About three years ago I found myself having a conversation with an assistant principal at my son’s middle school. Jacob (now 17 year old junior in high school) was being suspended for a couple days for getting into a fight with another boy after reacting to the boy aggressively stating the word nigga toward Jacob after Jacob told the boy he found it offensive and had asked him to stop saying it while singing a rap song. For that incident both were suspended two days. I coached Jacob on using his words and avoiding violence while equally praising him for taking a stand for things of importance him. As much as anything, I was upset with how we give that word so much power while equally upset with how much a large swath of American society finds it acceptable to use the word or any of the derivations.
Fast forward to Friday, May 2, 2014, where I received a text from Jacob stating, “Something happened at school today I need to talk to you when you get home.” My stomach dropped. I then quickly stepped out of myself to view whatever it was from his perspective and decided he needed to know that he can trust to be honest with me and responded, “Okay” and “No matter what. I love you.” That was one of my biggest steps ever as a parent. I’m the authoritative dad who learned to lead with fear from my mom and my ancestors who largely learned from their slave roots. So I wrapped up what I was doing at the office and headed home… practicing my responses, pushing myself to ask open ended questions but not too many, seeking ways of being supportive and firm, and anything else I’ve failed in year’s past.
When I got home, Jacob was tucked away in his room as usual and made his way to my room to tell me what had happened. He told me of an incident on Thursday at lunch where a group of students opened a window/door to a room used by the Drama Club and how he and a group of friends came to see what they were doing. In the room were some cookies that could be reached of which the group goaded Jacob to take and he complied. After eating some cookies and giving some to his group of friends and the kids that opened the window, they moved on to their normal day. Apparently on Friday, there were more cookies to be taken and someone took cookies and left a note that chided the Drama Club and included the word “faggot” in reference to those involved with the work of the Drama Club.
My first two questions were, “Who wrote the note?” and “Do you know who wrote the note?” Then I think, “Oh shucks, I’m supposed to be helping him feel comfortable right now but I’m angry on so many levels, somebody help me!” He noted that the administrators think they know who wrote the note, it was not him, and the administrators insinuated that the person who is suspected actually attempted to blame the writing of the note on Jacob.
So then I shift from the note and seek to clarify if he took part in the opening of the room versus his involvement being specific to the taking of the cookies that he already admitted to. Needless to say I struggled to deal with any of the “feelings” until my mind was able to understand the facts behind what happened. So my questions continued to focus on the who, what, when, and where. He was adamant that he had nothing to do with opening the room though he failed to report seeing someone else doing it and he admits to wrongly going to the next step of removing the cookies. Anything beyond that, he says he wasn’t involved with. No letters, no visits to the room the next day, nothing. And I believed him, accompanied with several added questions to validate and triangulate.
Now I’m able to include a little of the feeling stuff. Why did you take the cookies? How did that feel? A few of those kind of questions came out and it was good to hear him talking and sharing more than stressed and responding. Some of my favorites are “how do you think I should deal with this” and “how do you feel about the consequences you’re already facing.” Essentially he thought enough consequences had been experienced and those he’s facing (five days of no school) were very fair. Pretty convenient situation from a teenager’s point of view. In the dialogue I was particularly interested to understand how he felt about being accused of writing the note, to understand the punishment levied on all involved with opening the room, and to understand the prime driver of the suspension – opening the room, taking the cookies, or the note. His belief was that his suspension was for the note and the fact that the note likely wouldn’t have occurred had he not taken the cookies. I simply failed to connect taking cookies or being an unknowing accessory to a note that he didn’t believe in to a consequence of five days of suspension. Interesting enough he noted that the administrators were also pursuing suspensions against the students who ate cookies and somehow used a guilty by association argument to justify this.
For his part, Jacob was pretty distraught about any connection to the note because he has a great deal of respect for the Drama Club. Actually as part of his leadership role on the school’s Media Club he frequently worked with the Drama Club. Coincidentally, he spent Wednesday night watching the production of Shrek because he was supposed to film the show on Friday night. Equally so, he was disappointed about giving in to peer pressure and how that manifested in demeaning the efforts and hard work of the Drama Club. I was hoping to hear more remorse about taking the cookies. After having a chance to marinate on this over the weekend, I’m also unsettled around the failure of action to use this as a teaching opportunity regarding the demeaning of others and the insensitive if not damaging words and intent of the note. Jacob doesn’t own that specific action individually, but we as a society do regardless of who the perpetrator was. Silence or lack of effective action is acceptance.
