Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Part of the Main

Big Sis came home on Monday talking about heroes, just in time for the commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday next week.  Her class is researching heroes for group reports, and her trio of second graders chose Florence Nightingale.  She mentioned other heroes they're learning about, including Marian Anderson, the Wright Brothers, Cesar Chavez, and Rosa Parks.  Tonight, with Obama's speech at the Arizona memorial audible in the background, Big Sis expounded on Ms. Parks, exclaiming, eyes wide, about how "rude" the people were who commanded her to get up out of her seat on the bus.  We talked about the segregated drinking fountains and restrooms of Jim Crow.  She shook her head.  "Those are the dumbest ideas I ever heard of."

We were reminded this week that dumb ideas aren't dead sixty years later, though fewer of them are written into law in our country.

Our high school's production of the play The Laramie Project enters its second weekend this Friday.  The play depicts the reactions of the townspeople of Laramie, Wyoming following the 1998 beating and subsequent death of gay college student Matthew Shepard.  Since its debut ten years ago, the play has sparked dialogue where it is produced, and at times, controversy.  It's an ambitious endeavor for high school theater.  Ours is the only high school in a relatively small, conservative community with a population about the same size as Laramie's.  There are mature themes and language in the play, and our actors explained the script and their experiences reading and rehearsing it at an information forum for parents and community members prior to the play's opening. Its messages of healing and hope have inspired the players--who represent the high school, alternative school, and middle school--as well audiences who attended showings last weekend.  Our student body viewed the first act during assemblies on Monday and sat rapt.  The Laramie Project is a timely and appropriate centerpiece for ongoing dialogue on our campus about bullying, harassment, and discrimination. 

The shootings of a Congresswoman and a score of others in Arizona on Saturday morning provided a grim reminder that hate and extremism in America continue to claim victims.  The accounts of heroism and hope which quickly emerged from the tragedy wove a thread of immediate relevance connecting our production to events in Arizona.

And then the Westboro Baptist Church formally linked us as targets of their hateful, irrational, and deeply offensive demonstrations.  They are calling on followers to picket our Saturday evening performance of The Laramie Project, following their protest at the funeral of nine-year-old Arizona shooting victim Christina Green on Friday afternoon.  Westboro Church founder Fred Phelps picketed Matthew Shepard's funeral, and he is portrayed in the play; he has a history of picketing its performances.  Despite rationale provided by Westboro Baptist Church on their website, the picketing of an innocent little girl's memorial remains incomprehensible.

We learn that hatred begets tragedy and that tragedy often begets hope and healing, even art and enlightenment.  When hatred turns and nips at the heels of tragedy, seeking to undermine hope and healing, we are confounded.

The news that Westboro Church members would protest our play triggered swift and strong reactions from a variety of our students, all interested in standing down hatred.  The threat of detractors has galvanized students to organize peaceful counter protests.   We are watching groups of students and individuals uniting to support one another and their rights and to represent values of respect, acceptance, and love.  The community is rallying in kind; we have received messages of support from parents, former students, community leaders, the Anti-Defamation League. 

Presenting a profound contrast with the "church" followers planning to condemn us, members of our own city's Council of Churches sent a letter of support to our school district.  They are inviting the community to stand with them against "unmitigated hatred" and members of their congregations to attend Saturday's performance "as a sign of solidarity with the students involved" in the play. 

Local media outlets are reporting on the potential protest and counter demonstrations, interviewing and quoting our students: "They want one of two things from us--a reaction, and for us to get mad and in their faces. Or for us to do nothing and make them feel like they won, and we're not going to give them either."

Whether or not Westboro representatives materialize on Saturday, our students remain at the center of a powerful learning opportunity.   Beyond the critical examination they may be giving their own beliefs, thoughts, and biases, they are exploring the First Amendment and researching city ordinances.  They will balance expressing offense and outrage with tempering their passions.  They are walking a path cleared by the likes of Rosa Parks.  

Concerned for our students' safety, our principal sent a message to parents this week: "While we believe that an act of solidarity would be a powerful exercise, we are asking for your support in reinforcing the difference between peaceful demonstrations and engaging and interacting with others as they exercise their rights...we  balance protecting our students' rights with demonstrating our respect for the rights of citizens of our country."

Appropriately, President Obama urged us in his speech at the Arizona memorial tonight: a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized--at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do–it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we're talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.
Our production of The Laramie Project--the attention it has garnered, dialogue it has inspired, and our community's embrace and support of our students' courage--represents a crucible of discussion and events occurring across our nation.  At the core of the play, and of the shootings of innocent citizens by an angry young man in Arizona, are questions about how we treat one another, about how we prevent violence borne of ignorance and hatred.  Our students, our community, and our nation are called by President Obama to "use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together."

How appropriate that the weekend before we honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., our students stand poised to demonstrate that "darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."


fer said...

I apologize, JBirch22, for accidentally deleting the comment you left...

Ms. F said...

So inspiring...I can't tell you how often I think of CoSA and am in total awe of the organization that they are and the kind of outlet/forum they provide to students...Really incredible and really rare.