As a Burlington antiwar activist, Laurie Essig objects to defense contractors. So when her 9-year-old daughter Willa, a student at Champlain School, heard that General Dynamics employees were coming to her school to donate books, the third-grader asked her teacher some pointed questions.
"She genuinely wanted to know, 'Are we for bomb-makers? Do we think it's right to kill people?'" Essig says. "Her basic question was, 'Why are we treating these people like heroes?'"
According to Essig, Willa's teacher was concerned the girl might say something inappropriate to the General Dynamics people, so she "brought all the other students down to get their free books and left my daughter sitting alone in the classroom."
"If a child asks that question, she shouldn't be punished," says Essig, a sociology professor at the University of Vermont. "They should say, 'Oh, that's a really good question. Let's talk about why we need corporations in our school.'"
Essig met with the teacher and principal the next day, and says they were apologetic about the incident but "didn't seem to be aware of the censorship issue." Their explanation, she says, was that the employees were there not as representatives of General Dynamics, but as local parents.
Phone calls to Champlain School Principal Nancy Zahniser and Burlington Schools Superintendent Lyman Amsden weren't returned by press time. But Robin Sheperd, the community service coordinator for General Dynamics Armaments Systems of Burlington, says that General Dynamics has been a sponsor of the "Reading Is Fundamental" literacy program since 1997. Each year, the company donates three free books to every Burlington student in kindergarten through fifth grade, as well as two free books twice a year to Burlington middle schoolers. In all, the company gives away about 5400 new books annually. School librarians handle all the book-buying, Sheperd explains, and the company has no say in determining what the children read. General Dynamics, which employs about 600 people in Burlington, also funds a guest author once a year to talk to schoolchildren about writing or illustrating books.
In February, about 120 General Dynamics volunteers went into the public schools to read to the kids as part of "I Love to Read" month. "They're getting more and more enthusiasm all the time," Sheperd says. "The students are really beginning to appreciate it and recognize us when we come in."
It's that corporate name recognition that Essig finds disturbing. All the donated books come with a General Dynamics bookmark and have a sticker inside that reads, "Courtesy of General Dynamics."
Essig plans to bring up this issue at the district's next Curriculum and Policy Committee meeting on Tuesday, April 26. She wants the district to revisit its policy about allowing corporations to "use our children for PR purposes." If the district still wants to allow them, she says, then at least there should be a discussion about which kinds of corporations qualify.
"This is General Dynamics, the sixth-largest manufacturer of depleted uranium weapons," Essig observes. "What's next, Philip Morris?"