The fallout

Don’t bother, it won’t matter, they don’t care.

These were the words I heard most when I said I was going to write a letter to the Anderson County Schools superintendent and board questioning the political nature of the now-infamous “Make America Great Again, Trump those Patriots” homecoming banner. “Good luck with that!” a man laughed. “Oh honey, bless your heart,” said another.

In a county that voted 72% for Trump, you may wonder about my expectations in writing such a letter. I certainly did not expect agreement. Oh no, never that. But I did expect acknowledgement (i.e., thank you for sharing your concerns) or a statement that the banner was, at best, inappropriate but that the matter had been discussed and resolved internally. The end.

I was wrong to expect this. Instead, I received a reply from board member Peggy Peach (whom I do not know) in which she made a joke using the word “Biden” and told me to “lighten up.” A response so unprofessional I gave up and forwarded the entire email string to Superintendent Sheila Mitchell.

Contrary to the warnings I’d received—don’t bother, it won’t matter, they don’t care—I trusted in my heart that the superintendent had this covered. I am a teacher, I thought, and she is a teacher. Teachers know what to do. And she will do what is required to bring all of this to a reasonable and peaceful end.

I was wrong again.

The Oct. 14 board meeting opened, as usual, with a prayer. I was sitting in front of Petra Gonzalez as she spoke through tears, this brave, young, Hispanic woman, alone in a room full of white people, pleading with the board to be heard, to be understood. As she spoke, I watched the panel up front. You’d have thought Ms. Gonzalez was reading the phone book. Thanks, next up, the budget for the soccer field!

Imagine if someone had had the courage to get up from behind those powerful, board member name plates to hug Ms. Gonzalez or shake her hand, to offer comfort to a woman clearly in pain? Imagine that picture on the front page of the paper.

How hard would it have been to say, “I’m sorry, I did not see it that way, thank you for coming here and giving us your perspective.” Dear God, how hard? Apparently, too hard.

Sadly, the story does not end here.

The day an article about the school board meeting appeared in this newspaper, I received a letter from a former ACHS student. This student, who asked to remain anonymous and who I will refer to generically as “he,” graduated within the last five years. He wanted to write a letter to the newspaper, he said, but his family is still here and he feared repercussions. He trusted his letter to me, instead. What follows are his key points:

Favoritism: He and his friends consistently felt wealthier students and athletes, particularly football players, received special treatment and got off easier than others when they found themselves in trouble. “Regardless of how good you were,” he said, “someone else would be put on a pedestal.”

Bullying: He describes an overall atmosphere of homophobia, and he specifically describes the time a student came to school with water balloons in the back of his truck. “When an openly LGBTQ student was walking into class,” he writes, “one student mentioned throwing them at her along with crude remarks about her sexuality, with the only reaction being laughs. ACHS has a bullying problem.”

Lack of proper education: “Our world is huge,” he writes. “English is not the only language and culture in the U.S., and Christianity is not the only religion…. Top tier universities and Governor’s Scholars programs are no longer looking for students with high GPAs and test scores. They are looking for what students can offer as a whole.”

He ends by asking that everyone understand he is not attacking ACHS. Quite the opposite. “I want my hometown to thrive,” he writes, “ but it can’t unless we address the underlying problems and make dedicated efforts to fix them. To those who deny this and say, ‘If you don’t like it, leave,’ you are signing a tombstone by kicking out future generations. Remember, the world is bigger than ourselves.”

When the story of the school board meeting hit this newspaper’s Facebook page—the same day I received the above-referenced letter—hateful comments started rolling in, almost 400 in all, with words like butt-hurt, fucking snowflake, Trump 2020!, “did the evil banner trigger a libtard and make her cry? Boo hoo,” and “he’s our president, majority voted him in, majority supports, respect the system.”

Maybe the board’s legal counsel could scroll through those 400 comments and tell us again how the banner, and it’s predictable fallout in today’s political climate, was not political.

At 10:05 a.m. that day—still ignoring those “don’t bother, it won’t matter, they don’t care” warnings—I hopefully emailed the superintendent and the board, begging them to make a statement, begging them to put a stop to all of this. The superintendent responded that she does not monitor the newspaper’s Facebook page.

Fair enough. I don’t monitor it either. But you know who does? You know who’s online watching us, watching all of this? Our kids.