by Caroline Connors
A documentary about a young woman who took her own life to expose abuse to teachers will premiere at the Beverly Arts Center (BAC) on June 30.
“Dying to Teach: The Killing of Mary Eve Thorson,” explores the circumstances that led Thorson, a 32-year-old elementary school gym teacher in south suburban Ford Heights, to step in front of a moving semi-truck on Thanksgiving Day 2011, according to Myra Richardson, the film’s director and producer.
Richardson, of Beverly, is a former teacher who lost her job at an alternative high school in Chicago 10 years ago after she was falsely accused of molesting a student, she said. Although she had no prior experience in filmmaking, she felt compelled to produce the documentary because, she said, she, too, was the victim of an administration that bullied her and ultimately ousted her from a career that she loved. Richardson’s story was told in the documentary, “Accused: The Vindication of Myra Richardson,” which was screened at the BAC in September 2011.
“After I read the article [about Thorson’s death], I was horrified,” Richardson said. “I initially wanted to reach out to her parents and offer my condolences, but for some reason I said, ‘Would you allow me to tell your daughter’s story?’
“I have always wondered why what happened to me happened to me. I believe now it’s so I could tell Mary’s story.”
According to a Jan. 1 report in the Chicago Tribune, Thorson had been suspended in April 2011 for allegedly hitting a student at school and was suspended again a week before her death for allegedly cursing at another student. In a six-page handwritten suicide note that she left in her SUV, the Tribune reported, Thorson described her frustration with school leaders, the lack of resources in the financially-strapped district and the lack of respect given to its teachers.
Thorson’s feelings were corroborated by her Ford Heights District 169 coworkers at a public meeting held after her death, the article said, where teachers described the “fear and intimidation” they experienced in their jobs on a consistent basis.
Although the film focuses on Thorson’s circumstances, teacher bullying is not exclusive to Ford Heights, Richardson said. With an emphasis on standardized testing and initiatives like No Child Left Behind, Richardson said, teachers are under tremendous pressure to ensure a school’s success, even if it means turning a blind eye to unethical practices like grade and testscore tampering.
“It’s disturbing how many teachers are bullied and are afraid of losing their positions,” Richardson said. “These are the teachers who question, ‘Is this going to be good for the child in the long run? Is this right?’ Those are the ones who are targeted. There is bullying in every profession, but what makes it unique with teachers is their emotional attachment to their students—it makes it harder to walk away.”
Like a martyr, Thorson died to help others, Richardson said.
“She knew teachers were suffering, and if she did something in a brutal and public way, people would listen. She didn’t take her life because she wanted to end it; she took her life because she wanted people to pay attention. That was very apparent to me,” she said. “Sometimes you have to do something drastic; I don’t condone suicide, but Mary believed teachers were at the point where their conditions were drastic.”
The film includes interviews with Thorson’s family and friends and other teachers, Richardson said. She filmed the documentary on a shoestring budget, and all proceeds of the film will go to Thorson’s parents, she said, who intend to use the money to help students in need. Richardson said she has also created a foundation to promote solidarity for teachers.
Richardson believes in Thorson’s plight and her mental stability, she said, and is surprised that “Dying to Teach” is the first film on the subject of the tragic results of teacher bullying. But, she said, it will probably not be the last.
“Kids taking their lives because of bullying got people paying attention,” Richardson said, “and this issue is a whole lot bigger than Mary.”
The film will be shown at 4 p.m. on June 30, followed by a reception with live music and refreshments in celebration of teachers, Richardson said. Tickets are $8.