Midway between the manicured lawns of my mostly white suburban neighborhood and the streets of my rapidly urbanizing and gentrifying city sits my high school. My Catholic, all-male education represents a critical part of my city’s culture. Make small talk with anyone from my city and the first question is bound to be classic: Where did you go to high school? Respond with the illustrious name of my school and someone is bound to know its storied legacy. For many alumni in the city, their all-male alma mater signifies the apex of society: the smartest students, the most affluent connections and the best athletic reputation. This private school carries an oft-repeated name and a strong legacy. With that identity comes a large monetary endowment: one that comes from an intense school spirit.
I once bought into that same fanaticism.
In 2016, our football team fought their way through a decidedly rough 5-5 regular season to capture an elusive state title. That game was a cold night on Dec. 3 and the unforgiving winter air was warmed by the rallying cries of the student section.
I remember the excitement of watching the second overtime period, watching it with bated breath. The opposing quarterback ran toward the end zone — then tripped — securing our victory. And I remember grabbing my friend’s arm and shouting the lyrics to our Fight Song after victory was secured.
Every little detail in my mind of that legendary night affirmed a strong sense of pride among the student body. Our brotherhood was on full display through every second of that whirlwind football season.
That’s the vision it tries to sell in its advertising materials: the strength of the community. Every commercial, every billboard, every promotional video, every pamphlet will tell you: this school is a special place. Don’t get me wrong, I loved high school. I was able to make lifelong friends, learn from amazing teachers and join impactful extracurricular organizations.
But I have a big concern.
Weeks before the flashing lights or the roaring of our student section or the final play or the state title, was a less publicized, less glorious occurrence. On a cryogenic November night, I was standing in the bleachers of a local public school, dressed head-to-toe in spirit wear.
We had a commanding lead of 35-14 in the closing minutes in the game, a far cry from the high drama of the last matchup of the season. Fans of the losing team began making a disgraced exit from their stadium, and we jeered at them as they bowed their heads in shame.
A rowdy student section, colored with my school’s blue and white, began with the standard cheers. As more and more of their fans cleared the bleachers, we gloriously sang “Na Na Na Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” paying homage to “Remember the Titans,“ and bid them farewell.
But the innocent cheers quickly soured.
As the clock approached zero, our student section began yelling in reference to the other team’s mascot, “The Indian.” Students shouted racist chants: “TRAIL OF TEARS! TRAIL OF TEARS! TRAIL OF TEARS!” The roars intensified. “ANDREW JACKSON! ANDERW JACKSON! ANDREW JACKSON!” Prejudice took the form of rhythmic chants. “SAFE WALK HOME! SAFE WALK HOME! SAFE WALK HOME!”
Ultimately, my school didn’t address this issue, enabling this disgusting act of racism from my student section.
Every year, the school recruits students to be campus tour guides for an open house event, bringing prospective middle schoolers and their families around the building and answering their burning questions about my school. During orientation for tour guides, the coordinator walks through the basics: eye contact, walking backwards, shaking hands, basic courtesy. She combs through more requirements: say fun facts about the school, ask kids what their interests are, show off the cool parts of building. And then, the golden rule: DO NOT SAY ANYTHING BAD ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE. Example: to a prospective family, a tour guide once pointed out that a bathroom was a popular spot for vaping. DO NOT DO THAT.
For the purposes of a tour, it’s obvious and intuitive to keep silent on the negative aspects of the school. I only mention the strengths: the strong culture of community service, the intense academic rigor and the plethora of extracurriculars for every interest imaginable. I know my audience, of course.
It sounds like a stupid question, but why shouldn’t I mention the weaknesses? Why shouldn’t I explain how there are currents of racist, sexist and homophobic microaggressions throughout the school? Why shouldn’t I emphasize that I never read a book by an author of color in my AP Literature class, or that, for three years, pro-diversity initiatives were led by a white man, or that the drug testing program is a big invasion of privacy? Why shouldn’t I highlight the xenophobic remarks I heard from students when there is an “ALL IMMIGRANTS AND REFUGEES WELCOME” poster was hung up at the main stairwell?
Why is an act of criticism frowned upon?
It’s easy to point out the beauty of the state championship game, but it isn’t as pretty to mention the anti-Native-American jeers from the student section during a playoff game. It’s easier to live with a “tour guide mentality,” only mentioning the nice parts of the school. It’s convenient to accept the status quo, but that’s not the right thing to do. We have to do a thorough accounting of institutions of power and hold them accountable.
My school couldn’t directly control the situation in the student section; they are not responsible for how students will act. However, they are responsible for how they deal with the situation, and their ultimate refusal to act communicated negligence for the racism within the student section.
I wish I could look back at high school as some wondrous idyll. I can’t see that institution — or any institution — as the fantasy land portrayed in glossy pages of advertising paraphernalia. Institutions are wildly imperfect.
For example, in the middle of a pandemic, my alma mater is gearing up to start school, but their protocols are laughable at best and dangerous at worst. They expect to welcome 1,300 students back without rigorous testing requirements. And knowing my student body, I can’t trust that all 1,300 kids will consistently socially distance and wear masks. In fact, driving past school during a student orientation, my friend got a picture of maskless students gathered in large groups. Institutions are meant to protect people, but my high school’s baseless optimism during this pandemic only serves to put my community at risk and provide another example of their negligence.
And with such a bizarre administrative response to the coronavirus, why would my high school ever deserve my praise scot-free? I can’t afford to look at any institution with the same blind positivity that I once gave my high school. That is simply a denial of reality. Institutions deserve criticism. They deserve calls for reform. For example, students from an all-girls’ school in my city criticized their administration for condoning casual racism among the student body. Their criticism led to a detailed petition, calling for anti-racism education and greater minority student representation. At another school, students petitioned their administration to rename a sports stadium dedicated to a woman who publicly supported Adolf Hitler and made anti-Semitic remarks. These actions are prime examples of how we should criticize administrations and implore them to reform.
As Stanford students, especially incoming frosh, it’s our responsibility to keep our administration in check. Whether it be through journalism, petitioning, activism or student government, it is incumbent upon us to make sure our institutions act fairly and sensibly. We shouldn’t be complacent with our administration. Complacency only allows defects to fester and grow.
We should work to better our schools instead of blindly romanticizing them.
Contact Robert Castaneros at rcastane ‘at’ stanford.edu.