By Annice Brave
My diverse high school in Alton, Illinois, lies just across the Mississippi River from Ferguson, Missouri. As recent news reports are filled with coverage of protests by Black Lives Matter, I have been reflecting on a student protest from several years ago when I taught an Advanced Journalism class.
As aspiring journalists, my students spent much of their time reading and analyzing current events reporting. One year we were saddened to learn of a young soldier from a small town near ours who was killed in Iraq. When my students read that the notorious Westboro Baptist Church was planning a protest at his funeral, they were incensed and wanted to take action.
I love an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln's inaugural address when he calls upon Americans to remember that, "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory… will yet swell… when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
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I ask my young journalists to be guided by their better angels when they are reporting. Journalism is the perfect class to teach those values that walk hand-in-hand with the fourth estate. Classroom discussions often grow from "Why?" to discussions about integrity, honesty, responsibility, ethics, morals…along with scholastic press law, as we plan new editions. When they read about Westboro Baptist Church's intentions for the soldier's funeral and looked at images from this supposed church's website (which include "God Hates Fags") their eyes turned to me. They wanted to take action.
This was one of those days when my "better angels" were definitely being pushed aside by my "prudent angels." Why was I the teacher who was always marching into the principal's office preparing him or her for what would soon be hitting the fan? So I returned their questions to them. "Go home tonight and talk to your parents. Have your parents talk to each other and then come back to me with your plan."
All I can say is that better angels than mine were flying all over our area that night. When my newspaper staff rushed into the room the following day, it was agreed that they would attend the funeral and do their best to shield the soldier’s family from seeing the signs held up by Westboro members. One student had a huge American flag and they planned to position themselves on the funeral route between the road and Westboro. I was concerned about safety so my principal asked me to contact the State Police about our plans and, of course, reminded me that I would be the one responsible for getting the students safely to the funeral and keeping them safe during the protest, which meant that I would be volunteering another unpaid Saturday.
As the day approached, we learned that the memorial service fell on an ACT Saturday which required several students to stay behind. I wound up with five young women editors to attend the protest. I reminded them of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's quote, "Well-behaved women seldom make history," and said, "Ladies, let's write some history."
It took us more than an hour to caravan to the funeral location where we were greeted by a concerned police chief and director of the state police. After a few minutes of conversation, my students were receiving hugs from police officers and other town members who were impressed with their passion and patriotism. They were escorted to a place of honor on the parade route and when the procession pulled up to them, their flag was unfurled and raised, effectively blocking the view of every horrible sign held up by Westboro. To block the shouts issued by the church members, the Patriot Guard revved their Harleys so not a breath of hate speech was heard by the family.
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At one point my students turned around to face the Westboro members. They watched as a little boy about five years old was encouraged to throw an American flag down and stomp on it. One of my editors said that her eyes locked with those of the little boy and she felt his unhappiness and uncertainty. She knew that she had touched his heart. In retrospect, I'm sure that her better angel was very busy flying around that little boy.
The Director of the State Police had told the family about my students attending the procession. He rushed outside to say that the family wanted to meet my editors and wished for them to have a place of honor at the funeral followed by the family luncheon. We did attend the funeral, but alas, we had to miss the luncheon due to people with Saturday jobs and a few anxious parents who were awaiting their safe return.
The week after we returned to school, our local VFW contacted me and wanted to honor my students. It was totally unexpected, but each student received a $500 scholarship that evening. They didn't want to accept the money for doing the right thing, but I told them they must. "Better Angels" were flying around the VFW that night and those brave men and women who had served our country were once again helping to ensure that America's future would get the education needed to build America's future. It is with pride that I learn of my girls' accomplishments following graduation. Whether they are excellent mothers or a nuclear physicist serving our country at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, they all continue to be great Americans.
Teachers never know which lessons will stick, but after 30 years of teaching I know that some of my best lessons have never appeared in a lesson plan book. So my goal this year is to follow my better angels wherever they lead. As I take a breath and listen for their guidance, I'll envision more than 3,000 former students' faces and try to remember to not only teach minds but teach harder to touch hearts as well.
Annice Brave is an English teacher at Alton High School in Alton, Illinois. She is a former Teacher of the Year and Parent Toolkit expert.