Tuesday, March 18, 2014

In search of truth and light

My disappointment today is profound and unrelenting.

Some days, I look at the world with hope and pride at the progress we've made.  Other days, especially today, I am frustrated with the slow pace of that progress.  I never stop hoping that we humans will be better than our history, but some days it's harder to hope.

There are always new forms of injustice to fight against.  My emotional reaction against some things is deep and visceral.

Unfed children.

Undeserving winners.

Hypocrisy in all its forms.

And I am always disappointed when people whom I respect deeply do things that leave humanity poorer.

I wrote a few days ago about Taylor Ellis, a junior at Sheridan High School, my alma mater, the place where my parents still live and the place I will consider my home forever.  I am a committed member of the Sheridan diaspora, but that little town is close to my heart.  Taylor Ellis has been in the news because a member of the high school yearbook staff wrote an article about Taylor's experience as an openly gay teenager at a small-town high school, and because the principal, now backed by the district superintendent, has ordered that profile--and, so as not to seem other than even-handed, several profiles of other students--stricken from the yearbook.

I received a first-rate education at Sheridan, an education that prepared me well for university studies and law school.  At Sheridan, I learned the craft of writing, something I now do for a major part of my living.  The education I received was better than the reputation of the town and school might indicate.

High school is about more than academics or job training.  At high school, we develop our younger selves into the adults we will be; we form alliances and friendships that define our whole lives; we discover what we are to become.

If you examine the Latin roots, you'll find that to educate means to draw out.  Our education draws us, to borrow and somewhat mangle Plato's metaphor, out of a cave of shadows and into the sun.  That metaphor is cleverly hidden in the words of the Sheridan High School alma mater, which I still know by heart, twenty years on:

May students ever come to thee
In search of truth and light
And justice reign o'er thy domain
For years to prove thy might
I don't know Taylor Ellis.  I suspect based upon this incident that he is in many ways a very ordinary person, in the sense that he lives his life, works hard, tries to do good and right things, and sometimes falls short of his promise.  In other words, he's just a person.  But I also know, based on this incident, that he is very much an extraordinary and courageous person.  These qualities are more common than you might think.  But it takes courage to reveal your innermost secret, no matter how much a part, or the heart, of you it might be.  Taylor has set an example for all of us, and his is a story that deserves to be told, and respected, and commemorated.  

Today, Dr. Brenda Haynes, the superintendent of the Sheridan School District, issued a terse, almost defiant statement about this incident, which I will quote below:

We must make decisions that lead in the proper direction for all of our students and for our community. We must not make decisions based on demands by any special interest group. The seven profiles will not be published in the yearbook.

We have reviewed state law, court cases, and our own policies. It is clear that the adults who have the responsibility for the operation of the District have the obligation to make decisions which are consistent with the mission of our school. We have done so.
I have great respect for Dr. Haynes, whom I have known for almost 25 years.  She is a capable administrator, a committed educator, and a genuinely nice person who cares deeply about the students she serves.

But she is quite wrong on this issue.  By referring to "special interest groups" she is, as Max Brantley has capably pointed out, mistaken about where the pressure was coming from.  The pressure was coming from the yearbook staff, students at Sheridan High School, and an organization, the Student Press Law Center, that advocates for the free speech rights of student journalists--something that could not reasonably be considered a special-interest group.  We all need free speech; it is foundational to our democracy and to our existence as Americans.

Indeed, Taylor's story is primarily not about the triumph of any gay-rights group.  Taylor was always going to find support with those of us who are sympathetic to homosexuals.  What he found, perhaps to his surprise, is that the widest swath of the student body--a student body that one would expect to be more conservative than average, more religious than average, and certainly less accepting of Taylor's sexual orientation than average--accepted him for who he is.  That's not a "special interest." That's the general interest.

But even worse, Dr. Haynes's decision is simply not consistent with the mission of the school.  Again, I quote from Dr. Haynes:
We are committed to providing our students with learning opportunities that recognize individual differences in an environment that affirms self-worth. Each individual is valued and respected.
Those words come from A Message From the Superintendent of Schools, which is published prominently on the district's website.  The sad reality is that the refusal of the school to allow Taylor's profile to be published in the yearbook in no way "recognize[s] individual difference" or "affirms self-worth."  To the contrary, by removing the profiles, the school is whitewashing individual differences, and because everyone knows that it was Taylor's profile that was targeted by this policy, it neither affirms his self-worth nor values or respects who he is as an individual.

As for the school's mission:
It is our mission to provide effective classroom instruction so all students achieve at high levels, every child, every day, whatever it takes.
Of course, the school's mission goes far beyond "effective classroom instruction."  But if you take an expansive view of what is meant by "classroom," to extend it to the ball field and the court and the stage, and on to the classroom of the world, and all of the things that a school does for its students, then this mission, this goal, this reason for being is high achievement for all students.

Not just the straight ones and the gay ones who are willing to hide.

I am not an activist.  I am a straight ally of the gay community, yes, but that is derived mostly from my sense of justice.  I am not a patient person by nature.  When a change is coming, I want it to be here now, if for no other reason that we simply do not have enough time to wait on justice.  And I am so enormously frustrated by the missed opportunity this incident represents.  The news this profile was to trumpet, and to commemorate for, well, forever, was how big a deal it was that Taylor's coming out wasn't that big a deal to most people.  This was a chance to celebrate the youth of our town deciding against bigotry and for friendship over all.

And the school blew it.

And so I am disappointed about that.

But I have hope because of the kids who opened their arms to a friend despite his being different.  Those kids, yeah, they give me hope.

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