School Talk

I failed. Reflections on Covington Catholic

I failed this past weekend. Like millions of Americans, I fell into the trap of believing the worst about a group of students that I don’t know, based upon my own prejudices, a truncated video clip, a now iconic photo of a Covington Catholic High School student from Kentucky and a Native American man named Nathan Phillips. I am angry at media outlets for their dishonesty, disappointed in myself for falling for it, and furious at the countless people with influential platforms who continue to malign kids and chaperones who simply did not do the awful things that they so desperately want them to have done.

Two weeks ago I was watching my oldest son shoot foul shots in the final minutes of a middle school basketball game while fans from the opposing team kicked the bleachers loudly in the hope that he would miss and they could take credit for it. He shot six free throws in total because, as is often the case in the final minutes of the game, the losing team kept fouling the person with the ball. And my son had the ball.

When he made four of the shots, they got quiet. When he missed two, they hooted and hollered, elated that perhaps they had really gotten into his head and caused him to fail. If you have ever attended a basketball game, you can likely picture what I describe—obnoxious but run of the mill antics by enthusiastic basketball fans.

The fans from the other team weren’t wearing MAGA hats like a few of the Covington Catholic High Schoolers were—which I realize is a critical difference— but I am still struck wondering how those fans at my son’s game, mostly boys, would have looked in a truncated video clip. Would people have seen an unforgivable smirk? Predictable bravado? Would they have seen a younger version of themselves in a harmless group of adolescents acting in accordance with normal—albeit annoying—adolescent behavior or would they have been reminded of all the kids they hated in school, all the kids who, in their eyes, reeked of privilege and toxic masculinity? Would they have seen their own sons, nephews, and students having fun at a basketball game or been outraged by the visual of yet another group of mostly white boys acting like a hateful mob?

Would the players (and referees) be caricatured as white supremacists because of their use of the ubiquitous hand sign for 3-pointer that is now being dishonestly peddled online as further proof that Covington Catholic High School is nothing more than a breeding ground for racists? Suffice it to say that any still photo or maliciously edited video of one of the seemingly countless basketball games I attend during the winter months would show the exact same thing every single time a player, Black, Brown or White, makes a 3 point shot. But still, the lie persists.

Now don’t get me wrong. My experience working with Black and Brown students has taught me that the very same kind of ill-informed snap judgements we saw people make about the Catholic boys from Kentucky are made all the time about students of color and the media has been complicit in that too. We spent many months in 2005 hearing about Natalie Holloway’s disappearance and nary a word about the African American girls her age that also went missing. If Tamir Rice looked like one of my boys and was playing with that exact same toy gun in my yard, I am confident that he would be alive today. I have witnessed time and time again—in person— people treat high school aged Black boys with disdain, disapproval, and suspicion. I have heard people I know make cruel comments about their intelligence, ability, and potential and seen them held to a different standard when being defiant in school. I have watched people try to defend outrageous treatment of African American girls both in and out of schools that they would never tolerate for their own daughters or nieces or sisters. We have seen vile examples of students taunting Black students with racial slurs, heard of kids chanting “build the wall” in their hallways at school, and seen basketball fans shout “You Killed Jesus” when playing a town that is predominantly Jewish. 

But what makes these examples totally different from the Covington story is that they actually happened. Since the video of the Covington High School students went viral, my mind has been spinning with thoughts of the countless situations I have been in with middle and high school students—of all races and income levels—that could have led to snap judgements by strangers in the context of an edited video or one still picture. I have also imagined all of the ways that the encounter between high schooler Nick Sandman and Nathan Phillips could have gone so much worse and ended in someone getting hurt. The fight or flight response in adolescents—and people generally—varies greatly and is largely informed by the amount of trauma someone has experienced. While many still see evil in the high school junior’s response to Nathan Phillips, I see awkward restraint.

A couple years ago, during the 2016 presidential campaign, some boys from my community bought MAGA hats on a trip to Washington, DC. They weren’t particularly knowledgeable about any of the candidates nor were their parents necessarily Trump supporters—it was a souvenir that represented a moment in history and the TV icon turned presidential candidate that was sucking up all the oxygen in the media and getting more (free) coverage than any other candidate in history. The purchase of the hats did not mean they supported the candidate, liked the candidate, or even knew anything about him. But to many who see the hat as a symbol of racism—some say it is no different than a white hood—none of that context would matter because they have defined what the hat means for everybody, including the dumb adolescent who buys one on a school trip without even a drop of racism is in his heart.

