So, as a teacher in a small town, I generally tread carefully with social media, trying to model for my high school students the power of words– when to use our strongest language and when we should just listen. This is one of those times when helping our kiddos to articulate what makes them so angry is very important. As a community, we must to listen to their questions to help them process the confusion, the how and why of tragedy, even when we do not have answers to the complexity of racism. Watching the news footage unfold of what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia this past week along with subsequent reactions from our nation’s leadership brought about visceral responses of anger and sadness for and at our country. Minus the swastikas and contemporary dress of these “modern” white supremacists, we very well could have been watching flashbacks to one of Hitler’s rallies in Berlin, or to Little Rock when schools were first being integrated; or even Civil Rights clashes in Birmingham or Selma or the March on Washington, DC. But we weren’t. Sadly, this terrible tragedy occurred right smack dab in the middle of 2017. Here we are, and what do we do?
I’m embarrassed for those torch wielding, racial slur chanting, Nazi-loving individuals who call themselves white nationalists. I’m embarrassed for their parents who taught them this kind of hatred or who ignored warning signs of otherwise inherent hatred and violence, even if not bred in the home alone. Although not living at the time, I have enough respect for world history to recognize that Hitler’s rise to power included what were once called German Nationalists, empowered by those bystanders too afraid to stand up for those who were powerless to stand alone. In school, we talk a lot about bullying and bystander mentality. Bullies grow their power, not from their victims, but rather from the crowd standing around watching. Throughout the history of time, we have watched bystanders witness cruelty to slaves, sharecroppers, Jews, supposed witches, Muslims, immigrants, gays, lesbians, transgendered soldiers; you name it, we’ve persecuted them as by-standing, rather than up-standing Americans. To stand up means to use one’s words along with one’s feet to make others listen. To stand by means to do just that— to watch as history repeats itself and do nothing to encourage the hope, heart, and humanity needed to prevent our destruction.
Thank you to the up standers from throughout history, those individuals who actions and words contribute to building a better world, who walk in the street protesting hatred, bigotry, brutality and racism. Big words with few letters which contain more complexity than any parent or teacher can begin to truly make sense of in the course of growing up. We must travel with our kids back in time to show them what the Depression meant for regular families. We must travel back to the Industrial Revolution when children were made to work in factories, when black children were still working in fields in many places, even more dangerous, unfair, and inhumane. We must travel to the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement in Little Rock, Birmingham, and Greensboro— and then also to what that looked like in northern cities like Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City– we must show them the riots in Chicago and Detroit; while we are at it, we must travel across the ocean to Europe and the Middle East to prove that humanity has been killing itself for thousands of years. None of this is new, although still it shocks the core of what we know to be good and true for generations to come. We want to believe we are living in a more open, loving, compassionate world, and we are in many ways; however, one hour in front of the news after watching those people chant whatever the hell they were chanting illustrates just how much more work needs to be done.
I did not vote for Donald Trump; nor do I hold him accountable for every racist event which will take place during his presidency. However, I do hold him accountable for being more of a leader for this country and the world at large. He needs to model the vision for the humanity we seek to better establish; others have been able to long before he arrived at the White House. Those men and women hurling fists, carrying torches, and spewing hatred are not ghosts returning from the 1920, 30s, 40s or 50s; rather, they are mostly young, not all that long out of school. There must be a reason for their behavior, but I care more about making sure these generations, the ones in school now can move beyond that as the future of our world depends upon it.
On a personal note, I visited the University of Virginia at Charlottesville in the spring of my junior year of high school believing I would be attending college somewhere south of the Mason Dixon Line. Ironically, I ended up in CT, pretty darn far from UVA, or William and Mary, or James Madison and any other college tour in Virginia I dragged my family to. But UVA is a beautiful place; I vividly recall standing upon the green and imagining the college students who matriculated there before me, the history of higher education along with the integration of the races which I believed with all my heart had occurred and would remain. There is still much work to do. There is still much work to do. Please be a part of the solution. Talk to your kids and if you don’t have the tools to do so, find someone who does. Charlottesville, our thoughts and prayers are with you.