Back to High School

I went to high school in rural Ohio. Our school colors were brown and gold, which, according to our rivals, stood for dirt and corn. Drive Your Tractor to School Day was an annual event. The rodeo team was not officially sponsored by the school, but all their trophies ended up in the trophy case anyway. There’s nothing wrong with any of those things.

We had around 800 kids in the high school when I was there, and around 795 of them were white. Many of the families had lived in the school district for decades. A big chunk of our district’s kids were on the free or reduced lunch program, and many of the kids at my high school had no plans to go to college. There’s nothing wrong with any of those things either.

But there were many things that were wrong with my high school. There was the teacher who told the only black student involved in the theatre department not to audition for the supporting role she wanted in Oklahoma! because it was “better to keep things traditional.” There was the girl in my college-level history class who made and brought a KKK headdress to school as part of a project because she just didn’t realize that wasn’t normal or okay, and the teacher of that class, whom I considered very progressive and aware, didn’t even bat an eye. There was one of my closest friends, who couldn’t camouflage the fact that he was gay despite his best efforts, yet didn’t feel safe coming out until we were in college. There was another of my close friends, who felt she could only come out to me as bisexual when we were literally shut inside a closet in the band room. There was the football coach who deliberately tried to make the marching band feel “other” and unworthy of being at the games. There were the two new black girls at school one day (I heard they were staying with a foster family but never knew for sure) who were a lot more “ghetto” (as we would have said) than the other black students, who were taunted at lunch by a couple of white girls until it devolved into a physical fight, and the black girls never came back. There was the friend of my sister’s (after I had graduated) who quit the football team because he couldn’t put up with the literal locker room talk, and the coaches weren’t willing to step in. There was the teacher who decided to put my friend, who was terrified of him and struggling in his class, on the spot by asking her to get up and find Afghanistan on a map, and when she was close but not exactly right, he said, “Why don’t you sit down and we’ll see if one of the boys can do it?” There was the science teacher (who had no involvement with the music department) who told my class three days in a row after morning announcements that people shouldn’t go see the musical because it was going to be bad, and then when I confronted him about it in private said, “I love the arts! My son plays the saxophone!” There was the bully of an athletic director who was finally fired when he called the women’s soccer team “hoes” over a microphone that he didn’t realize was on.

At the time, that was my world. I knew all those things weren’t okay, but I didn’t realize how really, desperately, extremely not okay they were. I went to a liberal arts college and took classes in language, Spanish and Latin American studies, psychology, and the arts. I met so many interesting people who made me re-examine my views, and I studied abroad and got a taste of how South America views the United States.

After college, I was blessed to spend over two years working for the school district I graduated from, which I love and am proud of, despite its problems. I worked in the (somewhat) simpler world of elementary and preschool students, and I worked at the wealthiest (relatively speaking) school in the district, but I was pleased to see a very slightly more multicultural student body than when I’d been a student, and I was pleased to never see racism or “otherness” while I was there (with the exception of the way young kids naturally categorize things/people that are like them and not like them in an effort to understand their world). It’s been a while now, though, since I was in close contact with my school district, and I’ve often wondered what it’s been like there during this election cycle. Most of the little kids I had are now in upper elementary or middle school (some are even in high school! I’m old), and I wonder what they’ve seen and heard, especially those who are Chinese and Colombian. I’ve seen enough Trump/Pence signs near my parents’ house to make me worry.

Last night the American people had their say, and the votes gave the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives to a party whose values are based on greed, fear, and hatred. This morning my Facebook feed was full of despair: female friends who worry their healthcare rights will be even further stripped; a friend who’s terrified her kids won’t have access to the mental health services they need; multiple friends afraid of what the future holds for their mixed-race children; a friend who’s wishing for the first time in years that he was straight. It’s shocking to me that a plurality of people in this country are so afraid of how the world is changing around them that they voted an ignorant, unqualified, xenophobic child rapist into the highest office in the land.

I keep thinking of the people in my school district who fought tooth and nail to try to save and re-open a 100-year-old elementary school in a portion of the district where the population was drastically shrinking. It would have cost more to repair and maintain the building for five years than it would have to build a brand new, centralized facility with air conditioning, handicapped access, and modern technology, but people were so desperately clinging to their good memories of their time in the building that they couldn’t imagine a better future for their kids. Now Americans are so desperate for a time when wealthy white men climbed to the top on the backs women, people of color, and other marginalized groups that we’ve gone and ruined everything for everyone.

I was lucky to have a great group of friends in high school who always supported each other and did what we felt we could to fight the injustices we saw (although looking back, I think we could have done more). Today I join the millions of Americans raising their voices against this sweeping tide of bigotry and fear. I’m standing up for my fellow women, for people of color, for Muslims, for immigrants, for Dreamers, for people with disabilities and mental health issues, for the LGBTQ+ community, for the victims of systemic income inequality, for the environment, for anyone who has ever been told they are worthless or worth less because of some fundamental thing that makes them who they are.

We have recently been faced with the choice between what is right and what is easy, and we will face that choice many more times in the coming four years. In light of that, I’m going to close this post with some very wise words from Albus Dumbledore, a man who was far from perfect but was a great and good leader:

“[I]n the light of Lord Voldemort’s return, we are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided. Lord Voldemort’s gift for spreading discord and enmity is very great. We can fight it only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust. Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”

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