Well, it finally happened.
After visiting more than 100 schools, from inner-city schools in New York, the kind with clear backpacks and metal detectors, to elite international baccalaureate high schools, including one where the previous year’s guest speaker was Justin Bieber—I’ve finally had a school visit…go sideways.
I’m looking at you, Highland Park High School, and I’m confused.
Yes, you’re in a lovely community, a monoculture of wealth and charm in north Dallas. And congrats on winning the most recent 5A state football championship. That’s almost as impressive—to me anyway—as your 100% graduation rate.
So I was surprised by my strange “welcome” to your school.
Yes, you listened as I took the stage. You laughed at my jokes, and you were kind as I shared personal stories about my own high school career.
You clapped and cheered.
Then as I opened my mouth to speak again—you began clapping. As I tried to answer questions you began clapping. For twenty minutes, as I tried to wrap up my presentation, you clapped and cheered randomly, a thousand students, trolling me.
I was perplexed as your teachers and your principal—who was just offstage, stood impotent, while you mocked me, a guest to your magnificent school.
Despite the 1000 to 1 odds, I wasn’t about to be run off the stage by a bunch children who had decided I was just another mark to be bullied. So I stubbornly kept going, while imagining the ending scene of the movie, Carrie—you know the one—where they’ve dumped a bucket of pig blood on her head just after crowning her Prom Queen, so they could collectively laugh at her expense. But then the doors slam shut and she telekinetically uncoils fire-hoses and begins spraying those in the auditorium, and the curtains burst into flames.
But, I have no such powers.
Instead, words are my weapons, and my solace, so here they are for all to see.
Are you ready?
You are part of an educational system that gave the world Levi Pettit.
Remember him? I’m sure you do, though I’m also sure you’d like to forget that video of Levi in a tuxedo, an Oklahoma frat boy on a bus leading a cheer that went like this:
Ring a bell?
In coming to Highland Park High School, I thought that was an anomaly by an immature alum, a racially insensitive apple in a barrel of healthy fruit.
But now I’m not so sure.
Yes, a handful of your students sought me out to apologize on behalf of their peers. And they were truly wonderful and I enjoyed our time together. But they also said troubling things like “This place is awesome, but half the kids are basically corrupt politicians in the making and future date rapists.” They even used an acronym, the FDRC, the Future Date Rape Club. (Please tell me that’s just a joke.)
Your staff was amazing. And the volunteer organizers did a fantastic job.
But what convinced me most of the connective tissue between Levi Pettit and your current student body—the elephant in the room, if you will, that attempted to stomp me on your stage for its amusement, was this:
I managed to end my talk on a bittersweet note about the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans and nationals, about how if we forget that bit of history, we are diminished as a people.
I got my point across and in that brief moment your impoliteness was forgiven and all was well. I thanked you, for not clapping and cheering the Japanese Internment.
Then you clapped and cheered the Japanese Internment.
You couldn’t resist.
That showed me more about you than I wanted to know.
But there it is, your applause still ringing in my ears.
So, Highland Park High School, you have a strange road ahead of you. And as saddened as I am, I know you can do better. And that you can be better.
I know you can.
And believe it of not, I’d love to come back someday.
But more importantly, I hope it’s a place I’d want to visit again.
(And to those who didn't clap and cheer, thank you).