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The highs and lows of Highland Park High School

The calm before a storm of weirdness, courtesy of the freshman and sophomore classes at HPHS.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?

Here goes.

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:

“You can hang ‘em from a tree, but they’ll never sign with me, there will never be a n***** at SAE.”

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.

Good luck.


(And to those who didn't clap and cheer, thank you).

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Reader Comments (1)

Mr. Ford, while I am deeply saddened by the behavior of the freshman and sophomore students at HPHS, I am not at all surprised that little has changed in the 56 years since I graduated HPHS in May 1961. Despite HPHS' long-standing academic excellence, one ought not expect equivalent social enlightenment and humane understanding to flourish in a community which was sown in racism and flourished in an increasing economic and social elitism, in more recent times summarized by the descriptive phrase "The Bubble."

HP was racist soil from the beginning, all property deeds not only bearing a racial restrictive covenant until such "covenants" were outlawed, but more powerful, the enforcement of such restrictive covenants by "social power" between 1948 and the 1968 Federal Fair Housing Act: neither owner nor realtor would ever consider a sale to "one of those people." The only "enlightened" thing about such "restrictive covenants" in HP was that Jews were not barred from property ownership.

During my lifetime in HP (1945-1965) the only Black residents of HP resided in "servant's quarters," small dwellings invariably above or attached to the household garage. The only Blacks I encountered, some of whom lived in "servant's quarters" of houses on my Times Herald paper route (3100-3500 blocks of Beverly, 3400-3500 blocks of Cornell and Princeton), were yard workers or maids, whom I was taught to address politely by first name, regardless of age, only a bit leavened by the honorific "Miz" or "Mr." HPISD paid the tuition to send any Black school-age child to a segregated all-Black Dallas Public School. There were no true Latinos: one fellow HPHS student had a "Latino surname," a child of a wealthy family that owned Dallas' best known "Mexican restaurant." The only dark-skinned classmate I ever had was during my senior year: Tariq Abbas, an American Field Service student from India (today I think it is part of Pakistan; Tariq was Muslim).

The part of HP where I was reared was not the "tony high-falutin'" Beverly-Drive-and-west-of-Preston HP. There were no "servant's quarters" in the 3100-3300 blocks of Cornell, unlike the big houses on Beverly Drive one block south. A public school teacher in those days could afford to live in some parts of HP. My Armstrong first-grade teacher, Miss Nona Bailey, lived in the 3300 block of Cornell, and the much beloved HPHS math teacher Mr. Bruce Jeffers lived in the 4200 block of Hanover (or Perdue?). But following the long-and-hard-fought desegregation court order was finally effectively imposed on Dallas by Judge Barefoot Sanders in March 1981, "white flight" from Dallas soon drove HP housing prices beyond the reach of any HPHS teacher. For example, in July 1981 the house my father purchased in the 3200 block of Cornell in 1945 for $8,000 sold for $140,000.

And so the black-gumbo soil of HPISD as it grew more well-trod became more and more rocky and thorny, not conducive to the flourishing of any good Word preached in Highland Park Presbyterian (in which I was reared), or HP Methodist, or St. Michael and All Angels Churches. (See Matthew 3:13-23)

I cannot imagine how Frank Monroe and Arch McCulloch, HPISD Superintendent and Board President respectively, in 1961 would have responded. I would like to believe they would have demonstrated the spine and courage shown by Dr. Trigg, Superintendent, and Mr. Taylor, HPISD Board President; and that Ben Wiseman and Cecil Bowlby, Principal and Vice-Principal of HPHS then, would not have remained silent in the face of such a display of student disrespect as was shown to you. But that would have been an historic anachronism beyond reach.

I am extremely pleased with the courage and transparency demonstrated by Dr. Trigg and Mr. Taylor in the communication they sent to all HPHS alums. I cannot be hopeful, however, after learning from you that so little has changed since 1961. Yes, HPISD must "teach our students the importance of respecting, valuing and honoring every individual from every background, ethnicity and religious belief," but can that happen so long as the Park Cities remains "The Bubble"?

The Rev. Ned H. Benson (Ret.)
HPHS Class of 1961
February 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNed H. Benson

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