Arrived early to school.
Read my substitute’s note:
Thanks for the opportunity you gave me to cover your classes. I appreciate your great contribution in the enlightenment of the minds of these students.
We were able to complete the movie in all classes. The blue forms submitted by some of the students are in the manila folder on your desk.
PS: Some students are drawing swastikas on the student artwork on your walls. I left two exhibits on your desk.
I studied the two, 5-word memoirs that I assigned in August which had adorned my walls. Allen Pittman had turned in a photograph of first round NBA draft picks that included Kyrie Irving and DeMarcus Cousins. Beneath he wrote: Family, sweat, hard work, blood tears.
And at the bottom of his assignment, in blue ink, a swastika.
I studied Alvaro Lindo’s drawing of a flower and stenciled above it in gang-style lettering: Never ashamed of who I am.
Which I now realize is six words.
And below those words, a swastika.
My immediate reaction was, “What the hell has come over two 15-year-olds, one African American and the other Mexican American, that they should be graffitiing my room with Nazi symbols?”
I couldn’t wait to see them. Hold their work to their faces and say, “Want to explain this? And want to get your parents in here to see me, ASAP?”
When my Period 1 students settled in, I held up the pages and said, “So I’ve returned to two students drawing swastikas on their artwork. I can’t believe it. You know what they mean, don’t you?”
“Nazi symbols,” someone said.
“I had an aunt, from Hungary, who in 1944 was captured by the Nazis. She was starved and worked to near death. When she was liberated she spent the next two years in hospitals. First in Sweden. Later in America recovering, repairing from the damage that almost took her life. And believe me, I did not come to work this morning to be told that I, because I’m a Jew, have no right to live. Because that’s what swastikas mean. Jews, homosexuals, the disabled. That none of us have a right to live.
“Wow. Ugly times we’re living in,” I said.
Some of my students, almost all of whom are Latino, nodded.
“But you know that. You know that as well as anyone else in America.”
During Period 2, Marcel Manson, a tenth grader who plays on our varsity football team, straightened it all out. As he approached my desk to shake my hand, his daily ritual, he noticed the drawings.
“I took those off the wall and gave them to the sub,” he said. “That ain’t right.”
“Thanks,” I said.
So, it wasn’t Allen and Alvaro who drew the swastikas. Which was a relief because I am a fan of both of those young men.
One of my students, I don’t know who, was sending me a message.
Naturally, I was angry, then depressed.
I grew up in the Jim Crow south among some teachers and classmates who were openly bigoted. But their rage and hatred was directed at African Americans. I never felt their animosity, their anti-Semitism, which for some reason was kept under wraps. At least, in my presence.
But at age 65, three months before I retire, I got a taste of good old fashioned, in-your-face hatred.
And I’m not sure exactly how to proceed.
If I ask if my students if anyone knows who did it, no one will snitch.
If I take my concern to the administration, well, they’re overwhelmed with more pressing problems.
The day after Trump was elected president, a swastika appeared on an African America student’s locker accompanied by a threat. That same day a white kid ran around at lunch telling his Mexican American classmates to go back home.
My situation is not a one-off.
While I try to figure out, what, if anything to do about this incident, I know a few things to be true: the hatred that has been unleashed across America in the past year is alive and well, and not going away anytime soon.
Not in my lifetime.
And that the America I chose to believe in, an America that for the last eight decades was, I believed, moving toward goodness, inclusiveness, kindness, and decency was only an America I wished to see.
The older I get.
The wiser I get.
The less I understand my country.
Photo Credit: Getty Images