I am not writing this opinion piece today to address a Santa Barbara issue, but instead to raise awareness of an American issue; one that is extremely personal to me. One of my teachers, Marc Fogel, who taught me at the International School of Kuala Lumpur, has been detained in Russia for a year now and currently awaits transfer to a maximum-security penal colony and labor camp (the gulag essentially) for attempting to bring 14 medical marijuana vape cartridges into Russia last summer. If his story sounds familiar, it’s because he was Brittney Griner before her story exploded. And his story, up until the last two weeks, was almost entirely unknown to the American public.
That is partially by design. His family was told by the State Department to keep a low profile. “We are working on his behalf. Let the process work.” Unfortunately, for my old teacher, the process didn’t work. The State Department, while remaining mum on his case, has very publicly discussed that they are negotiating for the release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner (as they should in my opinion — though I understand it’s a complex issue and that there is a counter argument based on encouraging a market for hostage taking) but has not included Marc Fogel in any of these announcements. Despite my best attempts to understand why, both in poring through articles and briefings, and in speaking with his family, it is not at all clear on what basis he is being excluded. All questions from journalists regarding his case have consistently been met with some form of the generic answer, “We can’t comment because of privacy issues.”
I’d like to tell a story about Mr. Fogel so that when you hear his name, you think about the person he is and not the crime that he is being held for.
When I was 12 my new stepfather got a job in Malaysia and we abruptly moved from Pittsburgh to Kuala Lumpur. At the time I’d been in four total states, all on the East Coast, so we near well had moved to Mars. I was a lanky and awkward 12 year old with a funny accent. The move did not go well. It was 1994 and before the internet had really become mainstream, so I had very little connection to home except for expensive long-distance phone calls. I’d go to school and get bullied incessantly — until I heard about a high school teacher who was also from Pittsburgh named Marc Fogel.
One of my middle school teachers saw I was struggling and sent me over to the high school to meet him. I walked into his classroom, and he greeted me with the largest smile. His accent was familiar and sounded much like mine. “So you like the Steelers?” he asked. Over the next year I’d sneak over to his classroom at breaks. We’d pore through old sports pages from the Post Gazette that his family had sent him. We got excited when the Steelers drafted this novel dual-threat QB they called “Slash.” He taught me how to remember home all while finding a place in a new home. He taught me to be a world citizen.
I didn’t realize until many years later how special what he did for me was. After college I became a high school teacher myself. As a young educator, I quickly learned that prep periods and breaks between classes were critical to maintaining sanity. The last thing I ever wanted (or could handle) was having students fill up that time. But not Mr. Fogel. He saw a kid struggling and knew just want to do, student free personal time be damned. I have since left teaching and become a physician. To be a special teacher is so much harder than doctoring. I wasn’t cut out for it. Marc Fogel was.
He saved me at a time in my life when I was most vulnerable. So now I’m doing everything in my power to save his. If anyone who happens to read this can help, now is the time.
Editor’s Note: This is a revised version of the original post.