Let's listen to the students of Sandy High
In one of my first years of teaching ninth-grade science at Sandy High School, the project that seemed to excite students the most came at the end of first semester, when we built mouse-trap race cars. It tied together the physics concepts we had studied of potential energy, kinetic energy and velocity.
But I think the students got most jazzed about using power tools. Some also got into decorating their cars. Student engagement isn't always easy, so when one pair enthusiastically applied a Confederate flag using markers, although I felt some discomfort, I let it slide. They were probably just imitating the car from Dukes of Hazard, I rationalized.
I forgot all about it until after school when an upperclassman from one of my chemistry classes saw the mouse-trap car in the windowsill, shook his head, and said, "They don't even know what they mean." I nodded silently in agreement, but inside I was stricken. I hadn't thought about the impact that my tacit permission to one group of students would have on another, specifically the Black student standing beside me.
I also had a sinking realization I didn't understand the meaning of the flag myself. Now I see that moment as just one example of my white privilege and an inadvertent but still harmful perpetuation of racism, magnified by my role as an educator of young minds.
Growing up in rural Oregon and diverse but segregated Southeast Portland, I'd never felt the implications of that flag. But my chemistry student, who grew up Black in the same regions, understood and felt the history and the ignorance that brought it to his classroom.
I thought back to that moment a few years later, when our church began to purposefully pursue integration. From the pulpit I learned more about the strong history of racism in the Church and America and saw how very alive and thriving it is—even in Oregon. Especially in Oregon.
Comments that used to not bother me now stood out.
"We're so white," someone might say almost sheepishly at a staff meeting, as we looked at student progress data. But why are we so white? It's not by accident. There were Black exclusion laws in Oregon until 1926. The KKK had a stronghold here, and used government and domestic terrorism to a purpose. Portland's thriving Black commercial district was razed in the 1960s to make room for a hospital expansion that never took place.
Oregon is still home to various white supremacy groups.
The Confederate flag to me now represents an effort to go back in time to an America where only white people's lives were prioritized and protected under law. I now understand that Confederate symbols gained prominence in specific times in recent history purposefully to keep Black people from gaining freedom — such as during Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Era.
When Dylan Roof murdered nine Black parishioners at a Bible study in Charlotte in 2015, photos of him wrapped in the Confederate flag circulated in social media. The flag is inextricably linked with such hateful and violent actions.
I know that not everyone who flies the rebel flag knows or supports this history. But that is why we should educate ourselves.
Target and Wal-Mart banned the flag soon after Dylan Roof's massacre. The very Dukes of Hazard car my students may have been imitating has been repainted. The current owner, pro-golfer Bubba Watson tweeted, "All men ARE created equal. I believe that, so I will be painting an American flag over the roof of the General Lee."
So, it is not OK that I let a car decoration slide, because it meant my student had to be reminded of all that hateful history and violence when he was trying to learn chemistry.
It is not OK that after years of teachers asking, our administration has not been willing to take a stance on Confederate flags in the hallways. We cannot stay "neutral" on the topic of racism, because racism thrives in our inaction.
What many of us who grew up white don't see first-hand is that in America, racism is the default. To overcome it, we have to work actively to make Sandy inclusive. We have to acknowledge our part in causing harm, inadvertent or otherwise.
As my pastor recently said, we have to listen, lament, and then leverage. It can and should begin with education. What better place to do all that than in a school?
I am deeply saddened that three students of color, and our only African-American teacher, all left Sandy High School this year. I'm also angry that we didn't do more to make our district a more welcoming environment for all kinds of people.
But when I read in the Sandy Post last week that students are asking for change, I felt a surge of hope. The students presented incredibly reasonable demands: to ban hate symbols on campus and create an elected student leadership position to address racism and increase representation of students of color.
Seeing the rise of the Stand Up Sandy Movement also says to me: our community wants change!
Sandy is changing: The population has doubled twice since my family moved here in the 1990s. I know it can be scary to see a place we love begin to change. It can be hard to listen and embarrassing to realize we've been part of the problem. But we must be stronger than that.
So let's take the first of what I hope will be many steps. Let's listen to our students, lament, and leverage — to make Sandy a more welcoming, safe and inclusive place for all of us to learn and grow.
Rachel Jumago lives in Gresham and teaches chemistry and advisory at Sandy High School.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.