for licensing teachers - dismissed Tjon's case last month, deciding not to discipline her, Executive Director Janet Welk said. Tjon also decided not to renew her license.

"I'm done - and not the way I wanted it to end," she says, adding that she planned to retire next year.

She still receives retirement benefits, but it is $700 to $800 less a month, she says.

Tjon doesn't blame the student or his family, and her anger toward the district for what she calls an overreaction has cooled.

"I've never justified that what I did was right," she says. "But I also did not hurt him and there was certainly no intent to hurt him."

Tjon's story intrigues some local legislators who hope to draft a bill that would change state legislation regarding corporal punishment, making it uniform across the state.

"I certainly feel that Mavis was probably wronged," says state Rep. Blair Thoreson, a Republican from Fargo who has met with Tjon about drafting a bill. "I don't want to see it happen to someone else."

If there's any good from an incident that has haunted her, Tjon says, this legislation is it.

"It was probably the most devastating thing in my life, outside of my mom's death," she says. "I have a choice to dwell on it for the rest of my life or go forward and do something. I think this can be used for something good, maybe for other teachers - to make it better for them."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515

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