Towards the end of my and Jacob’s conversation, he gave me the letter from the school which took me back to a recent post I made regarding the criminalization of children. Sarcastically, I ponder if I should celebrate that this criminalization occurred in a mostly upper class neighborhood with virtually no socio-economic diversity and very few Blacks or Hispanics versus the usual scenario. After listing the Education Code, which seemingly has no relevance to Jacob’s actions, the letter goes on to state that “Student was involved with other students in the breaking and entering of a locked facility on campus of 5/1/14. Students also took part in leaving an inflammatory note with the word “faggot” written in it as well as taking and eating cookies…” Seeing the words “breaking and entering” in the letter were very frustrating as they directly reference criminal activity and the remainder of the note reminded me that I’m only hearing one side of the story from Jacob. With clear suggestion that he had more awareness and/or involvement with opening of the room and writing of the letter I had to find an approach of confirming his story in a non-threatening manner. Regardless of how low of a threshold it may be, I’m glad I avoided raising my voice, accusations, or any form of threat in the process of confirming his story yet again. My reality is that I was hoping to protect myself from being made a fool when questioning the school and their choice of discipline. I called the school to speak with the assistant principal, but she was gone for the day and this will linger at least until Monday.
In the meantime, I had Jacob call three men whom I love and respect so he could share the experience with them and hear their counsel. From that he heard that 1. They too were kids at one point in their lives and this too shall pass, and 2. Versus just saying sorry within an apology it is much more meaningful to spend time writing an apology to connect with his feelings and equally demonstrate the importance of the apology by investing time in communicating via written word. I like what he heard. I also thought back to my high school days and the incident that happened with Jacob in middle school. When I compare this to what I did in high school and even the fact that just a few years ago he got in a physical fight or assault for those whom choose to criminalize behaving like a child, I find it quite ridiculous for a five day suspension to be the consequence for taking some cookies and being an unknowing and un-supportive accessory to the writing of an unacceptable letter.
In fairness to the situation, I’m still operating with only Jacob’s perspective on the events mentioned. After a low-key Saturday so Jacob could study for an AP test this coming Monday, I had him call all the friends whose names he gave to the administration and I called all their parents to forewarn of potential action the school might also take for those who ate a cookie. If possible, I also wanted Jacob to be able to speak with the person that allegedly accused him of writing the letter as well as to the Media Club sponsor since Jacob was a no-show to film the Drama Club perform Shrek. In both cases, the goal was to gain understanding and to seek or extend forgiveness. I should add, aside from the phone calls to peers, Jacob also made calls to find means to earn money via manual labor with the money to be donated to the Drama Club. It’s these type of actions that I believe bring the necessary understanding, respect, and learning in such a situation versus criminalizing children and suspending them from school. I pray for our school administrators and teachers as the ask of them is high and I pray that my dealings with them tomorrow don’t reflect my current disappointment.
To the LGBT friends that I know and have yet to meet, I apologize for my past history in condoning the hate and ignorance within the note that some ill-informed child left associated with this incident. Unlike the “N” word, I’m not familiar with the usage being pervasive and normal in today’s music or society so there’s no excuse there. And in my case, I can honestly say that I used the “F” word frequent and without relent in my childhood and on to my time in the military. I didn’t begin to gain respect until building a friendship with lesbians in the US Air Force at the time and later to have a great friendship with a co-worker in Northern Colorado. It was in Greeley and Fort Collins that my exposure would grow to understand that my position of “at least gay people have the choice to choose to be gay or not” was at best rude and easily a pilfering of one’s soul. This was only stamped further being that I lived in Fort Collins when Matthew Shepard died there in October 1998. I realize my part in his death. Most important was reciprocating friendship to my good friend Jackie and the many other amazing people who accepted me as a human first.
The situation that Jacob is experiencing is a stark reminder of a step show that some friends and I did at our high school when I was in tenth grade. We reenacted the step show scene from the movie School Daze and aside from the reference of that word, we inserted “Drama” to replace “Gamma” since there were no fraternities in our high school. I’m smart enough to know there’s no connection to Jacob’s situation and my actions over 25 years ago, but I believe the same forces of hate and ignorance that struck us to think that step show was okay back then are still prevalent to allow some child to write the note at Granite Bay High School this past week. It’s also reminder of how disappointed I am that in choosing a place to live that is conveniently locate to my job and resources that are preferred for my family, I also am in a place where all too often “difference” is not discussable. Whether it be broad conversation along the lines of those needed by the young man that thought it was okay to aggressively say the “N” word in my son’s face because it was in a rap song, for the student to scribble the “F” word in reference to the Drama Club, or for my generation who still use both of those words and are probably too fearful to admit how they’ve used them, we need to be able to talk about it and be honest about it. And “we” means that there needs to be more people in the authoritative “majority” opening up and being an honest.
Jacob’s going to be okay and will learn from this- I’ll see to it. I fear those that need it most will not get the needed lessons and very likely be leading our companies of the future potentially without the lessons that were here to learn. Stop criminalizing children and focus on setting examples, teaching lessons, and reinforcing their learning of critical life lessons that will build them to be great leaders of our future.