In their minds, everyone who wears the hat is the same and suddenly, the dopey kid, the pro-life mom, the Conservative Black college student and the White supremacist are one and the same and they all must be destroyed.

I remember thinking at the time of that 2016 school trip to Washington DC that I wouldn’t want my own sons to buy or wear that hat. It’s not a partisan thing for me as I have voted a split ticket in virtually every election since I could first vote in 1992. I did not vote for the current president and I am very troubled by the way he speaks to and about people, particularly immigrants. I find him to be dishonest and crass and a terrible role model for my sons. But I don’t remember worrying that if one of my sons were to wear a MAGA hat, that people would hate him, publicly call for him to be punched and killed, and try to get me and his father fired from our jobs. I don’t remember thinking that journalists and actors, whose work I have enjoyed and admired, would share a photo and edited video clip of him and publicly label him a racist and a Nazi. I don’t remember thinking that Ana Navarro of CNN would call me and my husband “asswipes” on Twitter or that a sitting newly elected Congresswoman would accuse my children of being pro-rape and participating in racist chants even after all of the evidence had proven those ghastly allegations to be false. (Both Ana Navarro and Ilhan Omar have since deleted these tweets.)

If those very same boys from my town who bought the MAGA hats on their class trip had been at the Lincoln Memorial this weekend, congregating to meet their buses, and decided to don their new Trump gear, it is safe to say that they could now be under police protection because of many thousands of public accusations of bigotry, racism, hate, and Naziism from high profile media figures and celebrities.

In my 13 years as a parent and a decade as a middle and high school educator, I have watched kids respond to strangers who approach them on field trips and international exchanges and I can’t think of a single reaction I have witnessed that would be acceptable to a social media outrage mob. I have played it over in my head at least a hundred times, picturing my own sons’ and former students’ reactions to an adult they don’t know walking within inches of their face, playing a drum and singing. I realize that the MAGA hat is a critical element to the story and it’s unlikely that most of the kids I have in mind would have one on but it’s certainly likely that they could be in a group of 150 students where a few—and yes, it was a few—who did. If they back away, the mob can say they are “phobic” of Native Americans, so reviled by them that they can’t stand to be near them. If they turn and walk away, they have disrespected a Native American elder. If they push the man back, it’s an assault. This is the sad truth in 2019.

We now know that Nathan Phillips, portrayed to be the sympathetic “Indigenous Elder”, has lied incessantly about what happened that day and repeatedly made false claims of being a Vietnam Veteran this week and on video in 2017 and 2018. But the students didn’t know anything about him. How would they know that just two days later that same Indigenous Elder would try to disrupt masswith his drum—at Washington D.C.’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception but be stopped by church security. The boys had no reason to think ill of him or distrust him —for God’s sake, the rest of us practically fell in love with the guy when the story first broke. And while none of us can know what was in the hearts of the Covington Catholic students as the now infamous events unfolded, we certainly know what was in the heart of the adults taunting them and others with racist and homophobic slurs. To the detriment of the American public, those folks were left out of the initial reporting.

I have never been surrounded by a group of students, regardless of race or class, where I have loved or even approved of all their behavior. Anyone who has ever tried to quiet down a large and rowdy group of teenagers knows that it is a quintessential exercise in imperfection. And so is a group of students on a class trip. And in hindsight, it’s likely that every adult who accompanied the Covington High School boys wishes that they had not picked a meeting spot where Black Hebrew Israelites would be harassing their students and Nathan Phillips would wander into the midst of their school cheers. Perhaps now chaperones and students think that using school cheers to drown out the barrage of insults was a dumb idea—who knows? But it doesn’t really matter.

It is a sad day when we refer to minors—who are also strangers—as evil Nazis, bigots and racists who deserve to be punched in the face or have their school burned down. It is a sad day when their school has to close because of bomb threats and death threats to their students and their school. It is a sad day when highly paid journalists and commentators knowingly lie and inflame in a way that endangers children because they just can’t let go of the story that they wanted to be true.





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