The thing left unsaid
HAINES, ALASKA — The dwindling days of winter in Alaska are a hard time. Just when I thought morale couldn't get lower, a list appeared recently on the lunch tables at my daughter's high school. It named 20 girls in school, labeling them "whore," "lesbo," "gothic," and other unprintable terms. One freshman made the list because she's Jewish.
After two boys - one a varsity basketball player - were suspended for writing and distributing the list, the principal called a meeting to talk about it with the girls and their parents, friends, and neighbors. He tried to make it simply an update on the investigation, but the girls who'd been picked on took over.
"Since I came to Haines, people told me to get tough," sobbed a big girl with strong shoulders. "I'm tired of it. I don't want to get any tougher." Another girl, also red-faced from crying, put an arm around her. One of the girls said in a shaky voice that her father raised her as a Christian - to turn the other cheek. But she planned to give a Bible to the boys who did this and make them read the Ten Commandments. A pastor nodded his support. However no one smiled when she added that she wouldn't be returning to the school, and would get a GED instead.
Mothers looked as if they'd been slapped and fathers stood holding the backs of chairs tight, so they wouldn't punch something. The home economics teacher started to cry.
One woman said it's not just the school's problem. "Haines isn't a very tolerant place," she said. That hurt almost as much as the girl's tears.
Parents learned that the list had been generated on a home computer in another town while the Haines basketball team was staying there for a game.
But the team is full of boys from good families, boys who make the honor roll and sing in the choir. Their parents moved swiftly to distance them from the incident. Another suspension could jeopardize the team's shot at a berth in the state championship.
On a Friday night following the meeting, fans filled the gym for a home game. There were elders in wheelchairs, newborn babies on laps, and the night patrolman in his uniform. The smell of popcorn drifted from the snack bar.
But something was missing. There was no music. The pep band, which included some of the targeted girls, wasn't in its bleacher section. The music teacher kept the band out of the gym to protest the week's events. My daughter plays the clarinet, and while she wasn't named on the hateful document, she supported her teacher.
The music teacher said he thought this could be a learning moment, not just for the students, but the whole community, and that in good conscience he couldn't let it pass. I thought of all the "learning moments" I'd passed up in my life. Some seemed little, like ignoring a racist joke at a party. Some were big, like allowing the board of a private preschool not to hire a teacher they suspected was gay.
Last fall during the southeast Alaska State Fair, a couple of grown men threw vegetables and heckled a float that parodied a cruise ship that was fined for dumping sludge into the sea off town. The daughter of an organizer was hit in the face with a tomato.
At the library meeting, this petite blonde, whose name was on the list, said she couldn't sit in class without boys calling her names like "tomato head."
Although charges were filed against one of the vegetable throwers, dozens of Haines residents, including a school board member, signed letters to the court testifying to the man's good character. The magistrate let him off with the judicial equivalent of a suspension from school.
I thought the parade incident was none of my business. But after witnessing the pain in the hearts of the parents and the victims of this latest "prank," I knew how wrong I'd been. Apparently, we've taught our children very well.
None of this may be as serious as, say, separate water fountains for people of color, but I have the feeling that every day, somewhere, someone notices a flippant gesture or hears a mean comment. It may even be the thing left unsaid. And most of us, people of goodwill, don't say anything unless it's aimed directly at us or our family.
In this post-civil-rights era, where stopping the "little" prejudices institutionally is like trying to catch dry leaves in the wind, we have to take a different approach. Demonstrations and more legislation won't work. There is only one person in America who can stop hatred and teach respect - look in the mirror.
* Heather Lende is a columnist for The Anchorage Daily News and an occasional contributor to National Public Radio's Morning Edition. This article first appeared on the Monitor's Web site www.csmonitor.com.
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