Tradition, courage, respect – and one more

There’s a lot of hand-wringing over US public education at the moment. So why was I thinking it might be fun to be back in high school?

There’s a lot of hand-wringing over US public education at the moment. So why was I thinking it might be fun to be back in high school?

Travel with me for a moment to San Antonio.

My sister and I visited there recently to attend the dedication of a high school. And we haven’t stopped talking about how we found ourselves not only touched but uplifted by the experience. 

Newly minted John M. Harlan High School, which serves a majority-minority, economically diverse student body, is a Texas-sized, 500,000-square-foot structure. Its facilities are state-of-the-art: the bright auto shop, where academic dean Cynthia Tapia’s car is up on a lift; the orchestra pit that rises and sinks; the science labs that would make MacGyver glow. 

What’s most important, even so, is the community that courses through its locker-lined halls. And on a cool October day, the face of Harlan High is that of a changing America – one that sets me thinking about the promise of American public education.

The task for school officials across the United States is often monumental: to educate all comers, to be supportive while being exacting, to bring kids whose first language is not English up to speed, to teach facts as well as civic spirit. 

How do you fashion a recipe for that?

On dedication day, trustee Gerald Lopez speaks of three ingredients: tradition, respect, and courage. And I get a glimpse of how all three coexist comfortably alongside a forward-looking ambition. 

Start with tradition: As the evening pep rally starts, we walk through an arch of sabers formed by young Air Force JROTC men and women. We’re greeted by poised cheerleaders ready to pin on our corsages. The marching band provides a vigorous backdrop. And I find myself surprisingly moved.

Courage points to the school’s name, which honors former US Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, appointed in 1877. (He was my sister’s and my great-great-grandfather, and the school embraces us – two faraway Northeasterners – as part of their community.) 

Why Harlan? His dissent in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson took a lonely but vocal stand against segregation. His assertion that “Our constitution is color-blind” stood out to Katerina Clukey, a then-eighth-grader who penned the winning essay in the school’s naming competition. She wrote: “Harlan never failed to stand up for what he ... knew was right.... I can personally say I’ve seen many cases where my fellow students, as well as myself, have failed to stand up for someone in need.” 

And respect: In Katerina’s words: “You would be giving the incoming students a role model to look up to and someone who can encourage them to not just be a bystander.”

I might add one more ingredient. Maybe it’s encapsulated in Wordsworth’s nod to London, in which he lauded “all that mighty heart.” Principal Robert Harris told me the school aims to make it really hard for anyone to fail. That doesn’t mean they’ll make it easy to slide through. But Harlan High’s motto is “Soaring together, achieving new heights.” 

On this day, I can’t think of a better way to head into the future. 

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