Here’s an eye-catching headline: Middle School Student On A Trip To DC Spat On A Black Person At The African American History Museum.
And the follow-up, somehow even more depressing: The principal of the Connecticut middle school said she did not believe the incident was racially motivated.
There’s more rationalizing, in the local paper. The principal is doing what principals do: trying to express that they’re just kids, prone to goofy adolescent misbehaviors, while explaining just how they’re going to sharply address this in school—assemblies, suspensions, whatever’s in the disciplinary toolbox.
But I’m with Greg Johnson, a local civil rights leader, who said ‘spitting in the museum — opened three years ago to highlight the contributions of African Americans and educating visitors about the history of slavery — was itself a racist act.’
As it happens, I visited the African American History Museum for the first time a few months ago, a road trip with two old friends who were also going for the first time. It was absolutely the best adult field trip ever—it’s a fantastic national resource (thinking like a teacher). And also, one tiny and way-overdue step toward recognizing the unsung economic and cultural contributions of the involuntary diaspora of African-Americans in the United States.
There was a lot to see, to appreciate and to learn. The viewing crowd that day was about 2/3 African American and 1/3 Other. There was a grandmother, wrapped in a colorful homemade afghan in her wheelchair, on a toasty June day–being pushed by an adult granddaughter, who dutifully read the posted copy at each showcase or exhibit. Grandma kept saying ‘Imagine that!’ and every time, her granddaughter rolled her eyes and smiled.
There was a young dad, tracking a wander-y five-year-old, simply telling the boy, at his own level, exactly what they were looking at—the maps, the model ships, the heavy, rusted tools of hard labor. The little boy ran ahead. There is a slave cabin, preserved, transported and rebuilt at the museum. Stepping into the doorway, Dad said ‘this is where one or two whole families of enslaved people lived.’ The boy did a 360-degree turnaround. ‘You kiddin’ me?’ he asked.
It was an amazing day. And then, emerging blinking from the core exhibit, a spiraling, detailed history of slavery, into a sunny atrium, we see them. A half-dozen white boys, middle-school aged –I have 30 years of knowing a middle school boy when I see one–coming down the three-story escalator wearing red MAGA caps. They are, astonishingly enough (or maybe not), accompanied by an adult man, also white, who seems cool with the hats.
People around us freeze, seeing them. A teenaged girl is practically snarling to a friend—Look at them! It’s SO disrespectful. They come HERE—in those hats! Her friend puts a hand on her arm.
Don’t give them your power, she says.
There were more kids in MAGA hats, later in the afternoon, gathering at an appointed spot to meet the bus. Their teachers were busy counting and corralling and wouldn’t have appreciated a question from a stranger: Why didn’t you tell your students to remove their hats? Did you tell them what they were going to see—and why a respectful attitude is required for all visitors to this museum?
Hey. I taught middle school for 30 years. I know that the rules and rationales for visiting this museum may have been hammered out by others, leaving the students’ teachers powerless. It’s better for young adolescents to have had this introductory experience than not. And, true, 13 year-old boys frequently don’t have great judgment. But all that’s just weak sauce.
Students on any field trip need to be prepared, intellectually, for what they’re going to see or do–or the value of toting kids around to see interesting, meaningful places in the world is seriously diminished. Field trips—like all curricular decisions and activities—are based on the principle that taking students out of the building will make them better able to deal with the ideas and challenges of the real world.
And it’s always wrong to be disrespectful, on purpose, in the real world. Always.
In ‘White People are Broken’, Katherine Fugate shares a story about another museum, and still more white kids wearing MAGA hats, who are confronted by a young black man of the same age, who quietly explains to them that their hats make him uncomfortable. Fugate stands silently by the young man, hoping he will see her as an ally. The MAGA hat students are confused, saying it’s their country. It’s everyone’s country, he replies.
Occasionally, you can read columns–or comments–suggesting that teachers should stick strictly to transmitting factual disciplinary content and stay away from values. There is no such thing, however, as opening students’ flip-top heads and pouring in knowledge. All knowledge, skills and judgment are learned in context, through interaction and practice.
A lot of what is learned in school—and through school-based activities—isn’t ‘content,’ or ‘skills’, per se. It’s how the most important knowledge and skills are useless, unless they’re applicable to living. It’s how to be a thoughtful, curious, responsive person in this world. Or not.
Which means that wearing a MAGA hat in the African American Museum of History and Culture is not just a bad fashion choice. It is, instead, a hateful coded message. And spitting is not just an impulsive decision made by someone too young to know better. It’s an act of degradation, indefensible.
After all, it is truly everyone’s country. Make good choices, and don’t relinquish your power to hate.